Sound of the Cello

Sound of the Cello

From the first time I heard a cello, I have loved this instrument whose lush golden sounds are the closest to the human voice.

My earliest memories are of lying on the floor next to my father as he practiced the cello, the metronome marking the music’s pulse. When I took up the instrument, my parents insisted on discipline, dedication, persistence. They eavesdropped on my practice and barked criticisms, “Janetkém. Play it S-L-O-W-E-R … Dat vas out of tune. Play it again.” My parents never considered that my petite stature and tiny hands were not ideal for playing and for carrying the bulky beast in and out of vehicles and up staircases.

The alluring tones beckoned. I craved to learn the secrets behind its fantastic range of expression—the deep lamenting baritone, the silken tenor, the dazzling soprano.

I persisted—at times with bumps in the road. My first solo recital was held in the Art Gallery of Ontario, a prestigious location for a 17-year-old, but with conditions that were far from perfect. The cavernous space was open to museum browsers, and the marble walls created a reverberant acoustic. Audience members, who had to peer around pillars, ranged from curious museum attendees to music enthusiasts hoping to hear the latest wunderkind and mothers with fussy children who just wanted a chance to sit down.

Warming up in a small backstage room, I experienced jitters that proved quite distracting. Why had I chosen to start with such a difficult work, the Bach Solo Suite No. 3? I forced myself to inhale, to focus mentally. At the appropriate time, with a firm hold on my cello, I waltzed across the stage exuding confidence. Jamming my endpin, the metal spike that holds the cello, into the unyielding wooden floor, I launched into the first “C” of the music. Then came a cellist’s nightmare: my instrument careened forward out of my hands, and I only just caught it with my knees. Somehow I shoved it back into the floor, but I didn’t dare look up. My father had lurched forward in his seat, moaning audibly. My breathing eventually calmed, but he turned ashen.

After the Bach, when I had retired to the back room, the stage manager wheeled the piano out for the next work. My father jumped out of his seat to canvas the audience. “Anyone have a pocketknife?” he demanded. Someone did, on his keychain. Clutching the knife, my father scaled the stage, got down on all fours and dug a hole in the floor. Satisfied that he had prevented further equipment disasters, he returned to his seat in the audience. When I sashayed onto the stage for my second number I did not see the newly gouged rut. Then, just as I was about to thrust the endpin into the floor, I saw my mother flailing. “Jaaan-aaat!” she said, “Your daddy made a hole! Your daddy made a hole!”

Despite occasional episodes like this, I survived. I won the position of associate principal cello of the Minnesota Orchestra at a time when the inner circle of principal players included no other women. For three decades I was fortunate enough to perform countless programs in Orchestra Hall of the greatest musical masterpieces ever created—Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Schubert. And what a privilege to play in Vienna’s Musikverein, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, and other wonderful venues around the world.

We musicians are exquisitely attuned to the vibrations of performers and composers who came before us, who stood on these very stages. Wherever we perform, we never forget that our goal is to make mystical, meditative and revelatory musical experiences come alive, in the extraordinary magic that is great music.

Janet Horvath

Janet Horvath, the Minnesota Orchestra’s associate principal cello from 1980 to 2012, is the author of Playing (less) Hurt—An Injury Prevention Guide for Musicians. This story is from her upcoming book, Piercing the Silence—A Memoir in Three Concerts (in completion of her MFA in creative writing at Hamline University).