Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Trench Cello

Tell me, have you heard of the 'trench cello'?

It came out of obscurity this week to steal the limelight.
Not only was it featured on Radio 4, but, as part of the War Music season at The Royal Academy of Music, the trench cello was played by the distinguished cellist, Steven Isserlis.

The instrument used will be on display at the Academy until March 2015, and you can listen to it here.

Trench cello . . . the name speaks for itself.  Unlikely as it may seem, this particular cello was played in the trenches of the Western Front during the First World War.

True, music has long been associated with warfare . . . each regiment takes pride in its band.  Not only that, a rousing march can revitalise weary troops, whilst certain music evokes national pride and loyalty.

But a cello in a trench . . .?  This isn't what springs to mind when you think of music on the frontline.

It appears that this instrument was owned by a Lieutenant Triggs of the Royal Suffolk Regiment.  Constructed so as to be easily portable, it was a cello that could be quickly assembled from parts contained in a box, whilst the box itself formed the framework.

Even the bow served a dual purpose.  It had been cleverly designed so that, by blowing down a hollow indentation at one end, the player could produce the note 'A', thereby enabling him to tune his instrument.

But just think about it for a moment.  A soldier about to go fighting on the frontline must give careful consideration to every item he chooses to take, weight is an important factor.  In all probability, in addition to clothing, he would want to take some photos of his family, perhaps a favourite book, maybe a camera . . . but a cello?

Lieutenant Triggs was clearly a keen musician, but he must have been driven by an emotion far stronger than a mere wish to display his talent.   Was it the realisation of what the music would mean under the stress of conflict that prompted him to carry such an unlikely burden into battle?

And what was of benefit to him was of equal benefit to others.  Still contained in the case is a note from the poet Edmund Blunden, written after the battle of Ypres, in which he tells of his delight at the impromptu concerts in the trenches.

Pondering on this story, a thought struck me.  Don't we each of us have our own trench cello?

There's the tune that we hum when we're feeling stressed or in need of courage.  There's the music that we play to lift our spirits.  Music, the universal language, has an unique power . . . the power to elevate and transform the listener.

Perhaps it's music, not ammunitions, that we should be sending to the world's trouble spots.  Perhaps it's concerts, not conflict, that would unite us.
Just listen to the first movement of Elgar's cello concerto, written in the aftermath of the First World War . . . see if you agree.

Music or mayhem . . . ?  Surely there's no contest!