Of all the tales told during this year’s centenary commemoration of the First World War, the most thought-provoking, for me, is the story behind this box.
At first sight, it’s just an oblong box made of rough old wood – an ammunition box painted with the colours of the Royal Sussex Fusilliers regiment.
But open it up and inside you’ll find a detachable neck, which you can screw on to a key at one end of the box, as well as strings and pegs. These are all that are needed to turn the box, after a five-minute assembly process, into something quite different – an improvised cello.
This is the cello that Harold Triggs, a soldier in the regiment, took with him to the trenches of Ypres in 1914 – the “trench cello” unearthed a century later by Britain’s top cellist, Steven Isserlis, and played, hauntingly, by him at the Westminster Abbey Remembrance Day service on November 11.
It’s is a striking, if odd, bit of history. It has none of the glamorous curves of more seductive stringed instruments; even its scroll is only a rudimentary copy of that of a “real” Italian cello. But it plays – and with what Isserlis calls a “plaintive, poignant sound”. You can hear it below.
The very existence of a musical instrument as basic and democratic as this speaks volumes not just about the power of music to soothe the savage breast – but also about the relatively simple pleasures of life at the start of the First World War.
“I think it started life as a holiday cello,” explained Isserlis. “Hills and Sons, one of the great violin and cello firms, had from about 1890 sold these holiday cellos – which were the kind of boxes, that could of course also be used as ammunition boxes. “
“And this Harold Triggs was a soldier and it seems that he took this holiday cello along with him to the war. It wasn’t that unusual at the time. There were pianos, special travelling pianos; people had violins. There was a lot of music at the front.”
That Triggs played the cello for his colleagues is clear. There is a note glued inside it from the poet Edmund Blunden, saying he’s enjoying reuniting with the cello and having tea with Harold Triggs 45 years later. Blunden, a friend of the more famous First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon, served with Triggs in the Sussex regiment in France.
When Triggs met Blunden in 1962 and showed him the cello, the poet wrote: “Having seen our old friend Harold Triggs carrying this notable instrument in the Ypres region in 1917, I have the pleasure of seeing him and it happily together still, 1962 Edmund Blunden.”In 1963, Harold Triggs turned up to see the head of another violin and cello firm, Charles Beare (who says, “he pulled out this extraordinary-looking object and said, ‘this is my cello and I want to sell it to you’.”) Triggs died a year later.
Half a century later, Steven Isserlis – whose well-reviewed series of concerts of war music at London’s Wigmore Hall last winter followed a 2013 CD called Music in the Shadow of War – happened upon the musical curiosity at Charles Beare’s house.
It was love at first sight – even though Isserlis usually plays a Stradivarius, the noblest of Italian cellos.
“This is a different animal,” he admits; “a domestic cello for a few friends.”
Isserlis found it impossible to put the pieces of the do-it-yourself cello together, but Charles Beare did the assembling. It took about five minutes. “We got it going, and after a while out came this rather wonderful, plaintive and poignant sound. It’s sort of a sad sound – very soft, but it’s got something. I find it very touching.”
Since then the domestic cello has had a glorious public summer and autumn. It (along with Isserlis) was the star of the show at a September 22 concert at London’s Royal Academy of Music – the cello’s first public performance in a century. It has been played on several BBC programmes, including the World Service, Radio 4’s Today Programme, and Radio 3’s In Tune. Finally, on November 11, it went to Westminster Abbey.
During radio performances, Isserlis has experimented with playing the kind of music he thinks Harold Triggs might have enjoyed, from World War One favourites like the song “Keep The Home Fires Burning,” and rousing English hymns such as “Jerusalem” to the Bach sarabande (from the Fifth Suite) in the clip above – which, he says, a talented amateur like Triggs might have been less likely to play but which, to Steven Isserlis, represents “utmost loneliness.”
“He obviously must have loved the cello to take it to the front with him,” Isserlis said. “You’d take the minimum. But music in the trenches probably brought a lot of joy and a lot of nostalgia…and reminded the soldiers of their loved ones.”
To imagine a civilized evening with men in uniform listening spellbound to the rich dark tones of a cello – after a day of deafening shellfire, foot-rot, razor wire, mud, rats and death – is an incredible juxtaposition.
“I think about the history a bit when I play it,” added Isserlis. “Something in the sound makes me think about it. You can’t separate the history from the sound.”
Vanora Bennett is the author of six novels including Midnight in St Petersburg, which features a family of violin-makers caught up in the Russian Revolution of 1917. She made her own violin as research for it. Her latest book, The White Russian, is published by Century/Arrow. The paperback comes out in spring 2015.