The Cello, Espionage, and Politics
Musicians and artists have always made ideal spies. Josephine Baker, Darrell M. Blocker, Leon Theremin (born Lev Sergeyevich Termen – a cellist by training who went on to invent the theremin), Ian Fleming (half-brother of cellist Amaryllis Fleming), Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, Noël Coward . . . these are just a few notable individuals who (reportedly) used their status as performers as cover for their clandestine activities.
“The Cellist explores one of the preeminent threats facing the West today – the corrupting influence of dirty money wielded by a revanchist and reckless Russia.” (quoted from the book jacket)
Until now, when the name Silva was mentioned in the cello world, it conjured thoughts of the great Luigi Silva and possibly his transcription of the “Vitali” Chaconne. That is all about to change with bestselling author Daniel Silva’s latest thriller, The Cellist.
Certain to be a best-selling novel, The Cellist is Silva’s twenty-first book featuring Gabriel Allon – spy and art restorer extraordinaire. But who is “the cellist”? How much cello action is included in this book?
Haven’t read all twenty previous books in the series? Don’t worry – you can dive right in, and while the characters from prior novels won’t feel like old friends at the start, they draw you in right away.
Despite having read only one other entry in the series before reading The Cellist, I did not feel my usual urge to go back and read everything in order. In fact, had it not been for family obligations and my need for sleep, I would have read it through in one sitting.
With The Cellist, Silva has composed a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at the state of the world in the early 21st century, challenging readers to honestly examine the costs and consequences of the choices we make and the values we cherish.
In the novel, a childhood friend of the Russian president works to undermine the West through the Haydn Group. Silva cleverly refers to Joseph Haydn and other classical composers throughout the book, through prose and even through the structure. He titled the first sections of the novel as the four movements in a piece of music, Haydn’s String Quartet No. 14 in E♭ Major, Op. 9, No. 2, Hoboken No. III:20:
- Part One – Moderato
- Part Two – Menuetto & Trio
- Part Three – Adagio Cantabile
- Part Four – Finale
Silva then rounds out the opening with:
- Part Five – Encore
Where’s the cellist?
I’ll admit I was growing anxious as there was no cello in evidence until page 111! I started to wonder if perhaps “The Cellist” was a clever code name to appear later in the book. But, never fear, the cello’s case appears on page 111 as one of the characters tells Allon why he did not look inside the case:
“Because one rarely keeps a cello case as a decorative piece. One keeps a cello case to store and transport one’s cello.”
By page 114, Allon and his team hear:
“the sound of Bach’s Cello Suite in D Minor. Several minutes elapsed before [they] realized they were not listening to a recording.”
The Cellist’s Cello
The cellist in the novel plays a 1790 William Forster II instrument. (p. 229) Also known as “Old Forster,” to distinguish him from his son, William Forster III, he was the son of William Forster I. Forster II crafted a broad array of wooden items, including violin-family instruments, spinning wheels, and gun stocks. He also published music.
Learn more about the Forster family of makers in a book written by his grandson, Simon Andrew Forster, and William Sandys:
See a gallery of several Forster II cellos from 1790 here.
A Pivotal Performance
Without giving too much away, a key moment in the novel takes place during a recital by a famous but fictional violinist and the titular cellist. While the violinist plays sonatas by Beethoven and Brahms, the cellist plays Rachmaninov’s Vocalise – and the performance is compared with that of Rostropovich.
While Silva’s fictional Russian president is friends with a failed pianist turned criminal, in reality, one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest friends is a cellist. As I read The Cellist, I wondered how much Silva was inspired by news reports about “Sergei Roldugin, the cellist who holds the key to tracing Putin’s hidden fortune.”
Did he base any of this novel on Roldugin but reverse the instruments, making the fictional friend of the Russian president a pianist and the person working with Allon, a cellist?
A Novel that Gives Hope – and a Stark Warning
Although Silva makes it clear that The Cellist “is a work of entertainment and should be read as nothing more” (p. 459), he rewrote the ending in light of the events of 6 January 2021. In his Acknowledgements, he tells us that he
“did not set out, in the late summer of 2020, to write a novel that featured an insurrection inspired by an American president and an inauguration conducted under the threat of an armed assault by US citizens. But in the days following the Capitol siege, I resolved to include the near death of American democracy in my story of Russia’s relentless war on the West. I jettisoned my existing ending and rewrote much of my manuscript in a span of six weeks.” (p. 468)
Throughout the book, but particularly at the end, both the breadth and depth of Silva’s knowledge of current events are apparent. This is not surprising as he began his career as a journalist, working in San Francisco, Washington, Cairo, and the Persian Gulf. In addition, his wife, Jamie Gangel, is also a journalist.
I’ll close here to avoid giving any spoilers, but rest assured that the titular cellist plays an essential role in helping to save democracy.
Playing Bach impeccably – and saving America – is all in a day’s work for The Cellist!
- Publication Date: 13 July 2021
- Publisher: Harper
- Number of Pages: 480
- ISBN-10 : 006283486X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0062834867
- Daniel Silva’s website
Read the first two (cello-less) chapters here.
Purchase the book here.
Disclaimer: We received an advance reading copy of The Cellist, compliments of Daniel Silva and Harper, but in no way does this affect our book review. Our mission is to provide information for people who love the cello.
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