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Mellow Cello Review

Don’t overlook this wonderful collection of stories about the cello!

A Collection of Short Stories for Cellists

Woman Holding Gill Tennant's Mellow Cello Book

I must confess that I almost overlooked this wonderful book.

Contrary to the old idiom, I did judge a book by its cover. The title, Mellow Cello, is non-descriptive, and I assumed, from the sweet sketch of a cello-playing child on the cover (which I later discovered is of the author at the age of five, and was created by her father), that this might be a how-to book for young cellists.

But then I read the subtitle, A Collection of Short Stories for Cellists, which piqued my interest.  Being a fan of short stories, I decided to give it a go, and boy am I glad I did.

Mellow Cello is a fascinating collection of 17 short stories about the cello and its predecessors. Tennant manages to impart an impressive amount of historically accurate information while still entertaining the reader.

What makes this collection unique is that it was written by a professional cellist with 1) a penchant for European history, 2) a love of luthiery, 3) an in-depth knowledge of women composers, and 4) a vivid imagination.

A Penchant for History

With the exception of “Dreaming,” which is set in prehistoric times, and Sky Music,” which takes place in the 23rd century, the stories in this collection follow the gradual development of the cello, from the 1500s to the present.

Famous structures provide the backdrop for several fantasies: “Four Cellos and a Boat” on the Titanic, “Terezín” in a Nazi concentration camp in the Czech Republic, and “Pietà” in Ospedale della Pietà, a famous Venician orphanage that provided stellar musical training for girls.

Other tales were inspired by important cultural centers at pivotal points in their development: “Encore” in cold war Berlin, “Katarina’s Cello” in 18th-century Cremona, “Angela Serafina” in Tuscany at the Medici court in the late 1500s.

As a history buff, I particularly enjoyed reading narratives that strongly evoke a specific time and place. I would recommend “Four Cellos and a Boat,” “Terezin” and “Encore” to anybody, but particularly middle school and high school students studying 20th-century history.

The following is an excerpt from “Terezin”:

“Ausweispapiere!” he barked at Jana. She had no papers. Václav had insisted on her moving into his place when the German soldiers had crossed the border in 1938, and he had managed to keep her hidden despite, or perhaps as he thought because, of their very proximity to the work camp that the Germans had established in nearby Terezín.

“Kommen Sie!” the officer barked, advancing aggressively towards Jana. She picked up her cello and followed him to the door. She half knew what sight would greet her, but still she had to turn her head away. – p.64.

A Love of Luthiery

plane and wood shavings

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

These stories are connected by one instrument:

  • “Katerina’s Cello”
  • “Pietà”
  • “The Age of Great Cities”
  • “Terezin”
  • “After the War”
  • “Solange Goes to Lyon”

These narratives follow the history of a cello made in the Guarneri family shop in 18th-century Cremona, as it changes hands throughout history. The stories follow the cello’s use in 19th-century Milan (where the instrument is twice altered through the installation of endpins), 1930s Czechoslovakia, post-war Vienna, and finally, the 1990s in France.

Cello in low light

The mystery of a cello’s past lives. Photo by JRvV on Unsplash

I imagine that most cellists who play an old instrument have wondered about its provenance. How many times has the cello changed hands? What were the previous owners like? Has the instrument traveled the world? Tennant adeptly weaves a varied and fascinating account of a mythical cello.

Here is an excerpt from “Katarina’s Cello”:

At their own workshop she worked on the cello that had been commissioned by the Ospedale, the back was of fine maple with a slightly wild flaming and vibrant varnish to match the wood. It was her proudest moment when she placed the label inside the cello. Even if the world would not know that it was her creation, she would know that she had given life to this cello. – p.19

An In-Depth Knowledge of Women Composers

Three stories, Angela Serafina, Angela Serafina Goes to Paris and Angela Serafina Goes Home, share a common narrator; a woman who travels across the centuries. Throughout her life, she encounters, befriends, and aids famous women composers: at the Medici court in the late 1500s, in 17th century Venice, at the court of Louis XIV, at the 18th-century court of Anna Amalia, in 19th century Germany and finally, in 20th century New York.

Painting of Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel by Johann Ernst Heinsius - Schloss Weimar,

Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel by Johann Ernst Heinsius – Schloss Weimar,

These three stories introduce the reader to many of the major European women composers of the last few centuries. As someone who specializes in women composers, I must say I am impressed by the author’s familiarity with the subject.

By immersing herself in research, she was able to bring these female artists to life. I would recommend the Angela Serafina stories to those teaching composition, music history, or women’s studies, and to anyone interested in learning about women composers.

Painting of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim - Unknown source, Public Domain,

Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim – Unknown source, Public Domain.

Here is an excerpt from Angela Serafina:

Meanwhile Fanny and her brother Felix began lessons with Zelter and over the next years benefited from the visits of influential men to the Mendelssohn household. I liked Zelter, he admired Fanny’s ‘playing like a man’. But despite the fact he thought her the more prodigious talent of the two, her father’s tolerance rather than encouragement, gave her no self-confidence, whereas father Mendelssohn predicted a musical career for Felix. In order for her songs to be published, Felix claimed authorship! – p. 151

A Vivid Imagination

Space travel. Image by <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=3584229">deselect</a> from <a href=";utm_medium=referral&amp;utm_campaign=image&amp;utm_content=3584229">Pixabay</a>

Image by deselect from Pixabay

The characters in this collection include a centuries-old alien, a woman disguised as a man, space travelers, nobles, and an MI-6 collaborator, just to name a few. The plots (which I will not reveal here), are clever and unexpected. Because the book is chock full of detailed storylines, it is helpful to reread each narrative several times.

Gill Tennant Table of Contents in the form of musical pitches

Gill Tennants’s musical notes in her table of contents for Mellow Cello.

Though the collection is quite varied, there is an interesting overarching organization, which divides the compositions into groups.  Each story is assigned a pitch, or letter. As the author states in the preface

A group of stories have a single instrument running through them: those are the ‘natural’ stories from B to G: Katerina’s Cello, Pietà, The Age of Great Cities, Terezin, After the War and Solange Goes to Lyon. This last has a prequel called Solange. Ab and A# are a linked pair, separated by seven hundred and fifty years. Three of the sharp stories: C#, D# and F#, have a narrator in common. The other ‘flat’ b stories and the G# story and Encore are separate without deliberate links to any others. However each story is also designed to stand alone. I hope you find something to enjoy. p. 4-5

Is Mellow Cello appropriate for children?

Young boy with a book

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

While late elementary school students would be capable of reading this collection, some of the stories contain subject matter that might not be appropriate for children.  As author Gill Tennant stated:

“I began writing for members of the International Cello Society on Facebook, so my stories were aimed at adults, specifically at cellists. Some would be suitable for children, but perhaps Terezin would be too harrowing for young children although I believe most teenagers would cope with the historical facts.” – email to Erica Lessie

As with any content, parents should ultimately decide what subject matter is appropriate for their children. That being said, I believe that quite a few of the stories, especially those in which a child is the subject, such as “Solange” and “Solange Goes to Lyon,” would be a good choice for young readers.

Recommendation and Book Information

I thoroughly enjoyed the stories in this collection. It would make a great gift for someone who loves the cello.

Your Turn

What’s your favorite cello story or book? Let us know in the comments.

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