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  • Writer's pictureGeoffrey Dean

Have Cello, Will Travel: Alwin's Toothbrushes

Updated: May 28, 2022

In the late 1890s, Alwin Schroeder and his family spent their summers in the Rangeley Lakes region of Maine. In her book The Islanders, Elizabeth Foster recalls, “Whenever Grandfather invited [Schroeder], he would accept promptly, adding, ‘— And I will bring my “toothbrush.”’ ‘The toothbrush’ was his pet name for his ’cello.” The only way to reach the Lakes was by narrow-gauge train, but “Schroeder’s ’cello was too large to go through the tiny door of the parlor car, and too valuable to make the journey in the baggage car, so it was always placed on the rear platform where Schroeder could watch it and stop the train immediately if by some dreadful chance it fell off.” At the end of one of his visits, Schroeder had boarded the train to depart from the Lakes, and the train was already pulling out of the station, “when he rushed out on the back platform wildly waving his arms and screaming, ‘Stop the train! Stop the train!’

“‘What’s the matter?’ yelled Grandfather, running after him in an attempt to stop it. …

“‘Mein Gott! I have left my “toothbrush!”’ cried the frenzied musician.

“Grandfather caught up with the engine, and the train backed slowly into the station again, where Schroeder’s ’cello was put on board the rear platform and peace restored to the parlor car.”/1/

The “toothbrush” in question was likely a cello made by Nicolo Amati (1596-1684), a third-generation member of the distinguished family of instrument makers from Cremona, Italy. It came into Schroeder’s possession in or before 1885, when a Leipzig concert review refers specifically to Schroeder's “excellent Amati ’cello.” Two years later Schroeder “sang delightfully on his Amati cello” on another Gewandhaus concert./2/ As he debuted in various American cities during the 1891-2 season, Schroeder garnered critical praise for his playing, but critics did not comment on what make of instrument he might be playing. The old Italian instruments played by the members of the Kneisel Quartet, including Kneisel’s own 1714 Stradivarius violin, became the subject of commentary in the US only after the quartet’s 1896 London concerts, in the wake of English commentary on the superiority of the Kneisels’ instruments to those of other world-class quartets of the time. The Chicago Tribune reported in fall 1897 that “the instruments used by [the Kneisel] quartet are said to have cost $14,000. … Mr. Schroeder of the quartet owns an Amati cello of unusual value.”/3/ Elsewhere that value was stated to be $6,000 (about $200,000 in today’s dollars) and the instrument declared to be “one of the finest Amati ’cellos in existence.”/4/ I have not found any mention of the year this instrument was made, and only van der Straeten identifies which Amati created Schroeder’s cello, describing it as “one of the most perfect specimens of Nicolas Amati’s work…”/5/

Several other actual or purported Nicolo Amati cellos were being played in the US during the 1890s. Chicago Symphony Orchestra first cellist Bruno Steindel, who also came to the US in 1891, played a 1639 Nicolo Amati cello./6/ When cellist-actor Auguste Van Biene arrived from London to open a New York run of his hit play The Broken Melody, he brought two cellos, one of them “said to be an Amati of priceless value.”/7/ He may be playing this instrument in his 1912 recording of “The Broken Melody,” the play's title song. Hermann Heberlein, in the US from 1893 and later a Boston Symphony cellist, paid $1200 for his Amati,/8/ and in 1892 another future Boston Symphony cellist Alexander Heindl acquired a “genuine Nicholas Amati” cello of 1623, valued then at $5,000./9/ Alexander Heindl (not to be confused with his uncle of the same name, also a BSO cellist) may have used his Amati on some of the earliest known solo cello recordings, such as his 1901 recording of Rubinstein’s Melody in F./10/ (Schroeder’s own recordings, from 1916, would likely have been made on a different cello, probably the Pressenda discussed below.)

Around 1900, Schroeder brought another Amati cello back to the US from Europe. This second Schroeder Amati is identified as the work of Antonio (ca 1540-1607) and Girolamo Amati (known as Hieronymous, 1561-1630), sons of the “original” Amati, Andrea. (Nicolo was Girolamo’s son.) It is not clear whether Schroeder ever used this instrument himself. He had sold it by 1907, when it was listed in the Lyon & Healy instrument catalogue for $500 (about $17000 in today’s dollars; the price was later reduced to $400); it is described as “formerly in the possession of…Alwin Schroeder,” with a production year of 1628. The Lyon & Healy listing characterizes it as a cello of “marvelous tonal beauty, of magnificent appearance and good state of preservation. It was originally small size, but has been enlarged so that at present it is almost full size. It is covered with a beautiful rich varnish of an orange red shade.”/11/ Schroeder’s “brothers Amati” cello seems to have made its way to Budapest, Hungary, and in 1921 was heard again in the US when the young Hungarian cellist Rozsi Varadi (Varady) made her New York debut at Aeolian Hall (where Schroeder himself had performed many times). At this time (1921) the cello’s age was reported as 306 years, with a production year of 1615./12/ (Of course there is a chance that these are in fact two different Amati brothers cellos, both brought to the US by Schroeder.) As explained in a recent profile of a 1622 Amati brothers cello owned by Laurence Lesser, these instruments were actually the work of Girolamo (Antonio had left the workshop and died in 1607, but Girolamo continued to use the Antonius et Hieronymus Fr. Amati Cremonen Andrea fil” labels).

Cellist Rozsi Varadi (1902-1933) with what is possibly

the ex-Schroeder Amati brothers cello/13/

Also in 1900, the violin collector Jay C. Freeman acquired an 1824 cello by Giovanni Francesco Pressenda (1777-1854) that had been languishing in Turin, unused. Freeman relates that, “After carefully adjusting it, we found it had a most remarkable tone, and I had the pleasure of disposing it to an artist worthy of it in every way, and in whose hands it will give pleasure to thousands. I refer to Mr. Alwin Schroeder of the Boston Kneisel Quartet.”/14/ From this point Schroeder played the youngest instrument in the Kneisel Quartet, his Pressenda sounding alongside Kneisel’s Strad, second violinist Theodorowicz’s Guarneri, and Svecenski’s Gasparo da Salo viola. In chamber duos such as Brahms’ E minor cello sonata, Schroeder sounded “notably rich and telling in the passages on the lower strings, which even on some fine old instruments are apt to be choked and dull. His rich G string also gave great depth and nobility to the opening theme of the Beethoven [A Major] sonata…”/15/ Schroeder likely played his Pressenda on his 1916 recordings (unissued) of solo cello pieces, the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria with his daughter, soprano Elfriede Schroeder-Bradbury-Hamblin, and quartet selections with the Boston String Quartet./16/

Alwin Schroeder with (presumably) his 1824 Pressenda cello/17/


1. Elizabeth Foster, The Islanders (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1946), pp. 92-3

2. Leipziger Musikalisches Wochenblatt (LMW, 1885), 585; LMW (March 10, 1887), p. 137

3. Chicago Tribune, Sept. 19, 1897, p. 40

4. The Times (Philadelphia, PA), Aug. 6, 1899, p. 11. Converted to today's dollars at The $6000 valuation is consistent with the 1200 British pound valuation recorded later by van der Straeten in his History of the Violoncello (see note 5)

5. Edmund van der Straeten, History of the Violoncello, p. 497

6. The Purdue Exponent, vol. XXVI, No. 34 (Oct. 20, 1914), p 1

7. Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, Nov. 22, 1896, p. 11

8. “Concerning the ‘Cello,” Detroit Free Press, Mar. 29. 1896, p 15

9. Heindl’s father, BSO violist Henry Heindl, paid $225 for it. Los Angeles Herald, Aug. 6, 1897, p. 6.

10. Alexander Heindl's recordings are discussed here. I find it unlikely that this is the elder Alexander Heindl, because it was his nephew who was performing nationally as a cello soloist on vaudeville bills during the 1890s, and could easily have developed the reputation and connections that would have led to these early recording opportunities. During this same period his uncle Alexander was playing in the Boston Symphony, and likely would have had a more reserved attitude toward the new recording technology. Update 5/5/2022: The following statement in the Los Angeles Herald of Sept. 26, 1897, p. 15, confirms that the younger Alexander Heindl was the vaudeville cello soloist: "Mr. [Max] Heindel is a brother of the young 'celloist who played an engagement here at the Orpheum a few weeks ago." (my emphasis)

11. Rare Old Violins: XVI, XVII, XVIII Centuries : Also Fine Modern Instruments (Chicago: Lyon & Healy, 1907), p. 47

12. “’Cello Is 306 Years Old,” orig. published in New York World, reprinted in Decatur (IL) Herald, Oct. 16, 1921, p. 6

13. Bain News Service, Publisher. Varady. , ca. 1920. [Between and Ca. 1925] Photograph.

14. Jay C. Freeman, “The Practical Side of Violin Collecting,” Philharmonic, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Feb. 1903), p. 28

15. The Violinist, March 1909, p. 38

17. Photo: Philip Hale Photograph Collection.

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