More Cello Verses: Sonnets and Songs
Updated: May 28, 2022
As on most days, today I was answering the ever-present question of “who WAS that cellist?” when my query results led me off in another direction. I had started off looking for details on the career of Mario Blodeck, a Prague-trained cellist who tried to popularize the viola da gamba in the US during the 1890s. He had played in the Vienna opera, alongside David Popper’s younger brother Wilhelm, and at about the time that Blodeck was perfecting his gamba performances with the help of an anachronistic endpin and cello bow, Baltimore-born cellist (and later Musical Courier president) Louis Blumenberg was in Austria, browsing through a Vienna music store when Wilhelm Popper walked in and recognized him as the boy who lent him a cello when Wilhelm was performing in Baltimore back in the 1870s. (Wilhelm’s cello had been damaged in a “railroad incident.”)
This got me thinking about Blumenberg (on a different day it would have got me thinking again about Wilhelm Popper), which led me to a sonnet by Francis Saltus Saltus (1849-1889), who I learned is like a “minor Poe” in terms of style and quality. Dated December 11, 1884, the sonnet is titled “To Louis Blumenberg, Violoncellist,” and appears in the 1890 collection Shadows and Ideals.
“The soul that lingers in the silent strings
Rises in rhythmic magic by thy hand,
A tuneful vassal e’ver at thy command,
A soul invisible that weeps or sings
Melodious strains, like passing angels’ wings,
Seem from the speaking maple to be fanned
While graver meaning, mystical and grand,
A matchless grace unto our senses brings.
Ah! When those strains fall gently on my ear,
I breathe in ravishment and seem to hear
Seraphic choirs that worship and adore,
And I, a skeptic, marveling in surprise,
Feel wondrous tears of pity fill my eyes,
And, penitent, believe in God once more.”
Reading this naturally piqued my interest in Saltus. A prolific poet who wrote under the pseudonym Cupid Jones, much of his work was published posthumously by his father. Saltus was also a composer with four comic operas to his name, a music critic, and a well-known New York bon vivant.
I found the erotic undertones of some of Saltus's longer poems, such as “The Harem,” a little too pronounced, so I retreated to the less decadent territory of “Fact and Fancy,” a humorous commentary on musical taste. The title poem of Fact and Fancy: Humorous Poems (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1895), it has the tone of a sophisticated nursery rhyme and introduces a veritable zoo of musically-inclined animals. Here's a sample (stanzas 2, 4, and 5, of the 10-stanza poem):
“Spiders grow merry when the violin
With powerful strings is delicately played;
And mottled lizards glory in the din
Of blatant trumpets at a street parade.
“Canaries revel in the flageolet;
A silvery bell will charm the Yorkshire ox ;
And church-chimes bring a shiver of regret
Unto the bosom of the Arctic fox.
“Now, if these things are true of certain beasts,
Why should not others equally enjoy
Music’s rare grace and sweet symphonic feasts,
And with pure melody their craniums cloy.”
I then discovered Saltus’s sonnet “Moon-Music” in the 1892 collection Dreams After Sunset. This one resonated with me even more than the cellistic tribute quoted above. It starts like this:
“Blond moonbeams shine in symphonies of light
Upon the surface of a sleeping lake,
Blue shadows, deep in dormant depths opaque
Flit under dainty ripples, moonlit, bright”
Feeling the need to get back to the cello-in-poetry theme, I remembered my “Mellow Cello” posts of last year and decided spontaneously that it was now time to return to a certain song I had planned to post on. In the Saltus cello sonnet, hearing the cello was a kind of religious experience, but in this song it is the sensual allure of a music man’s “sweet and mellow” cello melody that a young woman finds irresistible. The man and woman marry and have a baby who “sings” along in “a voice not so mellow…when he starts to bellow.” The words and music are by Charlie Chaplin, whose “Oh! That Cello” was one of just three songs published by Chaplin’s short-lived music company. Perhaps more intriguing is that Chaplin isn’t just posing with a cello on the cover of “Oh! That Cello”— he actually owned one and played it for hours at a time, holding the neck over the right shoulder and bowing with his left hand. For an entertaining, in-depth look at Chaplin’s own cello-inspired love story, read the Cello Museum post “Charlie Chaplin: Passionately Fond of the Cello.”