One of my very favourite records is a 1965 recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto in E Minor played by Jacqueline du Pre with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, himself a cellist. This is regarded by many people to be the benchmark performance of this much-loved work. The fact that this concerto is played so beautifully on an instrument crafted from wood only occurred to me when Ray Steward OAM took us on his excellent tree walk in the Australian Plant Communities on 23rd July 2013.
Volunteer guides at Brisbane Botanic Gardens Mt Coot-tha are encouraged to go on special walks with either the Curator or one of the guides. The walks help to refresh their knowledge of these special gardens and give them more to pass on to visitors. Ray is particularly qualified to do this as he was Parks Manager, Brisbane, for 25 years until he retired in 1992 and became a volunteer guide. He must know almost every tree that has been planted here since 1967. Ray showed us several Australian trees that have been used to make musical instruments.
The cello du Pre played for this recording was a famous Davidov, or Davidoff, Stradivarius made in 1712 especially for a well-known cellist of that name. Antonio Stradivari (1644-1737) really perfected the dimensions of violins and cellos so that today they are still made to his patterns. Many different trees have been used and Stradivari made his mainly from spruce and sometimes willow or maple.
In Australia there are several Luthiers, as musical instrument makers are called. Many of them were trained in Europe, UK and USA, and many use Australian trees when they can. Trees that have grown more slowly in the cooler climates of Tasmania and Victoria have the intertwined close grains that give a softer, more velvet tone.
Tom Ferguson is a retired engineer and he makes violins, cellos and violas. One model he uses for the cello is the Stradivarius 1712 ‘Davidoff’ and at first he used traditional European maple and spruce. Later he started using wood from Australian trees that is equally good. He has used Huon Pine (Lagarostrobos franklinii), Celery Pine (Phyllocladus aspleniifolius), both Podocarpaceae family from Tasmania, and King Billy Pine (Athrotaxus selaginoides) Cupressaceae family also from Tasmania. Sometimes he uses Cedar – Toona ciliata (Meliaceae family) and Ash, possibly Mountain Ash – (Eucalyptus regnans) Myrtaceae – which is the oldest flowering tree.
An interesting sidelight struck me when reading ‘The Morville Hours’ by Katherine Swift. This is a fascinating true story about the re-making of a large garden at a National Trust house in Shropshire. The author keeps a hive of bees and each spring she must cut through the perfect seal the bees have made around the edges of their hive, to keep out the cold. The seal is called ‘propolis’ and is made from the resin of certain pine trees. It sets to a dark red colour and is very hard. The propolis also has antibiotic properties and may help to keep the confined bees healthy over winter. Some beekeepers still eat a little every day in the winter to ward off colds and flu.
This shiny dark red wax may also be a secret ingredient used by Stradivari on his violins and cellos, Swift writes. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the longevity and beautiful tone of his instruments? Propolis is well known in Australia so you wonder if it is used by Australian Luthiers?
Jacqueline du Pre OBE (1945-1987) was diagnosed with MS in 1973. She had started to have difficulty playing her cello for some time. In 1970 she was given a Peresson cello by her husband, Daniel Barenboim, and found this newer instrument easier to play. Sergio Peresson (1913-1991) was an Italian Luthier trained in Italy and the UK before settling in USA. He used the Stradivarius ‘Davidoff’ as his model and became a well-known Luthier with his instruments much in demand. Jacqueline loved her Peresson and wrote glowingly to the maker.
Many Australian trees are used to make musical instruments from grand pianos to all types of strings, also recorders and other wind instruments. To think that trees growing in our soil and climates can be fashioned into making wonderful music is inspiring. This particularly applies to the individual instruments made by gifted and experienced Luthiers. These days with the growing demand there are some countries that are mass producing instruments in factories. They will be cheaper, of course, but will they sound as good? It would have been fascinating if Jacqueline du Pre had been able to play on a Tom Ferguson ‘Davidoff’ cello made of Australian wood.
luthier.net.au March, 2019.
This is an updated version of an article first published in Brisbane Botanics the Volunteer Guides’ Newsletter at Brisbane Botanic Gardens, Mt. Coot-tha Vol.16 No.1 May, 2013