Abandoned cello hits a high note in Bethlehem
BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) — In the suburbs of Pittsburgh, a father and son plucked a battered old cello, abandoned as junk, from an attic they were clearing for a real estate agent nearly a decade ago.
With a broken scroll and no strings, the instrument languished in their basement until one rainy day last year, when they peeked inside the sound hole and saw elegant script scrawled across a yellowing parchment:
“Johann Antes me fecit in Bethlehem 1763.”
Suddenly, they realized that trash could be treasure — the oldest, surviving cello made in America. It sold last month at an eastern Pennsylvania auction for $20,740 to Thomas Riddle, a Bethlehem financial adviser who considers Antes family.
Riddle is the great-nephew (eight times over) of Antes, a composer and storied missionary who got his start as a woodworker in a Moravian settlement that grew into the city of Bethlehem.
“We’re pleased what we got for it, but we’re really glad it went to Mr. Riddle, because we know he and his family will really appreciate it,” said Justin Flowers, who, along with his dad, found the cello.
Riddle traces his roots to the very beginning of Bethlehem in 1741, when his direct ancestor, Henry Antes, was deeded 500 acres along Monocacy Creek, where Moravians started their religious mission. One of Antes’ eight children, John, became a cabinet-maker with an interest in instruments. At 19, John Antes made his first instrument, a violin, in 1759. He set up an instrument-making shop in 1762 in Bethlehem.
Antes eventually made seven instruments, two of which still exist, said Marian L. Shatto, a Moravian musician in Lititz, Lancaster County, who has researched and written about Antes. His 1759 violin is in the Moravian Historical Society in Nazareth, and a 1764 viola is part of the Lititz Moravian Collection.
Philip J. Kass, a fine strings expert from Havertown, knows of about 10 stringed instruments built before 1780. And only one, a a 1757 viola made in New York by Robert Horne, is older than the two known Antes instruments. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which acquired the viola a decade ago, describes it “as the oldest extant American violin family instrument.”
And, drilling a bit deeper, Horne was from London and John Antes from Montgomery County. Therefore, one could cast the Antes’ work as the oldest surviving American violin family instrument made in America by an American-born colonist.
Colonists were “jacks of all trades,” more preoccupied with repairing wheels than constructing fine-stringed instruments, said Chris Germain, a member and past president of the Violin Society of America. American-made instruments from the violin family, he said, really didn’t come into vogue until the 19th century during a wave of European immigration, including a German who would establish the celebrated Martin Guitar company, C.F. Martin & Co., in Nazareth.
And the instruments that were produced there in the 18th century tended to be more “Yankee church basses,” a naive instrument that was a cross between a cello and bass, Germain said.
“Making (fine-stringed) instruments in America during this time was extremely unusual,” Germain said
Uncommon, perhaps, but not surprising to many that such a cello would emerge from a community like Moravian Bethlehem, founded to spread Christianity.
“The Moravians put a great deal of value on their instruments,” said Charlene Donchez Mowers, president of Historic Bethlehem Museum and Sites. “Music was very important to church services.”
Polyglot singing. Trombone choirs. Early orchestras. Original musical scores. Even the name Bethlehem for the Moravian settlement in Pennsylvania was inspired by a Christmas Eve hymn Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf led in a log cabin there in 1741.
“The Rev. William C. Reichel underscored the importance of music to Moravians in an 1875 paper called “Something About Trombones.”
“Our forefathers on immigrating to the Western World brought with them the Germans’ love of music, and the German’s disposition to consecrate music to the worship of God,” Reichel wrote.
“Instruments of five strings, both violin, viola-da-braccio and viola-da-gamba, with flutes and French-horns were played for the first time in the house of God at Bethlehem, at the celebration of the feast of Christmas, December 25, 1743.”
Music and Antes
Clearly music and instrument-making were important in early Bethlehem, organized then as a communal society where everyone played a role. But church elders reined in Antes when he tried to add keyboarding instruments, called claviers, to his product line, according to a passage in the 1762 minutes of “Bethlehem Elder Conference” that Shatto cited.
Fellow Moravian David Tannenberg feared that would “injure his livelihood,” so Antes was told to finish only the claviers he had begun for friends. Antes continued making bow-stringed instruments.
According to Shatto’s research, Antes was paid three pounds for a bass — a cello the same year as Riddle’s is dated — for Immanuel Nitschmann, the leader of the Collegium Musicum Bethlehem. He made four more instruments for the collegium in 1764 before being called up for service overseas.
Antes left for Europe to study theology and also was trained in watchmaking. He was ordained and set to do missionary work in Africa.
That’s when Antes’ story reads almost like an adventure novel. He was chased by pirates off the coast of Portugal, battled local fevers and was captured by tyrants from the Ottoman Empire. While in Egypt, he was tortured when he refused to turn over gold. They beat the soles of his feet, a torture known as bastinado. He couldn’t walk for six weeks and the swelling lasted for three years, according to research collected by Thomas Wentzel of Lititz.
Antes also composed some music — he’s believed to be the first American to produce chamber music and wrote choral pieces including the popular “Go, Congregation, Go.”
In 1779 in Egypt, Antes forwarded a letter and a set of six string quartets he composed to Benjamin Franklin, whom he had met in Pennsylvania as a young man. In that letter, Antes suggested that the Moravians, pacifists, were being charged too much in lieu of not fighting in the Revolutionary War.
Antes eventually went back to Europe, marrying Susanna Crabtree in 1785. He invented a pedal music stand, and improved other musical mechanisms, according to “John Antes — American Dilettante” by Donald M. McCorkle. Antes died Dec. 17, 1811, at age 71 in Bristol, England.
Could Riddle’s cello really be the work of John Antes?
Riddle invited Kass, a member of the Appraisers Association of America, to the Lehigh Valley this month to find out.
They met in Nazareth’s 1740 Whitefield House, the Moravian Historical Society museum that isn’t too far from C.F. Martin.
The cello was placed on a long table wrapped in a white cover. A table next to it contained the two known Antes instruments: the 1764 viola from Lititz and the 1759 violin from Nazareth.
Wearing white gloves and using a lighted wand, Kass explored the inside of the cello for clues. He quickly found Antes’ label, similar to what is in the other instruments.
The cello has an American maple exterior, a pine or other softwood soundboard and scrap pieces of wood inside. Its dark varnish — a type that would have been applied to cabinets at the time — is shared by the violin, the earliest Antes instrument.
Kass said the cello has a more sophisticated interior than the violin, but the viola is the most stylized of the three. It’s an indication, Kass said, that the maker was honing his style with each instrument. But, Kass said, they all share similar traits that point to the same instrument-maker.
The cello neck and top block are in one piece. The size and shape of the lines echo what one would find in cellos made in Saxony, the European region from where Zinzendorf hails.
“He has, as his model, an instrument made precisely in the same area of Saxony that’s adjacent to where the Moravians originated,” Kass said. “So what he has done is (he) copied what they did. Possibly what might have started all of this is if he needed to fix an instrument. That’s a great way to discover how it’s put together.”
There are indications that the cello was repaired over time. There’s a mark that repairs were made by Carl Thorbahn, a Lancaster stringed-instrument maker in the 19th century. The neck was lengthened, and different varnish used during some repairs.
Kass, who will write an appraisal for insurance purposes, said the instrument is the work of Antes.
“As far as I’m concerned, it matches all the rest,” Kass said. “I think it’s an original instrument by this maker.”
Shatto, who attended Kass’ examination of the instruments, smiled.
She said she is the only living person to have played Antes’ violin and viola. She longs to add the cello to the list, but she is unlikely to get her wish.
A significant part of the cello would have to be replaced to get it in working order, Kass said.
The value of the cello isn’t in its notes, Riddle said, but its history. He plans to get it restored to a museum quality, removing traces of the 19th century repairs and bringing back what it would have looked like when it, perhaps, joined a violin and viola to make some joyful noise in Bethlehem.
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com