Blind Ambition – The Day I Met the Duport Stradivarius Cello

For those who appreciate musical instruments and their inherent heirloom qualities I’d like to share a story. It is a story of an experience I had years ago, with significance now more apparent. Like many experiences we (I) have we do not always realize the hidden messages that will serve us throughout life. This one is about blind ambition guided by the hands of a master.

In my work as a piano craftsman I had the privilege of working with the great maestroMstislav_Rostropovich Mistislav Rostropovich. He entrusted me with the restoration of several of his keyboard instruments. It was an honor to spend time with him, getting to know him and some of his family. One “family” member in particular was his cello. He had a collection of rare instruments with lineage going back hundreds of years.

One day he showed me his new studio on the third level of his home. It was designed by the great architect Ieoh Ming (I M) Pei, designer of renowned buildings such as John F Kennedy Library, National Gallery of Art, Bank of China Tower, and many other iconic commercial structures. He, however, took pleasure in designing this little room for Slava where the master could practice. It was a small room with an elevated ceiling that carried sound upwards seemingly into infinity while at the same time expanding in all other directions. I sat there in awe as Slava bowed his cello and the sound wrapped the two of us in a cloud of beauty that seemed to carry us upwards into Pei’s magic creation.

I commented on what genius the design of this room was and also on the unearthly sound of the cello. It was a rare Stradivarius, I knew, but yet I knew little of how I had just experienced something of tremendous privilege which would affect me for life.

I noticed deep scratches on the face of the cello and mentioned to Slava that we should fix that. It would be no different that work I do on the spruce bellies of pianos. In his wise, kind, and masterful way Rostropovich said to me; “no, no, we don’t touch this, these are marks made by Napoleon’s spurs”. He explained to me that this Cello once belong to the great maestro Jean-Louis Duport in the early 1800’s. He explained that once Napoleon snatched it from Duport’s hands saying “I can play that”. He swung the instrument around raising one of his short legs up and over. As he did his boot spur caught the face of the instrument and gouged into it. To this day the marks remain.

I think now how young and foolish I was to even consider working on this instrument. What a disaster I would have caused; yet, how bold and courageous I was with blind ambition. It leaves me today wondering how many other experiences I have driven myself into with such blind ambition and what damage I have unknowingly caused as life took the punches so I may learn.

The kindness of the Maestro, who patiently understood my unguided ambition yet firmly corrected me to no harm, I will never forget.

After Rostropovich’s death the instrument was reported to have sold for Twenty-Million Dollars (unconfirmed). It is known as the Duport Stradivarius Cello.