It was brought to life in Brescia, the Lombard town near Lago di Garda and not far from Milan, around 1620. Its father of sorts was Giovanni Paolo Maggini, a master luthier — or violin maker — who was a student of Gasparo da Salo, the first known luthier in the world.
It started life as a bassetto, a small bass instrument that often provided the lower, masculine musical voice in the religious services of the time. The modern cello had not yet been invented. But when it was, this bassetto became one, by disassembly and careful cutting and carving and re-gluing.
For a couple of centuries, this renascent cello likely provided background music for daily life in Northern Italy. At feasts and funerals and baptisms in the chapels and cathedrals across the hills and plains, our cello held forth.
It is easy to imagine Galileo Galilei or the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, eyes closed and heads askance, enjoying the deep, rich tones of our cello. Better still, it is best revered as a journeyman instrument, steadfastly providing cadence to the spiritual routines of farmers, shopkeepers, soldiers and laborers.
During its third century, the cello arrived in Austria and later — so as not to fall into Nazi hands after the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom — it found asylum in the United States, where it awaited the end of World War II. When it was safe to return to Vienna, it crossed the sea again and calmed the frazzled nerves of war.
Eventually, Sibylle Honeck, cellist with the Vienna Volksopera, acquired the cello. She calls it “Felix the Happy One,” and on a visit with her brother, Pittsburgh Symphony Maestro Manfred Honeck, she wandered into the shop of master luthier Phillip Injeian on Penn Avenue and started the next chapter in the life of Felix.
Injeian, late of New York and Connecticut but very much a part of Pittsburgh-present and future, agreed to restore Felix to his past glory and prepare him for an even bolder life. For a man who once repaired a violin played by Mozart, very little is daunting. But the magic will be in making Felix better than ever.
Injeian has world-class credentials and successfully operated a violin shop in New York City. But after enduring four hours of daily commuting, he decided seek a better life. Ask him why he picked Pittsburgh and he will tell you Pittsburgh picked him.
This same person, who was with Yo-Yo Ma when he famously left his cello in a New York City taxi after a long Manhattan lunch, will tell you that his greatest pleasure still comes from helping young artists. Nicole Myers, part of the remarkable CMU-based Cellofourte quartet, says that the master performed flawless and phenomenal repairs to her cello when she was a student; she received same service he gave to Mozart.
Seeing Felix now, in three pieces in Injeian’s studio, can break your heart. His interior is covered with scores of bandages and plugs and inlays. Spending time with Felix is not unlike visiting an old boxer who has been patched and stitched until his face is comprised mostly of repair work. But Injeian promises to make it better.
Since its beginning, Pittsburgh has given the world many gifts that could be celebrated at this time of year. In the past, we could boast of coal and glass and steel. This year, however, through the eyes and hands of the gifted Injeian, Pittsburgh will return to the world this mighty cello, Felix the Happy One.