Ernest Hemingway: cellist

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Here is a section from the New Yorker, May 13 1950, a re-issue of Lillian Ross’ portrait of Ernest Hemingway when he was 50 or so, visiting New York City at a time that he was living mostly in Cuba. I’m not sure how many of us know to include Hemingway in our cello family. The first long paragraph below is the cello one; the author Lillian Ross is writing in the first person:

I asked him whether he still wanted to buy a coat, and he said sure but he didn’t want to be rushed or crowded and it was cold outside. … On a serving table near the couch were two champagne coolers, each containing ice and a bottle. He carried his glass over there and held up one of the bottles and squinted at it. It was empty. He put it back in the cooler, head down. Then he opened the other bottle, and as he poured some champagne into his glass, he sang, “ ‘So feed me am-mu-nition, keep me in the Third Division, your dog-face soldier boy’s O.K.’ ” Breaking off, he said, “Song of the Third Infantry Division. I like this song when I need music inside myself to go on. I love all music, even opera. But I have no talent for it and cannot sing. I have a perfect goddam ear for music, but I can’t play any instrument by ear, not even the piano. My mother used to make me play the cello. She took me out of school one year to learn the cello, when I wanted to be out in the fresh air playing football. She wanted to have chamber music in the house.”

In this next passage from the piece, Hemingway talks about economy of style. And while not about music, what he says is absolutely applicable to cellists devising parts and improvising in non-classical music. (Too often I hear string players just noodling and noodling throughout a tune. No structure, no empty spaces that would allow the ear to breathe, no direction, just adding a bit of padding.) You know that old line about how it’s what you leave out that makes something powerful and beautiful? See what Hemingway says about cutting things out. A reminder that simple can be better than complex, if you do it right. Notice also the stuff about picking up style from great French writers. He has such a feel for them that he compares them to different types of baseball pitchers. (This reminded me of something quite similar in Bob Dylan terrific autobiography – Chronicles:_Volume_One – where he talks about about picking up style from great French poets when he was still starting out.)

His briefcase was lying open on a chair near the desk, and the manuscript pages were protruding from it; someone seemed to have stuffed them into the briefcase without much care. Hemingway told me that he had been cutting the manuscript. “The test of a book is how much good stuff you can throw away,” he said. “When I’m writing it, I’m just as proud as a goddam lion. I use the oldest words in the English language. People think I’m an ignorant bastard who doesn’t know the ten-dollar words. I know the ten-dollar words. There are older and better words which if you arrange them in the proper combination you make it stick. Remember, anybody who pulls his erudition or education on you hasn’t any. …  I thought of establishing a scholarship and sending myself to Harvard, because my Aunt Arabelle has always felt very bad that I am the only Hemingway boy that never went to college. But I have been so busy I have not got around to it. I only went to high school and a couple of military cram courses, and never took French. I began to learn to read French by reading the A.P. story in the French paper after reading the American A.P. story, and finally learned to read it by reading accounts of things I had seen—les événements sportifs—and from that and les crimes it was only a jump to Dr. de Maupassant, who wrote about things I had seen or could understand. Dumas, Daudet, Stendhal, who when I read him I knew that was the way I wanted to be able to write. Mr. Flaubert, who always threw them perfectly straight, hard, high, and inside. Then Mr. Baudelaire, that I learned my knuckle ball from, and Mr. Rimbaud, who never threw a fast ball in his life. Mr. Gide and Mr. Valéry I couldn’t learn from. I think Mr. Valéry was too smart for me.”

As an improvising non-classical cellist, whose style do you especially love and are always inspired by? Don’t say Casals, Piatigorsky, Rostopovich, Du Pre, Roman, Sherry, Ma, Haimovitz. Too obvious. We all would play like them if we could. Pick others: saxophonists, singers, trombonists; and listen to them and love their style, even steal their phrasings and make them your own.

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