Insects and Instruments

Talk of the Town, New Yorker Magazine, December 3, 1990


In Sympathy, by Mindy Aloff


This is only part of the original article, which I have added images to, and also some additional information. See the for more.


“If you own an important bowed string instrument of the viol family, a sixteenth century lyra da braccio, say, or an eighteenth century Strad, there are a few phone numbers you want to keep at hand in case the instrument somehow goes astray; the FBI's, Interpol's, Scotland Yard's, the Smithsonian Institution's, and Bill Monical's, over on Staten Island. Nobody in the eastern half of the United States, and few people in the entire country, can rival Mr. Monical in knowledge of the technology, history, and current whereabouts of pedigreed violins, cellos, violas da gamba, and related instruments. The owner and director of William L. Monical, Inc, Dealers and Restorers of Fine Violin, Mr. Monical works out of a low but spacious grey house that faces the Hudson and affords an unimpeded view of the Manhattan skyline. The site was chosen, however, not for the lovely view but for its accessibility from Newark, Kennedy, and La Guardia Airports. Virtually every significant performer of early music in the country and also many of the violinists and cellists who perform in New York have occasion to consult Mr. Monical, even if it is just to bring in their instruments for a tune up, the the performers' hectic schedules can give his front room something of the character of a station concourse.


Mr. Monical owns a fair number of important bowed string instruments, and when we heard not long ago that one of those treasures, a viola d'amore made by a contemporary of J.S. Bach, was going to have its professional debut during a performance of Bach's Cantata No. 20Five, by New York's Musica Sacra at Avery Fisher Hall, we arranged to visit Mr. Monical the day before to find out more about it. He turned out to be a tall, fastidiously groomed gentleman with a manicured beard and a ready laugh. Although he described himself as a “gluepot,” we could not spot a drop of glue on a snowy work duster he was wearing, or a speck of dust on an astonishing number of viols and bows lining the walls of the showroom of his house. We asked him to tell us something about the viola d'amore that would be played at Avery Fisher.



“We know very little of the early history of Thomas Eberle, its maker,” Mr. Monical said. (2019 update: This has remained a favourite story of Mr. Monical's. You can hear him tell it yourself in this podcast of steam power and cockroach dung. ) “He was certainly Germanic and, like other Germanic makers gifted with vision, he went to Italy. The influence of the Medicis and other was attracting people to Italy from all over Europe. Eberle went to Naples, and worked with the Gagliano family, and it's quite possible, though not documentable, that he took the itdea of the viola d'amore there. The Eberle instrument came to us in completely untouched condition. It had never been taken apart, and the fingerboards and all the other parts were original, exactly as the instrument left the maker's hands. It seems to have sat in New England, perhaps in an attic, for something like a hundred and fifty years. When we opened the instrument, we found the inside encrusted with a very hard, calcified brownish black material. I didn't have any idea what it was, and it was obviously no part of the instrument, but still one wants to document everything that's original, and this dried mud did seem to be one of the original features. So I made an appointment to see Dr. Betty Faber, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum. She took a look and laughed so hard she was crying. I wanted to die, I felt like such an idiot. “Where do you live?” she said. “Right here in New York,” I answered. She must have thought I lived in a monastery. The stuff turned out to be the dung of roaches.”



Mr. Monical shook his head, and went on, “Then it really got fun. “You know, “ she said, “this instrument may have come from Naples, probably in the 19th century.” It turned out that she was a specialist in cockroaches, and this particular roach dung came from the species Blatta orientalis, which was infesting southern Italy at the time. Clipper ship sailors in the ports were virtually mutinying, she said, because the boats were so heavily infested that the men were having their eyebrows eaten while they slept. Dr. Faber figured that there was about twenty five or thirty days' roach deposit in the instrument, she pronounced it essentially a roach motel.”



(Did the roaches munch on the lable?)


Now Mr. Monical began to talk about music. “Thanks to instruments such as the viola d'amore, composers in the Baroque were able to choose different color possibilities, and to paint a palette in the ensemble,” he said. “Bach, in his Cantata 205, had in his mind an idea of how it was to combine the vocal line with a kind of obbligato by this particular instrument. Instruments are sometimes identified a having a specific emotional character. Probably, playing on a d'amore had a symbolism for an audience which we may not know now.”


The next day, we went to visit Susan Iadone, at the apartment of a friend, on Central Park West; she was the violist who would be playing the Eberle instrument onstage that night. Ms. Iadone is a tall, outgoing woman with flame colored hair that looks wind blown even when she's indoors. At the moment we arrived, she was in something of a state. A sympathetic string on the instrument had broken and she wasn't sure how to replace it. Violas d'amore have two sets of strings, which face each other on opposite sides of a curved bridge. The top set, made of gut, look like violin strings and are bowed in a similar way. The second set, the sympathetic strings, are of steel, and are played not by the performer, but, actually, by the instrument; they catch the sound of the original set and throw it back, prolonging the notes and adding a cloud of overtones and undertones, thereby accounting for the d'amore's indiivual character, a paradoxical mixture of soft attack and slightly languorous diminishment of sound.


Ms. Iadone led us into the music room, where the d'amore was at that moment in the hands of a smiling strawberry blond man. He was introduced to us as Gary Sturm, the collections manager in the Division of Musical History at the Smithsonian. He happened to be in New York, escorting the five Stradivarius instruments for a recording session, and he had duly checked in with Bill Monical, who was to clean the Strads before they returned to Washington. “I wasn't up here on a viola d'amore call, he told us. But I was sitting in the bathtub this morning and the phone rang, and here I am.” He looked admiringly at the Eberle. “ The historical significance of this instrument is staggering,: he said. “I wish we had it in out collection.” Then he took up a yellow wire and carefully drew it down the neck of the instrument under the fingerboard, attached a new sympathetic string to one end, and drew that through to the correct position.


After Mr. Sturm left, Ms. Iadone sat down and talked about the sound of the instrument. “It's smooth,” she said. It's warm, its got the warmth of the gut strings and the edge of the sympathetic strings underneath. When you play an instrument that has steel strings, it produces a louder, more penetrating sound. You'll hear that in the concert, the orchestra is playing with steel strings. When the viola d'amore, and the viola da gamba, too, come on, I expect a bid drop in the decibel level. But I give Musica Sacra credit for using the viola d'amore and the viola da gamba. Frequently, in the St.John Passion the viola d'amore parts are taken by violins. In the cantata, the instrument could have been a violin and a cello. Of course, that would have been in terrible taste.”


In the evening, we went to Avery Fisher to hear the cantata. The viola d'amore is played in the fifth movement, an aria. Ms. Iadone looked sensational in a romantically soft black outfit, with her hair flying outward in fiery points. When she stood up, one expected some big dark, Brontean out pouring. But the sound was not that at all. It was remote, metallic, slightly sad, but without a trace of syrup. It seemed to be walking forward toward the audience from a very great distance, from much farther away than the modern strings that surrounded it. “What is that instrument?” someone near us asked. “I don't quite get it.” After the aria was over, we turned to the English translation of the lyrics in the program. “Friendly shadows, sweet companions, see now, how I sadly leave ye, come have pity on my grief,” it begins. Bach had chosen an instrument associated with love, sympathy, concord, and quiet sweetness for a song about, depending on how you understand it, bereavement, separation, of divorce.”


That was the end of the New Yorker story about insects and the viola d'amore. But not the end of Bill's story about insects and my viola d'amore, however.


The way Bill told it to me, there were also wasps inside in instrument, of a kind known to prey on cockroaches. If you google for  a north american wasp that lays its eggs in cockroach eggs casings, you will find it.

This instrument was also much damaged by woodworm The larvae of this beetle live in the wood for 3 to 4 years (I find this really an amazing feat, as seasoned wood has a low moisture content). They feed on the starch in the wood, which they can only digest thanks to symbiotic fungi and other microbes in their gut. The pupal stage is about 3 months, the adults live about 4 weeks.


And of course, fleas! Fleas? Yes, way back in the 90's, when I bought this instrument, my dad was rearing cat fleas and selling them to drug companies. He had retired from his University job, and set up a company in his basement. His fleas and the equiptment he used to raise them in made it possible for big drug companies to develop Program, and Revolution, as well as other flea control products. And he did so well out of his business he was able to help me buy my Eberles:

Our lives are ruled by insects!