Count Stenbock was a 19th century nobleman of Swedish descent who held a domain in what is now Estonia. His father died when he was a boy, as did his maternal grandfather, so he was incredibly wealthy for much of his life, although his property was administered for him by his paternal grandfather during childhood. Many of his other relatives perished during his youth, so he was always a bit morbid and melancholy. His collected works, both poetry and prose, focus on death. This was deeply fashionable at the time, but in his work there’s a sincerity that seems, to me, to go past the bravado of some of his contemporaries.
He went to Oxford where he was a leading light, and something of a financier, of a set of young men of Decadent and homophilic tendency that loosely overlapped with the Pre-Raphaelites. Once his grandfather died he returned to his homeland for eighteen months, then returned to England, where he made a fine show as an eccentric.
It’s not so much that he kept a zoo in his garden, or that he insisted on taking a monkey with him when he travelled, that led to his reputation: It was not that he sampled a new religion every week and eventually developed his own syncretic blend, much as a gentleman might with tea or tobacco. The problem was his “son”.
The Little Count was a wooden, life-sized doll of a boy. The Count took it everywhere and conversed with it. He checked in on it daily: if he could not visually assure his son’s wellbeing, he enquired after its health. It appears, according the the Count’s family, that he spent a great deal of money on his son’s education, which was supervised by Jesuit priest.
Stenbock suffered deeply from depression, and self-medicated with increasing amounts of alcohol until his death in 1895, of cirrhosis of the liver.
Just a warning there’s a little bit of anti-Semitism in this one: it’s not a lot by Nineteenth Century standards, but a pivotal plot point is that a Jewish doctor is incompetent. This is a bit odd for period folklore, either for Ars Magica or Magonomia. Since medicine was one of the few professions Jews were allowed to practice in much of Europe, they were thought to be extremely gifted at it, as a stereotype.
The following story suits well the Italian focus of the Venetian material, and the haunted instrument which is mentioned in the upcoming Magonomia Bestiary. To briefly touch on the viol d’amor itself, they are a baroque instrument which is the size of a modern viol and played under the chin. Stenbock is wrong to suggest they are no longer made. Most had six or seven played strings with paired, sympathetic strings beneath. They are unfretted. The peg box is, by tradition, adorned with the blindfolded head of Cupid. The shape of the sound holes is called, in modern manufacture, the “Flaming Sword of Islam”.
The story is a reworking of a poem of the same title, which was published the year before. Short fiction was a popular form in Stenbock’s ay, but it also gives him space to expand his theme and frees him of the rhyming scheme. Thanks to the reader, Ben Tucker, who sounds a decade younger in this recording. Does he have a new microphone, or better software? Also thanks to the Librivox production team.
One time there was much in vogue a peculiarly sweet-toned kind of f violin, or rather, to be accurate, something between a viola and a violoncello. Now they are no longer made. This is the history of the last one that was ever made, I think. This somewhat singular story might in some way explain why they are made no longer. But though I am a poetess, and consequently inclined to believe in the unlikely, this I do not suppose was the history of Viol d’Amors in general. I may add, by way of prefix, that its peculiar sweetness of tone was produced by the duplicated reverberation of strings below, with yet another reverberation within the sounding-board. But to my story.
I was once in Freiburg—Freiburg in Baden, I mean. I went one Sunday to High Mass at the Cathedral. Beethoven’s glorious Mass in C was magnificently rendered by a string quartette. I was specially impressed by the first violin, a dignified, middle-aged man, with a singularly handsome face, reminding one of the portraits of Leonardo da Vinci. He was dressed in a mediaeval-looking black robe; and he played with an inspiration such as I have seldom, if ever, heard. There was likewise a most beautiful boy’s treble.
Boys’ voices, lovely in their timbre as nothing else, are generally some what wanting in their expression. This one united the most exquisite timbre with the most complete possible expression. I was going to stay in Freiburg some time, as I knew people there. The first violinist had aroused my curiosity. I ‘ learnt that he was an Italian, a Florentine, of the ancient noble family of da Ripoli. But he was now a maker of musical instruments, not very well off—who nevertheless played at the Cathedral for love, not money; also that the beautiful treble was his youngest son, and he was a widower with five children. As he interested me, I sought to procure an introduction, which I succeeded in getting without difficulty.
He lived in one of those beautiful old houses which linger still in towns like Freiburg. He seemed somewhat surprised that an Englishwoman should go out of her way to visit him. Fortunately I was familiar with Italian, being myself an Italian on the mother’s side, and was at that time on my way to Italy. He received me with much affability. I was ushered into a long Gothic room, done in black oak : there was a very beautiful Gothic window, which was open. It was spring-time, and the most delight weather. There was a strong scent of May about the room, emanating from a hawthorn-tree immediately opposite the window, which had the extraordinary peculiarity of bearing red and white blossoms at the same time. The room was full of all sorts of odds and ends of things—caskets, vessels, embroideries—all exquisitely artistic. He told me these were executed by a son and daughter of his. We began to interest one another, and had a long talk. As we were talking, in walked a tall, grave-looking young man. He was of the pure Etruscan type—dark, and indeed somewhat sombre.
With a perturbed air, not noticing me, he suddenly made this singular remark, ‘Saturn is in conjunction with the moon : I fear that ill may betide Guido.’
‘This is my son Andrea,’ his father explained, ‘my eldest son; he goes in much for astronomy, and
indeed also for astrology, in which you probably do not believe.’ At that moment in walked another young man. This was the second son, Giovanni. He was also dark, like his brother, and tall, but had a very pleasing smile. He reminded me rather of the portrait of Andrea del Sarto. It was he who manufactured—to use the word in its proper sense—these beautiful objects which were lying about the table. After him came in two sisters: the elder, whose name was Anastasia, was a tall, stately girl, with dark hair and grey eyes, but pale face: very much like the type we are familiar with from the pictures of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The younger sister was quite different: she was fair, but fair in the Italian manner: that glorious, ivory-white complexion so different from the pink and white of the North. Her hair was of that glorious red-gold colour
which we see in Titian’s pictures, but her eyes were dark. Her name was Liperata. It appears Anastasia was the eldest of the family, then came Andrea and Giovanni, then Liperata, and lastly, Guido, whom I had not seen as yet.
I omitted to mention, though it does not seem here of any significance at all, that Anastasia wore a blue gown of somewhat stiff mediaeval cut, but very graceful all the same. I learnt afterwards it was both designed and made by herself.
Presently there entered the room a boy of about fourteen. This was Guido. He was fairer than his brothers, though also somewhat of the Etruscan type, and was not so tall for his age. He looked singularly fragile and delicate. His complexion was more delicate than a rose-petal: he had those long, supple, sensitive hands which indicate the born musician. His somewhat long hair, of a shade of brown, had a shadow of gold on it, as if it had been golden once. But in his strange-coloured eyes, which were grey-blue, streaked with yellow bars, there was a far-off look, like a light not of this world, shining on a slowly-rippling river of music. He went straight to the window, also not noticing there was a stranger in the room, and said, “Ah, how beautiful the May-tree is! I shall only see it bloom once more.’ He seemed indeed to be looking through the blooming hawthorn at that pale planet Saturn, which then was, for it, singularly large and brilliant. Andrea shuddered, but Giovanni bent down and kissed him, and said, “What, Guido, another fit of melancholia?”
As you may imagine, I was interested in this singular family, and soon our acquaintance ripened into intimacy. It was to Anastasia that I was specially drawn, and she to me. Anastasia inherited the musical tastes of her father, and was herself no mean executant on the violin.
Andrea was not only occupied I with astronomy and astrology, but ( even with alchemy and such like things, and occult sciences generally.
The whole family was very superstitious. They seemed to take astrology and magic as matters of course. But Andrea was by far the most superstitious of them all. It was Giovanni who was the breadwinner of the family, together with his special sister, Liperata, who assisted him in his work, and herself did the most charming embroideries. The only thing was that their materials were too costly, and required a large outlay to be made before they could sell anything.
For though the musical instruments the father produced were super-excellent of their kind, and fetched large prices, he took so much care about his work that he was sometimes years in producing one violin. He was then absorbed in one idea, in producing a Viol d’Amor, an instrument which he said was the most beautiful in all the world, and which had unjustly
fallen into disuse. And his Viol d’Amor was to excel all others that had ever been made. He had left Florence, he said, because he could not stand this great Republic (for though of one of the most ancient noble families, he was an ardent Republican) being converted into the capital of
a tenth-rate monarchy. “They will be taking Rome next.” he said. And he did not know that
what he was saying was soon to come true.
They were not well off, certainly, but it was Anastasia who managed the household and cared for every one. And she was the most excellent of manageresses. And so their life was very simple, but nevertheless was elegant and refined. I very often enjoyed their simple, truly Italian hospitality, recompensing them by purchasing some specimens of Giovanni’s excellent workmanship, and a violin from the old Signor da Ripoli, which I have still, and would not part with for the world. Though, alas! I myself cannot play upon it. To cut a long story short, I had to go on with my journey, but I did not wholly lose sight of them, so to speak, and I corresponded frequently with Anastasia.
One day, just about a year afterwards, I received the following letter from Anastasia:— * Dear Cecilia,—A great calamity has fallen upon us. It is so out of the common that you would hardly believe it. Of course you know how my father is devoted to his Viol d’Amor. You also know that we are all rather superstitious, but none to the same degree as Andrea.
It appears that one day Andrea was poring into some old book, which was in that mongrel tongue, half Latin and half Italian, before the days of Dante, when he came across a passage (you know, I know nothing about the manufacture of musical instruments; but it appears that leather thongs are necessary to procure the complete vibration of the Viol d’Amor). In this passage it said that preternatural sweetness of tone could be procured., if the thongs were made of the skin of those who loved the viol maker.
[I had heard of this superstition before: I think there is some story in connection with Paganini of a similar nature, but nevertheless quite different. For as the legend goes about Paganini, the strings of a violin were made of the entrails of a person, which necessitated their murder ; but here it would appear from the rest of the letter it did not do so, and was a freewill offering,]
Andrea conceived the fantastic idea of cutting off part of his own skin and having it tanned unbeknown to our father, telling him he had got it from the Clinic, because he had heard human
leather was the best. To effect this he had to invoke the assistance of Giovanni, who, as you know, is so skilful with all instruments, and is also, as perhaps you do not know, a most skilful surgeon.
Giovanni, not to be outdone by his brother, performed the same operation on himself. They were obliged to confide in me, and, as you know, I am very good as a nurse, and clever at bandages and such like. So I managed, with a little bandaging, and nursing, and sewing up the scars, to get them quite well again in a very short time. Of course no word of this was ever said to Liperata or Guido.
And now comes the dreadful part of my story. How Guido could have divined anything I cannot understand. The only explanation I can offer is this. He is a very studious boy, and very fond of poring into the old books in Andrea’s library. He might have seen the same passage, and with his extraordinary quick intuition have guessed. Anyhow he appears to have gone to some quack…doctor, and had a portion of his skin cut off in the same manner, and brought the skin to his brothers to be dealt with in the same way, which it was. The operation had been performed badly, and, as you know, the child is very delicate, and it has had the most disastrous results. He is hopelessly ill, and we do not know what to do.
Of course we cannot tell our father. It is equally impossible to tell a doctor. Fortunately our father does not believe in doctors and trusts in us. It is a good thing all three of us know something of medical science : I think things are getting a little better. He rallied a little yesterday, and asked to be taken from his bed to the sofa in the long room. At his own request he was placed just opposite the May-tree, with the window open. This seemed to revive him.
He became, comparatively speaking, quite animated, especially when a slight wind blew some of the red and white blossoms on to his coverlet. Giovanni and I have some hope, but Andrea has not. Liperata of course does not understand what it all means. Nor does our father, who is intensely anxious about Guido, whom he loves best of us all.
— Ever affectionately,
P.S.—Good news at last! the Viol d’Amor is completed. Father came down and played it to us.
Oh ! what a divine tone it has! Guido first burst into tears, and then seemed to grow quite well
again for some time afterwards. Father left the Viol d’Amor with me, that I should play to Guido
whenever he wished it. Yes, there is hope after all, whatever Andrea may say.’
Not long afterwards I received another letter from Anastasia in deep mourning. It ran thus :—
“The worst has happened. Last Friday, after having been for several days considerably better, Guido seemed almost himself again. I was alone with him in the long room. (One thinks of trivialities in great grief; I was wearing that same blue dress I had on when I first saw you.) There was a wind, also rain, which pattered against the window-pane, and the wind blew the blossoms of the May-tree like red-white snow to the ground. This seemed to depress Guido. He
begged me to sing to him, and accompany myself on the Viol d’Amor. “ It is so sweet of tone,” he said, with a sweet, sad smile, “I am rather tired, though I do not feel much pain now. I shall not see the hawthorn bloom again.”
I began to sing an old Etruscan ballad—one of those songs that linger about the country parts of Tuscany, of a very simple, plaintive cadence, accompanied softly on the Viol d’Amor. It would be soothing, I thought, at any rate. And it was. Guido laid his head back and closed his eyes. Gradually the rain ceased and the wind stilled. Guido looked up. “That is better,” he said, “I was afraid of the wind and the rain ; and you stopped them with the Viol d’Amor! Look! the moon is beginning to shine again!” There was a fuI1 moon, and it shone through the hawthorn-tree, making strange shadows on the window, and one ray shot direct on Guido’s pale face. “Go on singing,” he said faintly. So I sang on and played on the Viol d’Amor. I felt some dreadful presentiment. I dared not stop singing and playing. It seemed that a shadow literally crept through the doorway, and came up to the bed, and bent over it. Then suddenly all the strings of the Viol d’Amor. snapped! A strange wail seemed to come from the sounding-board. I dropped it, and looked! Then I saw it was 1 too late. Father took the Viol d’Amor and broke it in pieces, and cast it into the fire. His silent agony is too terrible to describe. I cannot tell you any more now.’
I was in Freiburg once again, and of course the first thing I did was to go and see my old friends. The Signor da Ripoli was very much aged. He still plays in the Cathedral. Did he, or did he not, ever know what had happened? Anyhow, he has made no further attempt to construct
a Viol d’Amor; nor may the word even be mentioned in his presence. Giovanni and Liperata have gone back to Italy, where they have set up a workshop for themselves. It is rumoured that Liperata is shortly to be married. But Anastasia remains with her father. I do not think that she will ever marry. Andrea has become a victim to settled melancholy. He lives quite by himself in a lonely tower. It was he who had the following inscription put on Guido’s tomb:—
“La musica e l’Amor che mouve
il Sole e l’altre Stelle.”