When Wendell Margrave died recently at 74, I picked up the cello and played Gabriel Laure's Elegy as far as the String trick.
Margrave, a polymath, was among other things a one-man Washington music conservatory -- player, teacher and critic -- whose fate included having me as a middle-aged nonprodigy of a student for three years.
The Faure' Elegy is profoundly moving as only a cello piece in a minor key can be, but it gets difficult, and every time I tried to play it for Margrave in his 16th Street studio I foundered about halfway through.
He would then produce from the multiple gadget bags that surrounded him a length of string, and demonstrate some new permutation of the cat's cradle or monkey's swing. For a year this subterfuge prevented me from realizing I will never be able to play the Elegy; and from giving up. I could never even learn the string trick, either.
At best I was the least of his accomplishments, but he never let on. He had degrees in French and psychology and a doctorate in musical composition, and as a young man he had studied a year with the great Arnold Schoenberg, who was then exploring a world of music beyond melody. Whatever rigorous standard Margrave met for Schoenberg then, it was enough for me that by the time I met him he could play just about all the instruments in the orchestra.
I summoned the courage to challenge him one day, after he had traded his piano for a violin and then a clarinet: "How about the harp, Wendell?"
"I was sorry when I had to sell my harp," he replied.
"Presents few problems," he said modestly.
I knew he had written music himself and had composed a film score at one time, but of this he would say little despite his outspokenness on performance matters (of a professional cellist playing Bach he wrote: "that's not the way the tune goes"; of Gustave Mahler and his angst-saturated compositions he was fond of asking mischievously, "How could one man suffer that much?") Once when I asked if we could play one of his compositions, he gave these reasons why not: "Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven." He had a well-developed ego, but his taste was greater still.
Perhaps the great teachers in our lives always transcend their subjects. Margrave seemed to communicate what playing the cello was all about by talking about everything but the cello; I think he was trying to teach us all to play music, rather than an instrument.
This he did by talking about cooking, poetry, and the Civil War, the Viola da Gamba Society of America (of which he was a founder), what we should do when we took over as conductors of our first orchestra ("tune all the double basses yourself") and strategic elements of the Battle of Jutland. Once, while I adjusted the music stand between us, he described how to aim and fire the 16-inch guns of the battleship New Jersey. It turned out he had written a book called "Naval Ordnance and Gunnery," which for 10 years was the standard text on the subject at the U.S. Naval Academy.
In three years of weekly lessons, without ever raising his voice or giving any advice I had not asked for, he communicated, like the Zen master he was, the rudiments of music to a musical illiterate with good reason to believe he would never be any good. "You can be as good as you want to be," was all he would say to that.
I suppose he was eccentric in a few ways. He carried a penknife, which is often one of the signs. He invented a gizmo with strings to hold a cello spike steady on a slippery floor, but it was always getting tangled up and did not seem very practical. He almost always referred to his cello as a saxophone, which I think was a joke, although during my first lesson I thought briefly I had come to the wrong place.
Margrave reviewed concerts in Washington for 23 years, first at The Evening Star, then at the Post. He was very good at it. By his own reckoning he never attracted so much attention as on the snowy evening of Feb. 5, 1978, when he wrote that the Dvorak American Quartet had proven an "admirable vehicle" for the National Symphony String Quartet at the Kennedy Center.
A nice sentiment, but as members of the audience quickly wrote in to The Post to say, the program had been changed to Beethoven.
Margrave had to publicly own up to falling asleep, concluding his abject but hilarious published apology: "If I had been a sentinel in wartime, I would have been shot. No doubt someone will come up with something appropriate in this case."
What would be appropriate in this case, I think, is for all Margrave's students, wherever they are, from Washington to Barber's Itch, Mont. (a favorite geographical reference of his), to keep on playing the songs he taught us -- up to the string trick, and in time, beyond.