Bernard Greenhouse with the “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” cello.

The Life & Career
of Bernard Greenhouse

by Nicholas Delbanco

Bernard Greenhouse was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1916. His first teacher was William Berce; later he studied the violoncello with Felix Salmond, Emanuel Feuermann, and Diran Alexanian. Having graduated in 1938 from Juilliard, he rapidly became principal cellist for the CBS Orchestra; he made his New York recital debut at Town Hall. Thereafter he traveled to Europe for an audition with Pablo Casals, which resulted in two years of study with the great Catalan master. Casals wrote,

“Bernard Greenhouse is not only a remarkable cellist, but what I esteem more, a dignified artist.”

For more than half a century, Mr. Greenhouse had a reputation as one of the premiere performers on the instrument; he appeared in most of the major cities of America and all over the world in recital, with orchestras and chamber music ensembles. He was the cellist of the Bach Aria Group, and, for thirty-two years, a founding member of the Beaux Arts Trio. His discography is large; he recorded for CBS, Phillips, RCA, Concert Hall, and the American Recording Society. He was a member of the faculties of Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music, Indiana University, the Hartt School, the Kronberg Academy, Rutgers University, the State University of New York at Stony Brook and the New England Conservatory; from these last two institutions he received Honorary Degrees. Until his death at 95 he continued to teach privately and held Master Classes in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia.

His varied career brought him recognition both as a soloist and as a chamber musician; among his honors are the Prix du Disque, the Grammy Award, a Presidential Citation, the Artistic Directorship of the World Cello Society, the Founding Presidency of the Cello Society of New York, and the National Service Award by Chamber Music America. There have been video recordings of his master classes, books written on the subject of his cello technique, his career and his instrument. As owner and performer, this “musician’s musician” is inextricably linked to the “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” Stradivari Violoncello of 1707. In The Countess of Stanlein Restored (Verso Press, 2001) the maestro reports on his discovery of the cello in the town of Aachen in 1957:

“ I had no doubt, no doubt at all that it was a Stradivarius; I didn’t even look inside to find the label. The color of the varnish, the shape of the instrument, it was so beautiful, so very beautiful, and it seemed to me a great jewel…”

Here, from cellist David Finckel, is part of a memorial tribute to Greenhouse’s interpretation “of the opening cello solo of the slow movement of Dvorak’s F minor trio. With apologies to some friends, I can say that the Greenhouse rendition of this poignant phrase is in a class very much by itself, in every way. First, there is the exquisite beauty of the vibrato: warm, rich, present, integrated into the sound, changing to suit the special needs of each note. There is that same attention to each pitch, the color of his sound always reflecting the emotion of the harmony under it. The intonation is so dead-on that one is never aware of it. The sound is among the most romantic you can hear, yet there are virtually no slides and it’s almost impossible to figure out his fingering. The timing is disciplined yet alive with imagination; there is a pulse, but there is a feeling of spontaneity that responds from one millisecond to the next as the music calls for it. And finally, there is an overwhelming presence of humanity, of a person singing directly to you, of someone to whom you give yourself willingly and allow them to tell you the story of the music.”

When the Strad magazine, on the cover of its August 2011 issue, called him “the legendary cellist,” they were using no hyperbole. One critic described his performance as “The sound of burnished gold” ; until his death on May 13 of this year, he and his beloved instrument — the “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” — were inseparable.