The truth, the whole truth, about that Alitalia viola da gamba

The truth, the whole truth, about that Alitalia viola da gamba


norman lebrecht

January 14, 2018

Alitalia has hedged and fudged its responsibility for damage caused to an historic instrument. Its owner, Myrna Herzog, now sets out the whole story of the viola da gamba, and its future:

Before answering the many questions, I wish to heartily thank all the amazing, outstanding people from different parts of the world who generously offered support and help, with concern and empathy. I would like also to stress that no unfortunate event will ever change my great love and admiration for Italy, its people, culture, and music.

First question: can the Lewis viol be repaired? Yes, it can, and with luck it will be singing again in next season’s concerts, marking 20 years of the Israeli PHOENIX ensemble.

Second question: is the Lewis really a viol  viola da gamba)? Yes, it is. Since 1994 I have been writing articles on the subject of viols with violin/cello features (like the Lewis), that were published in the Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (Quinton entry), Early Music (cover article of the Feb 2000 issue), the Journals of the British and the American Viola da Gamba Societies, and of the Galpin Society, and in the book The Italian Viola da gamba. I also wrote a doctorate thesis on the subject which aims to enable the location and restoration of instruments like the Lewis, that have been transformed into celli due to their cello-like features.

Third question: are there 2 Lewis viols? Yes. The viol which was broken is one of 2 twin viols made by Edward Lewis, which my husband Eliahu Feldman and I have located, identified, bought and restored over the span of 15 years. According to the dendrochronology made by John Topham, the two viols were cut from the same tree around 1661/2, as was another extant Lewis viol (in the usual viol shape).

Fourth question: do these viols belong to any institution? No, they were bought privately by my husband Eliahu Feldman and myself over the years, restored and maintained with our own resources.

Regarding the Alitalia event:
Fifth question: when, and how did Lewis viol get to Brazil?
Seven years ago, shortly after its restoration, I took it to my native-town Rio, which I visited twice a year to see and play for my elderly parents. The viol got there through El-Al (flight from Israel) and then one of its partners (from Europe to Brazil), taken by hand to the hold at the check-in in Israel (where its Gewa hard case got 4 “fragile” red stickers) and arrived safely to Rio, where it has been since then.

Sixth question: why was the viol taken from Brazil to Israel? With the death of my parents, I decided to bring Lewis II home to join Lewis I for recordings and concerts.

Seventh question: why didn’t I in the first place buy a seat for the viol? Because of my previous experiences of flying with viols. During 48 years of professional life, I made many flights with viols, which were accommodated in the wardrobe of the plane or taken by hand to the hold. Only once I had a problem when transporting a cello, but it had nothing to do with being put in the hold. After my viol arrived in delay after some concerts in Germany 10 years ago, I established a norm for performing trips, that the people who hire me pay an extra ticket for the viol or provide a local instrument for me to play, to fear that the instrument would not arrive on time. My last flight with a viol dissociated from performance had been the one bringing the Lewis to Rio.

Eight question: are there airline guidelines for those carrying big instruments in the hold? Yes, and I followed British Airways’ ones to “carry your musical instrument in a hard case and ensure you are properly insured” and arrive early at check-in (I arrived 3 hours before the flight). In addition, I removed from the viol all the items which could cause internal damage in case of a fall: sound-post, bridge, tailpiece, strings, pegs.

The hard case I used to and from Rio was a reliable German Gewa (bearing four Fragile stickers). The Gewa company wrote to me regarding the damage made to instrument and case on Alitalia flights AZ673 and AZ806: “that’s really something what I never seen in such a damage kind like the shocking photos. The fiber from this case is really strong, to destroy it that must be one extremely pressure and impact on this case. We travel very often with our cello cases by plane, always by oversize luggage, but never happened something like this.”

Ninth question: what happened at the Alitalia check-in in Rio? Alitalia claims that “Our representatives at check-in in Rio airport advised to buy an “extra seat” to guarantee the safe carriage of the instrument but this solution was not accepted by you.” This is NOT TRUE. What happened was the opposite: when I asked to take the instrument inside the cabin, they told me that the plane was full and even if I wanted, I could NOT buy an extra seat. And they told me not to worry, the instrument would be carried BY HAND into the plane.

Would Alitalia have warned me of any danger, and offered me the possibility to buy a seat for the viol, I would have done it without hesitation. They gave me a paper to sign acknowledging that my instrument was too big to be accepted in the cabin. This is NOT A PERMIT TO BREAK IT into pieces. Nothing in the world justifies handling of a fragile thing – bearing at least four big red fragile stickers – with such violence.

Tenth question: what happened at the final destination, Tel Aviv? As the viol was not brought and did not appear in the odd size section, I addressed the Lost & Found desk in order to locate my instrument. The clerk went to look for the instrument, and got back empty-handed saying that it had arrived broken, and that I had to fill a form. After I filled the form, they brought it, and the sight was shocking. The instrument, bow and hard case had been violently broken and the instrument was in pieces. No hard case would have resisted to what it was submitted, as if it had been run over and crushed by a heavy vehicle.

Eleventh question: what has been Alitalia’s attitude? Until now, Alitalia never bothered to give me a phone call. No human voice, no human contact. After four days they sent me a letter through my travel agent, saying: “We would like to express our deepest regret for the INCONVENIENCE you experienced while traveling on Alitalia flights AZ673 and AZ806 last January 2 from Rio de Janeiro to Tel Aviv.” They propose to give me a compensation according to the Montreal Convention – which does not cover even the cost of the instrument’s case.

Should we musicians really be obliged to pay for extra seats for our big instruments or should airlines consider that we exist and have special problems? Why can’t cellos and viols be stored inside the plane, in the same closet that stores the manual folding wheelchairs? Why can’t cellos, viols, guitars be handed at the door of the plane (to be taken straight down to the hold making them far less likely to be damaged), and returned at the door after landing, exactly like baby strollers?

Fellow musicians in the world, we should NOT accept the present draconian rules that scorn our professional necessities. The younger musicians do not have even a clue of what kind of treatment was dispensed to us in the past. They think it is normal that airlines treat instruments worst than suitcases (mine, by the way, arrived unscathed!). But it is NOT normal. It is our duty to demand a change in this one-sided policy. For things are getting worse all the time, and nowadays, even violin cases are being rejected into the cabin of the planes. Yoyo Ma, Steven Isserlis, Jordi Savall, maybe you can help us out?




  • buxtehude says:

    Right on.

  • David R Osborne says:

    Totally agree and I too find some the victim blaming comments from musicians who absolutely should know better, utterly perplexing.

  • Katrin L says:

    Thanks for sharing the story of your Lewis twins!
    Yes, it would be great if there was a better solution for us musicians. Or, at least, much cheaper tickets for the instruments. But why should a company forgo their profit???
    Good luck for the restoration!

  • Bruce says:

    Strange, the torrent of “you deserved it” commentary seems to have stopped, or at least paused. I wonder why.

  • Will says:

    “Should we musicians really be obliged to pay for extra seats for our big instruments or should airlines consider that we exist and have special problems?”

    Yes, you should. Space is money for airlines. They are commercial enterprises.

    • Max Grimm says:

      You have a point but normally, when you operate an honest commercial enterprise, you give people what they have paid for.
      That means when airlines charge musicians regular fares for an additional seat for their instrument, the musicians paying said fares should be entitled to everything that comes with it, ie. the baggage allowance and the frequent flyer miles (while I’m sure most wouldn’t be bothered forgoing a second meal, if desired, they should be able to have that too).

  • Mario Giorgi says:

    I got the same treatment with my bag….no contact for 3 months….then just a mail in order to accept a redicolous compensation or to use the legal way
    ……Alitalia sucks

  • Miles Golding says:

    I feel obliged to disabuse anyone of the notion that plastering a container destined for the hold with “Fragile” “Handle with Care” “Musical Instrument” etc. ensures an extra level of care. It doesn’t. On the contrary, it appears to be interpreted by some handlers as a challenge to degrade the level of care.

  • Terry Hamilton says:

    The issues are being confused. The airline should of course handle such instruments with greater care. Still, we all know that airlines damage luggage, no matter how many “fragile” stickers we might use. It is not, and never has been, safe to check a valuable instrument in the hold. Should airlines allow us to bring our larger instruments onto planes without charge? Of course, if there’s room on the plane and other paying customers are not prevented from being seated or from bringing on their ordinary carry-on luggage as a consequence. But airlines generally don’t allow that to happen. Myma Herzog should not be entrusted with the care of her instruments; she is too irresponsible for that. No person in their right mind would ever check an instrument of such value in the baggage hold of an airline, regardless of what assurances the clerk at the check-in counter might have given. She should have purchased a seat in advance for her instrument, at the same time she bought her ticket. Instead she was hoping to fall upon a friendly airline employee who might allow her to take the instrument onto the plane, but that didn’t happen. If another seat was no longer available for purchase when she arrived at the airport, she should not have travelled (or left her instrument behind for someone else to carry on a later flight).

    • simone says:

      100% correct.. thanks to express my thoughts!

    • Bruce says:

      So… in spite of having travelled safely and successfully with her instruments for decades, and in spite of assurances that the viol would be carried by hand into the plane, she should have her instruments taken away from her for not knowing in advance that this would be the time things didn’t work out. Gotcha.

      • Scotty says:

        Even in the good old days of airline travel, cellists (and sometimes even contrabassists) paid for room in the passenger compartment. People buy lottery tickets hoping to beat millions-to-one odds. She played the check-in lottery and won until she lost. If I fly an airline that doesn’t permit me to carry on for free, I buy a seat for my concert guitar. It’s worth maybe 14,000 euros, the price of a decent cello bow. What happened to that rare, expensive, and fragile instrument is horrible but not surprising.

    • Alexander says:

      You wrote: we all know that airlines damage luggage…
      This should not be so and no one should accept such behaviour as normal. Airline companies must be responsible for the service they provide and must take care of the luggage.

      • Terry Hamilton says:

        Alexander, you are entirely correct. But until the airlines figure out how to do that, we need to be responsible protectors of our instruments.

  • simone says:

    right.. next time pay or just take a boat from Brazil, there you’ll sleep next to your viola!
    I’m simply shocked to read this absurd story!
    even more irritating that someone with such a special instrument decide to see “what will happen if I save some money…”

  • buxtehude says:

    @ Terry and Simone:
    “irresponsible” and not-in-her-right-mind are inappropriate terms to apply to Myma Herzog here. If criticize her you must, it would be more accurate to say she remains too-much under the influence of memories of how airline travel used to be.

    And that is much of the point of her story: a vivid demo of how far down things have been allowed to go. This devolution of service undermines peace of mind for a great many string travelers and threatens even the livelihood of some — I’m thinking of the whole bundle of crap thrown your way, including cancelled cello reservations and arbitrary rulings against carried-on violins.

    In this context your stern lectures are unhelpful, as well as unneeded. Except by the airlines maybe.

    For more from me on this:


  • Terry Hamilton says:

    Yes I agree that airline travel is not what it used to be, and that is very much a shame. But the reality is what it is, and it is simply irresponsible to place a valuable fragile instrument in the hold.

  • Stephan Mathieu says:

    I’ve traveled several times with a historical spinet, carried in a custom made soft case/bag. The instrument had to go on an extra seat which costs 30% of a regular ticket with most airlines. Submitting such an instrument to the cargo hold is not an option for me.

  • Marcy says:

    Just spoke with a cellist friend of mine. He said he always buys a ticket for his cello. That way, one is not dependent on what anyone says at the airport and/or the availability of an extra seat. He said he would never, never, under any circumstance put his valuable cello in the hold.

  • Skye says:

    I agree with her.These instruments can be our whole life inside of a case, and for someone to simply destroy it then say “sorry for the inconvenience” and leave her alone. Is a very irresponsible act to pull. For shame on the person who caused damage to another person’s belongings.And I hope that she will get a replacement.And a good one just like her’s that they ruined.