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Laurie Niles

A Listening Lesson

April 9, 2009 at 2:46 AM

It happened again, the ghost in the Gagliano awakened to have a word with me.

I was called to play a funeral, something which, by its nature, is always a last-minute affair. The deceased was Hungarian, with a penchant for Gypsy music.

“Play whatever you want, but if you can find something Hungarian, or gypsy-ish...” was the request from his daughter.

Hmmmm. I started leafing through music. Zigeunerweisen seemed a little showy for a funeral, not to mention I haven't played it for 500 years. No, I don't have a lot of gypsy music right at the tips of my fingers, to be honest. Hungarian? Okay, here's this easy version of Brahms “Hungarian Dances,” but it's pretty peppy. Bartok? Ahhh, the Rumanian Folk Dances... I smiled. Hungarian, yes. But for a funeral? Doubtful. Still, I'll get it out. I pulled out a half-dozen pieces, many that were fairly borderline, others simply seemed like good pieces for a funeral. I'd test them out.

When the Rumanian Folk Dances came up, I turned to the one that was in my head, the beautiful Buciumeana. As I was playing it, I immediately concluded that it's just a bit too spooky and out-there for a funeral, unless it was directly requested, which it was not. NEXT....

“Oh no, not NEXT. We're finishing,” said my violin. “I'm curious.”

Huh, wuh?

Okay, so my violin didn't speak, not really. But it didn't stop. Nor did I stop. My violin did not want me to stop.

I wondered, where was this fiddle in 1915, when Bartok wrote this piece? I know my violin spent some time in a state of disrepair, but I don't know when it happened, nor for how long its face was smashed before it was restored. Had it known this piece? Or was this the first time?

The violin seemed curious.

“Go on, play the next movement, I want to know,” it said. It wanted me to play it quite fast, with no break whatever. All the way through to the end of the last dance, in a mad frenzy.

“Back to the beginning, let's hear the first dance,” said my violin. I obeyed, but by now, the violin no longer seemed curious. It was downright bossy. It seemed to be telling me how to play the piece.  Heady here, delicate there. Do you feel the funny hesitations, the asymmetry in the “Braul”? More!

Oh you do NOT mean me to play “Pe Loc,” not with all those hideous harmonics, I said to my violin, without exactly speaking. For heaven's sake, I just had gum surgery a few weeks ago, give me a break. NO!

“Oh yes you will play the harmonics,” said my violin to me, also telepathically. “And loudly. You'll go there, get inside every single one, bring it out, you will not hide!”

And then again, the “Buciumeana.”

I shook my head. Thanks for the lesson, I thought, looking at my violin -- so much older than me, so filled with the wisdom of the world. How long did it stand in the forest, as a tree? And in whose hands did it play, whose music, in the last 200 years? Where did it spend the world wars? In which churches did it sing? In what halls, homes, studios? Who loved it? Who abused it?

How did it ever fall into my hands, how can it be mine? Yet, it is mine, but only for my life. My violin may live longer.

Posted on April 9, 2009 at 12:06 PM

How long did it stand in the forest, as a tree? And in whose hands did it play, whose music, in the last 200 years? Where did it spend the world wars? In which churches did it sing? In what halls, homes, studios? Who loved it? Who abused it?

This is most intriguing, an instrument's provenance...

Certainly difficult at best to trace it back 200 years, but for the more modern and contemporary instruments...not difficult at all. Wouldn't it be a nice gesture to stuff a note in the case with info about the instrument's history and who "you" the caretaker (never an owner) are and this info gets passed to the next who also updates the info.

From Royce Faina
Posted on April 9, 2009 at 1:28 PM

Laurie- I keep wanting to tell you what a good writter you are!  I wished that your blog here didn't stop! I realy enjoyed reading it!


From Dottie Case
Posted on April 9, 2009 at 1:33 PM

Loved this blog.  Oddly, I was asking exactly the same questions last week.  My daughter played in a string festival, and the  adjudicator played on her instrument to demonstrate, then commented on what a nice instrument it was.  It's nothing fancy....  my luthier says French, probably 1900ish..  still, on the way home my daughter and I were wondering about who might have owned it all those years, what sort of music has it played, where has it been. 

She's taking it off to school in the fall.... makes you wonder, has it ever been to school before?  Don't we wish we knew...



From Corwin Slack
Posted on April 9, 2009 at 2:45 PM

I have a Hungarian violinist friend who says that the Rumanian pieces are really Hungarian. There are a lot of Magyars (ethnic Hungarians) in Transylvania.  Your violin wasn't off. 

From Rosalind Porter
Posted on April 9, 2009 at 4:01 PM

I loved this blog entry - made me feel relieved to read that other people's violins talk to them as well.  Now I don't feel quite so umm, "crazy"!  

Interesting that your violin had a big repair in his past too - my Johannes has obviously been very lovingly repaired maybe 100 or more years ago and it feel nice to know that someone cared about him enough back then to make sure he'd be in good shape for more than a century later in 2009.

I love history and I think that playing an old violin is one of the most exciting things you can do - that instant contact with our musical past.   For example knowing Johannes was "alive" at the same time as Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven - wondering when and what his first experiences of these composers was...

Great post Laurie - made my day!

From Rosalind Porter
Posted on April 9, 2009 at 8:45 PM

P.S.  Which piece did you choose to play in the end?

From Ray Randall
Posted on April 9, 2009 at 9:31 PM

This is a grave subject.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on April 9, 2009 at 10:25 PM

Nothing particularly Hungarian! I played "Leibesleid," by Kreisler. I like it for a funeral because it has both the grief and the happier nostalgia. Also, there was an entire mass, so I played throughout that, along with the small group of singers.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on April 9, 2009 at 11:01 PM

Of course it's you talking, not it :)  Your own thoughts in the face of something you care about that is a strong catalyst for you.


From Laurie Niles
Posted on April 10, 2009 at 5:25 PM

Like it's just me talking to myself when I pray, and the answers that come are just from my own good noggin? ;)


But I tend to believe that we have eyes, ears, a nose, taste buds, a sense of touch, but that we aren't quite capable of sensing everything there is to sense in the world, with our limited human capacities. Perhaps every now and then we catch a glimpse of something outside our limited realm.

From Anne-Marie Proulx
Posted on April 10, 2009 at 7:47 PM

Sam, this is BRILLANT!  I personnally have my idea of what I want to do with my violin if ever something would happen to me. Not a fun thing to think but necessary, I suppose at any age.  I don't have any family who plays music so I though that since it is a very good one (not a strad :) but it had very good comments) it would be a nice idea to make a conservatory inherit it.  They could give it to any serious student, talented or not that truly loves music.  If I make a legal paper to go with this though one day, I would just add that the student who would "inherit" it have it has long has he/she plays the instrument and have to give it back if he/she quits... An instrument is made to be played not to be forgotten in a corner.  Don't know if such a kind of arrangment is possible but probably.  I strongly encourage anyone with a very good to extraordinairy violin to consider what they want to do with it...  I know a violin is not a live thing but I seriously want it to have a good futur with good owners and much of it depens on the precautions the previous owner took.   Think of what people could do to it... end up in a flour pot or worse, as campfire wood!!! lol  Ok, lets stop this philosophical discussion here :)


Have a nice day!


From Kylie Svenson
Posted on April 10, 2009 at 8:58 PM

Agreed, Laurie!

Perhaps I'm crazy, but I think it makes perfect sense that a violin would 'talk' to the player. Think how many hours and years of time, energy, and love are spent with that instrument. It's only logical that some of that energy would stay with the instrument and become a part of it. For my part, my violin 'talks' to me, too (it's particularly fond of Beethoven, and likes indulgent adagios), and crazy or not, I like to listen. :)

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on April 10, 2009 at 9:49 PM

My violin is like yours, Laurie.  It often tells me how it wants to be played.  I know that this is truly my violin's wishes because if I play a different violin, I may be told to play the same piece differently.  Sometimes you just have to let your violin play you.

From Samuel Thompson
Posted on April 11, 2009 at 2:29 AM

Laurie - this is beautiful!    It's funny, was it Milstein who said "A violin, like a trained animal, knows its master?"

In his book "Stradivari's Genius", Toby Faber interviews the many people who have, for whatever reason, had the pleasure to play six particular instruments, including Jacqueline Du Pre's cello and one of Menuhin's violins.    Somewhere in this book at least two of the most "contemporary" performers share thoughts quite similar to yours expressed here.  


From Jim W. Miller
Posted on April 11, 2009 at 6:43 PM

You're right.  In fact my car talks to me.  It says "Turn right."  Turn left."  I know I'm not projecting those messages onto it myself.

From Jim W. Miller
Posted on April 12, 2009 at 4:37 PM

But all seriousness aside, I remember when I was little and got sent weekly to Southern Baptist Sunday school.  One thing that would come up all the time was those old guys would make an idol out of something cool to them, gold say, and worship it rather than God.  I remember thinking wow, how stupid, I mean they made thing that themselves, what kind of power could it possibly have?  Your comparing it to prayer reminded me of that.   So, maybe it's not really stupid, but insidious in a way instead.  An explanation of how that could happen, maybe. I wouldn't bring something made by man into a comparison with God though.  Hugely different...maybe.

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