Vijay Gupta Plays 'When the Violin,' by Reena Esmail

October 21, 2020, 1:28 PM · Here's a performance to savor, something to give you a few moments of peace and beauty: violinist Vijay Gupta plays "When the Violin," written by his wife, Reena Esmail.

I was absolutely mesmerized when I heard this piece for the first time back in July, when Vijay performed it on Gilharmonic on, our show with Gil Shaham. And in fact, Gil loved the piece so much that he included it in his recital last week on Idagio's Global Concert Hall. (You can still watch that recital through tomorrow, click here to buy a ticket).

Vijay posted this performance on Youtube today -- it was filmed by Louis Ng last month at a beautiful church in Pasadena called All Saints - a lovely setting.

"This piece is about that first moment of trust, of softening," writes composer Esmail, "about the most inward moments of the human experience, of realizing that ‘breakthroughs’ often don’t have the hard edge, the burst of energy that the word implies, but that they can be about finding tender, warm, deeply resonant spaces within ourselves as well." Originally composed for choir and cello, based on the Hindustani raga "Charukeshi", this solo violin version was adapted for unaccompanied violin by Reena to be performed as part of the 2020 Nancy Hanks Lecture on Art and Public Policy, presented by Americans For the Arts by Vijay Gupta in June 2020. If you want the sheet music, click here to find it.

And lastly, here is the poem that inspired the music:

The violin
Can forgive the past

It starts singing.

When the violin can stop worrying
About the future

You will become
Such a drunk laughing nuisance

That God
Will then lean dow
And start combing you into

When the violin can forgive
Every wound caused by

The heart starts

— Hafiz, The Gift (tr. Daniel Ladinsky)

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October 21, 2020 at 09:43 PM · Beautiful. Did Vijay say why he chose a baroque bow to play this? Did he also do that on Gilharmonic?

October 21, 2020 at 09:55 PM · He did, and we actually have a video where we talked about it - I have not posted it yet, but you are making me think I should!

October 22, 2020 at 07:09 AM · Hafiz reportedly died centuries before the violin was invented.

October 22, 2020 at 03:54 PM · J Ray - I wrote to Vijay, and here is what he wrote back:

"Of course, I'm sure the astute readers of can appreciate that making poetic translations from ancient Arabic is an invitation to relish metaphor. I found this poem of Hafiz in a breathtaking collection called 'The Gift,' compiled by translator Daniel Ladinsky. I don't speak Arabic myself, but I would imagine that Hafiz may have meant an ancient Persian bowed instrument - mostly likely the rebab - which went on to morph into many different forms along the trade/slave/Crusade routes - all of which happened before the 'invention' of the modern violin. Towards India, the instrument may have become the Sarangi; towards China, the erhu - later becoming the kamancheh in Iran, and likely inspiring the viols of Renaissance Europe.

"(On a side note, Persian and Arabic music was 'all the rage' in pre-Renaissance Europe. There's an amazing story in Ted Gioa's gorgeous book 'Music: A Subversive History' of the Black, Muslim musician named Ziryab, nicknamed 'Blackbird,' who ran what could be considered the first 'conservatory' of music in Spain in the 9th century. It is more than likely that later Europeans were familiar with forms of sophisticated musical traditions from ancient Eastern empires.)

"I found 'The Gift' in a bookshop in Aspen, and sent Reena a screenshot of 'When the Violin' before I had even bought the book. She has written several versions of 'When The Violin' - which was originally for cello obligato and choir. She also created a version for 4 guitars, a recording of which was just released by the amazing choir Conspirare.

"One could imagine my rancor for not having a work for violin with a title including the word violin!!"

For those who are curious about the poetry and books Vijay mentions: they are The Gift and Music: A Subversive History. (affiliate links)

October 22, 2020 at 10:42 PM · Artistic license, and musical interpretation and production are all things to be applauded and celebrated. But the poetry of Hafiz deserves more.

As I don't know Persian, I searched a literal translation of Hafiz that Ladinsky claimed to use, and did not find a corresponding poem. If this is an authentic translation, the author of the poem should show the original author sufficient respect to identify the source, so that we might better understand the translation and its intent, though necessarily compromised in a new language and form.

Moreover, if there was such a poem by Hafiz as attributed here, it surely would not have meant a literal musical instrument, and to associate it with one does not improve it in my view.

Finally, a particular irony is that the poems of Hafiz are sung, as ghazals, in Persian. Should we not look to those instead for inspiration than an inauthentic "translation" of a translation of words?

October 23, 2020 at 02:45 AM · I think we look for inspiration where we find it, and this music certainly comes from a place of authenticity. If the poem from which they drew that inspiration was actually written by Ladinsky, the poem itself stands on its own merits. Persian scholars can argue whether Ladinsky’s volume of poems should be labeled as actual translations or as works that are simply inspired by Hafiz.

None of that takes away from this beautiful work of music.

October 23, 2020 at 03:58 AM · It isn't a matter of debate and deferral to scholars regarding authenticity and what is a translation - those things are clear. Perhaps what's not clear is the value of association to Hafiz. It's like composing your own music and calling it an arrangement of Beethoven and using that for marketing and sales. Or your own sonnets and calling it Shakespeare. Or making up your own stuff and calling it a translation of the Bible. It is a matter of truth and respect for the original author.

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