December 2010

Why violins sing and don't talk

December 22, 2010 17:06

                We all know that our instruments can sing, but sometimes I wish mine could talk!

                You see, my time and passion are split three ways – music, literature, and history. Sometimes this works, usually it doesn’t. Example: The Great Dilemma! Should I give in to the stack of Shakespeare plays lying alluringly on my desk, or should I practice the Mendelssohn Viola Sonata and finally write in those fingerings? To read or not to read, that is the question.

                That is irrelevant, however, so let us return to the matter currently before us.

                Why should I want my instrument to talk? On the one hand, there are quite enough pointless words on the loose in this world. On the other hand, some words actually tell an interesting story. When you have an old instrument that you know absolutely nothing about except that it’s old, well, there’s history there, and ‘history’ doesn’t have the word ‘story’ in it for nothing!

                It is a truth universally acknowledged that an object in possession of a good deal of age must have quite some stories to tell! Sometimes I’ve thought that all instruments should come with a book that holds their story. Imagine somebody a hundred years from now playing your violin, and knowing about that time where you moved across half a continent with nothing familiar except your instrument to give you comfort? My teacher has an instrument that crossed the ocean basically in pieces perhaps half a century back, but was made in the baroque era. What happened to it that it needed such extensive repair? So many questions, so few answers!

                I must admit, though, that it’s a great deal of fun fantasizing about who might have played my violin in the past. Maybe that scratch on the back came when a young prodigy in Venice stole the heart of an ugly, evil villain’s girl (that’s the villain who’s ugly and evil, not the girl), and the villain came after him to exact revenge. When the evil, black-clad villain found the boy playing his violin for the girl, and his blood-red eyes saw the ring mocking him from her finger, he swung his sabre at the violinist in a mad rage. With a horrified cry, the girl put herself in the sabre’s way, her ring scratching the violin as she did so, and the sword killed her instead. Okay, that’s not very likely to ever have happened, but it definitely changes the way you play your romantic minor key pieces...

                But then, perhaps the stories that my instruments sing to me are better than what could be the tragic truth – that my violin belonged to some rich family kid who hated the violin and played it as little as possible, and that it lay in uselessness for decades before I picked it up. Now that is a tragedy of the worst kind – an uninteresting tragedy. And maybe that’s why my violin sings and doesn’t talk: because it likes to tell fantastical stories too.

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