My Father’s Violin 1

When my father was in his forties he precipitously took up playing the piano. His posture at the keyboard, elegant and authoritative, immediately announced a virtuosity that disappeared in the first few notes of Fur Elise, notes that drove a stake into the heart of Beethoven’ intentions, so that we all felt injured, damaged by the constantly atrocious sounds emanating from the belly of the infected piano.

I had been offered the opportunity of taking lessons on this same instrument and abjured. Could I have done better? I doubt it. It was not the first musical instrument my father attempted. A violin lay unattended in a closet for many years. A violin.

My mother’s older brother Charlie Binder had played violin for us for many years. He played with infectious verve and panache delighting us with his virtuosity and inventive progression from classical to popular tunes, forward and back. On Saturday in summer nights outside our “dacha” a little bungalow in the wilds of the Pocono hills of Pennsylvania Dutch country, Charlie played his violin with a country square dance band and between sets played pieces of Yiddish music; Romanian horas , and songs with names like Beigelach, and Oifin Pripitchik. He taught the bass player and the clarinetist these and other tunes. Charlie played with an authority that might have led to virtuosity, or at least first chair orchestra. He gave up aspirations to devote himself to his family.

After my father and mother were reunited in the winter of 1945 the air of love and devotion between them was tempered only by the economic fragility of returning to the beginning of his career as a textile designer and so part of the apartment filled up with his mammoth drawing table and tabourettes and a particularly cumbersome eight drawer flat file. So a brief campaign of sorting out non-essential things ensued and in the course of salvage and discard a violin case appeared.

With great feminine delicacy my mother carried it down from the closet shelf to the dining table and there my sister and I assembled awaiting disclosure of its contents. Looking back over seven decades I recall my father’s reticence to open the clasps. When he did so a curious smile passed over his face. It vanished in a moment and as we watched, the violin just simply settled into itself in a bed of dust as a wayfarer on a cheap but comfortable mattress might after a long day’s travel. The upper part of the body intact: the scroll, the bridge, the top plate, the pegs and the tail piece, even the strings. But the under part and sides had gone down in the feathery dust of decay. Since when, G-d only knows.   What we most probably had witnessed was the final collapse: the sound peg holding the upper plate in place over the bottom, jarred just enough to shake loose and the declension emitting a little final sigh.

What differentiates a violin and a fiddle. A wit in the family said a violin has a case and the fiddle has it not. Basically, no difference except for the type of music played.

I do not know the provenance of this instrument; neither where it was made nor whose hands made it. Did my grandfather or grandmother purchase it and how much did it cost. Like the earliest history of the violin itself, its origins are obscure but attached to Jewish history.


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