1. The violin as child
If the sidewalk is a long grey stretch empty as a winter river, you’ll clasp the case’s handle and let her swing beside you as you walk; you move in tandem, but you have control. Here you’ve hit a patch of other people, here are the crowds, and up you pull her into your arms, cradled like a sleepy child. Is the case a womb? No, it’s too external: here you have to open up what is outside you to find the thing that sings.
2. or a corpse
Not a womb then, the hard gray case, more like a shell, a carapace. Not a cradle either because it shuts and locks. A coffin then. The violin inside unplayed unloved lonely as the dead after we organ-groan the hymns and close the lid and abandon them to rest in their final beds of satin.
3. And, of course, the lover’s body
Soundboard of spruce, the back and ribs of maple stippled with tiger stripes luthiers call the flame. Maple neck, maple bridge, finger board of ebony. Sheep gut strings: stretched, dried, twisted. Strings of silk, aluminum or steel. Strings wound with various metals, plated with silver or with gold. Bows strung with hair culled from the tails of gray stallions. Snakewood or the remnant of a Lake Superior shipwreck stripped for the bow’s body, the wooden hull salvaged and carved to dredge up melodies of dying men and cold clear water.
Is the violin a little boat and the bow the paddle? Then music is the river it sails upon.
6. The violin in history
The earliest versions slung across saddles of Turkic and Mongolian travelers; before this, stringed instruments were plucked. The horsemen’s fiddles were upright, two-stringed, played with horse hair bows. The pegs just below a curve that ends with a carved horse’s head.
Some time later, a third string was added; these violins are now called violettas–little violins, little violets growing by the garden wall.
The oldest four-string fiddle is the Charles IX commissioned from Andrea Amati in 1560; in the subway at 14th Street this morning, a teenager with chin stud and blue hair plays “St James’s Infirmary”—street musicians as much as monarchs.
The finest live only in museums now: Gaspara da Salo and The Messiah rest in glass cases in (respectively) Vestlandske Kustindustrimusem in Bergen, Norway and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
It is a kind of death for an instrument to not be played.
7. This is how you unstitch silence
Bowing close to the bridge: sul ponticello. This gives a deeper and more resonant sound. As if caves were made of ambergris and amber.
Place the bow over the edge of the fingerboard and you are playing sul tasto: delicate, ethereal, a lace veil you imagine between yourself and your lover on your wedding day, snowflakes in your hair, on his face, how tender are your lips.
Other types of bow techniques: legato-style (smooth and even), colle (glued), sautillé (here the bow leaps from the string as if excited, a grasshopper pale green and long-legged from reed to reed), martelé (hammered), spiccato, staccato, ricochet.
Pizzicato means to pluck the string by hand.
Col legno means with the wood: here you strike the strings with the bow stick rather than glide long strokes with the hair.
To play in all the positions, to shift between them, that your left hand can sense the violin’s landscape. That by pressing stick and hair to string, the notes unfurl.
Of course, if in places where the neighbors don’t want music (apartments, hotel rooms), you can also use a mute (a sordino) to hush the sound.
8. The violin and the devil
Legend says Niccolo Paganini sold his soul to be the greatest virtuoso of all time, but the truth is he most likely suffered from Marfan syndrome, a genetic mutation where fingers elongate enough to play three octaves across four strings just by extending your hand. It’s also true his powers seemed unearthly; also true his life was hard: at 16, a nervous breakdown, followed by alcoholism, a gambling addiction, syphilis treated with mercury and opium, tuberculosis, depression, conflicts with Archduchesse Marie Louise’s court. His violin, a Guarneri named Il Cannone (the song), survived him only to live encased in a glass coffin in Genoa: once a month, the caretaker removes it gently from its museum case and plays.
In “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” the devil is the worse musician. Outfiddled and humiliated, he loses the bet that he’s the greatest violinist of all time, but what good is the gold fiddle he gives the man who beat him? A hollow sound; a heavy sound. A sabotage through greed and then there’s no true music. So can we say the winner really won?
The Gibson, Bronislaw Huberman’s Stradivarius, was stolen twice. The first absence was a little prelude. The second ended in a deathbed confession, though Humberman never saw the Strad again, except perhaps in dreams. He must have listened to old recordings the two of them once made. Like looking at pictures of the time before the lover walked away. Like the bright slides of our childhood when our parents were the age that we are now. Let us hope the thief was forgiven: Huberman’s grief was great, but the Strad was literally his second fiddle, stolen while he played a Guarneri onstage, and who among us who have nothing has not looked at another and thought I would love forever what you ignore.