The Soloist's Rehearsal
By Nathaniel Lachenmeyer
It doesn’t mean anything, that the reporter called. It’s just a story. Madman accuses violinist of crazy nonsense during (by the way) a brilliant performance of Brahms’ Violin Concerto. Clearly, he’s lost his mind, either on drugs or one of those wretches who are mentally ill and should be locked up and the key thrown away! Of course, don’t say that part. And keep calm. At all times, no matter what he asks, stay calm. And why should he ask anything anyway? He won’t. There is nothing to ask. I’m sure it will be a two- or three-minute call, so he can get a quote for whatever tiny mention it is going to get in the paper. I wonder… is it going to be part of the review of the concert? I certainly hope not. I don’t want to contaminate my scrapbook with that—and I have never yet omitted a mention in the New York Times or any other paper, at home or on tour, not even the one or two mixed reviews early on (it’s an exaggeration to even call them “mixed”—never have I had a bad review, neither during the war nor after it). Where was I? I can still see that man’s face, his beet-red face and staring eyes, and the way he was pointing at me across the first few rows of the audience… “J’accuse!” It was English he spoke, with a heavy accent. But the sentiment… And the way those smug rich Americans (my fellow countrymen) turned to look at him, and then stared at me accusingly… No, that’s my imagination. I suppose they were just confused and shocked. It was only his face… I don’t think I will ever forget it as long as I live. Don’t tell him that either (a joke). Still, be sure to convey that the whole thing was just an unfortunate little incident, an interruption, nothing more. And, of course, I hope the poor young man gets the help he needs.
“So, there’s nothing to his claim, then?”
Keep calm. Of course not. Smile. He won’t see it, but he will hear it in your tone. The understanding smile of someone who has experienced everything life can throw at him, and is not flustered, not in the least. Evidently just a crazy foreigner.
“Why would he say it then, I wonder? It is such a very specific claim: ‘That is my father’s violin. He died in Bergen-Belsen. You stole it. He died and you stole it.’”
Is that what he said? I didn’t—
“Didn’t you hear him? From what I understand, he was shouting.”
Yes, but you forget: we were playing our instruments. It makes quite a noise, you know, the orchestra. No—avoid any of hint of sarcasm.
My understanding is that he continued to shout after you all stopped playing.
Possibly. I was in shock, as you can imagine. In all my years as a professional violinist, no one has ever interrupted like that, let alone yelled at me from the audience. I mean, can you imagine? While I am trying my best to do justice to the great composer’s finest work (in my opinion), and perhaps bring a few moments of beauty and serenity to an appreciative audience. Yes, that’s good. Be sure to say something like that, the musician as a vessel, as a conduit to something important and good and beautiful that we need in these times. These strange plastic times—my god, 1948 feels like a hundred years ago (and 1938 two hundred), instead of just ten. You are digressing. Whatever you do, do not bring up the past. But he is going to bring it up.
“May I ask, just for the record, how you came into possession of your violin? My understanding is that it is a very rare and valuable instrument.”
“It’s a Stradivarius, is that right?”
Yes. From 1712. His golden age. It’s an absolute marvel. He was an extraordinary genius, Stradivarius. To think that a man, any man, could make something so perfect with such simple tools, and that he did it almost two hundred and fifty years ago, is more than the mind conceive. Too much. Much too much. Say less.
“How did you come to own it?” Don’t let him ask the question twice. It’s been in my family for generations. How hard would it be for him to refute that? Hopefully, the war and all those records destroyed… and what are the chances that he speaks our native tongue? Or that he could find anyone who knew me or my family before…? Again, the chances are very good that it is just a small piece; they are not going to do a lot of research, especially when he came across as being crazy, which I am confident he did. Hell, they may not even run it. But if they do… that’s the problem with the New York Times. So many eyes see it. Maybe the reporter doesn’t do his research, maybe there is no way for him to track it down. But New York is full of Jews, “survivors”, as they call them. And his father was so well-known in our lost little country, as well as in the rest of Europe before the war, among those who appreciated classical music. And among musicians (many are dead now, but…?). He was truly the greatest violinist I have ever heard.
“Is it true that you were his student before the war?”
There is no way he would know that. Is there? It’s not like I was one for long. I was not one of his chosen few, the ones he thought had real potential. I was the privileged son of a leading industrialist. Don’t get me wrong, I was good—and now, as good as any (still alive). But I was not as good as some of them. At the time, I told myself that it was because I wasn’t Jewish, that that was the reason he recommended after a year (was it even that long?) that I find another teacher. But that was my pride and my shame speaking. The truth was that the maestro could only have a certain number of pupils. Why wouldn’t he want to work with those he thought could achieve the most?
And if he asks it?
Yes, it’s true that I studied with him for a short period, and then moved on to a better teacher, better for me. Maybe this disturbed fellow, his son, if he really is his son, heard my name once and somehow it stuck in his head, and now me and my violin, which, as I said has been in my family for generations, have become part of his sad delusion. Less. When talking to a reporter, less is always more.
“Do you happen to remember what kind of violin he had?”
“His son is certain it was a 1712 Stradivarius. He remembers that distinctly.”
How could he? How old was he – eight or nine years old – before the war?
“Nonetheless, he is very clear on this point. He also remembers the way it sounded, from when his father used to play it in concerts and at home. And your violin—that is, the one you played last night at the concert—he says that it sounds the same.”
I don’t know how much you know about music, my good man, but there is no way he could tell that, certainly not when the last time he could have heard it was almost twenty years ago, before his father was arrested.
“How do you know when his father was arrested?”
Remember, you know very little about him or what happened to him. That is when they rounded up the Jews, right? What is he suggesting? That I somehow stole his father’s violin after his arrest? Disguised as a cat burglar like Cary Grant in To Catch A Thief, I suppose, tiptoeing in through a window and stealing it while he and his mother were sleeping?
“He doesn’t say how you got it. He doesn’t know. He only says that he is sure that it is his father’s violin that was stolen by the Nazis at the beginning of the war.”
Aha! So, the Nazis stole it. That’s what you said he said. Well, there you are. I wasn’t a Nazi, then or ever. I was just a violinist, the same as I am now. At that time, I was a music student at the university. I had nothing to do with the Nazis. I am very sorry for what happened to his father, and I would feel sorry for him—his son—if he hadn’t ruined my concert. But it has nothing to do with me.
Five minutes until the call. It will be all right. Yes, and if it’s not? My first record with RCA Victor comes out next month. With a picture of me holding the violin on the cover! Maybe it will be a good advertisement. Maybe it will spur sales, his bizarre scene. “The devil played a violin, too!” I’m quite sure that’s what he said. I have no idea what he meant, but the look in his eyes as the guards escorted him out left no doubt where he thought I would end up.
I remember how much the maestro cherished that instrument. It was like a baby, the way he held it in his arms when he showed it to me during my first lesson with him. The moment I saw it, in that first moment, I wanted it like I have never wanted anything in my life – all my life until now – not money, not wealth, not fame, not a woman, nothing. I was jealous, I admit. And angry – angry that this Jew had something so rare and so precious that I did not have. Shall I tell him, this reporter, how my father on my behalf offered to buy it from him? And how he refused, politely, but I do think underneath there was disdain. It was only a week or two later that he explained that he could no longer keep me as a student. Was that the real reason he let me go? I have always wondered—and to this day I cannot decide which is worse—if I was not a good enough violinist, or a good enough person, to be the student of a Jew?
And if he says, “I understand you played for a certain Philharmonic during the war?” I had to go where the music was. I was a musician; that is all. And in the years that others were arrested or moved into ghettos and then sent to camps, all those years I practiced and I played and I practiced and I played until I became the best (yes, the best of those who were left). I became famous, and we were lucky to have a leader who understood the value and importance of music and those rare and precious instruments that so easily could have been lost or destroyed in a war. But which instead were collected—in fact, searched for, tracked down, and collected, and therefore protected. Thanks to my father, who knew people it was good to know, and because of my own growing reputation as a musician, I was able first to find out what had become of my former teacher’s instrument, and second to request that I be able to play it on one of those special occasions that seemed so significant when the Third Reich… and now must not even be recalled. And oh, the sound, the tone, in my hands in that great, now-destroyed concert hall! I played like I had never played before, not to celebrate so-and-so or such-and-such, but because I hoped that if I played well enough, one-tenth as well as the man whose violin it used to be, maybe then I would be allowed to keep playing it. Maybe I would play it so well and so long that in some imperceptible moment it would be thought of as mine, and would be mine for my lifetime. I would have earned it, so to speak. And in the Fatherland after the war, I would teach the next generation of great violinists, and the instrument I would use would be that one.
It did not happen quite that way. The war was lost, and in the long, slow losing of it, and the confusion—so much confusion—the instrument remained in my possession, even after the orchestra stopped playing, even after the music itself stopped. One day the war was over and I was again just a violinist with a violin, looking for work—and good enough to find it again in another country, this time one where English was the mother tongue. Whether vanquished or victor, music will always be music. I took the maestro’s violin with me, and have had it, and have played it ever since to this day.
How was I to know that his son, whom I believe I met once in his home, a happy little boy who looked up at his father, who was holding the violin to his chin and drawing the bow across the strings, with so much pride—would survive the war and grow up, and one day visit New York and be in the audience when I played Brahm’s Violin Concerto on his father’s instrument? How could I possibly—? The phone is ringing.
“Hello?” … “Absolutely. Of course. What is it you wanted to know?” … “Yes, it was strange. I felt sorry for that young man.” … “No, I have no idea. I assumed he was delusional.” … “Ah, a DP in Föhrenwald until ’51. Well, that explains it, doesn’t it? Poor fellow. I just hope he can get the help he needs.” … “Yes, that’s right. A 1712 Stradivarius. It’s been in my family as long as anyone can remember.” … “We have one more performance tomorrow night. I can get you a ticket if you want.” … “Two? Of course. I will gladly do it. Oh, and one more thing. Next week my first record will be released with RCA Victor.” … “Yes, that would be wonderful. It’s quite lovely, I think.” … “Yes, hopefully, the first of many. Thank you again. Goodbye.”