I am moved this morning to a lengthy reflection on my career as a mediocre amateur violist, prompted by the fact that I have just begun once again, rather tentatively, to play, after a six year hiatus. Those of you looking for trenchant commentary on the passing scene will have to be patient. I shall return to snarking at wacko birds tomorrow.
When I was a little boy growing up in New York City, I studied the violin. Since I came from a family that was at least nominally Jewish, this statement qualifies as what Saul Kripke called a metaphysical truth that is necessary though not knowable a priori. I "took" -- as the saying then was -- from Mrs. Zacharias, whose son Gerald was an MIT professor influential in the pedagogical development of the New Math and whose brother was an Admiral commanding the Pacific fleet during WW II. Mrs. Zacharias' spinster daughter, Dorothea, who taught piano, was rumored to have once been briefly engaged to Ira Gershwin. My parents bought me a violin and bow for $68. Lest you look down your nose at this paltry sum, I will note that it was slightly more than twice the monthly payment on the thirty year mortgage held by the bank on our Tudor style row house in Kew Gardens Hills.
I had talent -- a genetic trait of little Jewish boys, I believe -- but I did not practice much. In those days I was possessed of the odd fantasy that playing in tune, like having naturally curly hair, was something you were born with. All through high school I served in the Forest Hills orchestra, with the consequence that to this day I have a only a sketchy grasp of the words to our National Anthem. While everyone else was singing it during school assemblies, I was playing it with the rest of the orchestra. You can form an idea of just how awful the orchestra was if I tell you that I was the concertmaster.
In 1950, I graduated from high school, put childish things behind me, and went off to Harvard to become a philosopher. I took my violin case with me, at my parents' insistence, but it remained closed for my entire Harvard stay and for many years thereafter. In 1984, as my first marriage, to Mary Cynthia Griffin, was coming to an end, I was moved to haul out the fiddle and play again. One evening, Cindy, who by then was a senior professor of Humanities at MIT, invited a colleague, composer John Harbison, to dinner, with his wife Rose Mary Harbison, a concert violinist who specializes in contemporary music. When Rose Mary heard that I had started to play again, she asked to see my violin. After a few strokes across the strings she said, with a casual brutality that I associate with TV police coroners, "Your bow is dead." [Whenever I recall that moment, I am reminded of James Thurber's short short story about a woman who writes in with a drawing of her dog, asking what breed it is. His answer: "I think that what you have is a cast-iron lawn dog. The expressionless eye and the rigid pose are characteristic of metal lawn animals. And that certainly is a cast-iron ear. You could, however, remove all doubt by means of a simple test with a hammer and a cold chisel, or an acetylene torch. If the animal chips, or melts, my diagnosis is correct."] Stung by Rose Mary's death sentence, I went right out to a local violin shop and spent the exorbitant sum of three hundred dollars on a new bow. This was my very first realization that in the playing of stringed instruments, the bow is an important part of one's equipment.
When the marriage came to a definitive end, I decided to try my hand at string quartets as an effort -- in the language of the soaps -- to "move on with my life." It turned out that in the Boston suburbs of those days, there was no shortage of mediocre violinists, but a real dearth of violists of any sort, so I put away my violin again and became a violist. This is, by the way, not as big a transition as you might imagine. The viola is bigger than the violin, and strung a fifth lower -- CGDA, not GDAE -- but the techniques are quite similar. Indeed, many years later, I discovered that in the world of serious amateur quartet playing, there are a number of enthusiasts who regularly switch from one instrument to the other, and there are even carrying cases fitted out to hold both a viola and a violin -- sort of like a gunslinger who carries both a pistol and a sawed-off shotgun in his attaché case. By now I was a senior professor with a hefty salary, and I invested in a three thousand dollar viola with appropriate bow. [By the way, many years later, I donated my violin to Deerfield Academy, where my viola teacher, Dolores Thayer, was working as a part-time instrument instructor. I took my sixty-eight dollar fiddle to Stammel Strings in Amherst for a tax deduction appraisal. Matt Stammel looked at it and suggested a six thousand dollar estimate. When I thanked him for what struck me as an act of larcenous generosity, he pointed to a violin for sale hanging in a row in his shop. It was the virtual twin of my instrument and had a $6000 price tag. It seems that an old violin is not really like a used car.]
After I married Susie, the new viola went back in the closet and stayed there for almost fifteen years. One day, we were shopping for veggies at an organic food market on Belchertown Road in Amherst when we ran into Barbara Greenstein, a fellow Pelham resident. We got to talking, and Barbara, who was a lifelong quartet player, invited me to sit in for quartets. I made the customary demurrals about my general incompetence, designed to protect me from the scorn of the three other players when they actually heard me, but Barbara, a generous, supportive, totally wonderful person, insisted. This chance encounter led to an intense eight year long effort on my part to become a genuinely decent amateur string quartet player. Our quartet met weekly at Barbara's house, and the three others waited with an astonishing patience while I slowly brought myself up to their level of performance.
A few words about amateur quartet playing for those of you who have never had the experience. Solo musicians worry a great deal about playing in tune and making a lovely sound, but both of these, while of course very important in professional quartet playing, are secondary in amateur quartets. What is absolutely essential is not to get lost, because if three of you are playing measure 79 and you are playing measure 77, the entire enterprise grinds to a painful halt. Keeping track of where you are may be reasonably easy for the first violinist, who more often than not is playing the melody, but the violist is probably playing what in the pop music world would be called backup, since even Haydn and Mozart do not always manage to craft a melodic line for the violist. So counting is crucial, and experience matters more than the beauty of one's sound. My three fellow musicians had been playing string quartets for a total of perhaps one hundred and forty years, and the music was in their bones. Even the most famous quartets were terra incognita to me, and I practiced feverishly before each session.
Year after year, I took an hour and a half lesson each week from Loree [as she was known] and tried to practice an hour a day. Real musicians, of course, prepare for their careers by practicing eight hours a day or longer, but I was not on my way to Carnegie Hall. [Old New York music joke: student with a violin case on his way to hear a concert asks an old man, "How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Old man answers, "Practice, practice."] After about four years, it became clear that my three thousand dollar viola had become an impediment rather than an aid to my progress. Loree suggested I might consider a better instrument. Well, I had saved up some money from the royalties on a Philosophy textbook [About Philosophy, now in its eleventh edition], so off I went to Stammel Strings to see what they had for sale. After trying out a number of instruments in their second floor practice rooms, I fixed on a gorgeous sixteen inch instrument made by the Northampton, MA luthier Marten Cornellissen. At seventeen thousand dollars, it was hardly cheap, but it had a lovely sound, and I figured all those hours of practice had earned me some self-indulgence. I asked Barbara Greenstein to accompany me for the choice of a bow, and she agreed to listen to me while I tried out an assortment. As music, I brought along my one "performance piece," the Prelude to the Second Bach Suite for Unaccompanied Cello, arranged for viola. [Violists play a lot of arrangements of violin or cello music. It is one of the many ways in which we don't get no respect.] After trying several bows in the two to three thousand dollar range, I picked up a bow made by the French archetier Benoit Roland, who now lives in Boston. In 2012, Roland achieved mass media fame by winning a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant." As soon as I began to play with the Roland bow the difference was obvious. The Cornellissen viola began to sing. Despite the fact that it was priced at five thousand dollars, I bought it without hesitation.
At my next lesson, I proudly presented my new viola and bow for Loree's inspection. She looked at them, played a few bars, and then said dryly, "Now you have no excuses."
After almost eight years of wonderfully rewarding quartet playing, Barbara, who was by now one of my dearest friends, suffered a recurrence of the cancer she had earlier defeated, and after a brief illness, she passed away. I scrounged around for some playing opportunities in the next few months, but my heart was not in it. Quartet playing is often compared to a musical conversation, and to an extent that I had not fully realized, the personal relationship among the four of us was as important to me as the making of music. When I retired that Spring and Susie and I moved to Chapel Hill, I made some unsuccessful efforts to locate quartet opportunities, and then simply put away my lovely viola and bow. There they have sat for five and a half years, until several months ago, it occurred to me that perhaps I might put them out on long term loan to an aspiring young professional violist who would enjoy making music with them. This sort of arrangement is of course common with famous old instruments crafted by Stradivarius or Guarneri or Amati -- instruments that would bring millions in the New York auction market. But although I was quite sure that my instrument and bow were of performance quality, I was genuinely unsure whether they were good enough for this sort of loan arrangement. My secret fantasy, of course, was that Susie and I would be invited to a concert where the program would read "Mr. ***'s instrument is on loan from Robert and Susan Wolff of Chapel Hill, NC."
I wrote to Daniel Stepner, the first violinist and musical director of a splendid early music ensemble, Aston Magna, whose Great Barrington concerts Susie and I attended every summer when we lived in Western Massachusetts, but his rather desultory reply suggested to me that reality was not keeping step with my fantasy. Then, a week before I came down with this interminable cold, something ticked over in me and I decided to have one more go at amateur quartets.
I took my viola case out of the closet and opened it after five years. It says a good deal about the quality of the instrument that it was still perfectly in tune. But hairs from the bow were starting to come loose, so I took everything up to the Chapel Hill Violin Shop for the instrumental equivalent of a lube and oil change. Jennifer, the proprietor, looked at the bow and said, "Hmm. I think you have mites. You need to get some Sevin and fumigate your case." I ordered a can from Amazon while she took the bow to be re-haired, and when the Sevin arrived, I sprinkled it liberally inside the case, left it over night, and vacuumed carefully [Sevin is nasty stuff.] Finally, the bow was ready. I closed the door to my study, took a deep breath, and pulled the bow across the strings, uncertain whether I had retained any of my hard-won playing skill at all. To my relief and surprise, it did not sound too bad.
What to practice? I decided to start with some scales. Despite my lifetime of intermittent experience playing the violin and the viola, Loree had wisely treated me like a new student, starting me off with a C Major scale. Week after week, I progressed through the twelve major three octave scales, from C Major to B Major, Loree instructing me that I should begin each practice session by playing scales "to warm up." Loree also introduced me to the possibilities of playing different numbers of notes on the same bow -- one note per up bow and one per down bow, two per up and down bow, etc., all the way to twelve notes on a bow. We also went through the three different minor scales in each key, as well as arpeggios and double stop scales -- thirds, fourths, sixths, and octaves [fifths sound terrible on a violin or viola].
Over time, I devised my own little routine to counteract the sheer boredom of it all. It went like this: Each time I practiced, I would play the C Major three octave scale very slowly, one note on each long drawn out bow. Then I would move up half a step and play the D-flat Major three octave scale slowly, two notes on a bow, trying to make the time for each up or down bow the same as for the C Major scale. And so it would go: three notes on a bow for the D Major three octave scale, four notes on a bow for the E-Flat Major scale, all the way up to twelve notes on a bow for the three octave B-Major scale, always trying to make the time for each up or down bow the same as for the original C-Major scale.
While I was waiting for my bow to be re-haired, I would lie in bed and play these scales in my head, reacquainting myself in my imagination with the viola. The first time out, I managed to get all the way to ten notes on a bow for the A major scale, but after that it sounded so awful that I just played the last two scales on separate bows.
OK, back in the saddle. Now what? Jennifer put me in touch with a real estate agent whose quartet would be open to trying a Mozart viola quintet. Obviously not a permanent solution to my search for a quartet, but a start. So I am now practicing the second viola part to K515, Mozart's C Major string quintet. There is a good deal of what quartet players call "sewing machine music" [repeated eight notes for bars on end as an underpinning for the melody being played by the first violin] but you have to begin somewhere.
Maybe this is the rebirth of my quartet playing. maybe the instrument will just end up back in the closet. We shall see.