MONDAY: Gaba’s Violin

BY RAYMOND HOLMES

Copyright is held by the author.

GLITTERING DIAMOND shards of glass from a shattered side window sparkled on the sidewalk.

His whole life changed in a few minutes of absence to purchase whole wheat bread and two percent milk. Armin had held her for more than twenty-five thousand hours, felt her smooth body against his cheek, and loved her like something of flesh and blood. He sat down on the cold, wet curb, head immersed in hands, numb with grief and sobbing; the damp refuse in the gutter soiling the cuffs of his trousers.

The unthinkable had happened. An insensitive thief now possessed his beloved violin. A part of him had been ripped away.

Only a string musician could understand such a loss. Inseparable partners in a marriage, they gave birth to beautiful aural children every day. He fell in love with her long ago. She was a feminine thing, of course. The violin mimicked the female form; a voluptuous curved body and scroll carved like the curling hair on a woman’s head.

He’d been looking forward to playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Huronia Symphony Orchestra on Sunday.

***

The cop asked the usual routine questions.

“What time did it happen? Did you lock the car? What colour? How old? What model? Any identifying marks?”

He scribbled notes in a black book and then asked the final, banal question. “Was it insured?”

“Yes.” An object of merely dollars and cents to them, but priceless to him.

The officer shook his head. “The chances of finding it are slim. I’m sure the insurance money will pay for a replacement.”

***

He was right about that. After a tedious interview amidst a canyon of sterile glass office towers and the completion of numerous forms, the insurance company reimbursed Armin for his loss two months later. He stared at the cheque in his hands issued for twenty-seven thousand dollars and zero cents. Time to find another violin. Life must go on, but could it ever be the same as before?

Armin always looked at the plaque on the wall of the Clarington Fine Instruments store. The words written on it, together with the music he loved expressed perfectly the best of what humanity could achieve in art.

“Alive in the forest I was silent wood. Now, in death, I sing sweetly.”

Instruments lined the walls of the shop awaiting human partners: violins and violas crafted in rich, varnished woods with aged patinas of amber, golden-brown and dark red-brown. Cellos and giant double basses, the sonic foundation of an orchestra, rested nearby on floor stands. Who knew what secrets they could tell; what personalities had owned them? The aroma of antique, aged wood mixed with hide glue and fragrant maple and spruce shavings drifted from the repair room at the rear of the store.

The manager greeted him. “Hello Mister Negossian. Can I help you?”

“I’m interested in purchasing a violin.”

“Would you like to sell or trade-in your current instrument?”

“It was stolen three months ago. I’ve been using my student instrument — a good violin, but not professional quality.”

The manager’s face softened. “Oh, I’m sorry.” He swept his hand across rows of violins hanging on hooks behind him on the wall. “We have many fine instruments. Try whichever one you like.”

Armin’s eyes shifted from side to side and settled on one violin that stood out from the others. There was something irresistible about it that attracted him.

“That one — second row down, third from the right.”

“A good choice — beautiful sound. One of our best violins.”

Armin took it from the manager’s hands. The weight and balance were ideal. Odd — the body felt cold on this warm, summer day and the store was not air conditioned.

Age and the touch of many hands had polished its wood to a rich patina; the varnish a deep pool of opulent golden-brown. The flaming of the one-piece maple back danced and undulated in an intricate pattern in the late morning light streaming through the shop windows. It seemed alive and the manifestation of the changing colour was hypnotic and beckoning. The inside label read “J.B. Vuillaume — Facit Anno 1850.” A master luthier and artist had created this beautiful instrument.

“Try it,” the manager insisted. “I think you’ll be pleased.”

In the audition room, Armin tightened and tuned the four strings, A, E, D and G. The pegs chirped as they moved in their holes.

On playing the first few measures of a Bach Bourree, Armin’s spirit soared at hearing the sound — impeccable; a voice of burnished mahogany in the lower notes; one of brilliant clarity and sweetness in the higher. The instrument seemed made for his fingers and the tone suited his preference exactly. Joy filled his heart for the first time in months.

This violin would make a wonderful new partner, but acquiring it would be unlikely. Made by a famous French luthier, and far superior to his stolen model in every respect, he couldn’t afford it.

The manager smiled. “It’s perfect for you. We’ll let you have it for a good price.”

Typical sales talk. A profitable figure for the store, no doubt: $40,000 or more for a violin of this calibre.

“You can have it for twenty-four thousand dollars including tax, and we’ll include a case and new set of strings — whichever ones you prefer.”

Armin struggled to maintain a face devoid of emotion in spite of the elation which arose in him. That was an incredible bargain for such a superb violin. Did he hear correctly? Did the man make a mistake? He could also buy a new, top-grade bow and still have over two thousand dollars left from the insurance money. Armin concentrated on sustaining a benign face, suppressing his eagerness. Had fate delivered a tragic event only to transform it into a blessing? He pursed his lips in a frown, turned the instrument over in his hands, pretended to find small faults on the belly and silently counted seven seconds.

He nodded. “All right. You have a deal.”

“Any adjustments for the first three months are free. All our instruments are guaranteed. If you are unhappy with this violin you may exchange it for another of equal value within two weeks. What strings would you prefer?”

“What strings are on it now?”

“D’Addario Pro Arte’s. Brand new.”

“They’ll be fine.”

Armin left the store with his new violin, amused at the manager’s comment. There wasn’t much probability he’d ever return this wonderful violin.

The experience to come would change his life forever.

***

On arriving home, Armin went into his practice room, eager to play. The day furnished all the excitement of taking possession of a new, fast, exquisite sports car. With this fine violin, daily practice would be a joy. His performances would be better than ever. He looked forward to showing it off to colleagues. Perhaps he could re-book his cancelled engagement with the Huronia Symphony.

He lifted the violin from its case, installed a chin rest, tightened the bow and re-checked the tuning. The instrument seemed even more beautiful than it appeared in the store.

What to play? The Bach Chaconne from the Partita #2 in D Minor, he decided; thirteen minutes of complex, baroque music—a summation of the solo violin’s expressive and technical capabilities. Armin loved to perform it.

His hands and fingers moved into position to strike the opening notes of music which years of study had imprinted on his mind. As he lowered the bow to the strings, a force outside of his control took immediate command of his arms and hands. Fingers jumped autonomously into different positions on the fingerboard. The bow drew out different sounds than he had intended. The hair on his neck stood up.

Not Bach’s composition at all, but strange and unfamiliar music. With no conscious direction, his fingers raced back and forth across the strings and up and down the full length of the fingerboard, the right hand pivoting the bow up and down in a rapid blur. He tried to stop playing, but an invisible energy had taken complete control of his body. Beads of perspiration erupted on his forehead and his insides tightened.

The music, unlike anything he had ever heard, produced a compelling, ethereal sound. His mind swirled, willing arms and fingers to stop moving, but the frenetic motion would not cease. He tried to drop the violin and bow, but couldn’t release it.

Seeing his fingers making unintentional swift runs of arpeggios and chromatic intervals up, down and across the strings terrified him. The sensation of having an unseen force controlling his body was bizarre; a frightening contraction like a paralysis which at the same time conveyed the sense of touch and movement. The hypnotic music continued, incorporating fast, double and triple stop chords and compound rhythms; fiendish playing of astonishing virtuosity, more accomplished than his normal ability.

It must be a dream. Soon he would awake.

The bow made rapid and repeated excursions across two and three strings, creating sounds of intense conflict, torment, and passion. Through the morass of notes, Armin discerned the outline of a repeated four-note motif. It occurred first as single notes, then intervals, sharpened, flattened, embedded in demanding figurations, and submerged in fast, double-stopped minor scale runs and inventive augmented and diminished chord progressions. Armin was gripped alternately with fascination and fear.

The rigorously trained left hand felt the onset of strain from the continuous, demanding movements and finger placements. He gazed terrified as his involuntary playing continued through coruscating thematic developments incorporating bold changes of harmony, tempo, and dynamics.

A dark fugue evolved into a fantasia with dotted rhythms and jarring dissonances. He could only watch, hands unresponsive, yet performing incredible music—a concert from some other dimension.

Finally the tempo slowed, transforming into a heart-rending lament, poignant and elegiac, like a prayer.

Would it be over?

The music moved into a restless, mysterious pattern, agitated and distressed like a struggling, injured creature. Armin closed his eyes.

Spectres flooded his brain: haunting, nightmarish images forming in a misty, desolate landscape. Cadaverous human forms tottered toward him like grotesque mechanical dolls in an absurd pantomime. Black, pleading eyes glared out from holes in parchment-coloured skin stretched over emaciated, shaved heads. Grasping hands reached out to pull him into their dark world. Armin tried to draw away from the long, clawing fingers, but they edged closer and closer. The open mouths of the apparitions shrieked strange, imploring words. Smoke billowed everywhere. Armin’s heart pounded and raced.

Bodies of faceless children floated past, their skeletal corpses settling on piles of kindred forms stacked like cord wood. The hovering, horrendous visions swirled in a maelstrom around him. Dissonant chords from the unceasing music screeched a macabre dance of death. A penetrating miasma of rotting flesh invaded his nostrils sucking breath away. A cold sweat covered Armin’s entire body and energy drained from every sinew.

The form of a man appeared, standing apart from the chaos, serene and resolute. He stared at Armin, pointing with an index finger at a panorama of the most appalling human suffering imaginable. A guttural, animal-like sound emanated from Armin’s throat.

The driving rhythm of the music slowed. The tone softened. The scene faded into fog and the man disappeared. A final few alluring chords diminished into silence. Armin’s hands stopped.

His eyes opened. Arms dropped from their playing position. Tears streamed down his cheeks and sweat trickled down the arch of his back. Control of his body returned. He embraced an overwhelming exhaustion and drifted into a void of unconsciousness, dropping the violin and crumpling to the floor.

***

He awoke confused and exhausted, blinking at a white ceiling which moved in undulating waves, then became still. Fingertips felt the solidity of flesh on cheeks and his chest rose and fell with each breath. He was alive.

How much time had passed? Minutes? Hours?

Armin rose to his feet on unsteady legs with aching muscles and a sapped, shaking body. Deep indentations creased the callused fingertips of his left hand. Limp, severed hairs dangled from the bow lying on the floor. Vestiges of strange melodies and haunting images echoed in his head. It was a vision of hell, but not a dream.

He looked around, anxious, shuddering, waiting.

The violin lay on the floor, undamaged by the fall. It had spoken from another world. Where? Why? Armin stared at it. Would the supernatural energy re-awaken?

Nothing happened.

He could never command such a dark master. Only bits of wood, yet the instrument came alive as if made of muscle and brain. Did the force that animated it have a diabolical or holy purpose? The thought of handling it again frightened him. Armin touched the arched top gently with a finger, lifted the body avoiding the strings and returned it to its case with trembling hands. After pulling the velveteen cover over it, he snapped shut the latches.

***

That night was one of fitful sleep, tormented by dreams, waking several times to look at the closed case containing the instrument. Was the experience real, or a period of insanity? What of his future? Could he continue life as a musician? What if it happened again?

***

The next morning Armin returned to the store. The manager emerged from the rear of the shop, his face betraying apprehension as he saw who it was.

“Hello Mister Negossian.” A tinge of expectation etched his voice. “Does the violin need adjustment?”

“I think I’d like to return it.”

“Oh? May I ask why?” The man flipped open the case and picked up the instrument.

“Uh, it’s not right for me. The sound is too dark and the neck feels a little narrow,” stumbled Armin.

The manager turned the violin over in his hands and shook his head.

“I just don’t understand it. This violin is magnificent — one of the best we’ve ever had in the store. The design and sound is perfect. We’ve reduced the price several times and sold it, but the buyers always return it. ‘The sound colour is not right; the response sluggish, the neck too thick or too thin,’ are the reasons given. They exchange it for other inferior instruments.”

Armin rubbed his hands together and stared at the manager. He knew why no one wanted to keep it.

The man laid the violin back in its case and sighed. “I’ve been in this business more than 40 years and know quality violins, but I’ve never seen this happen. Musicians play this instrument in our audition room, marvel at the wonderful craftsmanship and sound quality, eagerly purchase it, but don’t keep it for more than a couple of days. I’m mystified.”

“Where did you acquire it from?”

“We purchased it from an old man named Itzhak Moscovitz who came into the store several years ago. He had the violin for many years and seemed very fond of it.”

“Why would that musician give up his instrument?”

“Oh, he wasn’t a musician.”

“Then why did he have a violin like this?”

“A man he knew gave it to him. They were in the same camp together many years ago.”

“Where was that?”

“A concentration camp in Europe during the Second World War. People were starved, brutally treated and killed in that terrible place.”

A shiver rippled through Armin. He could feel the cold chill creeping out to the tips of his fingers and the skin on his scalp tightening, but he was curious.

“What else do you know about this violin?”

The manager raised his hand. “I believe Mister Moscovitz left some papers with the violin. They’re probably in our files. I’ll find them if you wish.”

“Yes, please.” Violins were bought and sold all the time. Accompanying provenance documents to establish authenticity and history of ownership were common, especially with valuable instruments.

The manager returned with a white envelope. “I’m sorry. This letter is all we have.”

Armin opened it, and unfolded the single page document handwritten in clear script.

October 10, 2005.

To You Who Have This Violin:

I received it in 1945 from a man in the Treblinka Nazi death camp in Poland. We were both prisoners there, and good friends. He was a virtuoso violinist, one of the very best in our country — a genius who played the most difficult music and composed. Everyone who heard him never forgot the experience. He played in a string quartet in the camp with three other prisoners. The commandant was fond of Bach. One evening my friend gave me his violin and said he couldn’t take it with him. When I asked where he was going, he said to die, claiming the next day they would kill him. He begged me to keep his violin and remember him because it was his voice. The following day they murdered him, the other musicians, and many other prisoners. Three days later soldiers liberated the camp, and I survived. I kept his violin all these years, but now I am very old and sick and so must give it up. I hope that you, who now own this instrument, will play it well to honour the memory of my friend. His name was Gabriel Brodzinski but we all called him “Gaba.”

Yours truly,
Itzhak Moscovitz

That name “Gaba” pierced Armin’s brain like a red-hot knife. Now he understood the power that had taken control of him; the involuntary virtuosic music he played; the man who appeared in his vision.

Four letters, G-A-B-A: notes of the musical scale. They were repeated over and over in all the extraordinary musical variations the force compelled him to play on that violin. “Gaba” Brodzinski commandeered Armin’s body to make music and transported him to that factory of death to witness the dreadful scenes of misery he himself had experienced so long ago. Armin looked at the violin resting in its case. The instrument was Gaba’s violin, his voice, spirit, and eternal soul. He spoke to a fellow musician who would come after him. “Don’t forget me and what happened to us.”

Armin’s fear dissolved into profound sadness and empathy. He picked it up. Perhaps he should keep it. Could he play it in a way that would honour the spirit of that wandering, tormented soul? Was he, Armin, worthy of the trust and the obligation? Would Gaba Brodzinski let him play this violin at all, or would his spirit always assume control, rendering Armin a channel from another world—a fake artist pretending to be a musician; a façade for something greater than himself.

He decided to give it up. The instrument had a message to convey for as long as it existed, and must pass on to other hands, minds, and hearts.

Armin placed the violin on a hook alongside the others on the wall. It seemed to radiate a life and presence in contrast to its companions.

Other musicians would choose it, of course. For a few moments they would make it sing and be seduced by its voice, confident that they alone would own it.

Soon they would realize that it would always be Gaba’s violin.

One comment

  1. Suzanne Burchell

    a mesmerizing superbly crafted story with a clear message of the hell of the Halocaust

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