Monday, May 15, 2017

4 - Uncle Jeffrey the Violinist

          When Bartholomew’s parents died, his Uncle Jeffrey and Aunt Josephine offered to take Bartholomew into their home. When Bartholomew decided to stay in his parents’ house and live on his own, Uncle Jeffrey and Aunt Josephine took it upon themselves to act as his guardians and advisers. Bartholomew was thankful for this and at the same time found it disconcerting. There are some very rare situations when a pair of sisters marries a pair of brothers, and this is what happened with Bartholomew’s parents and Uncle Jeffrey and Aunt Josephine. Uncle Jeffrey was Bartholomew’s father’s younger brother and Aunt Josephine was Bartholomew’s mother’s younger sister. To make matters even more difficult for Bartholomew, and the main reason why he did not want to live with Uncle Jeffrey and Aunt Josephine, was that each set of siblings looked very similar. So, when Bartholomew would talk with Uncle Jeffrey and Aunt Josephine, he felt as if he was talking to an odd and unconvincing imitation of his parents.

          Although it was difficult at times to be around his Aunt Josephine and Uncle Jeffrey, Bartholomew had a soft spot for his Uncle Jeffrey because of a story he had heard about him from his father. Both Bartholomew’s father and Uncle Jeffrey lost their own father when Uncle Jeffrey was six years old. This, of course, was devastating for both brothers, as the loss of a parent is, but Uncle Jeffrey lost a father twice.

           About the time his father died, Uncle Jeffrey was showing a great natural talent for the violin and had started taking lessons from a gentleman named Master Czoza. Master Czoza had taken Uncle Jeffrey under his wing and Uncle Jeffrey focused his grief from his father’s death into his violin playing.

           Uncle Jeffrey,” Master Czoza would say, “you must pull the bow straight across the strings, do not pull it like a teeter-totter! Now, try again, fifty times. Give me a C with a straight strong pull on the bow. DO NOT ARC. Now go.”

           Uncle Jeffrey did his best to please Master Czoza. He never talked back, he never wavered.

           As the years went by Uncle Jeffrey became a young impresario giving concerts at more and more impressive venues. Yet, Master Czoza was never satisfied with Uncle Jeffrey’s playing. One day, Master Czoza addressed Uncle Jeffrey.

           Uncle Jeffrey, you have been studying violin with me for twelve years now. Have I taught you to love your violin?”

           "Yes,” Uncle Jeffrey answered.

           “No, you cannot love your violin. It is your tool; it is your slave. It is there for you to shape into beauty, for you to mold it into an expression of love. Do not love your violin. Make your violin into something youlove.”

           Uncle Jeffrey stared at him.

           “Do you understand?”

           “No,” said Uncle Jeffrey.

           “My son, you are a great talent. You can play a violin like few your age. You are even better than I was at your age,” Master Czoza said looking into Uncle Jeffrey’s eyes. He then turned away and said, “Your future could be unlimited if you begin to play from deep within yourself. Technically, you can master anything-- given enough time.”

          “Are you ready for the challenge of your life?” he asked in his calm but strong voice.

Uncle Jeffrey said nothing. He hesitated and then nodded his head.

Master Czoza strode over to his piano and pulled sheet music off the top of a tipping stack of papers and books. He handed it to Uncle Jeffrey.

This sonatina is from a little known composer from the late 18th Century. I have no doubt you will probably be able to play the notes without fail after three tries. It will not be technically challenging for you. But, if you can make it into something that expresses your most inner self, it will reach into the souls of all who hear it and give to them what they most desire. You will know you have played this piece rightly when you see me cry. And believe me, Uncle Jeffrey, I have not cried in a very, very long time.”

Over the next several weeks, Uncle Jeffrey played nothing else. The song ran through his head every minute of the day. Twice a week, he would go to Master Czoza’s studio and play the sonatina. Two months had passed, and Master Czoza had nothing but derision for Uncle Jeffrey. He called Uncle Jeffrey names like “lumpy fingers,” “bow man, row man,” and a few things too harsh to repeat.

Uncle Jeffrey kept at the song as summer turned into fall and fall into winter. He stopped performing for audiences and soon had no desire to play any other song but this one great challenge. Those who heard him play could find nothing wrong with the song and said it was quite beautiful. But Master Czoza still would not release Uncle Jeffrey from his quest.

With each stroke of the bow, Uncle Jeffrey began to imagine Master Czoza beginning to cry; water gathering on his lower eyelid and then pouring over the dam and streaking down his cheeks. He knew there would be no noise when Master Czoza cried. It would be a deep seated stirring that would rise silently to the surface to erupt into nothing more than maybe a drop or two - maybe a quiver of the lip. As small a response as that would seem to some, Uncle Jeffrey dedicated his life to it.

One day, while playing the counterpoint in his sonatina, images of Master Czoza came to him. Master Czoza was not crying in these imaginings, but a smile slowly wriggled its way across his lips and it seemed he was about to laugh. Master Czoza did not laugh often, but when he did, Uncle Jeffrey knew that his master was pleased with him. Uncle Jeffrey’s father came to mind. He loved his father and missed him greatly, but during this challenge he had thought seldom of him. While he was thinking about his father, the counterpoint he was playing suddenly took on a life that Uncle Jeffrey had never imagined. He played the same notes he had always played but it sounded like a completely new and different song. Uncle Jeffrey became very excited and ran off to Master Czoza’s studio.

Master Czoza sat in silence, as he normally did after hearing the sonatina. But this time a smile slowly wriggled across his lips.

You are getting somewhere, Uncle Jeffrey. I am very pleased. I am not about to cry, but I am very pleased.”

The next few weeks saw Uncle Jeffrey happier than he had been since his father’s death. Since that sad loss at age six, Uncle Jeffrey was not one to talk much about his father. But now he began to talk with his brother, Bartholomew’s father, about their father. He began to laugh about memories, he began to cry because his heart was broken, and he began to want to be happy.

Each week Master Czoza began to smile bigger and even started to laugh. When Uncle Jeffrey played the sonatina the room filled with brightness and levity. The sun shone stronger, colors seemed brighter, smells seemed more aromatic and food-- even small morsels-- became full of flavor.

One day, after a particularly good performance for Master Czoza, Uncle Jeffrey said, “I do think I have become a most excellent violin player. I owe all of this to you Master Czoza.” He bowed, took Master Czoza’s hand and kissed it in reverence.

Master Czoza slowly removed his hand from Uncle Jeffrey’s lips.

Yes, Uncle Jeffrey, you have become quite excellent. You will make people happy with your music. Have you tried to play any other pieces lately?” Master Czoza asked.

No, I have dedicated myself to this sonatina you have set before me.”

With that, Uncle Jeffrey picked up his violin and began to play from memory a concerto by Mozart. The room swirled with brilliance and Uncle Jeffrey had the sense that even the immortal Mozart would be pleased with his performance.

Master Czoza was applauding.

Yes, yes. That was remarkable. Very splendid. You are to be greatly admired, Uncle Jeffrey. But, if I may correct you, I did not give you a task. I gave you a challenge, and that challenge is still unfulfilled.

But why should I seek to make you cry if I can make you laugh and smile? Are you so cynical that you cannot see the value in this?” Uncle Jeffrey ignored a twinge of regret in his bones for acting arrogantly toward Master Czoza.

There certainly is great value in making people smile and laugh. But the greatest tragedy and the greatest comedy both end in the same place: tears. I have enjoyed your growth and the brilliance you exhibit, but my eyes and my soul are as dry as the Gobi.”

Master Czoza raised his hands to hold Uncle Jeffrey’s face.

My son, I hope one day you will make me cry. I do not care if it is because I feel a great joy in my heart or because I feel a great tragedy. If you can reach into my soul and release my burden, you will have given my soul what it most needs. You still have one more lesson to learn, my son, and this lesson is even harder than what you have learned this past year and a half.”

Uncle Jeffrey went home angry that night. He had brought such joy to Master Czoza yet the teacher had such disregard for Uncle Jeffrey’s talent. He wasn’t going to spend another year and a half under the tutelage of this malcontented fiddle player. He stayed up much of the night planning to leave Master Czoza and planning to play for audiences who would love his talent. His audiences would dance and sing and laugh to his music. Everyone would be happy and thankful to Uncle Jeffrey for making life so much more enjoyable. He decided never to play that silly little sonatina again. He finally fell asleep with the sound of the cheering crowds playing in his head.

The sun was well up by the time Uncle Jeffrey’s mother knocked on his door to tell him that during the night Master Czoza had died. Uncle Jeffrey said nothing.

Arrangements were made for Master Czoza’s funeral and Uncle Jeffrey was nothing but stunned silence during the days that intervened. Master Czoza had no family, but there were innumerable people whom he had taught over the years and the people he knew from his own days of being a performer. Hundreds of people would attend and, although he was only nineteen years old, Uncle Jeffrey was asked to say something at the funeral. Uncle Jeffrey was in such shock that he had agreed to this without thinking about what he should say.

The funeral arrived and the cathedral was full. There were many dignitaries and some of the finest classical musicians from around the world. Many people were crying as the priest and some of Master Czoza’s friends talked about what a great and inspiring man Master Czoza was. Just before the funeral, Uncle Jeffrey realized he would not survive giving a speech about his master, his friend-- his second father. He decided to play something on his violin. He felt unprepared as he knew he could make people laugh and smile, but that was not what was needed here. He decided to do his best with a piece by Brahms he hadn’t played in a few years.

Walking to the podium, the solemn crowd suddenly seemed large – very large. Uncle Jeffrey hadn’t played in front of a crowd in over a year. He closed his eyes and lifted his violin to his chin hoping he could get through this without embarrassing himself as Master Czoza’s most promising student. He imagined Master Czoza laughing at him as he began the Brahms song. The bow seemed to drag heavily along the strings. His fingers seemed too thick for the neck of the violin. Lost in his grief at having failed Master Czoza’s challenge and at having lost a “father” twice while still young, Uncle Jeffrey did not notice that halfway through the prelude the song turned on a c-sharp into a different tune. The bow began to flow smoothly on the strings and Uncle Jeffrey’s fingers loosened as he began to play the sonatina.

Uncle Jeffrey’s broken heart began to spew forth memories of his father and Master Czoza. Tears began to gather on his lower eyelid and then poured over the dam and streaked down his cheeks. The people who were listening became silent. They had never heard anything so beautiful. The musicians sat stunned. The congregation listened to the point of tears. Everyone was transfixed on Uncle Jeffrey as the notes of the sonatina swirled through their hearts and souls. As his fingers and bow moved over the body of the violin, it did not produce a single sound. The music, this simple short sonata which Uncle Jeffrey had burned into his heart, was now coming from him, not the violin. With each breath, in cascaded the deep loss his soul had felt all these years and that he would feel for the rest of his life. With each fingering and pull of his bow expelled an immortal hope for wholeness. Uncle Jeffrey played on, not fully realizing that it was notes of the sonatina expressing his most inner self.

Up near the ceiling, floated Master Czoza’s soul. He was not smiling or laughing. He was crying. His tears fell one each on each person’s soul in rhythm to the sonatina. As Uncle Jeffrey began to close the song, Master Czoza came to stand in front of him. He wiped away Uncle Jeffrey’s tears. He held Uncle Jeffrey’s head in his hands and as one of Master Czoza’s tears fell on him, he said to him, “Congratulations, my son, you have completed the challenge. Your father is so proud of you.”

With that, Master Czoza evaporated.

Following this incident, Bartholomew’s Uncle Jeffrey could not play the violin without the grief of his losses overwhelming him. He played less and less, and eventually he put the violin in the closet and played for no one.

                                 *               *              *

In the brief period between his parent’s deaths and their funeral, Bartholomew did stay with Uncle Jeffrey and Aunt Josephine. Late one night he woke from a bad dream. While trying to fall back to sleep, he thought he heard someone crying and quietly playing a violin.

Written by Mark Granlund
Illustration by Martha Iserman

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