Something you cannot tell about violins, when you see one radiant in a museum cabinet or singing under the soloist’s touch, is that they are held together by pure tension. Many parts of the instrument are kept in place by nothing more than pressure and tightness. If there are too many small imbalances, it can pull itself to pieces.
When you put on new strings, you have to replace them one by one, not remove them all at once. This is because if you did, the pale chip of the bridge that supports them would fall off, and the tiny post inside that is the backbone of the violin’s sound would drop out. Each is held in place only by the strings, wound so tightly they cinch the body parts closer together. If you were even more cavalier and removed all of them every time, the repeated tug and release might eventually buckle the whole thing.
The tuning pegs for the strings, incidentally, are not geared and easy to turn like on a guitar. These too are held in place by a truce between tension and friction; wooden pegs twisted into holes in wood, tightly enough to withstand the pull of steel. If they are old and worn, tuning involves grasping and wrenching, fingernails pressed pale against aged ebony. It can be hard to know how much it will take before the truce snaps or splinters.
You usually have to negotiate these tensions before you play a note. To persuade it into tune is always to be a little unsure.
Equally, there can be hidden weaknesses in the construction, caused by damage or poor workmanship or two and a half centuries of slowly desiccating animal-hide glue. The strength of the joints fails and the steel-wrapped strings strain at the neck until it pops loose from the shoulders of the instrument. When this happens, the fingerboard is wrenched against the body with nowhere to go until it too snaps away. Then the strings suddenly have nothing left to pull against and yank themselves slack. The pegs spin loose and the bridge falls off and the soundpost drops out and then there is silence.
I open the violin case to find this dismantlement. There is no splintering, only dull edges, as if it has never been more than pieces.
They are confident it is a straightforward repair. Modern techniques will make it stronger than the luthier in the workshop could have imagined, haphazard and fuddled by tallow-smoke and varnish fumes, rushing to finish in time for the buyer to try out the latest Bach. And really, it wasn’t even that fragile to begin with; the glue was good for nearly three hundred years. That’s a warranty of several lifetimes.
What they cannot say is when the tension lacing it together will no longer lash through my hands every time I pick it up.
I have never been quite devoted enough to perfect the art of coaxing out its full voice. Treading the fine line between a weak, quavering whine and a brash, overconfident screech rarely comes naturally enough to feel like more than a clumsy game of chance. My playing has always been unsure.
For a while after it is put back together, its unchanged sound is a marvel, and we are inseparable. But gradually, inexorably, the uncertainty returns.
A small split, inconsequential, unrelated, keeps cracking open no matter how many times they stick it back. Brushing it with a fingertip, I hear snapping wood, the gunshot of broken strings. My mind shivers it into pieces again, and this time it is in my hands that it fails. In my imagination the brittle joints shrivel into uselessness, to be torn off by a stroke of the bow or a twist of the hand, just enough to strain the body’s tension past endurance.
I never used to be alive to such fragility. If anything, I trusted in its resilience too much. Once, my carelessness let it be knocked off a pub table when the other musicians moved to refill their glasses. The clatter cut through the genial fug like a whipcrack. No harm was done, and we carried on.
Now it is hard to stop checking every inch. Its surface is a weathered landscape of varnish worn away, of scratches and stitched scars from inexpert early repairs. Any one of them could be the flaw where one day it shears apart. What was once the venerable ageing of an antique now looks more like perishing. To hold it is to be ever more unsure.
Another thing you cannot tell about violins, when you see a gap along an edge or find one reduced to its component pieces, is that they are designed to be equal to the tension. The seam fails so that the springy, resilient wood does not. The joint breaks cleanly so that the reassembly is clean. Eventually, perhaps, there will be no strength left in its body to stand any more repairs. That time may be now, or it may not.
I can advance only by negotiation, note by questioning note. When I pick it up, it is as though every joint is straining, its whole weight suspended from my hand around its neck. Surely this will be the time when a twist too far or a grip too hard or a phrase too loud will crack it all apart. Yet one time after another, it is still intact when I lay it aside. The uneasy truce draws out another tick, another hour, another day into its next century. Again, I make my uncertain requests for it to speak. Once more, it answers, taut strings ringing through imperfectly preserved wood.
Alice Ahearn is a writer based in Oxford. She writes fantasy fiction about bikes, libraries and ghosts. Her short fiction explores liminality and small moments of connection, childhood whimsy and the grief we don’t always know how to feel. She also likes translating Latin poetry and writing retellings of Greek myths. Her work has appeared in Litro, British Fantasy Society: Horizons, The Incubator and Mono (forthcoming). You can read more about her work here.
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