ATHENA’S DEPARTMENT: ARTS & LETTERS
FICTION: Anja’s Violins By Anna Franco
[Author’s Note: Anja is a minor character from my book Hummingbirds in Winter. Anja’s Violins centers around her life as it developed some years later. (Spoiler Alert: some passages in it do refer to events in the book)].
Anja plucked her violin softly in her room. For a moment, she was sure she could hear an echo from the far end of the living room. She listened carefully as she plucked a few more strings. The she picked up the bow and played her piece. The wispy light strands of her hair were cut just above her shoulders and grazed the side of the violin under her chin. She was tall and thin, too thin, with bony wrists that bent awkwardly when she held the bow. The frame of her body swayed slightly, and her knobby knees bent slightly to absorb the rhythm.
Anja lived in the city of Ronne, on a small island called Bornholm, off the coast of the mainland of Denmark. Her first violin came to her when she was 5 years old; it was a child’s violin. In the beginning, Anja played with the violin more than played it, but that was many years ago, in 1939, before her lessons. Over the years, while Denmark was at war, she sometimes took lessons and sometimes stopped. In 1947, Anja was thirteen years old and started taking lessons again, with a larger violin. Her first violin was carefully stored in a closet. One day, friends of the family sent a piece: Northern Hummingbirds. It was too difficult for her to play at first, but over the next few years, she worked at it and finally mastered it.
Anja was sixteen now, and she was performing in an important recital. She had to decide what piece to play and submit a proposal for the program by the end of the day. The proposal form sat on her desk. She knew what she wanted to perform. She was going to perform Northern Hummingbirds, the piece sent to her by her friends, whose father was a composer. All week, her family and classmates had asked her what she would perform, and when she told them her choice, it invariably produced a surprised reaction.
“But why not a piece by Mozart or Beethoven?” a classmate at the music school asked her. “What about a composition by Niels Gade?”
“No,” Anja replied. “I love Niels Gade, and I performed a piece by him last year, but this year, I will play something different.” She stuck to her decision. Northern Hummingbirds was beautiful; it was new; it was exciting for Anja to play, so she would.
“But we don’t even have hummingbirds in Denmark. Why would anyone want to hear a piece called Northern Hummingbirds?” asked one girl from her class.
“People will hear the piece, and they can imagine the birds,” she replied. It was true that people in the audience would be unlikely to know or even care about hummingbirds. Anja herself never knew they existed until she got the piece.
Her grandmother frowned when she heard Anja’s choice. “Anja, the school will give scholarships based on the this audition. Shouldn’t you be more prudent—it is an important opportunity. You should play a piece that the judges will recognize.” Anja disliked disappointing her grandmother, but she loved the piece more.
“Anja,” said her uncle, “be more strategic minded. Play something the audience will remember, something that they can identify with. Play something that fits the purpose of the event.”
“I don’t know if they will identify with the piece,” replied Anja, “but if they have any love for music, they will remember it. As for fitting, the piece fits my violin, and it fits my ears, and that is all the fitting that is necessary.”
This afternoon, Anja would submit her decision for the program. She looked at the form she had to fill out. Taking her pen in hand, she nearly attacked the blank line as she wrote the title of the piece and the key. Below that went the composer’s name, Solansky, and the year the piece was composed. Finally, the last line called for the length of the piece. Anja played the piece with her watch nearby. When she concluded, she wrote ’12 minutes, 18 seconds’ on the last line. Then she signed the form, sealed it in the envelope, and put it on her dresser to be delivered after lunch. The next day began the serious practice sessions that would occupy her for the next 8 weeks until the recital.
The piece started with a series of high-speed chromatic trills, like the beating of wings. The starting note of each trill would change and dart up and down within a few intervals of the central key, giving the opening a sense of urgent but well controlled motion. After these introductory trills, the main melody broke out: a theme that rose and fell in triplets. Anja navigated through the first section leisurely, a little on the slow side. That was how to practice: start out slowly and gradually increase speed. The section needed to go faster to achieve the right sound, but getting there, Anja would take all the time she needed.
The second section was not as fast, but it was much more rhythmically and melodically complex. She set the metronome to andante, playing it twice at slow speed. Then she increased the metronome speed a few beats and repeated the section. If the first section was a close up of the hummingbirds, with the trilling wings, the second section was a wider-shot, capturing their jaunty journeys across the gardens. She repeated the second section several times before moving on to the last part of the piece. Anja spent most of her efforts that first week on the second section of the piece.
The third and final section was the longest and the most challenging for Anja, though. The delicate changes in articulation demanded her total attention. The shifting meters that were as unpredictable as the path of a hummingbird required Anja to be just as nimble in her response to the music. The melody was lyrical, but foreign and exotic.
Most of the time, she practiced in her room. Once she played in front of her house, and two neighbors stopped to listen. “Is that Grieg?” they asked her. She shook her head and smiled. They shrugged their shoulders and walked on.
Anja also played in her living room, where the sound seemed strangely amplified as it traveled through the hollow hallway. She played in the practice room at school, in a narrow slip of a room with a piano in it. There, the sound seemed diminished, almost smothered out of existence.
Once, when the recital hall was being cleaned, she slid through the half-opened doors and brought her violin to the stage. There, she played for the cleaning lady, who applauded, with a towel on her shoulder and broom by her side. Anja had played on this stage before—this was where she had performed the Niels Gade piece a year earlier. She closed her eyes and played the piece one more time after the cleaning lady had left. When she was done, she turned the lights and closed the door behind her quietly. The day’s work was done.
On the day of the recital, Anja’s uncle brought her to school. No one mentioned the piece—it had been talked about enough already. The recital hall was rapidly filled with students and their families. Anja sat in the first row, with the other performers. She looked at the program and saw she was to play just after intermission. That was an important spot to be assigned, she realized.
The first half of the program seemed eternal; Anja struggled to listen to her colleagues perform, while her own piece lurked in the back of her mind. She could not fully concentrate on the music played before her, nor could she fully rehearse her piece in her mind. She settled for a rather mechanical studying of the program page, and she looked at each name on the list, wondering about the spelling of the composer’s name or about why the piece was titled such. At intermission, while the rest of the audience stretched their legs, Anja sat in her seat thinking of her piece. Finally she could get the meters accurate without interruption.
Eventually intermission ended, and the master of ceremonies reappeared and announced Anja’s name. She stood onstage looking out across the darkened hall. She tried to find her uncle or her grandmother at first, but after a moment, she changed her mind and fixed her attention on the edge of her violin. The moving trills broke the silence. The audience heard a musical story about birds of another continent; they heard a song of delicate but relentless energy that was channeled unpredictably yet sensibly from start to end. When it ended, Anja bowed and took her seat. The second half of the program remained for her to sit through.
A week after the recital, Anja received an envelope in the mail. She opened it and read the letter that congratulated her. She had won a scholarship for her performance.
Copyright © Anna Franco, 2013, 2014, 2015. [Archived from Objective Motifs, March 2013, with minor edits, revised again in 2014 and 2015]