The clasps that held the case safely shut no longer function. The faded velvet lining peels away along the inner edges. Musty, dusty scents trigger a sneeze as I lift the Mystery Violin from the casket it’s been silently lying in for decades. A couple of strings swing loosely from the pegs, no bridge to hold them in place.
I gently turn the instrument, inspecting for cracks. Just a couple of surface scratches. That’s good. I tap along the seams, listening for the telltale thunk of open spaces between the pieces of carefully sculpted wood. All seems sound. I peek through the f-holes: the soundpost is miraculously upright.
And then, I begin the transplant.
I place my young, modern violin beside this antique mystery. I loosen one peg. I borrow the broken-in string from my fiddle. I carefully wind it onto the creaky, dry peg of the Mystery Violin. I repeat with a second string, then slide a bridge carefully into place, breathing a prayer that the sudden increase of pressure doesn’t cause some kind of catastrophic damage.
It’s the first hit of the paddles, this placement of the bridge. It’s the first look at the EKG, and the first blip is the pluck of an E string… The wooden body responds, and I can almost feel the shuddering breath in that hollow space between top and bottom.
As quickly as my fingers allow, I add the last two strings. Again, I breathe a prayer as I tighten strings into tune – will the violin handle the pressure?
I have no expectations of this violin’s playability. In fact, I suppose I have a rather negative bias. I don’t know anything about the financial situation the prior owner was in when she got this violin a hundred years ago. I don’t know how serious a player she was, how much she was willing to spend. I don’t know the maker, though I marvel at the tenacity of his craftsmanship over years of neglect after years of playing. I’ve played other people’s attic finds before (“This is a Stradivarius! It says so inside! Isn’t it amazing?” I try not to laugh at the common mistake of believing an obviously modern, fake label.). They’ve all been disappointing.
But I do know the woman’s great-granddaughter. And so I pause before I play. I imagine her, a century ago, lifting this treasure from thick, bright green velvet. I feel the thrill she must have felt, that intense anticipation when a new instrument is placed under your chin and becomes a part of you, and it’s yours forever. I see her, in my mind’s eye, all alone in her kitchen like I am.
I feel the pulse of her artist’s heart.
It’s a sacred moment, this few seconds’ breath before the first note is played (or first word is written… or first line is drawn). It’s a moment when every dream, every joy, every heartbreak, every loss, every hope wells up within until the only thing left to do is let it out.
And then comes the solitary act of creating, just the artist and her medium. It’s messy, often filled with a doubt and even a dread that has held the artist captive for too long. What if I cannot do this dream within me justice? What if I can’t get out of me the beauty I know is lurking within? What if I dare to expose it, a naked child in my arms, and then I dare even to share it… Because every work of art is made to be shared, but Oh Lord, what will they think?
And so the artist wrestles. Sometimes shyly, like a young woman receiving her first kiss. Sometimes fiercely, like a warrior battling to save his own life. Sometimes tenderly, like a mother holding her newborn to her breast. No matter what, there is a wrestling.
I draw my bow across the string, low and slow and steady, a tentative pull. I allow my spirit to direct the notes, and a yearning minor melody wraps around the strings from low to high, a dirge for the lost, silent years left in attics and garages. Before long, though, the joy and wonder breaks through in a triumphant major key. This violin is lovely, and I am almost in tears with the privilege of it all.
I spend an hour playing, just me and the violin and the memory of her, and the imaginings of the unknown luthier in an unknown place, alone, crafting this thing of beauty with no inkling of its future. He could never have imagined a 40 year old woman playing the Doxology in a house on an Air Force base in North Dakota a century later. Could he?
But art is made to be shared.
2 AM and I’m still awake, writing a song
If I get it all down on paper, it’s no longer
Inside of me, threatening the life it belongs to
And I feel like I’m naked in front of the crowd
Cause these words are my diary, screaming out loud
And I know that you’ll use them, however you want to
– Anna Nalick
So I take a quick audio recording to text to my friend whose great-grandmother first owned the violin. That is not enough. I spend another hour practicing and recording, and re-recording, until the Doxology sings from the violin in every register, and although it isn’t perfect (because no artist ever thinks anything he or she makes is perfect), I share it, because I must.
Because art is solitary, and art is corporate.
But most of all, art is sacred.
The very act of creating a work of art breathes life into one’s soul, and causes one to feel but a small part of God. – Anitak Eyor
To create is to come into communion with the Creator. Once there, in that secret place of communion and creation, a testimony is formed.
And a testimony must be told.
So the artist rises from her solitary place, shaking and raw and feeling so exposed, and she dares to do this thing out there, to take the secret place outside, because if she doesn’t, she will be undone.
And if one person responds – if the resonance of the creation draws a vibrating hum from the listener – then the sacred secret grows, and the joy multiplies, and the wrestling is all worth it.
Regretfully, I remember that the real world awaits – mouths I must feed, chores I must accomplish – and I place the Mystery Violin back in its case. It will not stay there long, though; we have a story to tell, and I cannot leave it within.