I started playing the violin when I was ten. This is quite a late age for such an endeavour, but it was then that I got my first violin, straight out of a factory in Russia. I didn’t know, then, that this was possibly the worst kind of violin that you could get.
That was more than twenty years ago. Twenty years, of which the first ten were spent practicing very regularly for long hours; and the latter ten were spent practicing and performing sporadically with small groups when I got an opportunity. Over the last year or so, I haven’t played at all, and, what’s worse, I haven’t missed it.
Yesterday, I turned on WorldSpace and Beethoven’s ninth came pouring out in full flow, with all its glory and grandeur. As I was swept away by the torrent of sound, I relived all too briefly, and from far too great a distance, a few, precious experiences of my past.
I have joined many music groups over the years, some large, mostly small, working together for a few weeks or weekends on some familiar or obscure pieces to be staged before a small audience (usually in a large, empty auditorium). Many of the performances were humdrum – to put it mildly. Many left me with – more than anything else – a deep sense of dissatisfaction, and un-fulfillment, with the restless knowledge that I had been unable to do justice to the music, even to the extent of my limited abilities.
But there, hidden like a needle in a haystack of memories, were also some deeply satisfying moments. There were the sort of experiences that transgress the boundaries of reality and lift you to – for want of a better word – a spiritual, a sublime world. Those were the almost-holy experiences.
The first was my first orchestral experience, in 1993 (or so). I was playing as an insignificant back-bencher of the second violins. We were to perform Beethoven’s Fifth, a work that I knew well to listen to. Our guest conductor, a Russian (like my first violin – I was already on to my second by then) was not world famous or anything like that (and I don’t think he ever achieved that level of fame) but he knew what he wanted from the music, and by god he was going to have it. Even if it meant that he had to keep this motley bunch of musicians (Woodstock meets Delhi Police meets Delhi School of Music teachers and students) prisoners while he drove them to play just four notes again and again and again till they got it right or all turned blue in the effort. (For those of you who know the piece, think of the famous dum-dum-dum Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.)
It was tiring and thrilling and infuriating – but it was never boring. At last, the day of the concert came, and I still remember my mother hurriedly stitching a straight, dead-black ankle-length skirt for me, as I hopped around anxiously and did some last minute practicing. And then, trembling to my stocking-ed toes, I took my insignificant place on stage.
I don’t know anyone who could vouch for the performance from the audience’s perspective, but from where I sat, surrounded by the sound and the fury of a deaf and long-dead Beethoven, it was an amazing experience. It was more than sound, more than harmony, more than music that came pouring out of this bunch of would-be musicians that day. It was a wave of sheer energy. It was the sort of one-ness that comes when everything that you are at that moment aware of around you, is perfectly in tune with everything in you, with every part of you yourself.
And then there was Handel’s Messiah. This is a glorious composition. The Hallelujah chorus, which comes towards the end, has always been music that makes me want to close my eyes and let my spirit soar away where it will. It is more than prayer, more than worship, far, far more than words and music.
Ok, I realize that this is pure drivel for someone who doesn’t know the music, and also for those who know it but don’t feel the same way about it. But think of something that does that to you – a song, a photograph, a painting, a place, a line from a book or a movie, something – and you’ll know what I mean.
It was somehow in my fate that one fine day after Beethoven’s Fifth had faded away into history, Handel’s Messiah should come my way. It was several years ago, and I now don’t remember where we performed, or what other pieces were part of the program. I remember only Handel’s Messiah.
Unfortunately, the orchestra had very, very few practice sessions with the choir. So when the day came for us to go on stage, I was still not quite prepared for what followed. Sitting at the back of the second violin section as usual, I found an army of vocalists massed directly above and behind me (they were standing, we were sitting). We got through the first so many songs somehow and then suddenly, at last, the Hallelujah chorus burst upon us with full force, roaring with all the glory and majesty of a pride of lions, rushing upon us like waters just released from the floodgates, drowning us in a torrent of triumphal harmony. I don’t know how I kept on playing my part, or even if I did in fact keep playing; but if I did, it was just my fingers doing their job: my mind was gone, flowing with the sound to join the rejoicing in the heavens.
The third experience that stands out was a performance of a Bach Overture. I think it was No. 3, which has a Flute solo, with the famous Badinerie at the end. At this time, I was playing with a small group of ten strings; there were no more than one or two players for each section. We had practiced weekends for many months and had developed a sort of comfortable camaraderie; which, nevertheless, did not extend beyond music.
On the day of the performance, we were at the venue well before show-time. Sundry chairs and music stands cluttered the stage in no particular order and everyone was in varying stages of attire for the performance. One violinist had spread his music on a chair in front of him and was working his way through a tricky patch. His stand-mate joined him, standing nearby and bending over the score. At the next entry, I joined in – a feat I felt quite pleased about, I still remember, because it was a tricky entry for second violins and I had got it right without a cue.
Then a cello joined in and then, suddenly, beautifully, right on cue, we heard the flute. The soloist wandered casually on to stage, playing from memory. And so we all played along, without a conductor, weeks of practice flowing out of us without effort, each of us just doing our parts and smiling and nodding at each other. It was wonderful, like a car rolling along quietly on a level road, without a driver, without brakes and without a horn! It was beautiful. It was sublime!
We ended, all together, with ever so slight a flourish from the flautist and we relished the applause we didn’t hear from the audience that wasn’t there.
Twenty years of learning and so little to show for it – but even that little means so much! Some day, probably, I will pick up my violin again, train my fingers and my ears, and my feet and my eyes and my brain… some day, hopefully, I will find a group, small or big, young or old, Indian or foreign, a group of people who come together for music and don’t mind about anything else. Some day, maybe, some day I will again make music, again make memories, pour my heart out without words. Some day.