Authors: Paul Adam
“Let me see it,” I said, holding out my hand.
Yevgeny passed the violin back to me. I held the instrument up and studied it carefully from all sides. My fingers were trembling slightly, my heart fluttering.
had been Paganini's violin for nearly forty years. It was with him throughout his entire mature career, through all the triumphs as he set Italy, and then Europe, ablaze with his dazzling virtuosity. There was history in this violin. What tales it could tell, I thought, if it had a human voice, instead of just a musical one.
It must have had its share of knocks during those four decades of relentless travelling, jolting round in the back of innumerable stagecoaches and wagons on rough, unmetalled roads as Paganini moved from city to city. But it was still in remarkably good condition for a violin its age. It had been in a museum for the past 150-plus years, of course, although that kind of stifling inactivity is not necessarily good for a string instrument. Without regular playing, they can dry out and shrivel, just like people who are shut away and forgotten.
Guarneri made it in 1743, during the last two years of his life, when he was at the height of his powers as a luthier. Its dimensions are not excessive, but it feels like a large violin. The ribs and arching are higher than on most of his instruments and the plates are extremely thickâmuch thicker than Stradivari's, or the plates of violins we make today. This massive construction is undoubtedly one of the reasons for the Cannon's impressive tone, but it cannot be the only reason, or we could all copy the measurements and produce an instrument with a
comparable sound. Paganini spent years searching for another del GesÃ¹ to match
, but he never found one. It is unique. Its unforgettable voice is due not just to its dimensions but also to those unquantifiable ingredients a luthier adds to his creationsâa mixture of love and craft and, in Guarneri's case, a flamboyant, monstrous genius.
I checked the strings to make sure they weren't beginning to fray, then the nut and pegs. The peg box is astoundingâcut out with a gouge rather than a chisel, the rough bare wood left unvarnished. The scroll, too, is asymmetrical and somewhat crude in its carving, as if Guarneri couldn't have been bothered to take much care with it. On the back of the scroll is an ugly red wax seal that was originally on the back plate of the violinâstuck on, in an incredible act of vandalism, by some overzealous Genoan official when the violin was first bequeathed to the city, then moved some years later, equally incredibly, to the scroll, where it has remained like a vivid scab on the face of a beautiful woman.
think?” I said to Yevgeny Ivanov. “Can you detect where the buzz is coming from when you play?”
“Of course he can't,” Ludmilla said testily. “That's why we've come to you.”
“Signora,” I said politely. “I was asking for your son's view.”
“Yevgeny does not speak much Italian,” Ludmilla said, adding, a little acidly, I thought, “and I'm sure you don't speak much Russian.”
“Perhaps there is another language we can use, then?” I said. “Do you speak English, Signor Ivanov?”
“He can speak Russian, and I will translate,” his mother said. “We are wasting time. Are you going to fix the violin, or not?”
“Yes, I speak English,” Yevgeny said.
He spoke quietly, tentatively. His voice was light, but pleasantly warm.
“What is your feeling?” I said in English. “You are closer to the violin than anyone.”
“It seems to be low down, when I play on the G string,” Yevgeny replied.
I examined the left-hand side of the violin, tapping the plates and ribs to see if anything was coming unstuck. Then I took a small torch and a dentist's mirror and looked through the f-hole at the underside of the front plate where the bass bar is attached. I prayed that there wasn't a problem with the bass bar, for dealing with it would require the opening up of the violinânot something I had any intention of doing, even if Signor Golinelli were to allow it, and I knew he wouldn't. The Cannon has a team of very distinguished luthiers looking after it in Genoa. Any work of a serious nature would have to be carried out by them.
“You have found something?” Golinelli said, his hands beginning to fidget again. “Is it bad? Dottore, you must tell me.”
“The bass bar looks fine,” I said. “It must be something else. I'll check the sound post.”
“Dottore .Â .Â .”
I lifted my head. Yevgeny was gazing at me earnestly, pleadingly, as if he were trying to send me a silent message.
“Perhaps if you and I .Â .Â .” His voice petered out and his eyes flickered from Golinelli to his mother.
I sensed instinctivelyâalmost telepathicallyâwhat he wanted but was too afraid to articulate.
“Signor Golinelli,” I said. “Signor Ivanov and I need to put our heads together and really get to the bottom of this. And we need to be alone to do it. Would you be so kind as to take Signora Ivanova into my house for a short while? I have tea and coffee and wine in the kitchen. Make yourselves at home.”
Ludmilla started to protest, but I cut her short.
“It is the only way, signora. Your son and I can sort this out.”
“Well, really, this is ridiculous!” Ludmilla exclaimed indignantly. “This surely isn't necessary.”
“I believe it is,” I said firmly. “We need peace and quiet, the workshop to ourselves, to resolve this.”
“If you really think so .Â .Â .” Golinelli said uncertainly.
“I do,” I said. “I will call you back as soon as we have anything concrete to tell you.”
Ludmilla didn't move. Her mouth was set tight and she was glaring at me resentfully.
“Time is running out,” I said, putting the Cannon down on the bench so that it was clear I wouldn't continue work until they had gone.
Ludmilla muttered something in her native tongue that I was glad not to be able to understand, then turned on her heel and stalked out of the workshop. Golinelli went after her, pausing on the threshold to say, “The minute you have something, I must be informed. At once, you understand? I am responsible for the violin.”
“You will be the first to know,” I said. “You have my word.”
I waited for the door to close, then turned to Yevgeny.
“Well?” I said in English.
He wandered over to the window, obviously checking that his mother and the assistant curator weren't listening at the keyhole. Then he came back to my bench. He seemed more at ease than before, but I could still detect a tension in his body language. He was fragile, brittle, like a twig that might snap if the slightest pressure were applied.
“That was brave,” he said. “My mother does not like to be told what to do.”
“So I gathered,” I said dryly.
“I can trust you, no?”
“You can trust me.”
“I have confession to make. But you must not tell my mother, or Signor Golinelli.”
“What kind of a confession?” I asked.
“I believe I may have damaged the violin myself.”
He hesitated, then began to pace up and down in an agitated manner.
“At the cathedral, in Cremona, they give me a room,” he said. “A dressing room. To leave my things in, to get changed. I have the violin with me. I take it out of the case. I am careless; I don't look. There is
this thingâa tall metal candlestickânext to me. As I turn, I hit the candlestick with the violin.”
“Which bit of the violin?”
“I am not sure. I think maybe the bridge.” A note of panic crept into his voice. “If I have harmed it .Â .Â . it would be very bad. A violin like that. You must help me, Dottor Castiglione. You must put right what I do.”
“Easy now,” I said. “Whatever it is, we'll deal with it.”
“My mother, she must never know. She would be very angry with me. Signor Golinelli, too. He would take the violin away from me, maybe the Premio prize, as well. My reputation, my career would be finish. Promise me you don't tell. Please.”
I warmed to him. He must have been twenty-two or twenty-three years old, but he seemed like a small boy, terrified that he would be punished severely for this mishap.
“No one can take the Premio away from you,” I said. “It's yours. You won it on merit. No one will blame you for what you did. It was an accident.”
“But you won't tell?”
“No, your secret is safe with me. Now, pull up a stool and sit down.”
I held the Cannon up to the light and peered closely at the bridge. I could detect nothing with my naked eye, so I took my jeweller's loupe and had a look through that, squeezing the soft wood of the bridge with my fingers to see if it was damaged.
“Ah, here we are,” I said.
Yevgeny leaned forward, squinting at the bridge.
“You find something?”
“A hairline crack. Just here.” I touched the edge of the bridge beneath the G string.
“That would make buzzing noise?” Yevgeny said.
“But violin itself is all right?”
“As far as I can tell, yes.”
He sat back and exhaled with relief.
“Thank God. It is not original, the bridge?”
“No, it's not Guarneri's. This is a modern one, put on relatively recently.”
“You can fit new one?”
“Easily. But I must consult with Signor Golinelli first.”
The assistant curator was as relieved as Yevgeny had been.
“Just the bridge, nothing more serious?” he said when he and Ludmilla had returned to the workshop and I'd given them my diagnosis. “It will need a new one, no? You have time to do it?”
“Plenty,” I said.
“You'll have to hurry,” Ludmilla said. “We have to get back to the cathedral. Yevgeny will need to warm up, to prepare himself for the recital.”
“Let me check with Genoa first,” Golinelli said. “I can't authorise any work without their say-so.”
He pulled out his mobile and phoned the city's chief violin conservator. He explained what had happened, then passed the phone to me. The conservator and I had a brief discussion before I handed the phone back to Golinelli.
“He says go ahead,” I said.
Golinelli eyed me uneasily.
“A crack? How did a crack suddenly appear?”
I gave a casual shrug, careful not to look at Yevgeny.
“These things happen. Wood is a temperamental substance. It can react in unexpected ways. Temperature changes, a different humidity, the journey in the vanâany of them could have caused it. Now, if you'd leave me alone for a while, I'll get the job done.”
I was conscious of the time ticking by as I worked on the violin, but I tried not to let it disturb me. I also tried not to think of the status of the instrument. I had to regard it as an ordinary violin, not the violin that had belonged to the most celebrated virtuoso in history. But it wasn't easy. Every time I touched it, I was aware that Paganini's hands had been there before mine. His fingers had held it; his chin had rested on the front plate; his breath had drifted over the varnish.
Somewhere deep in the soul of the instrument was the indelible memory of that one great man.
Handling the violin gave me a strange feeling of transience. It had been made two centuries before I was born and it would survive long after I was gone. It wasn't passing through my life; I was passing through its life, just as Paganini had passed through it.
I must have fitted hundreds of new bridges in my years as a luthier, but none so carefully as this one. It had to be perfect; it had to become part of the violin, to complement it so that its distinctive voice would remain unchanged. When I finished, I put the strings back on and tuned them, then sat for a few minutes just gazing at the instrument.
The work was good; I knew that. But how would the violin play? I had to get Yevgeny back in immediately to try it out, but I procrastinated. I wanted more time alone with the Cannonâan opportunity like this would never come my way again. But I didn't want simply to look at it, delightful though that was.
I glanced furtively round the workshop, as if I feared someone might be watching me. Why not? I said to myself. Why shouldn't I? Yes, it was presumptuous of me, but was it not also necessary? It wouldn't be much, just a preliminary check before I called Yevgeny in. Any conscientious luthier would do the same.
My arms tremblingâwith anticipation and no small measure of guiltâI slipped the violin under my chin and picked up the bow. I hesitated. Paganini had played this instrument, and since his death only the Premio winnersâgifted musicians in their own rightâhad been allowed to use it. Now I, Giovanni Battista Castiglione, humble luthier and third-rate amateur violinist, was going to have a bash on it.
I dug the bow into the strings and recoiled at the sound. It echoed round the workshop, the same booming cannon noise that had inspired Paganini's nickname for the instrument. It was loud, reverberant, but rich and warm, too. A dark, sonorous voice that grasped you by the throat, leaving you breathless but gasping for more. Most importantly, the buzzing on the G string had disappeared.
I'd never played a violin like it, and I took full advantage of the
moment. I tried some Bach from memory, steering clear of the sarabande Yevgeny had played to spare myself the depressing comparison between our respective performances, then had a go at a Schubert sonatina and the “Meditation” from Massenet's
. I was tempted to risk something by Paganini himself, one of the caprices, perhaps, but I know my limits. Even
would not enable me to play those. Paganini, if he was watching me from aboveâthough, given his satanic reputation, he was more likely to be down belowâwould undoubtedly have been laughing at my wretched antics, but I didn't care. I knew I didn't sound very good, but I was certain of one thing: I sounded better than I ever had before, and ever would again.