A couple of dubious and inadvertent highlights from my orchestral life, on the perils of gut strings—among several occasions in my so-called “career” in early music when the taint of maestro-baiting would be quite unfounded:
Göttingen, mid-1980s. Concert performance of a Handel opera on stage, recorded live for broadcast. I’m sharing a desk with a Hungarian violinist who hasn’t been playing with the band for long, and in the middle of a frantic tutti passage his E string breaks (as they do).
We do take spare strings onstage, but it’s not long till the end of Act One, so you might think he could just flounder around in the upper reaches of the A string when necessary before putting on a new string in the interval—it’s quite a tricky procedure, made tense in public. Ideally you want to take time notching the bridge, and the node at the top of the fingerboard, with a pencil; securing the loop at the tailpiece and threading the string carefully into the peg (perhaps after applying a bit of peg-paste), spooling it neatly inwards in the pegbox; stretching the string and adjusting the bridge—and even once you’ve got the string on and up to pitch, it needs a while to bed in. By now the other three strings will have gone haywire too. *
But no—my desk partner, bold as brass, decides to replace the string right there and then, on stage. It’s not exactly that I’m not amused at the comic potential, but apart from my subtle discouraging shrug there’s not a lot I can do—am I my brother’s keeper? So as the loud chorus gives way to an intense recitative from Michael Chance, I join in with the magical sustained pianissimo string accompaniment, while my desk partner is noisily and cheerfully cranking his string up to pitch, twanging away, tuning peg creaking ominously.
Later in the bar I evoked the soundscape:
It was just like the Mary Celeste…
Needless to say, backstage in the interval it was me that got a bollocking from the maestro: “Steve, you really should keep your desk partner under control—these foreigners just don’t understand our system…” WTF.
I was sitting in the middle of the band innocently admiring a hushed secco recitative when the tailgut on my fiddle snapped. Since that’s what holds the whole contraption together, it exploded spectacularly, sending bridge, tailpiece, tuning pegs and sundry fittings flying high into the air. It wasn’t so much the initial explosion—everyone watched spellbound as bits of wood descended in slow motion onto the ancient tiled floor all around, the clatter drowning the singer’s exquisite pianissimo. With a husk of a violin in my hand, I scrambled round furtively on the floor to retrieve all the debris I could find, and sloped off while the cantata continued.
I thought I handled the mishap rather well, but sure enough, after the gig I got another (neither deserved nor surprising) bollocking from the maestro, who seemed to take it as a personal affront—as if I had deliberately made my violin explode in order to undermine his personal majesty. Hey ho.
Drowning my sorrows at the posh reception afterwards, ** I asked around to see if there was a luthier there who could get my fiddle back in shape for the rest of the tour, and sure enough I was introduced to a kindly old man who, after we’d shared a few more drinks, took me back to his workshop to take a look. We spent a lovely hour chatting as he carefully fitted a new tailgut and pieced my violin back together, exchanging stories of my fieldwork in China and his own early memories of Lübeck cultural life.
My new friend refused to take any payment, but having been just as enchanted as I was by the Buxtehude Klaglied in the first half, he asked if I might possibly get hold of a copy of the recording that had been made. Later, back in London, I did indeed manage to send it to him, which made a suitable reward for his kindness, and he sent me a postcard in thanks (“Excuse me, but we are very lucky that your violin was broken”—a sentiment with which many of my colleagues would doubtless concur). Silver lining, then.
** For Gary Kettel’s classic posh reception story, and Stewart Lee’s variation, see here.