The Sweet, Sweet Sounds


MY MOTHER always thought one of us children should learn to play the violin. My father was a fine concert violinist but he was not very successful. He did not want me to play the violin; nor my sister. He said, “It makes you too sensitive and then everything hurts you. Listening to the violin is lovely, but playing it is often painful. Learning to play it is even worse.”

My mother’s eyes would grow misty every time she brought up the matter, and when my father gave his usual reply sho would clasp her thin hands together and cry, “But, oh, those sweet, sweet sounds!”

My mother came from Scotland, and the exquisite truth of the personal and intimate sound of the violin was forever a thrilling mystery to her. I mean, the soft caress of a violin was remote from anything she had known in her harsh, craggy homeland.

Mv father, on the other hand, was French. Music, good food, fine wine, and witty conversation were no novelty to him. They were as substantial as bread and butter and, as far as he was concerned, almost as common.

Perhaps nothing would have come of my father’s refusal to teach us the violin if we had not fallen upon hard times which forced us to share an apartment with a young couple who were friends of my mother.

The woman’s name was Ethel Martin and she was English. She must have come from some part of that island which is remote from Scotland, for she was as healthy and rosy as a good apple and as full of song as a drunken thrush. Her songs were simple songs of making cider, of planting flowers in spring, and of happy country fairs. They were sweet and melodious songs, and she was forever recalling a new one that we had not heard before.

My father enjoyed her singing very much. Since he was not working, and was at home most of the time, and since her husband was busy and away a great deal, my father and Ethel were often together; he drinking wine, she ironing perhaps, and singing a song to go with it.

They laughed a great deal together, and every now and then my father would take her in his arms and whirl her around the room in a quick French one-step which was quite different from the slow, sweet music that was in her heart and throat. At these times she would be flushed and bright-eyed, as if she danced for a moment into a new and lovelier world.

Perhaps it was not like that at all. Perhaps Ethel was merely stimulated physically by the dancing.

As I remember it, though, it was something more, something a little deeper.

My mother did not seem to mind. Perhaps she did not even notice this little affaire. In truth it was a delicate, almost impersonal thing — and yet it was something.

One day my mother came home from shopping. My father and Ethel were in the parlor. He was laughing, and talking to Ethel about the expensive violin she was holding awkwardly under her chin, it was my father’s best violin, the one he reserved for choice concerts and never played at home.

He himself had the old violin, the one which he so often played for us and now, as my mother watched, he drew his bow and a light, improvised melody flew out of the instrument like a group of small birds.

Then he explained to Ethel how to do it. Ethel tried, but even on the violin with the more beautiful tone the sounds were horrible. My mother’s hands went to her ears as she heard Ethel try to play. Even I winced. Suddenly my father noticed my mother. For some reason he seemed ashamed. I do not know why.

Usually he was the most courteous of men, but this time he took the violin from Ethel and put it quickly in a case without saying a word. Then he put his own violin away. It was all done in an uncomfortable silence.

After dinner, which was eaten in unpleasant quiet, Ethel went back to singing her own songs and my father went back to playing his own times. It seemed to me the incident was forgotten.

It was not so, though. When it was late and my mother had gone to bed and my father was joining her, they began to talk.

“So,'’ my mother said sadly. “You will not teach me or the children, but you will teach Ethel.”

“It was a joke. It was something to have fun. The noise she made was so bad it was amusing.”

“No, it was not amusing,”my mother said.

By this time I was in their room in my pajamas. My sister joined me.

“What’s the matter. Mamma?” my sister asked.

“Is something wrong?" I asked my father.

“Do we have a quorum?” my father asked, half in annoyance.

“Your father will teach Ethel the violin, but not us,”my mother said sadly. She looked very small and pale in the bed, not at all as beautiful and alive as Ethel.

“No. It is not that. She is jealous, your mother.”

“Such a thing!” my mother said indignantly, sitting up in bed.

“What’s ‘jealous’?” my little sister inquired.

“No,”my mother repeated. “It is not jealousy. It is nothing like that. It is something nobody would understand.”

“Why?” I asked. “ ‘If it can be felt it can be told,’ the teacher in English class says.”

My father chuckled in spite of himself, and he unloosened the laces of his shoes. My mother was silent, awhile. Then she spoke without looking at us.

“It is two things,” she said quietly. “It is shame because I have to admit you are right: it is not everyone who should be allowed to play the violin. But there is something else which is more important.”

She was again silent and none of us spoke. Afler a while she went on: “It is the horrible thought that such terrible and painful sounds can come from the same place where, before, such sweet sounds came. It is so wrong it is shameful. It is like being drunk at one’s own wedding.”

My father started to chuckle but he stopped. He put his arm around my mother and he said gently, “You flatter me. You tell me I have been so good a husband that I have been able to keep from you all these years the knowledge that every lovely thing can also become a painful one.”

My mother looked up at him and smiled. We were all happy to see her face brighten. My father, however, was solemn. He went quickly from the room and when he returned he had with him the expensive violin that Ethel had caused to sound so bad.

This violin he took from the case and slowly broke it into pieces. Me did not break it violently or with anger. He merely caused it to disintegrate so that it was no longer a source of painful and unhappy sounds. Then he took the other violin, the one he played at home.

“There,” he said joyfully, “the painful one is dead. Here is the lovely one.”

He played something so intimate, so tender, so melodious, that none of us moved for a few moments after he had finished. Event then, only my mother spoke.

“Oh,” she cried with delight, “those sweet, sweet sounds!”