This compendium woke me up to Mozart, and I've been unceasingly attentive ever since.
As she stuffed the last of the music books into the narrow spaces remaining in the back seat of her daughter’s car, Rebecca Venable ducked Haley’s searching looks. “Mom,” pronounced Haley. “I can take care of this. There isn’t much more to pack. Couldn’t get much more in there anyway.”
Rebecca finally looked at her daughter. “I just don’t want you to be late,” she said. “It’s a long drive. And the weather is bad an hour north of here. Did you check the forecast?”
Haley fixed her mother with chocolate-brown eyes, with her father’s eyes. “It’s okay, Mom,” she said. “I’ve driven in rain before.”
Rebecca stared at her daughter without speaking, then said, “I still don’t know why you’re doing this. Music? A Masters in music? You’ve said you don’t want to teach. So what are you going to do with a Masters in music?”
“We talked about this, Mom,” said Haley, modulating her tone like a Mozart minuet. “I’ll figure it out.”
“And how are you going to pay for this?” Rebecca continued. “You haven’t saved enough, you didn’t work long enough before you applied for grad school. You don’t have an instrument, you can’t afford to buy one, and I can’t help you with it, you know I can’t.”
Haley turned to the car and carefully pushed the door closed. “I know,” she said. She walked back toward the house, saying over her shoulder, “I’ve got a couple of phone calls to make before I go.”
Three years earlier, for his 50th birthday, Rebecca bought her husband Vince tickets to his first opera. He was partial to mysteries, so she guessed he’d like The Magic Flute, with its dark, secret society that turned out to be not what it seemed. Rebecca was right – Vince did like it. “This is great!” he exulted over plastic cups of white wine at what he insisted on calling “halftime” in the downstairs bar at the Opera House.
Rebecca smiled, reached out to squeeze the sleeve of her husband’s sport coat, and said, “I’m so glad you like your birthday gift.”
Vince liked it so much that he wanted to see The Abduction from the Seraglio, scheduled for a couple of months down the line, especially when Rebecca mentioned that two Mozart operas in a season was rare. But he couldn’t seem to pin Rebecca down on a date for Abduction, so he started buying Mozart CD’s. He began with one called Mozart’s Greatest Hits. “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” the Figaro overture, the Elvira Madigan piano concerto, the sprightly allegro from Sonata No. 15, the elegantly swaying minuet from Divertimento No. 17, “Rondo Alla Turca” (“Hey!” Vince shouted. “That’s on Dave Brubeck’s Time Out album, the one with “Take Five!”), the minuet from Don Giovanni, and variations on “Ah! Vous Dirai-je, Maman” (Hey!” Vince yelled. “That’s Twinkle Twinkle Little Star!”). The notes danced through the living room night after night, Vince swaying in rapture with his eyes closed. “He’s cute,” Haley said to her mother, while Rebecca rolled her eyes.
Over a period of several months, Vince graduated to the Mozart symphonies. He started with the 41st, Jupiter, since that’s the one he heard most often on the classical station he’d found on the radio. Soon, however, he was heading backward through Mozart, to the earlier symphonies. He especially liked the festive 34th, with all those trumpets and drums. And eventually he found the 20th, also festive, more trumpets, the allegro finale a rollicking jig from start to finish. “Really?” said Rebecca. “The 20th? I think he was pretty young when he wrote that.”
“He was young when he wrote all of them,” Vince replied. Rebecca opened her mouth to respond, thought a moment, then remained silent.
After he’d run through the Mozart symphonies, Vince started in on the violin concertos. “Concerti,” he called them. He’d been reading up. “Did you know that Mozart was pretty good on the violin and viola?” he said to Rebecca and Haley over dinner one night. “I mean, who knew? Everybody just wanted to see him play the piano, he was such a little genius.”
“Harpsichord, Daddy,” Haley explained with a smile. “He was playing a harpsichord in those days.”
“Right,” said Vince. “Harpsichord. The piano-forte, at least the modern version, that came later.” Rebecca and Haley looked at each other. “Anyway,” Vince continued. “Mozart’s old man didn’t like him playing the string instruments. Mozart on the piano – I mean, harpsichord – that was the family’s meal ticket.”
The next night at dinner, Vince asked Rebecca where her violin was. He assumed she still had it, he had seen it several years ago, somewhere. “You were all-state orchestra in high school, so you must have been good. What happened?”
“Parenthood,” Rebecca smiled.
“So where’s your violin?” Vince pressed.
“In the back of the hall closet, I think,” Rebecca replied. “Would you please pass the mashed potatoes?”
Decades earlier, when Rebecca turned 16, her parents had presented her with an exquisite violin, the F-holes curling on either side of the bridge – were they smiling or frowning?
Rebecca hadn’t particularly wanted to start on the school violin in sixth grade, and she hadn’t necessarily wanted to continue when she entered high school. “But you’re wonderful at it, Sweetie, with those long, slender fingers,” her mother protested in the lilting voice that echoed the lyric contralto she once was. “And with your hair flowing over your shoulders, you and your violin are a vision together. Very attractive on stage. You’re picture perfect.”
Actually, Rebecca’s favorite picture was the team photo the last year she played soccer, before after-school practice collided with advanced violin lessons. Long fingers weren’t a bad asset for a goalie, either. But she did have a knack for positioning on the violin’s fingerboard, and the afternoon she won first chair in a fierce competition with Lansy Harrison-Broyle, the orchestra’s reigning queen, was, Rebecca had to admit, fixed in the firmament of her memory. Rebecca didn’t relinquish the Concert Mistress chair until the day she graduated.
“Thank you for a wonderful gift,” she said to her parents over cake the night of her 16th birthday, reaching out to place her fingers on the glowing new instrument.
The violin wasn’t in the hall closet, as Rebecca had said. Vince sat on the arm of his recliner in the living room and thought. He had once overheard Rebecca promise her wedding dress to Haley. “Really, Mommy?” Haley had exclaimed. “Where is it?” It was packed in the guest room closet, far right corner, Rebecca had replied, and, Vince discovered after bolting from his recliner, so was the violin.
It had three strings, and Vince figured there should be four. One of the turning knobs at the top was messed up, broken in half vertically. The thing where Rebecca put her chin was rubbed a little raw, but intact. Overall, not bad. But not perfect.
Figuring out where to get the violin refurbished was not a problem – Vince had heard Haley talk about a shop downtown where her friends went to get their instruments fixed. And sneaking it out of the house wasn’t a problem, either. He stashed it in the car the night before he was due for a doctor’s appointment. The next day, he went to the doctor for his final checkup before starting chemo, then hustled over to the music fix-it shop. Sneaking the violin back into the house a couple of months later was tougher, since Rebecca was driving him in for his chemo sessions at that point, and driving him home. But he finally snagged the violin one Saturday, on the pretense of a trip to the camera store. “I’d like to finally get frames for those shots of Haley with her college diploma,” he told Rebecca. “She looks so proud.” Rebecca emerged on the porch and watched him drive away, continuing to stare down the street long after he had turned the corner.
Vince had planned well, allowing enough time. He presented his gift to Rebecca three weeks before her 49th birthday, figuring he might not be around to celebrate on the real day. And he was right.
While Haley was inside making her last phone calls before driving away to grad school, Rebecca peered through the car’s window and examined the passenger seat for available space. She returned to the house. When she re-emerged, Haley was back at the car with her purse, ready to go. Looking around for her mother, Haley froze when she saw Rebecca descending the front steps carrying her violin case. Her mother crossed the front yard to the curb, held out the violin. “Mom, no,” said Haley. “No. You’ve just started up with your string quartet. You need this.”
Rebecca placed the case in Haley’s hands and looked into her daughter’s chocolate eyes, Vince’s eyes. “There are plenty around here to borrow,” Rebecca replied. “This one is yours.”
(Word count: 1,493)
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