March 4, 2013
Rudolf Kolisch’s name came up while I was at the Marlboro Music Festival this summer. The distinguished violinist had been a Marlboro participant late in life. Along with his other remarkable accomplishments, Kolisch was the rare violinist who played the instrument “left-handed.” Because of a childhood injury to the middle finger of his left hand, Kolisch reversed the traditional practice of holding the violin in the left hand, the bow in the right, and began his violin studies all over again.
The violin has almost always been set up for the traditional hand positions. The instrument’s four strings, E, A, D, and G, sit right to left on the bridge, the bass bar placed under the left side of its upper plate, and the sound post connecting upper and lower plates positioned on the right side to best project the violin’s tonal range. But why did this arrangement win out over hands reversed? My friend, violinist Benjamin Bergmann, thinks that it may have come from the majority of right-handed gentlemen from the Baroque onwards who both fenced and played a stringed instrument. If they held their swords in the right hand, wouldn’t the inclination be to hold another long, slender object- a violin bow, for example- in the same hand, assuming those gentlemen survived their duels.
I’ve always been amused to hear people talk about left-handed violinists. All the violinists I know, yours truly included, play with both hands- even those so-called left-handed fiddlers, as far as I can tell. Someone capable of playing the violin with only one hand, left or right, could make a fortune as a circus attraction.
The very idea of a one-handed violinist reminds me of something that happened to me at Marlboro close to fifty years ago. The festival has always been about the glories of chamber music, but we young musicians needed some sort of physical exercise as a counter balance to sitting in a chair fiddling away for hours each day. Some tried swimming, others walked or ran. My choice was tennis. As a relative beginner, I wasn’t very good and certainly not very wise. I fell running for a backhand and fractured my wrist on the hard court surface. Within hours, I had seen a local doctor, had the necessary x-rays taken, and had my hand and arm put in a cast.
That should have been the end of this unfortunate episode except that Irene Serkin, wife of pianist and Marlboro founder Rudolf Serkin, got wind of the accident. She was shocked that I had entrusted my injury to a doctor with only regional experience when my very career as a violinist could be in jeopardy. This would not do. In no time at all, Mrs. Serkin had made an appointment with her doctor in Philadelphia for that very day, booked a flight, and arranged for someone to drive me to the airport.
On the way out of Marlboro, my driver and I stopped at Gibbsy’s convenience store for something to eat. Gibbsy was one of those taciturn New Englanders who chose to keep conversation limited to such utterances as “Nope,” “Yep,” or “That’ll be $1.98″. I must have been in Gibbsy’s store dozens of times without hearing much more than an abbreviated sentence or two out of him.
I could see Gibbsy eyeing my cast as I brought a sandwich and drink to the counter. He rang the items up without comment, but curiosity must have finally won out.
“What’cha do to your arm?” Gibbsy asked.
“I broke it.” I answered. Gibbsy thought this over briefly.
“Where ya goin now?”
“I’m going to Philadelphia, Gibbsy.”
Gibbsy pondered this last answer a bit longer before coming out with his third and final question.
“Got much use for one-armed violinists down there?”
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