March 3, 2016
Our dog, Tessa, died in the middle of a blizzard in New York City this January. Almost twelve years old and certainly slowing down with age, Tessa no longer frolicked joyfully in the park as she once had, and lately climbing steps of any kind had become painfully difficult for her. Still, her death was completely unexpected and has left an empty space in our hearts and in our daily lives.
My wife, Dorothea, and I found Tessa at a Border collie rescue farm when she was six months old. Tessa was part Border collie and part larger dog of unknown origin. Black and white, with long legs and oversized white paws, Tessa immediately won us over with her striking good looks and her mischievous personality.
Only when Dorothea and I brought Tessa home did we begin to realize how strong her Border collie traits were. She was loving and deeply devoted to both of us and to our immediate family, but she tried to herd us when we went on walks, and when strangers entered our space, she considered it her duty to warn them by barking forcefully. It was Tessa’s way of saying that they were merely auditioning for the right to stay. Some long-time friends she accepted, some she never quite did. Once guests had settled into the living room, dining room, or kitchen areas, Tessa would become upset if any of them dared to get up to go elsewhere. Tessa demanded that the herd stay in place until she gave permission to do otherwise. Even our Guarneri String Quartet, which rehearsed in my living room countless times, could not escape her intense scrutiny (read barking) upon entering the apartment. Tessa often settled under the piano while our quartet rehearsed. The running joke during breaks was cellist Peter Wiley’s mock-pleading request: Arnold, Tessa’s here. I have to go to the bathroom. Could you hold my hand?
As time went on, Tessa developed some kind of relationship to my violin practicing. Moments after I began, she would come up to me and poke me gently with her nose, asking in effect for an affectionate stroke or two. If I was practicing behind a closed door, Tessa would scratch on the door and stubbornly refuse to stop until I let her in. Then she would lie down near me for a while, although I was never quite sure if it was to listen to my fiddling or for my company. Sooner or later, Tessa would get up and leave, and then I wondered whether my playing had displeased her—was it perhaps my intonation? My sound? My musicianship? All of the above?
I have had other practicing encounters both good and bad with animals earlier in my life. When I stayed at my sister-in-law Ulrike’s house while concertizing in Germany, her dog, Nauka, would howl in distress when I played either of two notes high up in the violin register. I quickly learned to simply eliminate those odious tones for the duration of my stay. On the other hand, my friend Winnie’s donkey, Amelia, chimed in with an enthusiastic hee-haw every time I practiced the Mendelssohn violin concerto in the guest room that faced Amelia’s barn.
The question still remained for Tessa: Was she for, against, or merely indifferent to music? When a violin student once came with her pianist to play for me, Tessa, according to her custom, barked, then looked the two of them over, finally decided that they were allowed to enter the premises, and lay down under the piano as the lesson began. Perhaps it was the lesson’s early hour, but my student’s playing of the Scherzo movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Sonata in C Minor for Violin and Piano seemed downright sleepy to me. The series of accents on succeeding notes in one section were too bland, too lacking in energy. I told my student about Beethoven’s sense of humor, about how each accent must sparkle, and how every succeeding one should sparkle more and more.
Finally, I asked her to play the movement again. To my absolute delight, the student’s playing was transformed. Beethoven’s accents fairly leaped out of her violin, each more successfully than the last. Her rendition was everything I could have asked for, but apparently not for Tessa. With that last exuberant accent filling the entire living room. Tessa sprang out from under the piano and, barking wildly, she charged at the poor young lady who in fright almost dropped her violin. What was going on in Tessa’s mind? Did she, dog music critic in the making, find fault with the student’s interpretation? Or was Tessa lovingly guarding my turf as well as hers? Nobody is going to play Beethoven’s Seventh Sonata as well as my master and get away with it.
It took several years before Dorothea and I came to realize that Tessa could sing. She had always possessed a sing-song way of asking for food, or for a walk, or for a special treat. But on one occasion in upstate New York, Tessa responded to a hooting barn owl in the distance by lifting her head high, forming a small “O” with her mouth, and then, to our astonishment, producing a most poignant sound—part languid dog bark, part mournful song. Dorothea, half in jest, first imitated the owl, and then Tessa herself. Their duet lasted as long as Dorothea continued her end of the singing, and as soon as she stopped, so did Tessa. From that moment on, Dorothea and I would occasionally sing with Tessa. In this matter, Tessa exhibited none of her Border collie selectivity. If anyone, family member, friend, stranger, and on one occasion another dog, wanted to sing with Tessa, Tessa was always happy to respond in kind.
I once saw a documentary film about wolves in which after all the daily necessities of their lives had been taken care of—hunting, eating, etc.—the pack sat in front of their den and howled, or you might say, sang together before retiring for the night. Why were the wolves singing? And why was Tessa singing with us? For that matter, why do we humans get together to sing or play musical instruments? Perhaps there is not that much distance in terms of need between a performance of, say, Mozart’s Requiem and that pack of wolves singing in front of their den—the need both to express our innermost feelings and to bond together through the medium of sound. Certainly, singing with Tessa was far from being a circus act or a comedy routine. It was a heartfelt communication on a level quite different from the usual one between dog and human.
I can see the field near our house where Tessa is buried when I practice now. She no longer can hear the sounds coming out of my violin, but it is a consolation for me still to be able to summon up her poignant song in my inner ear. I will miss going for long walks with Tessa, throwing a stick to her, and stroking the silky fur on the back of her neck. But as much as anything else, I will miss making music with her.
Below is “The Duo”: Arnold and Tessa singing together.
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