My Daughter Named It Sophia
The tale of my father's violin
By Fang Sheng
The luthier picks up my violin and flips it around by the neck. I don’t know if he’s being casual or if it’s his professional way of handling violins. But I worry the violin might escape his grasp and drop to the floor.
As the instrument flies in between his hands, the luthier softly comments, as if to himself, “The neck and fingerboard are narrower than standard, so is the scroll—but that’s just the individuality of the artisan, it doesn’t affect the sound. The belly is bulgier…the bridge is a bit too high…the fingerboard is also perking…”
As he comments, his assistant uses a small metal ruler to take measurements to verify his observations.
The flipping stops, and he gives me a faint smile, “The violin is a little different from today’s standard templates. I’d say it’s a typical Eastern European mock-up copy. Honestly, it’s not a high-value instrument. But thank you for showing me.”
He nods and leaves the room.
I know the luthier, as highly regarded in his profession as he is, must have seen and handled many Strads and Guaneris. He has little interest in this one or its sentimental value.
My father bought it 70 years ago in Bulgaria.
It was 1951, and the newly-born People’s Republic of China was invited by the Eastern Bloc to attend the Third World Festival of Youth and Students in Berlin. My father and uncle, both teenage students of the Central Conservatory of Music Youth Program, were selected to be part of the group of artists representing the new socialist state.
The Ministry of Culture had sent officials to various cities and regions across the country to search for performers. Two hundred and twenty-two young musicians, dancers, actors and stage technicians were selected from arts organizations and schools and convened in Beijing for a month-long training before embarking by train for Berlin via the Soviet Union. For the new China, this invitation and the international recognition it brought was a big deal.
For my father and uncle, this tour was another kind of a big deal. They were orphaned during the Japanese invasion and occupation of China. Towards the end of the war, as the orphanage was about to close and they were to lose their only home, the two brothers were recruited by the State Conservatory Junior Program.
The school provided free room and board, instruments, and even European musicians from the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra as faculty. The teenage brothers had a life of peace and future musical career to look forward to in a new era. Being selected to participate in The Third World Festival in Berlin launched them onto the international stage much sooner than they had dreamed of.
The exotic oriental colours and sounds made the young Chinese artists superstars at the festival in Berlin. Immediately after, they were invited to a year-long grand tour of Eastern Europe — East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Albania, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, as well as Soviet-occupied Austria. Countries they knew from textbooks and newspapers now welcomed them as distinguished state guests from the new communist power in the east.
For the musicians with little or no experience outside China, touring the cities where great composers such as Beethoven, Mozart, Bach or Chopin had lived and worked, performing at venues where these greats left their footprints, and learning from European musicians while on tour, was an experience that no university education could ever offer.
For the tour, the Chinese government equipped the delegation with everything from nice clothing to their musical instruments. The artists themselves owned nothing. Ever since he had started learning music, my father had always dreamed of owning his own violin. As an impoverished orphan, he simply couldn’t have afforded one.
In addition to feeding them well, the hosting countries also paid them generously—in each country’s local currency. As a gesture to support the anti-imperialist war in Korea, the delegation decided to withhold half of the remuneration to donate to the Resist US and Aid Korea movement in China. Even so, my father and his fellow delegates still ended up having more cash than they had ever seen in their lives.
When they arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, my father’s chance came when the delegation organized a shopping trip to a music store. While many others were busy selecting the musical scores of famous classical composers, father set his eyes on the only violin in the shop. Without hesitation, he pulled out the 10,000 levs he had stashed away and bought the violin—without the bow. He had no idea how much 10,000 levs was actually worth, but he knew if he didn’t spend it, by the time they moved on to another country, this money would be wasted.
For an astronomical amount of approximately US$20, my father, who was barely twenty at the time, owned his first violin. Years later, as I was learning to play the violin and grew big enough to play a full-size (I started with ¾ size violin), my father gave this violin to me. But my musician’s dream didn’t come true, and the instrument was stashed away in the closet in my parent’s home in Beijing for the next thirty years.
Now my young daughter is learning the violin. With some hope of passing this family heirloom along, I brought the violin from Beijing to Canada and asked my daughter’s violin teacher to play it for me. With her professional touch, the instrument made a nice, smooth, chocolatey sound.
The teacher suggested having it appraised and professionally repaired by one of the best luthiers and violin dealers in Toronto. I was not disappointed by the appraisal. After 70 years, its value is in its stories and history.
A couple of months ago, I played this violin accompanied by my daughter in an improv jamming session. We sent the video to my parents in Beijing. Father, now 90, was unable to hear much of sound due to years of slow hearing deterioration. But my mother told me the old man was happy seeing his old friend sing again.
Today I often practice with my daughter on grandpa’s violin. She is proud to have a violinist grandfather.
“Dad, we should name her Sophia, because Grandpa bought it in Sofia!”
The life of my father’s violin has come full circle.