I. Andante tranquillo; Allegro agitato
These things the small boy will always remember: a dark wood cabinet, a tall red vase, a grand piano. His father plays the violin; his mother accompanies. The small boy sits beside the piano. The music reminds of him of happy things: dancing fountains, sunny afternoons, his father’s arms.
“Come here, little one,” says his father.
The small boy has never touched the violin, which is very old and very valuable. But today his father helps him hold it under his chin and draw the bow across the strings. It makes a sound that is almost beautiful.
His father laughs.
“Never mind, little one. You will learn.”
His mother makes a noise that is half a sigh, half a sob. The small boy does not understand the reason for it—but someday he will remember, and know.
A portrait of Chairman Mao now hangs above the vase. Much has changed.
The boy’s father has locked his violin in the cabinet; the piano lid stays closed. His parents are afraid. They smile at him, as always, but he is old enough to see the fear in their eyes.
One day, his parents gather music from the shelves and toss it into a metal bucket. The boy watches, fascinated, as his father lights a match and drops it into the bucket. Flames lick the edges of the music, then ignite it. All three of them watch—the boy fascinated, his mother trembling, his father’s face unreadable. Then his mother whispers jaggedly,
“We must hurry...”
His parents pull their records off the shelves—Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev—and dash them against the piano one by one. The boy helps. For a while, he laughs as the records break. But then his mother sobs, and he realizes she is crying. After this, he does not laugh.
His father picks up his violin and cradles it in his arms, as heavy-booted feet mount the stairs. All of them stand very still, waiting, until someone pounds at the door...
II. Adagio lamentoso
The boy is older, and wiser. Now he knows that his parents were dangerous counter-revolutionaries, and that he is tainted by association. The only remedy is re-education through hard work. Someday, if he learns the words of the "Little Red Book" by heart, he may also serve the People.
Meanwhile he serves by planting rice. He wades into the field, holding a rice seedling in his hand, then bends and embeds it deep in the mud. It is hard, slow work, and sometimes a tear slips down his cheek. This is weakness, and the boy steels his mind against it. His back aches, but neither is this of any consequence.
The boy lives with a peasant family in a mud-brick, thatched-roof hut. He sleeps beneath a dirty quilt with several other children. But one evening, as he walks to the peasant hovel, a man meets him—an old man, with dark leathery skin.
“Follow me,” he says. “You will live with me now.”
The boy nods and obeys. He knows that the peasants do not need an extra mouth.
The man’s hut is like the peasants’, except for the traditional two-stringed erhu against the wall.
“You are the son of Zeng Jin, of the Central Conservatory in Beijing?” asks the man, when the door is closed.
The boy nods, expecting a blow or a taunt—the usual rewards for this admission.
But the man says,
“I knew your father, long ago. I taught him; I will teach you.”
“What will you teach me?” whispers the boy.
“I will teach you the erhu,” he says. “And I will also teach you... this.”
He kneels, pulls back a section of the reed mat on the floor, and retrieves something from a recess carved into the earth.
It is a violin.
III. Allegro con passione
The man’s name is known to concert patrons in many cities, but this is his first appearance with the Beijing Symphony. Now he stands on stage, near the conductor. He closes his eyes during the orchestral introduction.
The orchestra musicians are young, focused, professional. They do not know what he knows, but he feels no resentment. The past is his burden, not theirs.
He lifts his violin and draws his bow across the strings. His solo blends into the texture of the accompaniment, then soars above it, like a prayer for all the songs that were lost in that dark night.
NOTE: Teachers and performers of “Western” classical music suffered greatly during China’s Cultural Revolution. Many were imprisoned or made to work at menial tasks, and they and their children were often sent to the countryside for “re-education” among the peasants. Some did not survive. At the end of those difficult years, interest in Western music surged. Today, China’s conservatories train many of the world’s most gifted musicians.
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