Lately I’ve been listening to Mama.
I mean her music. Specifically, her Bach: a performance of the Partita No. 2 in D minor from a 1984 concert in New Milford, Conn., preserved — sort of — on wobbly cassette. Very wobbly cassette. Give it a listen:
I dug it up for an upcoming podcast on pioneering female violinists being prepared by Elfenworks Productions. Asked for recordings of her, I set about unearthing some of the cleaner old tapes from the stash in my attic. They’re all from her little Connecticut concerts in the 1980s, and they’re hissy, fuzzy, incomplete. One of them — the Bach — awes me while it breaks my heart. The awe comes from her artistry and impact, from the immediacy and modernity of her playing, and from her stunning proximity in the room after all this time. She died in ’94 but lives in the fullness of her music, her voice on the violin as recognizable to me as her laughter or her speech. For the first 15 minutes or so, listening feels like visiting with her. Mama, I say aloud. Mama.
Then the heartbreak sets in. There, the final stretch of Bach’s towering masterwork, smack in the middle of the stunning, celebrated, intricate “Chaconne,” the tape begins to stretch and yaw and teeter. I howl NOOOOOOO and swear loudly in ways Mama would not approve. But I remember that recital. I remember that piece. I remember her poring over the urtext, its pages spread on the dining-room table, as she determined the precise bowings and fingerings and emphases to bring out Bach’s intent.
In performance, she didn’t pussyfoot around; she played with fire and spit and a brilliant, muscular fearlessness. She was a force. Her music was a revelation. It remains forceful and revelatory, even decades later and warped by sagging tape. The ravages of time and aging technology were not her fault, just as the premature end to her career was not her fault. It was fate’s fault. Sexism’s fault. The fault of a million little things that might have gone her way, but didn’t.
The Dutch label that signed her to a contract folded shortly before releasing her first recording. Then she became a mother, a move that many women have paid for with their careers. She took a small break from her international tours — from her recitals at Carnegie Hall, from her solo stints with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy — to bring two little girls into the world. When she wanted to return to concertizing, she learned from Ormandy that the global stage had room for just one female violinist. Someone had taken her spot while she was away. Door shut. End of story.
But it wasn’t, really. Mama was never bitter: That’s simply how it was for women who set out as soloists. And she never stopped playing, never stopped reaching for the elusive musical ideal, instead bringing it to little rural audiences. She taught, worked at her music, grew with it, never lost an ounce of creative drive. The music meant no less to her than it had at the height of her career. It became no less in her hands. What a vibrato she had. What a soaring tone. There was a power and a poetry to her work at the fiddle — and a personality behind it — that informed everything she played. She was both Romantic and Baroque, utterly expressive and yet utterly unsentimental. She never uttered a false word or played a false note — even in the wobbly heartbreak of that “Chaconne.”
I hear in Mama’s Bach all the strength and truth and love in my mother’s voice, all the authenticity and authority in it, the way her faced used to flush and her muscles used to knot and her small, strong, fleet, exquisitely careful hands revealed all that the music had to say.
I listen, and I miss her.