I am given a violin and a book on how to play it - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

Go to content

Main menu:

I am given a violin and a book on how to play it

To aid my convalescence from my 'appendicitis' operation, Aunty Nellie in Birmingham sent me a four-volume set of books called 'The Little Music Library', published in the USA in 1940-2 by Grosset and Dunlap; I'm referring to it now as I write this piece. The four books in the set are: 1-The Story of 100 Operas; 2-The Story of 100 Symphonic Favorites (sic); 3-The Story of 100 Great Composers; 4-The Story of Orchestral Music and Its Times. I read all the books from cover to cover and the set became my constant companion for many years although much of it, and especially Volume 4, it is now 75 years out-of-date. The 100 symphonic favourites included many works that are still amongst my personal favourites: 7 of Beethoven's 9 symphonies (not including 1 and 8), Brahms (all 4), Haydn (numbers 94, 101 and 104 only), and Mendelssohn (just number 4). There are also quite a few 'favourites' that I have still never heard of, for example: 'Adventures in a Perambulator' by Carpenter; 'The White Peacock' by Charles T Griffes; 'A Victory Ball' by  Earnest H Schelling.

Volume 4, on orchestral music and its times, was really a calendar showing a historical event and a linked music event for each of 100 years. There was no mention of World War 2 because when the books were published the Americans were still, by and large, unaware that such a war was in progress. On the other hand there were some very peculiar listings. For 1935 (see scan below), the year of my birth, an Oklahoma lawyer defending a bank robber sang Home Sweet Home to the Jury (it doesn't explain why!); Dohnanyi composed his Symphonic Minutes; and Mussolini banned crooners from the Italian airwaves. Most interesting as far as I was concerned were the listings in tiny print in the Appendix to Volume 3 of all the major works composed by the 100 composers. From those listings I gradually produced a list of my own favourites.

Just a few days after I returned home from my operation, I was given a full-size violin by a neighbour. As far as I am aware, I had never expressed any particular interest in wanting to play a violin but I was really delighted with the gift because it provided a new outlet for my burgeoning interest in classical music. By that time I had stopped going to Christ Church on Sundays because the incumbent vicar, having returned from the war, had discontinued Sung Matins and I had the temerity to tell him I didn't approve. Looking back now, I suspect that most of the wartime choir and congregation had either passed away or passed on to pastures new and the vicar was probably trying to attract a new breed of parishioners.

The violin came in a rather tatty and heavy wooden case. Accessories included a misshapen lump of sticky, yellowish resin the purpose of which was a mystery until someone explained later, and a grotty tuning whistle to enable the four strings to be tuned accurately. The kindly neighbour showed me roughly how to tune the strings, gave me a well-thumbed copy of 'A Violin Method for Absolute Beginners - Volume 1' and then beat a hasty retreat up the street and out of earshot, leaving my parents wondering whether to be grateful or apprehensive.

The tuning whistle had, apparently, had a long and busy life judging by the tarnished state of the metal and the suspicious bits of grit stuck on the outside and rattling around inside the four pipes. I suspect that the item had spent a lot of time in some small boy's pocket rather than in the receptacle inside the violin case designed for its safe and clean keeping. No-one worried much about hygiene in the 1940s. I never did discover whether the pitch given out by each of the pipes bore any resemblance to the true frequencies needed; I could detect that one of them was definitely off-pitch because there was an interval of slightly less than a perfect fifth between two adjacent pipes.

For those who don't understand these terms, allow me to explain. A perfect fifth is one of the two easiest intervals for anyone with a modicum of musical intelligence to recognise; the other is the perfect octave. Intervals of a fifth and an octave even a few cycles per second (Hertz) too few or too many are no longer perfect and are truly awful to listen to, so I invented my own tuning method. First of all, I assumed the A pipe was correct so I tuned the violin A string with the aid of the tuning pipe and then I tuned, solely by ear, the E and D strings a perfect fifth either side of that and the G string a perfect fifth lower than the D string. By so doing, all the strings were correctly tuned with respect to each other. The strings may not have been accurately tuned to Concert Pitch but the intervals between the four were perfect and that was good enough for me - then. It would have been so much easier with one of the small digital tuning aids available these days.
I had, of course, never held a violin before but, because I am left-handed, I automatically picked it up with my left hand and took the bow in my right hand. That was a good start. I could tell that my violin hadn't been used for quite a long time because the tuning pegs were very stiff to turn. I soon learned that if I didn't keep those pegs pushed hard into their sockets, sooner or later one of them would pop out causing the string to unwind alarmingly.

The violin was not fitted with a chin rest but I didn't miss one because I had no idea then that there was such a thing. The lack of a chin rest, however, did make it difficult to clamp the instrument under my chin and made it impossible to hold there without the use of my left hand as a prop. Initially, I grasped the violin neck extremely tightly with my left hand because I was afraid I might lose my grip altogether, but that made it awkward to press down on the fingerboard to make other notes. Eventually I discovered that if I let the violin rest in the V-shape made by my thumb and first finger, my left hand could more easily slide up and down the fingerboard whilst still keeping the instrument secure under my chin. The disadvantage was that I quickly started getting a nagging pain in the web between my thumb and first finger so every few minutes I had to put the violin down and have a rest. My parents soon came to value those interludes.

By comparison with the two volumes of choral music that I had (Handel's Messiah and Haydn's The Creation), the elementary tunes in the primer that came with the violin were so simple that I could hum them accurately on sight. It was more difficult learning how to reproduce them on my violin. However, a diagram in the primer showed the principles of how to finger the strings to make stopped notes. The very first tune in Volume 1 was Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star in the key of D Major (two sharps) and all the notes were annotated with the recommended fingering. As soon as I had the instrument tuned to my satisfaction, I launched into the tune with great enthusiasm - and my parents promptly withdrew to the other end of the house. It turned out that tunes in the key of D Major are very suitable for one's very first violin lessons because all four open, ie un-fingered, strings, G, D, A and E, naturally form part of the D Major scale although, as Eric Morecambe once memorably said to André Previn about his playing of Grieg's Piano Concerto, "I'm playing all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order."

/continue here or click here to go back to the top of this page

Back to content | Back to main menu