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The Mystery of the Missing Viola

A parable of the prodigal player whose instrument was lost and now is found.
Musical instruments, by Brueghel

via Bridgeman Images

Jan (the Elder) Brueghel: Hearing, 1617

“Perhaps the mystery is a little too plain,” said Dupin.
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Purloined Letter”

A couple of years ago, my wife discovered that some pieces of jewelry were missing from a box in her closet. They had belonged to her grandmother, and were a gift from her mother. My wife filed a police report. The prime suspect, a member of the boisterous crew of young women who came every two weeks to clean our house, was swiftly identified. Apparently, according to her mortified boss, it wasn’t the first time. She denied everything, however, and the evidence had vanished. A sly-looking detective came to our house to take down my wife’s description of her grandmother’s necklace and the gold locket with a tiny picture of her grandfather secreted inside. Then he casually asked if anything else was missing. My wife paused for a moment before she answered, to my surprise, “Chris’s viola.”

It’s true that my viola was missing, had been missing, in fact, since we had moved to our current house, ten years earlier. Repeatedly, I had gotten down on my hands and knees to rummage around in the chaotic little closet next to the fireplace, filled with sheet music and old LPs, where I was pretty sure I had stowed it. When this ritual failed to produce the viola, I began to wonder whether I had somehow managed to leave it behind in the old house. But it had never occurred to me that the viola had been stolen. And besides, it seemed unlikely that after furtively pocketing my wife’s jewelry, the thief had somehow spirited away my thirty-two-inch viola case as well.  

The detective methodically asked about price, provenance, and when I had last played the instrument. In my failure to answer any of his questions with any precision, I succumbed to that familiar feeling, when under the scrutiny of the police, of being under investigation myself. I couldn’t even recall where, or exactly when, I had bought the viola. Was it in Philadelphia, where some of the best stringed instruments were sold, or in Washington, D.C., where my girlfriend at the time lived?

I could have told the detective that I had taken up the viola on a whim as a kid (my two brothers played the double bass and the cello, respectively), or that my cheap German instrument increasingly showed its limitations as I got more serious about music in college and I desperately needed an upgrade—to this, more finely made Italian instrument. But, of course, none of this information would have helped solve the crime. I had no idea, and no documentation, of what the viola had cost. I hadn’t even seen it in ten years, and yet now my wife and I were suggesting that it had been stolen just a few weeks earlier. The detective, I thought, would be well within his rights in suspecting me of insurance fraud.

I did have a vivid memory of how, during our honeymoon in Italy, a few years after I acquired the viola, I had tracked down its maker, Igino Sderci, who shared his workshop with his son in a working-class neighborhood in Florence. I even remembered a joke Sderci had made at the time. He had inquired after the size of my viola, and I had gestured that it was quite large. “Ah,” he said. “We have to be careful. We’re not making cellos!” Augmented by the pride of “getting it,” a joke always seems funnier in a foreign language.

As I tried in vain to piece together my viola’s lost history, I found myself missing it, even longing for it, as though I’d inadvertently trashed a valued friendship. Checking what a Sderci viola now costs (a lot), I vaguely formed an intention of replacing it. I waxed nostalgic about the chamber groups in which I had played during college and graduate school.

I had even been a member of the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra, under the tyrannical eye of Peter Paul Fuchs, when I was a special student at the North Carolina School of the Arts. Like many conductors, Fuchs had a mean streak. Once, he asked the viola section to repeat a passage. “That was better,” he said drily. “Perhaps not all of you were playing.”

Amid all this reverie, I conveniently forgot my limitations as a violist. I had never had much talent for counting difficult rhythms, for example. I rarely practiced for more than a half-hour or so, and generally out of duty rather than desire. Nor did I think too hard about why I hadn’t taken the viola out of its case for twenty years before the last ten when it had been missing. I told myself that my dedication to the viola had been interrupted by the births of our children, when I had taken up the piano instead. “The piano is a better solo instrument,” I said to friends. This was true enough, but I had also somehow misplaced my reasons for playing the viola in the first place.  

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From time to time, the detective sent us images of necklaces and empty lockets. None remotely resembled my wife’s lost treasures. I suspected that he was humoring us, demonstrating his dogged good faith amid a pointless search. I thought of Inspector Dupin’s scorn for ordinary police methods in Poe’s story, poking around with probes and gimlets in the “commonest closets.” No mention was made of my viola. Apparently, the local pawn shops in Western Massachusetts were not well stocked with fancy stringed instruments.

Then, one day, I was sitting in my study, which doubles as a family storeroom for artwork, old magazines, space-heaters, and humidifiers. I thought—and hardly for the first time—that I should restore some order to the clutter. Clawing aside the piles blocking the closet door, I suddenly noticed something I had overlooked before.

The door, which opened onto the same closet that debouched on the other side into the living room, was of full height. The door on the other side, where I had often stooped down to look for my viola, was half its height. It dawned on me—who was the sly detective now?—that there were two floors to the closet, but the upper floor was accessible only from my study. I flung open the door, and there, safely stowed in its little secret compartment, lay my viola, barely six feet away from where I had sat at my desk every single day for the past decade.

My affection for the viola has intensified during these months of Covid misery. Like the teenaged Thomas Bernhard, practicing his violin in a closet during the Allied bombing of Salzburg, I can blot out the horrors for an hour. I have resumed lessons, via Zoom, with a wonderfully demanding violist who used to play with the Lark Quartet. And I’ve joined a group that, masked and socially distanced, sightreads quartets each week in a church downtown. My return to playing has not been quite as triumphant as I might have hoped. I’m still no wiz at counting, and my fingers aren’t as agile as they once were. But—partly because I’ve freely chosen to do it and partly because the prodigal viola was lost to me and now is found—I’m enjoying playing more than I have at any point in my life.        

Meanwhile, I sheepishly reported to the detective that the viola had turned up. I didn’t give any details. And I certainly didn’t mention that I had done Inspector Dupin one better: I had managed to hide the viola from myself.

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