Lev’s Violin by Helena Attlee

4 out of 5 stars

It was a night that she can still remember now, the full crowd, the warmth of the evening even though she was in Wales at the time. There came the moment in the concert where the violinist stepped up to play. The other instruments faded and the first notes flowed out from the strings.

When I heard the violin speak for the first time, with a voice powerful enough to open pores and unbuckle joints, and a shocking intimacy that left us all stupid with longing for emotions larger, wilder sadder and more joyful than we ever had known.

It became a memory and something precious in that very moment.

It was a bit of luck that after the concert they walked out and spotted the violinist. She went over to talk to him. He said that he had been told that the instrument had been made in Italy in the 18th century, but he had got it from a Russian and it is called Lev’s violin after the guy who had owned it before. He got it out of the case for her to see.

Expecting a pristine instrument, Attlee was surprised to see it worse for wear. Cradling it in her arms like a baby she realised that it carried the presence of everyone who had ever played it. He had been told that it was absolutely worthless when he had taken it to be valued. But surely a violin that was made in Cremona, home to the master craftsman, Stradivarius, and sounded like it did, must have a story behind it?

She thought about the concert and the sound of the violin a lot over the next few months, partly as the process of clearing her mother’s possessions meant that she wondered a lot about the stories that the things that we own have to tell us. As luck would have it she was offered work in Milan and that was really close to Cremona; she would go onto the town after to find out more about the history of the instruments made there.

It was the beginning of a journey that would take her from the workshops of that town and back into the past learning how they are made. She journeys high into the alps to see where the wood is sourced from and heads to Russia to meet Lev, the previous owner of the violin. Each of these helps her uncover a little more information about this particular instrument and the wider history of the various European diasporas that took the violins and the craft of making them all over the continent. She meets a modern-day luthier, Melvin Goldsmith who happens to make some of the best sounding violins mostly by not following conventional techniques. What would really tell her just what this violin that she had become a tiny bit obsessed with, is a dendrochronology check. Perhaps after that, it would reveal its secrets. Attlee was just about to find out.

It struck me that although people make things, things are very often the making of people

I really liked this, Attlee writes well and this has a strong coherent narrative as she follows the trail of Lev’s violin to north Italy and on into Russia gradually uncovering its history. I liked the blend of history, travel and memoir that has enough of each of them to balance it. If you have any interest in the history of music then you’d probably like this.

The violin is laying broken in it’s case and there is a crowdfunded here to raise the money to have it rebuilt and restored so it can be heard once again. You can donate money here

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  1. Dorothy ~Jane McLachlan ~ Wortley

    Thank You for this beautifully clear review. I almost purchased this on my last Bookshop trip but a few other items I had ordered had come in ( Art Supplies ).
    Added to my ” wish – list “.
    I love the idea of a piece of history still being used to bring joy.

    • Paul

      I hope you enjoy it when you read it.

  2. Liz Dexter

    This sounds lovely and also very well done, certainly one for the wish list.

    • Paul

      My library had a copy, which was helpful!

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