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The Violin and Musical Mayhem

Su Wu 蘇五 and Lei Liu 雷六

September 30, 2020

 

The Violin

|Speak, Memory. Lei Liu, September 22, 2020. In November of 1951 Mother and the six children decamped from Hong Kong, where they had lived the previous three years, to join Father and Da-Ge in Taipei, in a government house on Yong-Kang-Jie 永康街. A new school year had already started in September, but Mother saw to it that Su Wu soon attended Shi-Da-Fu-Zhong 師大附中, or The Affiliated Middle School of the Provincial Normal College (now National Normal University) as a junior high freshman (equivalent to grade 7), and myself, grade 5 at Xing-An 幸安 primary school. Within the next year Su Wu began taking violin lessons from Master Dai Cui-Lun 戴粹倫, head of music at the Provincial Normal College. Su Wu played with a violin that Mother had acquired from a Jewish refugee in Shanghai, perhaps in 1937, who, according to Mother, insisted that she should buy it for US$100. One could see through the f-holes of the violin the inscription: Antonius Stradivarius Cremonensis, Faciebat Anno 1722. Apparently, the violin was modeled after some 1722 Strad.

One day, some time in 1956, when I was also attending SDFZ, in grade 9, Mother brought home a violin and gave it to me, and suggested that I start taking violin lessons from Su Wu. The violin was nothing compared to Su Wu's "Strad", but it must have required Mother much effort and time to save the money needed for its purchase; all Mother would say was that she got it from the market. After that, our modest and unsound-proofed Japanese wooden house on Yong-Kang-Jie had two persons vigorously practicing violin daily. To the best of my memory I cannot recall a single instance when any of the three remaining residences in the household, Father, Mother, and our little sister Nancy, expressed any annoyance at this major irritation. To their tolerance and generosity I am eternally grateful. In the next four, five years, events related to violin playing became a major part of the two brothers' joint extracurricular activities. At the same time both brothers were also members of the track and field team at SDFZ, and had to pay attention to academics that, in their respective time, were sufficient to get them into Taida 台大 (or National Taiwan University 台灣大學), where they also became members of the track and field team. Whereas at school the brothers each hung out in their own circles of classmates and friends, in violin associated activities they were in the same circle; one group they belonged to was the Youth String Orchestra under the direction of the violin teacher Dr. Ma Xi-Cheng 馬熙程. Often they made musical mayhem together, sometimes just the two of them, sometimes in larger group acts. Mangling Bach's double violin concerto (without the piano part) was one of the brothers' favorite pastimes.

In the second half of the 1950s, members of the Lee family began to emigrate, mostly to the United States. After Mother and Nancy left for the States in the November of 1962 Su Wu and I became homeless, and we took separate quarters (i.e., single beds) at NTU's student dormitories. This meant a drastic downsizing of our personal possessions; mine consisted of a single suitcase of clothing and a number of illegally reproduced physics textbooks. It was around this time, with university graduation and the next big career steps to be taken looming ahead, the brothers stopped their violin activities. In early 1963, before heading for Germany, Su Wu handed his "Strad" to me, which almost doubled my possessions by volume because, although the violin is not bulky, the black wooden "coffin" case housing it was (Figure 1). Together with the one luggage stuffed with clothing and illegally copied textbooks, I brought the "Stradt" in its coffin case with me to Canada in the fall of 1964.

Figure 1. A black coffin violin case (from an auction site on the Web).

In 1968 Su Wu left Germany, where he had studied the previous five years, to attend California Institute of Technology. At the time I was writing my PhD thesis at the Brookhaven National Lab on Long Island, NY, where I lived with my young family in an apartment on site. Sometime that summer, when the brothers both visited our parents in their apartment on Mott Street in Chinatown, NYC, I handed the black coffin case to Su Wu and he was reunited with his "Strad". In a September 19, 2020 letter Su Wu wrote: "The big black case disintegrated quite a while ago. In 1980, I bought a sturdy, oblong, polycarbonate case for $150 and a new bow for $90 from a music shop in Livermore (Figure 2). In May 2006, a luthier friend of Liu Ding-Yu 刘定渝 called Barry Hou restored the violin very professionally for $300. I got a super discount for the labor intensive work, because the violin was completely disassembled and then put together again, with a new lacquer, etc... The restoration effort took two months."

Figure 2. The new case.


|Letter, SW to LL, May 22, 2006

Lieber Heem,

Last Saturday, we picked up our violin. We were astounded and pleased with the result.

After 2 months of painstaking repairs, the instrument has been restored to its original glory when it was born, presumably in Prague during the early 1930's. More important than appearances, the sound is so clear and robust, "a healthy voice" as the luthier describes it, as I never heard before. In fact, the healthy voice is so strong that I have to use a mute so that the decibels don't assault my ear as I play.

We thanked the luthier (Mr. Hou) profusely for the fine work. He said it was a team effort, where the other person did most of the intricate tasks; and while a lengthy process, it was fun working on a challenging project.

So I asked to see the other luthier to thank him personally. He is a Shanghai born lad named Jay. Although only 34 years of age, he has been working on violins for near 30 years. His father was a luthier, and Jay was around his father's workshop since he was a crawling toddler. Apparently, an early start is always a tremendous advantage, notwithstanding that Chinese craftsmen are known for their extremely deft hands.

To record this auspicious event, I placed the finished work on my desk and took a picture of this excellent piece of craftsmanship.

Figure 3. The "Strad" after repair, 2006.

Now, I am inspired to play it. To treat this fine instrument solely as a gorgeous piece of decorative "furniture" would amount to an offense no less than criminal negligence.

Thus, I have already ordered from Amazon.com the Hrimaly scales since I am determined to start all over again. Some math-studies time will be conceded to accommodate for violin practice.

In the photo, the black "knob" on the D string is the rubber mute, which can be moved forward to clamp onto the bridge.

The book by Menuhin was a going-away present from Mr. Holt (director of Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic), a "lifetime service award" as he put it. He said the unheard-of length of sentence I received for indentured servitude at his organization was actually equivalent to 33 years of community service contributed by a typical civic-minded generous citizen, who would donate the time for two reading/recording sessions a week.

During my sojourn there, I "read" biology, organic chemistry, math, geology, electronics, astronomy, German literature, history, and other sundry subjects. While my intention was merely further education for self-improvement and spiritual enrichment, I had unknowingly prepared myself for a stint as a venture capitalist, which although much too brief, was just enough to elevate my situation above the status of financial impoverishment. Talk either about a case of "sai4-weng1 shi1-ma3, yan1-zhi1 fei1-fu2" 塞翁失馬,焉知非福 (A loss is a blessing in disguise), or the superiority of a never-say-die Ah-Q spirit, which Mother incessantly advocated.

At the time, I was not interested in Menuhin's book; I was worried about my next meal and figured that fiddling would be the last thing on my mind. Mr. Holt would not take "no thanks" for an answer, saying that the book is an out-of-print gem. He insisted that I accept the book, since "who knows, you might consider playing sometime later after the pain has subsided". Incredibly, sevens years later, here I am, bubbling with enthusiasm like a young boy again.

This instrument is our heirloom; it is yours and mine. You can play it when we are in a barbershop mode, I'll accompany you with the guitar. When we are gone, perhaps Sansan or whoever is musical in the family should keep it. I'm certain that one of your grandchildren would be able to play it beautifully.

Take care, Luv SW


|Letter, LL to SW, May 23, 2006

Lieber Bruder,

From the picture the violin looks absolutely stunning. I can't wait to hear how it sounds. Perhaps when I am less busy with work I'll start playing again, too. Then we will have the pleasure of massacring Bach's double concerto together, again.

Love, Hm.


|Letter, SW to LL, May 23, 2006

Play It Again

 

Yes, Lieber Heem,

Together, we shall mangle Bach

And other pieces we deem

Playable at reduced tempo. Ach!

I can hardly wait,

It's getting so late.

 

Meanwhile, very slowly

I'm bowing open strings,

And trying out Menuhin's unholy

General Preparatory Exercises and such things

As deep breathing, extensive stretching

And yoga moves; the Chapter comprises

Unusual positions which cause much kvetching

As my old joints continuously find surprises.

Menuhin's "whole body preparation" is meant for relaxing,

Why is it that I only feel strain and find it so taxing.

 

It will be a while till I get past

The present phase, of a squealing pig.

Still in a daze, my bowing's not fast,

An event that Robin doesn't dig,

While Tuffy politely tolerates,

And Rimsky immediately vacates.

 

Can you remember the photo below?

How many faces can you name?

Who were the old farts in the middle row?

Does any old friend still look the same?

How many players are still in the game?

 

Despair not, dear PuPu,

Musical days will come again.

Best wishes to all of you,

Have patience until then.

Lots of love from you-know-who,

Me, Su Wu


A photo from 1961. Was it at DongHai University?

Figure 4. Taken probably in spring of 1961, after a concert held by a string group composed of students of the violin master at Si-Tu Xing-Cheng 司徒興城 and friends, DongHai University. Front row from right: Lei Liu 雷六, Zhang Kuan-Rong 张宽容, Yang Han-Zhong 楊漢忠, Li Tai-Xiang 李泰祥, , Yang Sheng-Zu 楊盛祖, Liu Ding-Yu 刘定渝; middle row from right, Diao Shu-Liang 刁树良, 5th, Si-Tu Xing-Cheng, Pan Peng 潘鹏; back row from right, Liu Rong-Xi 劉容西, Jiang Li-Xian 江力賢, Gong/Kung Ying-Sheng 龔應生, ???, Su Wu 蘇五; rest undentified. Thanks to Yang Sheng-Zu for helping to identify some of the people, including Si-Tu Xing-Cheng, in the photo.

Musical mayhem

We played Handel's Concerto Grosso. Because the piece was essentially a violin concerto in disguise, Li Tai-xiang was able to carry the entire string orchestra on his violin. The performance was passable if one did not listen too carefully.

Our performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto in G major was another matter. This concerto is an intricately woven piece where each instrument was equally important and the structure demanded a seamless fit. In our performance, it was each man for himself, which resulted in musical mayhem. Nevertheless, the bass player insisted that he was the only other person besides Li Tai-xiang who kept perfect tempo; I believe he was right, because he told me that he kept one eye on Li, the other eye on the score, and only played the first note of every bar.

Luv, SW


|Letter, LL to SW, May 24, 2006

Lieber Bruder,

Great stuff! Yes it must have been Donghai (University, 東海大學), although I have no memory of the room. I suppose the old farts were Donghai dignitaries.

Your description is a blast! Mayhem certainly it was. Every note I played I contributed NEGATIVELY to the - what shall we call it? - overall effect.

If I recall correctly, massacring Bach aside, it was a wonderful evening. Maybe it was the new place, maybe it was late in the evening, maybe it was all the pretty co-eds around, I had a thoroughly good time by myself enjoying the other parts of the evening program, especially the Beijing opera. It might have been San Niang Jiao Zi 三娘教子. I remember finding the comedy - hence spoken in plain Jing Pian Zi 京片子 (aka Pu Tong Hua 普通話) and understandable to me - so funny I spent a good deal of the time rolling in the aisles.

Ahh, them were the good days.

Love, Hm


More Mayhem

|Letters, exchanged between SW and LL, August 29, 2020

SW to LL,

Two additional pics for "Musical Mayhem" attached:

Music-1 (Figure 5): we fiddled at Rotary Club, Taipei, Spring 1961; our reward was a free meal - 西餐!

Figure 5. Rotary Club, Taipei, Spring 1961. Front row from left: Li Tai-Xiang 李泰祥, Concert Master, Yang Sheng-Zu 楊盛祖, Su Wu, Liu Rong-Xi 劉容西, Yang Han-Zhong 楊漢忠, Lin Qing-Sheng 林慶生, First Cello; behind Li Tai-Xiang, left, Liu Ding-Yu 刘定渝; behind Su Wu, left, Jiang Li-Xian 江力賢, and right, Lei Liu (face partly obscured by bow).

Music-2 (Figure 6): we fiddled at Zhongshan Hall 中山堂,Taipei, Spring 1961; the auditorium was filled. That was our final performance.

Figure 6. Zhongshan Hall 中山堂,Taipei, Spring 1961. From left, Liu Ding-Yu 刘定渝, unidentified first violinist, Li Tai-Xiang 李泰祥, Yang Sheng-Zu 楊盛祖, Jiang Li-Xian 江力賢, Su Wu, Liu Rong-Xi 劉容西, Lei Liu; from right, unidentified cellist and bass player, Gong/Kung Ying-Sheng 龔應生, Lin Qing-Sheng 林慶生, Yang Han-Zhong 楊漢忠, two unidentified viola players.

Wasn't that a blast!

LL to SW,

Yes indeed! I've almost forgotten we had so much fun making musical mayhem.

I'll be working on this soon starting with your 2006 "Violin" email.

P.S. I am forwarding to you an email from Yang Sheng-Zu 楊盛祖 reporting on some detective work he did on the first mayhem photo (Figure 3) you sent me.

SW to LL,

Super detective work on the 1st pic (Figure 3). Problem solved!

By the way, the time of the photo is definitely Spring 1961. From August 1961 to July 1962, my classmates and I were doing mil service. Then, Jiang (江力賢) left for Stanford in Fall 1962! I remember clearly that nobody fiddled in a group after Spring 1961!

Here's one more pic, probably taken in Taipei, location unknown, from ~1960 (see Figure 7).

Figure 7. From left, Liu Ding-Yu 刘定渝, SW, Hou Bang-Wei 侯邦为 (a violin theorist), Yang Sheng-Zu 楊盛祖.

Best regards to Yang Sheng-Zu!


Si-Tu's and Ma's Youth String Groups

|Speak, Memory. Lei Liu, September 28, 2020. There were three prominent violin teachers in Taiwan during the 50s and 60s:

Dai Cui-Lun 戴粹倫 (1912-1981), Austrian trained, head of Music Department, Provincial Normal College, 1949-1971. Dr. Ma Xi-Cheng 馬熙程, German speaking descendant of Manchu aristocrat (Yellow Banner), founder and conductor of The Chinese Wind and String Youth Orchestra 中國青年管絃樂團 (~1959-1969), whose members were young non-professionals, many his string students. Si-Tu Xing-Cheng 司徒興城 (1925-1982), Concert Master of Taiwan Provincial Symphony Orchestra, 1951-1959 and 1966-1982. Also plays viola, cello, and double bass. During the 60s Si-Tu also had an informal youth string group composed mainly of his students.

Su Wu and I were members of CWSYO in the first 2-3 years of the group. In those years about a third of the string members were first from SDFZ and later from NTU. At SDFZ, Gong Ying-Sheng 龔應生 and Yang Han-Zhong 楊漢忠 were LL's classmates; one year ahead were Yang Sheng-Zu 楊盛祖 and Liu Rong-Xi 劉容西, and two years ahead were SW and his classmate Jiang Li-Xian 江力賢. Later, in their own times, all except YHZ went to NTU, SW and JLX in Mechanical Engineering, and LL, YSZ and LRX in Physics. Members of CWSYO often also played (or more accurately, made havoc) in Si-Tu's informal group. Figure 4 could have been taken during such an occasion.

Figure 7. An outing of some members from Ma's Youth String Group and associates, probably Yangmingshan 陽明山, Taipei, 1961-62. Back row from second left: Ma Xi-Cheng 馬熙程, Liu Rong-Xi 劉容西, Xi Mu-De 席慕德, Li Tai-Xiang 李泰祥, Zhang Kuan-Rong 张宽容(3rd from right), Yang Sheng-Zu 楊盛祖 (2nd from right), Lei Liu (far right). Front row, Lin Qing-Sheng 林慶生 (1st left).

The cast

Li Tai-Xiang 李泰祥 (1941-2014). Concert Master at CWSYO. An Amis and, like many Taiwanese aborigines, a natural and highly gifted musician. Appointed Concert Master at Taipei Municipal Symphony Orchestra, 1964, and musical director, 1974. Composer of classical, and later avant-garde, chamber, symphonic, and dance music. Li wrote some of the most popular and highly acclaimed "campus folk songs" when such songs were the dominant musical genre in Taiwan, in the period from the early 70s to early 90s. Zhang Kuan-Rong 张宽容. First cello at CWSYO. Noted cellist and (retired) professor of music at National College of Arts (now National Taiwan University of Arts). Liu Ding-Yu 刘定渝. First violinist at CWSYO. Jiang-Guo Middle School 建國中學 1957, NTU Mech. Eng. 1961. Retired professor and successful entrepreneur. Currently active as an artist, resides in Arizona, USA, and paints for 6 months/year at his Red Forest Studio in 淡水, Taiwan. Jiang Li-Xian 江力賢. Second violinist at CWSYO. SDFZ 1957, NTU Mech. Eng. 1961. Retired engineer. Currently lives in California, USA. Liu Rong-Xi 劉容西. Second violinist at CWSYO. SDFZ 1958, NTU Physics 1962. Business tycoon. Currently lives in Taipei. Yang Sheng-Zu 楊盛祖. Second first violinist at CWSYO. Among string players, the only certified non-mangler other than LTX and ZKR. SDFZ 1958, NTU Physics 1963. Innovator and successful entrepreneur in high-tech material, USA-China relation pundit. Currently lives in California, USA. Gong Ying-Sheng 龔應生. Viola player at CWSYO. SDFZ 1959, NTU Dentistry 1966. Retired dental implant surgeon. Currently lives in Bad Dürkheim district, Germany. Yang Han-Zhong 楊漢忠. Cellist at CWSYO. SDFZ 1958. Big USA-China Importer/Exporter. At one point Taiwan's "King of Footwear". Currently lives in California, USA. Xi Mu-De 席慕德, University of Music and Performing Arts Munich trained, noted singer and (retired) professor of music at National Normal University.

Copyright © Su Wu and Lei Liu 2006, 2020