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Terez Mertes

In which Terez brings her violin to Rome but visits Claude Lebet’s studio anyway

December 14, 2007 at 5:56 PM

(For backstory, check out this discussion:

At first glance, it is hard to see the correlation: my young son peers out the window of our third floor Rome apartment and promptly expels the contents of his stomach onto the pavement below; the next day I visit world-renowned luthier Claude Lebet’s workshop. But there is one.

It was distressing to see my son sick. It was distressing to hear the shop owner down below screaming up at me in Italian to clean up the mess that very instant (I couldn’t, I was virtually locked in while my husband Peter was out with the keys) or she would call the police. It was distressing not to be able to soothe the stress away later with some practicing on the violin I’d brought. Turns out I’d forgotten my shoulder rest. I am not a member of the “play without it” camp, nor did I wish to experiment right then. What I needed was comfort and continuity after a day of energetic, chaotic, history-packed exploring. Instead I had a sick child, a still-raving shopkeeper below me, an absent spouse and a slippery, uncooperative violin. Earlier that afternoon, we’d been bumped from our charming 17th century Trastevere apartment, perfect for our needs, to another rental in urban, workaday Testaccio. Jet lag was stealing our energy. My feet hurt and so did my head. I wanted to go home.

But that’s just how it goes with travel. You give yourself a good night’s sleep and the next day you set forth again after a bracing cappuccino. But one look at my son’s increasingly pale face, following the thickest, richest cup of hot chocolate I’ve ever seen (really, it should have come with a warning, or age minimum, like wine), his faint words that he didn’t feel so good, and like that, the day’s plans changed.

“Why don’t you go out on your own for a few hours,” Peter urged, seeing my downcast face. “We’ll head back to the apartment and I’ll explore after you come back.” Once I was sure he meant it, I set off again. It sank in as I walked that I was now free to do whatever I pleased. Anything. And I knew, in a flash, where I needed to go.

A confession: in spite of Rome’s treasure trove of antiquities and sights, I missed my novel writing terribly. I missed my characters like they were my babies, snatched from me. My violinist, Montserrat, in particular. She’s more than a character, just as the violin is more than a pretty wooden box with strings. But I’m trying to wean myself off her. After a year of revising my novel, it’s pretty much good to go again, save for some final polishing. Montserrat is now like a ghost, achingly present but just out of reach, much like classical music’s hold.

Well, catch this: Claude Lebet’s shop is located off the Via di Monserrato. How’s that for a coincidence? Some things are just meant to happen.

“Montserrat’s Road” leads off the Piazza Farnese in Rome’s bustling city center, a narrow, picturesque little street that offered me no clues as to the whereabouts of the workshop. Asking around, I finally found it, an imposing 16th century palazzo bordering the Piazza dé Ricci. I announced myself uncertainly on the intercom and was buzzed in, thus commencing a comedy of errors such as Italy seems to produce in me: an ineffectual clawing at the massive wooden doors, missing, asking them to buzz me in again. Once inside, I hesitated too long in the entryway, hearing a second buzzing from a door a few meters away, for which I made a dash for but missed. Finally, after the second buzz, I burst into a dimly lit workroom to discover two men regarding me quizzically. “Excuse me,” I managed, “Are one of you Claude Lebet?”

The older man nodded and relief welled up in me. “I’m so glad,” I babbled, switching to French, which after two days of Italian, felt like my mother tongue. “I’ve heard about you. I’ve read about you.” I took in the room peripherally: crafting tools in their holders sharing workbench space with notebooks and papers; violins everywhere, hanging, displayed in cases, reclining on benches in various stages of undress. The room, sweetly redolent of glue and varnish, looked homey and industrious. I was back in safe territory.

Gradually my explanation came out, that I wanted to buy a shoulder rest, that I knew he was francophone Swiss from the articles I’d read, that I’d heard great things about him and his work. For the next thirty minutes, Claude, his assistant and I chatted away easily. We talked about violins, about Rome and where my family and I were staying, our Trastevere to Testaccio downgrade. After I’d picked out a shoulder rest I told him about my writing (he, too, is a writer), about Montserrat, the coincidence of the street name being the same as hers, which he found equally entertaining. I told him how in my story she plays a JB Vuillaume. He didn’t have one in inventory just then, but he let me check out some of his treasures: an Andrea Amati (“The Portuguese,” 1567, made for Charles the IX, painting on the back) and a Guadagnini (Giovanni Battista, Piacenza, 1748). The Amati so very light in my hands, was amazing—history come to life. The Guadagnini (in the final picture), so glossy and perfect, seemed to give off its own energy. I didn’t want to let it go.




Finally I bade them farewell, practically skipping my way through the Piazza dé Ricci and down the Via di Monserrato. Back in the Testaccio apartment, Peter took one look at my face, smiled, and slipped out. (Our son, while feeling better, was very much enjoying his “day off.”) I clamped on my new shoulder rest and began to play my violin. I thought of those exquisite instruments I’d just held, the workshop visit, and as if by musical osmosis, the notes soared, pure and sweet, from my little Chinese fiddle, my heart following suit. Even Montserrat showed up to listen.

This, then, is why I bring the violin wherever I travel. For moments like this.


PS: For more scoop on my novel and Montserrat, and to decide whether I did an accurate job in depicting a soloist’s life and background, check out an EXCERPT from my novel, Dirty Little Secrets at Doublestop Magazine. I welcome all comments or suggestions, either via email or here. And while you’re at Doublestop, check out this entertaining, endearing story from Kristina Riggle, reminiscing about her high school orchestra days HERE.

PPS: PS: For more information on Claude Lebet, visit his website HERE or check out THIS article.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on December 14, 2007 at 6:10 PM
Glad you had a nice trip. Sorry about your Wee Tot...poor thing.

Also,you have an interesting resemblance to Meryl Streep!

As for practicing whilst on vacation in Rome, "I told you so". (Insert smiley face here).

From Terez Mertes
Posted on December 14, 2007 at 6:57 PM
Wait, you didn't want me to bring the violin! Think of the adventure I would have missed out on if I hadn't. You can have the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and the tourists; give me a foray into the locals' Rome and that's what I like. And a violin-related foray? Loved it! And Anne, isn't that too precious about the street name? (Oh, BTW, the novel excerpt was submitted before I solicited your opinion on it, so no need to feel miffed that it doesn't reflect your most excellent suggestions!)
From Karen Dotson
Posted on December 14, 2007 at 10:50 PM
I just loved reading your blog and the pictures you posted are fabulous!! Sorry your son became sick.
From Anne Horvath
Posted on December 14, 2007 at 11:18 PM
"Miffed"? I am not "Miffed". I didn't even notice. (Insert second smiley face here).
From Mendy Smith
Posted on December 15, 2007 at 3:55 AM
How fun! Great to see some recent pictures of you! Did you actually PLAY any of those instruments?!?!?!

Have a happy and non-rainy Christmas!

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on December 15, 2007 at 8:59 AM
I never had anything so spectacular happen to me when I went to a luthier to get a shoulder rest. You and the violins look wonderful. I'm glad you had such a great time, and I hope your son gets well soon.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on December 15, 2007 at 4:21 PM
Thanks, Karen, Mendy and Pauline. They are fun pictures, aren’t they? And there was such an air of playfulness about it all; Claude and his assistant were so very kind and helpful and I think they were getting a kick out of my enthusiasm and naïveté. I was soooo thrilled to check out those violin (my husband told me the smile on my face in the pic said it all) and study the label inside the Guadagnini. No, I didn’t ask to play them—guess asking that will be the next move out of my comfort zone. Actually, though, in San Francisco, luthier extraordinaire Roland Feller (turns out Claude Lebet knew him as well—a mutual acquaintance, what a great feeling!) let me play on a JB Vuillaume. I got to go into a private room and all. But that was during an appointment I’d set up, having requested in advance to see/play a Vuillaume. I love this aspect of novel-writing research!

Pauline – my son improved after the day spent resting in the apartment. Adult-style touring (for us that means walk walk walk) is hard on a kid – poor thing! I had the mommy-guilt going on that he threw up partly because his system was so taxed. Bad mommy, to ignore his complaints of not feeling well! (“It’s jet lag, just deal…”) Oh well, it’s all part of the travel game and we plan to travel as a family like this more, so, live and learn. And turn the tough experiences into funny stories.

Oh, and Mendy, would you please send me some RAIN? Honest to God, it’s been sunny for 55 of the past 60 days (okay, so I was in Rome some of those) and I WANT SOME CLOUDY WEATHER. Yes, I know…. careful what you ask for. : )

From Antonello Lofù
Posted on December 17, 2007 at 12:07 PM

do you know that Guadagnini belonged to Grumiaux?

From Terez Mertes
Posted on December 17, 2007 at 12:48 PM
Antonello - wow! That is so cool! I should have thought to ask at the time.
From Mayra Calvani
Posted on December 17, 2007 at 6:25 PM
What a beautiful entry, Terez! Your writing is so lyrical! I felt transported to Italy. It must have been a special experience to hold those famous instruments in your hands. I'm jealous! I look forward to reading the excerpt from your novel on the magazine!

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