The Scrimshaw Violin


Madeleine Gordon wasnít much of a Jew,
But she shocked all the Yentas with how much she knew...


Gil Morgenstern and the Scrimshaw Violin
Nantucket, a cold island off the eastern coast of the United States, home to Madeleine Starbuck (soprano) the restless daughter of generations of whalers, who has married a Jew named David Gordon (tenor) to the horror of her French mother. Madeleine has heard of the remarkable powers of the New York Rabbi Sandy Lincoln (baritone) and invites him to address the small Jewish congregation on Nantucket.

Sandy, a forensic pathologist as well as a rabbi, has the rare talent of divining a victimís history by merely touching his or her remains, and a congregantís history by merely touching his or her soul. There is a mechanics to all creation, he tells his forensic assistants Selwyn (tenor) and Indira (soprano), invoking an old Talmudic legend about Eve. God made the first woman the way a violin maker makes a violin-bone by bone, lung by heart, rib by rib, string by peg. As a result, Adam was repelled, since all he could see in his wife were blood vessels and internal organs. So God put Adam to sleep and made a new Eve by adding a crucial ingredient-mystery. Selwyn, whose grandmother died in Auschwitz, refuses to accept the comparison between a woman and a violin. Rabbi, he tells Sandy, you have no soul.

Sandy arrives on Nantucket, hoping to find in the island, as Madeleine promised in her invitation, what she has found in her conversion to Judaism. Instead, he finds a mystery in Madeleine, a music that draws him to her. As she takes him on a tour of her ancestral mansion, the music grows stronger. It comes from a basement room, a holy of holies, that holds the family collection of scrimshaw-whale bone carved and etched by generations of Starbuck sailors. At the center of the collection is a violin, with a fingerboard of scrimshaw, that Madeleineís mother brought to Nantucket from France after the War. How does Madeleine know, Sandy wonders, that in his youth, before medical school or seminary, he worshipped the violin?

Perhaps, he thinks at the dinner in his honor in the Starbuck ballroom, he has finally-bachelor that he is-found an Eve, created with a mystery beyond mere flesh and bones. When Madeleine asks him to play the scrimshaw violin for the dinner guests, he seizes the opportunity to play to her. He chooses a furious Bach Presto remembered from his youth, appropriate to the high drama of the whaling scene carved in the scrimshaw of the fingerboard.

But when Sandy looks up from the violin, all the guests have disappeared. Madeleine alone remains. But to Sandyís horror, he no longer sees the Nantucket beauty, but the ribs and intestines that Adam saw in the first woman. Even more horrible, his doctorís fingers come to another realization-that the fingerboard of the violin is not made of scrimshaw at all, but of the armbone of a woman, a woman who died in the War. Lowering the violin from his chin, he carries it down to the harbor for a final burial. Though he may have lost more than a violin, he might just have found his soul.

World Premiere: December 3, 2001 The 92nd Street Y, New York City


Bruce Saylor Composer
Jonathan Levi
Original story and libretto
Mel Marvin
Sarah G. Conly Costumes
John Michael Deegan
Gil Morgenstern Violin and Musical Director
Victor Benedetti Rabbi Doctor Sandy Lincoln
Sherry Boone Band SInger
Steven Goldstein Selwyn, David Gordon
Juliana Rambaldi Indira, Madeline Gordon
Jo-Ann Sternberg Clarinet
Carol Cook Viola
Peter Donovan Double Bass
Thomas Hoppe Piano

Discovering Scrimshaw

Writers often remark that their favorite poems or stories or novels are discoveries-works that they didnít so much create as discover fully-formed in some mysterious corner of their minds. In the summer of 1998, I discovered the story of The Scrimshaw Violin and wrote it down in one day of furious scribbling. Only afterwards did I recognize the reasons why the story had worked its way to the surface.

During my college years, I spent all my Thanksgivings, Christmases, spring and summer vacations, playing violin with a folk/jazz band in a cellar bar called The Brotherhood of Thieves on the
island of Nantucket. Back in the 70ís, Nantucket was the exclusive province of aristocrats who lived in mansions overlooking the harbor, built by ancestors who had made their fortunes whaling. The aristocrats were blonde, their daughters were blonde. When I arrived to play, I doubled the Jewish population of the island. As the grandson of two rabbis, I was in paradise.

So when a woman approached me in
New York, twenty years later, and identified herself as the president of the Jewish congregation of Nantucket, my first reaction was laughter. She invited me to return to the island and speak to her brood, which met every shabbas between Memorial Day and Labor in the Unitarian Church on Orange Street. I jumped.

What I discovered-beyond the yarmulkes embroidered with whales and mezuzot of scrimshaw-was a group of people who had developed idiosyncratic but very real dynamics between their Judaism and their summer lives on Nantucket. And I recognized that the island, in fact, had given to many of them a way into Judaism, a way to engage with their Jewish culture.

I, myself, had only recently found such an engagement with Judaism-not through religion and not through Zionism-but through literature. I discovered a treasure of Jewish mythology compiled from thousands of years of commentary and tales by the early 20th-century scholar Louis Ginzberg in his Legends of the Jews. These were myths, about the first Eve, about the death of Cain and the sins of David, that ranked with the best of the Greeks and Norse-whose progeny I had joined for yacht racing and Planterís Punch on

It was perhaps a month after my
Nantucket sermon, that I saw a violin carved from whalebone in the elegant scrimshaw collection of some New York friends. Like a dowsing rod, that scrimshaw violin pointed directly to the underground stream of my own Nantucket ghost story. A turn of the tap of memory and the story flowed freely.

Jonathan Levi

Discovering Music

I was eager enough to collaborate again with Jonathan Levi and Gil Morgenstern after the overpowering experience of writing solo violin music for Danteís Inferno as part of the 92nd Street Y Unterberg Poetry Centerís production of 1998. The next opportunity, treating the story of a rabbiís search for his soul through the means of music, was equally compelling. But then I read Jonathan Leviís remarkable libretto. It careens from rhymed songs to strophic arias, epigrams to almost leit-motivic mottos, and concludes with a heartbreaking lullaby in Yiddish. The lyrics are intricate and telling, while couched in sometimes hilarious, informal non-naturalistic stylization. The subject matter of the text reaches back to Biblical ancient history and myth and merges with contemporary matters of morals, marriage, and the Holocaust. Powerful stuff.

But at the climactic moment of Leviís story, the rabbi plays the fiery presto from the Bach G Minor Sonata. Though I have sometimes discretely indulged in musical quotation, the immediate task of wholesale incorporation of baroque masterworks presented compositional challenges. I decided to dive in. Even before the moment of Sandyís epiphany is summoned by playing that virtuoso music, mysterious perfumes of the Bach piece, and my own melodic contrafactum against it-as if Sandy Lincoln had been improvising it for decades in his unconscious-insinuate themselves into the music. The Bach Presto-like tongues of the burning fiery furnace-forms the basis of the climactic ensemble in the dining room scene, as fragments of previously heard associative material are superimposed. The exquisite Adagio from the C Major Sonata opens and closes the opera as a kind of frame, and-as if Sandy only dreamed it in the mists of his own distant musical past-it intrudes itself in fragments as he sings about other matters. Or are they other matters? Music was destined to push itself forward to aid this manís quest.

For the first time in my operatic output I use tonal idioms throughout. I wrote my own jazzy club tunes, which in the Band Singerís songs present the characters and their stories. These motives, like others in successive arias and ensembles, transform themselves and develop. Certain keys and key relationships are structural and symbolic. In the orchestration, the title role holds an inevitable primacy, while the clarinet provides the foil and the contrast. If the viola and piano offer the necessary suave mediation and continuity between those opposites, the bass sets the stage with its combo-like pizzicato-a reminder that this morality tale/ghost story is as distant or immediate as if any of us might find ourselves in revery, nursing a beer, left to our own thoughts, hopes, agonies, realizations, conclusions, in the bar down the street.

Bruce Saylor