June 27, 2023

#08-322: Rothschild's Fiddle

Painting of an old violin (Wikimedia)

Note: Anton Chekhov is usually better known for his plays, but he also wrote hundreds of excellent short stories. This is one of the best.

Get Ready: How can terrible change misfortune affect a person?

"Rothschild's Fiddle" is one of the best-known of Russian author Anton Chekhov's nearly 600 short stories.

Yakov Ivanov was the coffin maker in a tiny town where people died so seldom that he couldn't make a living. His coffins were good, and he never went wrong in fitting them to their occupants, but he only made enough money to live with his wife Martha in a little one-room hut which also served as his workshop.

So poor was he that no one called him Mr. Ivanov, but simply Yakov. To make ends meet he also played violin in a Jewish orchestra led by Moses Shakess, a tinsmith (who kept half the band's earnings for himself). Yakov was an extremely good fiddler, but he could hardly bear the sound of the flute being played in his left ear by a Jew named Rothschild. He began to hate Rothschild, and eventually Jews in general.

But he played, because he was always worried about money, calculating his losses over Sundays and holidays and other non-working days when he couldn't earn anything.

One day Martha suddenly fell ill. As he worried again over his finances, Martha called out from her bed, "Yakov! I am dying!" When the sun came up, he took her to the hospital, where they only had to wait three hours or so. Along the way Yakov recalled that in fifty years of marriage, he had never said a kind word to her or even bought he a small gift.

When at last the doctor saw her, he told Yakov, "What's to be done? The old woman has lived her span of years... There must come an end to everything" and sent Yakov off with some ineffective powders. Yakov became angry at this dismissive treatment and tried to convince the doctor to do something more, but in the end he could not change the doctor's mind. Yakov was certain it was because he was not rich.

As she lay dying, Martha reminded Yakov of the time they had had a baby who died young, and how they would sit on the riverbank under a willow tree. But Yakov could not remember any of that. In the end she died and Yakov, of course, made her coffin.

After the funeral he was wandering the streets in great distress when who should he run into but Rothschild. He treated the Jew roughly and walked on until he came to a willow by the riverbank; when he saw it, he suddenly remembered his child.

Deeply feeling his loss, he went home, where he dreamed of the child, the willow tree, Martha--and Rothschild. The next day, feeling miserable, he walked to the hospital where this time the doctor dismissed him as being at death's door.

At home he was sitting on his porch composing a heart-breaking tune on his fiddle, when Rothschild appeared at his gate. This time Yakov spoke to the Jew gently. Rothschild had come to invite Yakov to play at a wedding, but Yakov said he was ill. He began to play again, and the tune was so beautiful it caused Rothschild to weep.

At last Yakov, too, died, but before he did, he told the priest:

"Give my fiddle to Rothschild."

The town wondered where Rothschild had gotten such an instrument. He abandoned the flute for the fiddle, and the tune he had heard from the dying Yakov was his most popular request.


Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. coffin
  2. composing
  3. dismissive
  4. distress
  5. fiddle
  6. ineffective
  7. orchestra
  8. request
  9. wandering
  10. workshop
  1. sorrow or pain
  2. useless
  3. not caring; turning away
  4. walking aimlessly
  5. writing, as a song
  6. box for burying a person
  7. song people ask for
  8. violin
  9. place where a craftsman works
  10. instrumental band

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for June 29, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. f; 2. e; 3. c; 4. a; 5. h; 6. b; 7. j; 8. g; 9. d; 10. i