Three-Quarter Time In the Underground

THE underground station on that winter evening was gray and damp. We commuters stood sullenly apart from each other. Every nose was running. The subway car failed to arrive. It was probably in the tunnel, midway between stops, taking a coffee break, laughing at us.

The violinist was about 18 years old. She wore jeans, a heavy sweater, and a ragged tweed jacket. Dark hair spread wetly over her shoulders. On the cement floor in front of the music stand she had placed her open violin case.

There is nothing better than a violin case for temporarily securing money - it is wide enough to capture a carelessly flung coin, and it is deep enough to retain the bill that occasionally floats its way. Its lid is conveniently part of its body.

Our young fiddler was doing what she could to look like a waif. But she couldn't disguise her essential music-student self. She had even brought along some scores.

Perhaps she needed performance practice; maybe she was short of pocket money. At any rate, she was taking the trouble to entertain weary riders.

And what was she entertaining us with, while some of the audience yawned at their newspapers and other peered into the tunnel in search of the train's white eye? She chose Bartok first, then Schumann. And now she was giving us that old war horse of a waltz, the "Anniversary Song."

Oh, how we danced

On the night we were wed

We vowed our true love

Though a word wasn't said

Could our soloist sing that verse?

Could she guess how it came to be written?

I would have doubled the money in the violin case if she could have told me that the words of the song were concocted in six hours by lyricist

Saul Chaplin; that the melody - an old Viennese one - was plucked from the capacious musical memory of the come-back crooner Al Jolson; that the number was created for the final scene - an anniversary party - of the movie "The Jolson Story."

The waltz, now more than 40 years old, is still a hit. No anniversary party today is complete without it.

"Can you identify Al Jolson?" I imagined asking the crowd on the platform.

Perhaps two or three of my companions had heard that oatmeal voice - maybe the silver-haired man with the briefcase smiling to himself, maybe the older woman in a plaid coat swaying from side-to-side, in three-quarter time.

How compelling it is, the waltz rhythm. It matches the sweep of romantic passion; it demands that the enraptured dancer continue to keep track of the beat or else bring himself and his partner crashing to the floor.

DEAR as I HELD you so

CLOSE in my ARMS (two-three)

ANGels were SINGing a

HYMN to your CHARMS (two-three)

Three beats to a measure, tempus perfectum, mysterious triad, the number that can never be resolved.

Our performer probably knew the history and even the etymology of the waltz (from the German walzen, from the Latin volvere, to revolve, to rotate, to turn).

The waltz arose among European peasants in the middle of the 18th century. It was danced in a free-wheeling manner by couples rather than in a set pattern by groups of eight. It was thus considered dangerously erotic. As late as 1836, a German treatise proclaimed that "the Waltz is the Main Cause of the Weakness of Body and Mind of our Generation."

Whatever it does to the mind, the waltz certainly sets snares for the heart. Played by an orchestra it is encouraging; played by a quartet it can make the eyes brim; played by a solo violin it is irresistible.

The great Viennese waltz composers started their careers as fiddlers. Strauss the younger conducted his orchestra with his violin bow.

The subway musician was concluding the piece. Among her audience, a few now hummed along, and some were even quietly singing the lyrics.

Could we but relive

Those few moments


We'd find that our love

Was unaltered by time

Time, indeed. Certain listeners were consulting their watches.

The violinist nodded in thanks for the coins and bills accumulating in her instrument case. She began the song again.

With her graceful stance and expressive face, she managed to resemble all at the same time the austere Heifetz, the passionate Menuhin, the jovial Zukerman, the buoyant Grappelli, and an anonymous woman in a shawl who, late on a Paris afternoon, gave a private performance for me and my beloved, the sole customers in a shabby little cafe.

Most of us have memories of violinists, of waltzes, of romance, of love. Some of us have memories of wedding anniversaries, too - those dates that salute us like sentries every year, reminding us of the passage of time, as if the opinionated young adults who were once our toddlers weren't reminders enough, as if we couldn't measure time by the lines that deepen on the face of our companion.

But would we prefer that face to stay the same? With all respect to the lyrics of the "Anniversary Song," do we really want our love to be unaltered by time?

Or is the intriguing thing about marriage that it too revolves and rotates, that it continues, however creakily, to whirl, bringing us with each turn to a slightly new place.

The train groaned into the station. The passengers got on.

The violin case was brimming. The violinist gravely bowed.

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