Once upon a time, far far away, there was a little girl called Cinderella who lived in a land of frozen winter.
Snow lay cold and white upon the ground as far as the eye could see. The branches of the trees were bare. No birds sang to welcome the dawn. The people were sad and hungry.
The land was ruled by a wicked ice queen who lived in an ice palace at the top of the hill. The wicked ice queen had cast a spell of winter over the land because it made her laugh to see the animals shiver and the children trudging barefoot through the snow to collect firewood. (She really was a wicked, wicked ice queen.)
And that’s not all! She even kept a unicorn locked up in a tiny ice cage in the ice palace, crying unicorn tears!
Each morning the animals shivered, the birds were silent, the children gathered firewood in the snow and Cinderella quietly swept the ashes from the hearth of her family’s house. Each morning when the wind blew, a cold, icy tune would blow down the chimney. Cinderella’s hair would stand up on the back of her neck, even though she was quite used to being cold in her rags. She would look up at the ice palace on top of the hill. Was that really the wind whistling in the chimney, she wondered? It seemed… like music. Cold, icy music.
What Cinderella did not know, of course, and you are about to find out, is that the ice queen kept her spell of winter by playing an ice violin each morning. She played a tune so sinister, so cold, it chilled the sun’s rays before they could reach the ground and warm up the earth. The ice queen’s violin was made of ice. Her bow was a perfectly straight and clear icicle, snapped from the eaves of the ice palace.
The strings of the violin – and here is where it got its magic power from – were tail hairs from the imprisoned unicorn. Each morning the wicked ice queen would reach through the ice bars of his tiny ice cage and pluck four hairs from the tail of the poor unicorn, making him cry. She dipped the strings in the unicorn’s tears and froze them – with one look from her ice blue eyes. And, throwing back her head and laughing, she would restring her violin, play her chilling tune and keep the land under the spell of winter.
It seemed the village and the land around would be in winter forever.
But then, one day, a day like any other, Cinderella was out gathering firewood with her friends when she found, half hidden in the snow, an old wooden violin. She took it home with her wood and her sticks and other bits and pieces, intending to burn it. But when it was time to burn the wood, she hid the violin under the thin bed of yellow straw that she lay on to sleep each night.
The next day she took the violin to an old man in the village – his name was Dr Suzuki – who she knew could play the violin. She asked him if he would please teach her to play too. Dr Suzuki tightened up his bow and smiled. “Of course I will teach you. I do not know where you got that violin from, but it looks very special.” Dr Suzuki had a sparkle in his eye that Cinderella had not seen in anyone’s eyes in the village for a very long time – a sparkle of excitement.
At first Cinderella could not play at all. She could barely get a squeak out of the silly violin. She was very disheartened. But when you have lived for so long under the spell of winter, you don’t give up easily. So she just kept trying. Each day, she kept trying. And one day, she got her first fine note from the violin. And an extraordinary, unexpected thing happened.
As Cinderella played her first note, a tiny brown bird alighted on the windowsill of the old man’s cottage. She shook a snowflake off her tiny orange beak, cocked her tiny brown head and made a tiny “Chirrup?” sound. Cinderella was sure she’d heard a question mark at the end of the chirrup. The bird seemed … tentative, hopeful. It had been such a long time since any of the birds had had anything to sing about.
The tiny bird flew up to a branch and pointed with its beak at a small green bud. Cinderella played another shaky, squeaky note (it’s very hard to keep a violin bow from slipping and sliding on the strings you know, especially when your hands are cold and your tummy empty.) Another green bud popped open next to the little brown bird. The bird cocked its head again. Cinderella was almost sure she saw a question mark appear above its head, or was that just the light glinting off a patch of ice that was … was it really? … beginning to thaw?
Now, you and I both know that when an ice queen who lives in an ice palace on top of the hill, and delights in holding the kingdom under her spell of endless winter, starts to see the first signs of spring down in the village – patches of green around the old man’s cottage, buds and shoots and birds chirping and such like, things are not going to go well. Things are not going to go well at all.
Each day Cinderella would stop by the old man’s house and practice her violin. And of course, although the music was hardly easy on the ear in the early days (give the poor girl a chance) each day the patch of warm spring spread around the cottage, through the gardens, over the hedges, down the lanes. By the time the music had thawed the duck pond on the village green, the ice queen had had enough. She was FURIOUS. She tacked up the poor unicorn with an ill-fitting saddle and down she rode, bumping all the way down the hill, icy fire blazing from her cold blue eyes.
“WHO?” she screamed, standing in the village green, as a frog splashed into the duck pond for the first time in years, “WHO IS PLAYING THE MUSIC????”
“You people are forbidden from playing music! I forbid it!” she continued, as a new patch of ice spread around her feet and her breath froze white in the air.
The villagers had gathered around, fearfully. Cinderella and the old man were nowhere to be seen – the miller had hidden them in her empty grain store. A tiny voice piped up from the back row – “Why are we not allowed to play music? Why is it forbidden?”
The wicked ice queen was a. po. plectic. “BECAUSE I SAID SO!!!!!” she screeched, and the exclamation marks froze in the air, fell down a-tinkling and shattered at her feet like icicles.
” I am the only one who can play the vi. o. lin,” she fumed, pacing around the terrified unicorn. “I am the only one who can make beautiful, enchanting music!!!”
“Well that’s true” mumbled a boy in the back row, who was careful to keep his head down. “It’s not like Cinderella is making much progress is she?” agreed his friend, “Yesterday I thought a cat was being strangled!”
“Oh really?” the ice queen asked, looking up. “Cinderella you say? And I suppose it’s that old man, Dr Suzuki, who’s teaching her to play is it? I wondered why she was going to his cottage every day. Well. As you know, I am a fair queen, a kind queen. I only want what’s best for us all. And it seems to me, that we should all have the best possible music gracing our ears. My music may be icy – my violin is made of ice, my bow an icicle and my strings made from frozen unicorn tears after all – but it is beautiful. I therefore suggest, if you will allow me the conceit…” her eyes flashed…
“I suggest that we hold a competition. A violin playing competition. I will allow Cinderella to practise her violin every day for one hour, for one year. See how fair I am? One whole year. And we will meet here again at the next vernal equinox (March 21st to you and me) and whoever can play the best will win, and the other will never, ever play any music on any instrument ever again.”
“And as you may have noticed, if you are not all as thick-headed as your potato-faces suggest, Cinderella’s violin is thawing my ice violin’s winter spell. If she wins, spring will return to your lands, and I shall leave you.”
Well, the villagers could hardly object. They were terrified of the wicked ice queen anyway, and this didn’t seem like such a bad deal. Not that they thought Cinderella could win. Her playing was sincerely atrocious. And not that they thought that the ice queen would keep her promise if she lost anyway. But potato-headed as they may have been, they knew better than to backchat an ice queen who keeps a unicorn captive and crying in a tiny ice cage, just for fun. So they agreed, and went back to scratching out their pitiful, cold existence.
And Cinderella practised her violin, every day. And the villagers covered their ears every day, the dogs barked and then whimpered, the ducks ran away and hid, the hens tucked their heads under their wings. Time after time Cinderella wanted to give up. “It’s no use,” she sobbed to the old man, “I’ll never be any good.” Some days she stamped her feet. One day round about the middle of July she just threw the violin down and ran off home, tears streaming down onto her grey rags.
As bad as the music was though, each time she played the patches of green grass grew bigger, and the buds sprouted and the birds let out feeble cheeps. And each evening the ice queen plucked her strings from the unicorn’s tail, moistened them with his tears and froze them with a glare, and played, and played her icy melody out over the valley, the green turned back to white and the water to ice, as surely as night sets after day.
So the next morning Cinderella dried her eyes and with new determination she stomped back to the cottage, and the old man had fixed the violin with love and care, and she hung her head and said sorry and she played again, and every day after that, and for one hour each and every day, without any more stomping or huffing or whining (well maybe just a bit, once a week or so). And the old man kept encouraging her: “To learn how to play the notes is called Knowledge. To practise them ten thousand times is called Ability.” Cinderella had heard it all before and she’d lost count a long time ago, but now she could hear the music, the magic, the springtime in her playing.
By the time of the autumnal equinox, the villagers had pretty much forgotten about the competition. The days were getting short, the nights long. The patch of green hardly appeared now when Cinderella played. It was a mild winter, milder than they’d known in years, but the villagers didn’t notice that. They just turned up their collars, closed their shutters and huddled together for warmth, hoping to live to see the days lengthen again and the warm yellow of the spring sun. Same as every year.
And Cinderella played, she played her hour each day and on the coldest, shortest, darkest most miserable day of the year, December 23rd, a proper pea souper of a frozen fog hanging in the air, she wanted to give up again. But the old man had a surprise up his sleeve – literally. He pulled from his sleeve three battered sheets of yellowed music paper. With a melody etched on.
The paper read “JS Bach, Minuet #2” It took a long time for Cinderella to learn the piece, almost three whole months (ten thousand times is a lot of hours!) but as she worked away she could hear the most wonderful, uplifting melody emerging from the cacophony of squeaks and squawks and wrong notes. It was early March when she finally mastered it, and each time she played the springtime was emerging faster and faster and she played faster and faster and better and better and the days got longer and warmer and the birds were singing and squirrels dancing and ducks laying and cocks chasing hens up and down the yards and it was crazy, crazy springtime, everyone was going crazy!
And on the 21st of March the ice queen came down from the ice palace with the unicorn trotting behind. Cinderella and the villagers were ready for the big showdown. But the ice queen just took Cinderella’s hand and kissed it, leaving a tear on the back of her hand. Cinderella noticed that the ice queen’s hand was warm. And the unicorn was not crying as he trotted over and nuzzled his mane on Cinderella’s shoulder.
The ice queen smiled, bowed her head and walked away quietly, never to return.
Cinderella looked up to the ice palace and saw that the springtime had reached it too, the icicles were melting and the unicorn’s cage was no more, the bars had melted away too.
I hope this springtime story warms your heart today, on the first day of spring, the Vernal Equinox, as music did the heart of a wicked ice queen, once upon a time, in a land far far away.
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Some Suzuki students playing Bach Minuet #2:
Bach Minuet #2 … as it should sound!
Amazing Yehudi Menuhin playing Bach vioin duet: