On 16 October 2015, the Heritage Association of South Africa, as part of its 2015 symposium, held an impressive Leipoldt Dinner and Awards Ceremony for about 150 people in a candlelit Blommekerk in Clanwilliam. This historic church, with its imposing pulpit, is where Pastor Christian Frederick Leipoldt preached for more than twenty-five years (from 1884 until 1910).
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening, pictured in the photograph above, was the solo violin recital by Anele Mhlahlo of the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, directly in front of the Blommekerk pulpit – ‘to remember the Meisiekind Predikant’, as it was described in the Heritage Association programme.
In Clanwilliam, like in other rural areas to this day, the use of nicknames was (and is) common. There was (and is) a practical as well as a humorous aspect to this: it served to distinguish family members who, in keeping with tradition, had the same names. For example, Pastor Christian Frederick Leipoldt and his son, the writer and poet, Dr Christian Frederick Louis Leipoldt, were both ‘Christian Leipoldt’. According to the latter’s biographer, J C Kannemeyer, it was because he had a particularly soft skin and was unable to grow a beard that Pastor Leipoldt became known as the ‘meisiekind-predikant’ (the girlchild-pastor). Jacob (‘a smooth man’) rather than Esau (‘an hairy man’), he had a soft and engaging nature, was known for his thoroughness and his enormous capacity for work, and he was very popular in Clanwilliam – where his congregation looked up to him almost as if he were a holy man (as Kannemeyer puts it).
Yet the life of Pastor Leipoldt was not without hardship and sacrifice, which brings one back to the solo violin performance on 16 October 2015.
The story behind the violin recital was not explained to the audience – a variation, perhaps, on the Oom Schalk Lourens theme that the most important part of any story is the part that you leave out – but I discussed the matter with Anele afterwards, and established that he was fully aware of the significance of his performance.
Read the following story from The Mask, the third book in Leipoldt’s trilogy, The Valley, substitute the name Leipoldt for that of Uhlmann, and you have the writer and poet C Louis Leipoldt’s account of how his father sacrificed the violin he loved so much in the interests of a very unmusical harmony within his church council.
‘Poor Mr Uhlmann – he was the pastor, you know, before your time. He played on the violin, beautifully, my dear, for he had been well trained in Europe, and at one time he thought of being a professional musician, but his father was set on his becoming a missionary. Then he came out here, for his wife became ill in Sumatra and they had to come away. He entered our church and was called here, and for the first month he used to play his violin on the stoep in the twilight. I often listened to him, for he played beautifully. Mozart and Beethoven chiefly, but sometimes Italian things with a lilt in them. The church council did not like this, and it sent a deputation to ask him to stop playing godless things on the fiddle. I remember that there was a squabble. Old Mr Nolte said it was a shame, and got so excited over it that he had a stroke and died the day after the council meeting.’
‘And what did Mr Uhlmann do?’
‘He gave them coffee and cake, listened to what they had to say, then locked his violin case and never opened it until the day of his death. When he was dying he called for the key, had the case opened, and he lay fingering the bow when he died.’
Almost exactly 104 years after his death on 11 November 1911, the wrong done to Pastor Leipoldt by his own church council was acknowledged in the manner he would undoubtedly have appreciated most: a virtuoso violin performance. This gesture by the Heritage Association went some way, symbolically at least, to express regret and make atonement for past ‘cruelty’ – ‘Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do’ – more eloquently than any words could have done.
Of course it was too late to make good the suffering and hurt of a man who had wished to pursue a full-time career as a violinist but respected the wishes of his father and became a missionary instead, who bowed to the brutish demands of his flock and allowed his violin to be silenced altogether, and who died fingering the bow of the instrument that was so dear to him for the first time in twenty-five years.
Yet on 16 October 2015, symbolic atonement was made for the wrong done to Pastor Leipoldt, with subtlety and dignity, in the beautiful Blommekerk in Clanwilliam, in front of the pulpit where ‘the Meisiekind Predikant’ had preached for over a quarter of a century.
For those who knew the above story about Leipoldt’s father, this was a profoundly musical moment of remembrance, rescuing some of our history from its past and redeeming it for the future.