The Census confirmed that there was no longer a Western frontier. The competition, the biennial commemoration of a patron whose very name - Yehudi, the Jew – was programmatic, produced plenty of talent, 22 and under. But of 42 competitors, one and maximally two might possibly have been Jewish.
For Turner, the passing of the frontier meant the end of a formative experience after almost 300 years. For the inhabitants of Planet Violin, the entry list was strong evidence that the Jewish fiddler, a virtual icon till deep into the 20th century, was fading fast.
For as far back as anyone could remember, the special relationship of Jews and violins seemed as self-evident as Americans’ special relationship to the frontier. Heifetz, already a sensation on his arrival in New York at 17, and still news fit to print on page one when he died 60 years later, practically personified it.
A GI from the rural Midwest, George Haines was so moved by one of some 300 concerts Heifetz played for the troops between 1942 and 1945 that, after returning home and fathering a family, he made his daughters take violin lessons. “Thank you, Jascha Heifetz,” said the youngest, two generations later. Now a lawyer and mother of college-age kids, she was still grateful and wistfully envious of Jews.
“The violin has always been a Jewish instrument," Vadim Gluzman told an interviewer. “I hope I’m not perceived as chauvinistic, but it’s a fact of life.” Born in 1973, Gluzman was a Jewish lion by any standard. But he was no longer a young one. His colleague, Philippe Quint, only a year younger, was another. Gidon Kremer was already 67. Ilya Kaler, in earlier years the violin world equivalent of an Olympic gold medalist, was already 50. Joshua Bell continued to qualify as younger generation at 46, Gil Shaham at 42, Maxim Vengerov at 39, Nikolaj Znaider at 38.
But then what? Itzhak Perlman and Zukerman, still cherished as younger generation by fans who were their contemporaries, were now elder statesmen. Stern, a generational bridge whose roster of protégés extended from the teenage Perlman to the teenage Gluzman, died in 2001 at 81. Menuhin, his fellow San Franciscan and a secular prodigy long since become a British institution, preceded him by two years at 83.
It was usually forgotten that scarcity had once been the default position. To mid 19th century audiences, who took violins and violinists as seriously as they took constitutional reform and steam locomotion, the idea that Jews, and particularly Russian Jews, would become a nation of world-class fiddlers would have seemed as exotic as the idea that Japanese, Koreans and Chinese would one day do the same.
For most people back then, the division of labor was as clear as Britannia rules the waves. Britain and Russia imported instruments and players. Italy, France and Germany exported them. There was room at the margins for Ole Bull and a cohort of talented Belgians.
But Jews? Like most empires, theirs started small. But it gathered strength as it moved eastward where the badchen, a professional entertainer, was a fact of life and Mittenwald, Markneukirchen and Mirecourt put cheap fiddles in reach of fiddlers on every shtetl roof.
The descent from the roof began with Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst and Joseph Joachim. Respectively a Jewish virtuoso who made even Paganini blink, and a protégé of Moses Mendelssohn’s grandson, Felix, both found their way to the modern world with a minimum of Jewishness.
Documentation of Ernst’s Jewish roots vanished between 1939 and 1945. Joachim disposed of his Jewish roots while concertmaster at the Hanoverian court. Over the next half-century, Joachim, the onetime Wunderkind from the Austro—Hungarian borderlands made his way to the Lutheran state church, the Prussian civil service, and the cemetery of Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, where he was buried in 1907.
Meanwhile, as the modern world crept eastward, Joachim's shadow led the way. In the 1860’s, the great pianist, Anton Rubinstein, persuaded the Russian establishment that it needed a conservatory if the West were to take Russia seriously. A few years later, he hired Leopold Auer, 23, a Joachim protégé and assimilated Jew like himself, to head the new violin department in St. Petersburg.
Some 30 years passed before Sophie Jaffe of Odessa, an improbable twofer as both woman and Jew, beat Carl Flesch, another Jew from the Austro-Hungarian borderland, for first prize at the Paris Conservatory.
A decade later Auer discovered Mischa Elman, 10, almost by chance on a tour of southern Russia, and one prodigy led to another. By 1917, when Heifetz made his New York debut, the superiority of the Russian-Jewish violinist seemed as obvious as the sunrise.
We’re not high-brows, we’re not low-brows.
Anyone can see,
You don’t have to use a chart
to see we’re He-brows from the start,
Mischa [Elman], Jascha [Heifetz], Toscha [Seidel], Sascha [Jacobsen],
Fiddle-lee, diddle-lee, dee.
Composed around 1922 by Gershwin, it only affirmed what much of the world already took for given.
So what was it about Jews?
Heifetz’s playing, like Paganini’s, could turn the listener’s thoughts to magic, just as his reflexes and small muscle coordination could turn their thoughts to genetics. But neither was a likely explanation of why Jews took to and excelled at the violin.
Anti-Semites and even Jews speculated on a putative Jewish soul and echoes of the synagogue. But religion was another dead end. Mischa, Jascha et al. shared affinities of culture and language, even if the language was likelier to be Russian than Yiddish. But the synagogue was hardly among them, and even if it were, it had little to do with what they played and how they played it.
What mattered plenty, on the other hand, was emancipation. A reflex of 1776 and 1789, it set Jews on the road to civil society and from there to secular culture, education, careers, and - the violin.
By sheer chance, emancipation coincided with an eruption of musical creativity that led to orchestras and operas from St. Petersburg to San Francisco, a mass audience and a concert industry with global reach, unprecedented demand for string players, and conservatories to supply them.
A fascination with the violin as collectible, with the prodigy and the virtuoso who played it, even with music as religion by other means, were also in the package. Think Joachim playing the Beethoven concerto on a Strad. Add incentives that appeal to most people at most times: money, fame, respect, not to mention an admission ticket to the social and civic inside for a nation of desperately poor outsiders.
By the last quarter of the 19th century, Central Europe amateurs followed their favorite soloist, conductor or quartet as others followed a football team. But for an East European Jew and his parents on the cusp of the 20th century, the violin’s appeal was existential, like a basketball to an inner city African-American. At the least, a conservatory diploma meant tax breaks, draft exemption, and the right to live anywhere one wanted.
A full-service teacher, Auer made sure that his prodigies were properly connected, had access to good instruments, stayed in school, and learned languages, table manners and how to dress. If all went well, St. Petersburg led to the world.
For those who remained or were born after 1917, the incentives were even greater. Like mathematicians, chess masters and hockey players, musicians were among the Soviet Union’s few world-class products, with cars, dachas and foreign travel for the winners. “They send us their Jews from Odessa, and we send them our Jews from Odessa,” quipped Isaac Stern as cultural exchange took off in the post-Stalinist 50’s. The end of the Cold War was the end of all that. There were still plenty of Russian Jewish players. They were just no longer in Russia.
But there are other and larger reasons than Gorbachev and Putin to account for the vanishing Jewish frontier. An obvious one was receding popular fascination with the violin. In 1872, a benchmark exhibition of old Italian instruments not only drew crowds for week after week to what would become London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. Charles Reade, the novelist, covered it in four New Yorker-length pieces for the Pall Mall Gazette. In 1971, when Sotheby’s sold the Lady Blunt Strad for a record $200,000, the story appeared on page one of the Times of London, and the New York Times covered it on four columns. By contrast, 40 years later, when the Lady Blunt was sold again, this time for $15.9 million, the story failed even to qualify as news fit for a by-line.
A second reason is receding fascination with the players. In 1830, Vienna received Paganini like a rock star. In Paris, pregnant women were urged to get themselves to his concerts, so their unborn infants could one day say that they had been there too. In 1844, Mendelssohn personally introduced Joachim, 12, to Queen Victoria. Sixty years later, on Joachim’s retirement, adoring fans, including Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, presented him a Strad.
Between the wars, photographers with Speed-Graphics saw Kreisler and Elman off to Europe, or greeted them on their return. In the early postwar years, a Kansas City cabbie and a TWA counter clerk, both Heifetz fans, scrambled to get him a train ticket when bad weather rerouted his flight to a recording date in Chicago. In 1958, when prime time was still prime time, Ed Sullivan presented Itzhak Perlman, 13, to a nationwide TV audience.
A half century later, documentary film makers caught the young Hilary Hahn and the venerable Ida Haendel trudging through airports unmet and unrecognized, and Joshua Bell played one of the world’s great Strads unnoticed and unrecognized in the Monday morning rush hour at Washington’s L’Enfant Plaza Metro station.
A third reason is the changing status and priorities of Jews. On the threshold of the 20th century, a living room quartet of Jewish doctors anywhere between the Rhine and the Black Sea confirmed that you were in Central Europe. In 1912, Sol Hurok launched a legendary career as impresario by engaging Efrem Zimbalist to play for fellow immigrants at a Socialist fund-raiser.
Much reduced, the amateur quartets still existed on the threshold of the 21st century. But they were now in Los Angeles or Tel Aviv, and the doctors were likely to be retired. The immigrants’ children and grandchildren could still be found on a Friday night in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress. But they might or might not fill the seats.
The Russian tradition could still be seen and heard in Israel, where earlier immigrants joked that newcomers without violin cases must be engineers or doctors. But if American immigrant experience was any indicator, things might well look different to a successor generation ever more distant from Oistrakh and the Borodin quartet.
“What the Mediterranean Sea was to the Greeks, breaking the bond of custom, offering new experiences, calling out new institutions and activities, that, and more, the ever retreating frontier has been to the United States…,” Turner concluded in 1893.
Since Mendelssohn took Joachim to London, the violin had been to Jews what the frontier was to Turner. But American Jews, long since insiders, are also becoming a vanishing frontier, according to a recent, widely-reported, Pew survey. Israel is now a global start-up capital whose per capita median wealth, according to Credit Suisse, exceeded America’s. There are fewer Jews in Russia than in France.
Like Periclean Athens and Renaissance Florence, a century and a half of Jewish violinists left their monuments, footprints and fingerprints – Joachim and the Brahms concerto, Heifetz, Milstein, Oistrakh, and the young Menuhin, Huberman’s Israel Philharmonic, Chagall’s goats, lovers and fiddlers on refrigerator doors around the world, “Sunrise, Sunset” in rural Nebraska high schools culturally equidistant from Ukraine and Broadway.
In a world where the Chinese economy is the world’s second largest, the world’s largest violin collection is in Tainan, and the Berlin Philharmonic is on its second Japanese concertmaster, it looked more and more like others’ turn to play first fiddle.
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David Schoenbaum is the author of The Violin: A Social History of the World's Most Versatile Instrument.Tweet
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