I have to confess that I have some lingering old-world customs in my life, beyond the fact that I play the violin.
Namely, I still read books. Books with cardboard covers and paper pages, susceptible to rips and bends and coffee stains. In certain libraries, you can't even find such books any more; they've gone 100 percent electronic. Yet I love the feel of a book, its weight and its tangible history (who read this very book before me?). I love reading a page that isn't back-lit.
And as changeable as the Internet is, racing forward to capture every second that just happened and discard anything more than a day old, I love that a book is stuck in time. It can only speak from the year in which it was written, with that perspective, untouched by the times that followed.
And so without apology, this summer I took up a book that I just plain missed when it was brand-new: Violin Dreams, by Arnold Steinhardt. It was, in fact, written in 2006, before the financial crisis and before the introduction of the first iPhone, when Facebook was still very young and Ray Chen was still a teenager. Not all that long ago, but still a different time.
Steinhardt, who was first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet for its 45-year duration, currently teaches at the Colburn School and Curtis Institute. He's also a fantastic writer who writes a blog called In the Key of Strawberry and wrote another book in 2000 called Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony about his life with the Guarneri quartet.
"Violin Dreams" is more autobiographical, vividly describing milestones in Steinhardt's life as a violinist. His "violin dreams" are actual dreams, giving us a glimpse of his inner life. Bach's Chaconne (from the solo violin sonata in D minor) runs like a theme with variations throughout his narrative. The book opens with Steinhardt recounting an anxiety dream, in which he tries to perform the Chaconne for a highly critical jury, but, like those dreams when one is trying to run in quicksand, his arms can neither lift the violin nor move the bow, and "only a strangled croak came out of my violin."
Steinhardt describes how, as a young man, studying the Chaconne first frustrates him, then as he matures, the piece opens windows to understanding the greatness of Bach, and perhaps of music itself. Later, Steinhardt performs the Chaconne for the funeral of a dear friend, and then over the grave of Bach's first wife, channeling the grief and emotion that Bach may have felt when composing the piece just months after her unexpected death. The Chaconne also is a prism through which Steinhardt views the evolution of his own playing as well as the powers of his different instruments. The book provides a CD of a 1966 recording of the Chaconne on his 18th c. Sanctus Seraphin, then 40 years later, the same piece on his 1744 Lorenzo Storioni. If you had to ask me which was better, I wouldn't be able to say. The later recording has a maturity of interpretation and beauty of tone, but the early recording has a compelling urgency.
Steinhardt's story allows us to steal a peek at what it was like to work with some of the great musicians of the 20th century: his teachers, Toscha Seidel, Ivan Galamian, Joseph Szigeti; and other great musicians such as Cleveland Orchestra conductor George Szell, cellist Pablo Casals, and pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Steinhardt's relationships with violins -- a Pressenda, Testori, Bergonzi, Seraphin, Guadagnini, del Gesù and Storioni -- are described in chapters titled, "The Dating Game" and "True Love."
"Violin Dreams" also paints a picture of what it was like to be a violinist in the mid-20th century, an era of abundant music education in the public schools, expensive but not 100 percent prohibitively-priced fine instruments, and record deals that actually meant something. Times have changed, for sure. But as Steinhardt describes, a lot about playing the violin, and becoming an elite violinist, hasn't. Mastering the instrument still requires years of intense study, practice, and expert teaching. Performers still must conquer their stage fright. Finding the perfect violin still requires enormous time, patience and resources. Older musicians still face the frustrations of physical decline.
And another thing hasn't changed: the power of music. Bach can still reach across the centuries and heal the soul.
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Here is Arnold Steinhardt's 1966 recording of Bach's Chaconne:
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