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Pauline Lerner

Music as an ally

June 16, 2006 at 8:24 AM


I love to read biographies and autobiographies of musicians because these people relate to almost everything through music. I just finished reading Isaac Stern’s autobiography “My First Seventy-Nine Years,” and it’s fascinating. His book is, among other things, a history of the twentieth century, a travelogue, and a portrait of many different cultures as seen by a musician.

Isaac Stern’s first visit to Israel, shortly after the state was created, had a profound, long lasting effect on him. He was caught up in the ebullient spirit of the people creating a new democratic society based on humanist ideals. Their energy, hard work, and conviction that they would succeed in spite of overwhelming obstacles had an intoxicating effect on him. He was equally impressed with the Israelis’ passion for music. At every concert he gave, there were at least 250 people in excess of the capacity of the hall. Somehow, they all managed to squeeze in. Everyone was knowledgeable about music, too. Working people would stop him on his way to his hotel room to discuss the relative merits of Beethoven’s Fifth, Tenth, and Kreutzer Sonatas. He would return to Israel again and again, frequently during times of war.

When Stern traveled to Japan shortly after World War II, he was fully aware that Japanese traditional music, unlike European and American classical music, is always played in the context of dance, song, or the spoken word. He was not prepared for the passion of the Japanese people for European and American classical music. There were overflow crowds at every one of his performances, and recordings of Beethoven quartets, Bach Brandenburg Concerti, and Chopin piano sonatas were played in Japanese bars. Fiddler on the Roof, sung in Japanese, was a big hit there. The conflict between traditional and new ways, expressed in “Fiddler,” was very real to the people of Japan who were experiencing the diminution of their own traditional culture at that time.

On his visit to the Soviet Union during the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War, Stern broke political barriers with his music. The Soviet people were, if possible, more passionate about music than people he had played for elsewhere. When a concert hall was filled and the doors closed, the crowds outside would pound on the doors until someone relented and let them in. People of all ages, coming from all walks of life, were in the audience. (There was no need for Oprah to promote classical music there.) Stern sensed the love of music in his audience and felt that he played his very best because of it.

Communist China was off limits to Americans until the 1970s, and Stern went there with his family in 1979. Relations between the Chinese and American governments had improved so much that Stern was allowed to bring a film crew with him. The Chinese people, who had not heard much Western music in years, were almost wildly enthusiastic. During the Cultural Revolution in China, from 1966 to 1977, everything associated with the West, including Beethoven, Mozart, and violins, was reviled. Musicians and music teachers were imprisoned, beaten, humiliated, and starved. Many committed suicide. Stern’s film crew shot and produced an award-winning film called “From Mao to Mozart.” Stern was convinced that music was a strong, emotional language which could bring all people together. In the final analysis, he believed, Mao could not prevail against Mozart.

Isaac Stern considered himself a cultural ambassador with music as his universal ally. He was very proud that he had served so well in this role.

To be continued

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