The sounds of instrumental music come from a complex and subtle interaction among the musician, the instrument, and the way that the musician “reads” and interprets the abstract notation of the composer’s score. Violin Dreams is Arnold Steinhardt’s memoir about how those three elements have been woven together in a lifetime of playing the violin as a solo performer and as the first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet.
These three interlinked themes appear at the outset of the memoir as Steinhardt recounts a dream. He is about to go onstage at Carnegie Hall to play Johann Sebastian Bach’s masterwork for the solo violin, the Chaconne, which is the last movement of the Partita in D minor (1717-1723). When he stands on the stage, he is confronted by a panel of judges who pepper him with questions about the violin and its origins. Here is the musician confronting Bach’s Chaconne, one of the most monumental pieces in the literature for solo violin, and his instrument itself. About the violin, he thinks, “This creature sings ardently to me day after day, year after year, as I embrace it. Shouldn’t I want to know something about it?” The remainder of the book recounts Steinhardt’s quest to “know” the Chaconne, to know his instrument, the violin, and to bring his insight along with his passion into his playing.
Steinhardt’s experiences with the violin form the backbone of his narrative. He reaches back to his own ancestry to begin his story. His mother brought a deep love of the Yiddish music and songs that her ancestors played, composed, and sang in her native Poland. As she sang to him, he remembers, “Mother’s eyes became liquid when she sang. The rise and fall of her voice seemed to carry mysterious and unnamed truths about the nature of things.” Both of his parents loved violin music. They attended violin concerts in New York. During his mother’s pregnancy, she played a recording of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto repeatedly. She announced firmly that Arnold was going to become a violinist. He speaks of being “incarcerated” in two prisons by his parents. “One was constructed from their own desires; the other was genetic.”
Steinhardt began his violin lessons when he was about six years old. He tells of his studies with various teachers in the Los Angeles area where they now lived. While he had talent and parental encouragement, he was still a boy who did not always like to practice and preferred to play outside with friends. However, his own love of the violin was blossoming, and he was in the process of becoming a serious musician. He made his debut as a soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at age fourteen. By the time he graduated from high school, his future path was set, as he embarked on further study of the violin at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
His student days at the Curtis Institute are illuminating in showing the tremendous amount of hard work, practice, and tension that are part of the life of a student in training for a professional career in music. The competition is intense. Almost everyone is striving for careers as solo performers. Music competitions are major steps on the path to success. Steinhardt tells how he had to go through learning experiences in preparing for the technical and emotional demands of these competitions. He found the right formula in winning the prestigious Leventritt International Violin Competition.
As he finished his studies at the Curtis Institute, his first professional position was playing in the Cleveland Orchestra as assistant concertmaster. The conductor, George Szell, invited him to join the orchestra. Szell, a demanding conductor, added the enticement of supporting Steinhardt’s further study in Switzerland with the famous violinist, Joseph Szigeti.
Throughout Steinhardt’s student days at Curtis and continuing especially in summers at the Marlboro Music Festival, he found that he was drawn to playing chamber music as part of a...
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