What Good is Music?

September 11, 2008

[Originally written and published in September 2002].

I lost no loved ones on 11 September 2001, nor was my home destroyed or my work affected in any palpable way by the tragic attack on our nation; and yet, the events of that morning have prodded me to look inward and take personal inventory. As a professional violinist, I ask myself: What good is the music I play? Does my work make a difference to anyone?

Ironically, that particular September 11th was a day I had looked forward to for a long time. Over 30 years earlier, my brother Victor, my friend Michael Riesman and I—three musicians on vacation—climbed Mt. Sill, one of the many fourteen thousand foot peaks in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The climb had been long and strenuous but not really dangerous, and Mt. Sill itself quite unremarkable—basically a towering mound of rocks devoid of any vegetation save the occasional red, orange and green lichens that baked in the hard, high-altitude sun. The view was what we had come for, and when we arrived at the summit panting, it more than fulfilled our expectations: layer after layer of craggy mountains extending both north and south for almost a hundred miles. An unearthly silence hung in the air—the absence of sound itself a deeply moving music that played to the far-reaches before us.

Suddenly we noticed that the sun was moving toward the horizon. It was late and in a few hours the temperature on Mt. Sill would drop below freezing. Although the three of us had been on the top for barely twenty minutes, we reluctantly began our trek back to camp—my elation tinged with the disappointment of leaving so quickly. That night, snug in my sleeping bag, I gazed up at the star-filled sky and vowed to return someday. I have always treasured hiking in these mountains with their verdant valleys, rushing waterfalls and glaciers nestled in the upper reaches of massive rock formations. It has been a perfect antidote to my sedentary indoor life as a musician.

Last September, over three decades after my initial trip, my dream of climbing Mt. Sill again became a possibility. My wife Dorothea, our son Alexej and I climbed into the Sierra Nevada over Bishop Pass with two friends, Maru and Paulo, and set up camp in Dusy Basin, altitude 10,500 feet. In contrast to the strange, almost lunar terrain above us, our camp was situated just below the tree line alongside a lovely stream that meandered through long grasses and a few brave trees and bushes that dared to put roots down in this severe high-altitude environment. For several days, we made only small excursions to nearby lakes and the more lushly vegetated canyons down below while our bodies acclimatized to the thin air. Because of an impending recital, I occasionally practiced on a cheap violin that the mules had brought up along with tents and camping supplies.

Five days after our arrival in Dusy, we felt ready. September 11th would be the day for attempting to climb Mt. Sill. We were up at 5:30 a.m., Pacific Standard Time, and eating breakfast before 6:00. As we drank our coffee, unbeknownst to us, the first plane crashed into the World Trade Tower 3,000 miles away, and as we donned our day-packs, the second and third planes hit the other tower and the Pentagon. The weather had been crystal clear for the last week but on that day, long wings of clouds turned blood-red by the rising sun spread across the sky. At 6:30, Dorothea and Maru, who planned to stay put, waved goodbye to Alexej, Paulo and me. I could not help thinking to myself as the first rays of sun touched us that life was good and dreams sometimes come true. At that very moment, thousands of people had just lost their lives and the nation was in crisis.

As the day progressed, we crossed barren expanses littered with the rock debris from ancient retreating glaciers and climbed over pass after pass, each one higher than the last. By early afternoon the entire world seemed to spread out before us just as I remembered from long ago—layers of mountains pulled, twisted and tortured upwards by the earth’s inner workings, lakes big and small artfully placed in the folds of their ridges like so many jewels shimmering in the afternoon sun.

The trip had taken longer than expected, perhaps because I was 30 years older now, and suddenly rain and hail began to pelt us. Mt. Sill rose several hundred feet directly above us—so enticingly near—and yet with the weather closing in, there was no question of going on. With that familiar coupling of elation and regret, I headed back to camp with Alexej and Paolo. The top of Sill had eluded me this time but at least I had seen the miracle of the Sierra Nevada once again.

Several hours later, our tents came into view; there would be a lot to tell over dinner tonight. But inexplicably, Dorothea rushed towards us, threw herself at our son Alexej who was in the lead, and burst into tears. The story of the attack, gleaned from a transistor radio, came out in bits and starts as my wife struggled for composure: Passenger planes as deadly bombs, thousands dead, the World Trade Towers collapsed, the Pentagon in flames. We stood there dumbfounded, unable to get our minds around events that belonged in a bad movie plot. The sound of gently rushing water and the air redolent with pine made it especially incomprehensible. How could the same planet that housed the mountain paradise where we stood also be a crucible for today’s hate and violence? Questions collided with one another as I numbly trudged toward our tent. Was my daughter who lived in New York City safe? Would our country itself be attacked again? Would our very way of life survive intact? For the very first time in my secure and comfortable existence as an American, I was seized with dizzying uncertainty.

I pulled my boots off in the tent’s dim light and dropped them next to my violin case. Although I had spent almost my entire life devoted to the instrument that lay inside, what good was it really? Music was for pleasure, for fun, even for touching the soul at times, but it could not stop the terrorists from their evil doings or quell the fears of panicked people trapped in planes and burning buildings. For that matter, what good was music for anything? It did not provide a roof over your head, or warmth, or nourishment.

And yet, without knowing exactly why, I felt compelled to open the case, take out the violin with its bow, and make my way to the brook that had been our companion for the past week. In the waning late afternoon light, I played a Bach Allemande for the stream, the trees, the errant boulders scattered willy-nilly, the countless victims of the attack who now lay under smoldering cement, steel and airplane shards, and not least of all, for my very own sanity. The music—dark, mournful, even angry at times—told its own story, yet it also seemed to comment on the chaotic feelings that raced through me. Bach knew nothing of airplanes or skyscrapers but he did understand the human heart—its pain, its aching sadness. The Allemande touched and soothed me as the stream gurgled in accompaniment. I found solace in its phrases that stepped up and down, in their familiar cadences, and in the repeats of entire sections. The terrorists had unnerved me but Bach’s well-ordered and richly imaginative music began to ease my heart. I played on and on.

What Good is Music

Arnold Steinhardt playing Bach in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on September 11, 2001. Photo by Dorothea von Haeften, September 11, 2002.

Music can make me laugh and cry and want to dance, but in that time of crisis up in the mountains, it was a desperate refuge where I could explore and give reign to my raw feelings in privacy and safety. Music became my personal grief counselor. The stories I have heard about concerts taking place during the London Blitz and the Siege of Leningrad in full face of danger, starvation and death make more sense to me now. I empathize with the lone violinist who played all night last September 11th for people at the New York City Armory looking for news of those they loved. And I understand more fully why once a nine-year-old friend, upon hearing that his father had suddenly died of a stroke, quietly went to his room, shut the door, and played the violin for himself.

Music defines me as a human being. We may have different tastes (I classical, you reggae) but I know of no one who simply doesn’t like music. We like it, we love it, we need it: for its own sake but also for romantic trysts, making love, weddings, funerals, paying bills, shopping and riding in elevators. And many of us must have needed it on 11 September 2001. What music did you turn to on that terrible day?

Our history tells us, regrettably, that to kill is also human; but I can’t help thinking that if I open my mouth in song, it can no longer curse my neighbor, if I play an instrument, it becomes harder for me to wield a knife or gun. I wonder then, could the young men who turned those planes into massive instruments of destruction have loved music? In the absence of any answer, I can only think about the camps where they were once indoctrinated to hate and destroy, and fantasize about another kind of brain-washing in which music plays for them day and night. Perhaps the sadness, joy and innate wisdom of, say, Billie Holiday or Johann Sebastian Bach might cure them of the disease called hate. After all, the Old Testament says in chapter one of Samuel: “And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took a harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.” Music banished Saul’s evil spirits in the Bible, eased my heart by a mountain stream, and helped a young boy in his hour of desperate need. That is what music is good for.

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  1. From Maru & Paolo on September 11, 2008

    Our dearest friend:
    Thanks for you frienship, intelligence, kindness, wisdom, and all the talent you have to be a great humand being!!!
    Lots of love

  2. From Dennis Hartley on September 12, 2008

    Arnold,
    My wife Kathleen and I are friends of Betsy and Victor. Victor and I have breakfast a couple times a month, and we recently got them interested in tango. I also grew up in So Cal, my father and his father spent summers in the Sierras, even participating in some first ascents. The Sierras were my first experience of the Sublime, the deeply spiritual, and the experiences I had there in my youth defined my character. I became an artist (painter) and understand and appreciate the questions you’ve asked yourself, and wonder as well what the meaning is of my art. I loved your essay—I had that experience on Mt. Electra with my brother over 40 years ago. Like countless others, am grateful for the music you and your brother) make.
    Sincerely,
    Dennis Hartley

  3. From Adrian Felizia on November 12, 2008

    Arnold,
    I’m writing from Argentina. I apologize for my eventually poor English. Your words are beautiful, as is your playing! I’m a professional violin/viola player, long time ultra-fanatic about the Guarneri Quartet, and I seriously consider you and your quartet colleagues—including both cellists—among the elite of finest string players of all times (together with Pinchas Zukerman, Ida Kavafian, Pina Carmirelli, and Mariana Sirbu). Well, I’ve encouraged myself to write here because I have something to tell you. I’ve been looking for many years for a way to let you know this: You, Arnold, you and your quartet friends, have saved not only my career, but also my life. And not only once, but several times! And I’m not joking at all. At times when my soul and mind were in pain and disoriented, what, sadly, has happened many times in my highly conflictive existence, the supreme order, freshness and dramatic power of your music gave me reasons for keeping fighting. And that is something that my cultivated ears just couldn’t get from other recordings, from other string players. I’m the kind of listener that can recognize almost any important violinist just listening to few recorded notes. And by saying this I don’t want to look as a bluffer, but to show you that I’m not just a frivolous music lover. Absolutely not! I make of quartet playing—and listening—a religion, or what’s even more: an authentic search of the highest truth. I have discovered many profound reasons why the Guarneri Quartet is the perfect expression of the forces of nature, a kind of portrait of God. Each one of you is expressing a different kind of energy, forming together a “gestaltic” effect. Again, this is no joke. I know I sound as a mad theoretic, but I’m not. When you say in your first book, Indivisible by Four, that your rendition of the great quartet literature is just one more, my friend and saviour, you are not right at all. Your playing has such philosophical depth, such intense organic sense, that has to be placed at a unique point of human achievement. So, that is my humble testimony of a magnificent art that gave me the joy and the inspiration; I hope that this awkward attempt to express my feelings and experiences in this complex travel that life is, gives to you another point of view in relation with the scope of your playing.
    Sincerely, and with eyes in tears,
    Adrian Felizia

  4. From Joylania on November 15, 2008

    Dear Mr Steinhardt,

    Even though Sept 11, 2001 was seven years ago, I still remember the song I turned to during that period after hearing about the tragedy – ‘Amazing Grace’, on the piano. Music does bring peace to our hearts because it was created by the Prince of Peace.

    Keep writing.

    Joylania, Singapore

  5. From Patricia Willwerth on January 11, 2009

    What a joy to hear the Guarneri quartet in Ann Arbor today. The molto adagio of Op. 132 was
    other-worldly in its beauty.
    Valissa’s mother
    PS In the program was a copy of your first appearance in AA on February 25, 1971. That is the
    day Valissa was born!

  6. From Brant Taylor on March 2, 2009

    Dear Arnold,

    Let me add my voice to the many others here who have thanked you for everything you have done to enrich our lives with chamber music.

    Though I have been a cellist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for ten years, my lifelong musical love affair is with string quartets, and the first part of my professional career in music was with a full-time quartet. You and I met once very briefly after a Guarneri concert at the Met Museum in New York in the mid 1990s. My quartet, which very much looked up to your quartet, was hearing you play live for the first time. The after-concert scene was typically busy, and I am always conscious of taking more of a performer’s time than is necessary to say a quick hello. In this case, I particularly lamented not having a better chance to speak with you, as I would have the loved the chance to ask you about any number of musical matters on my mind at the time.

    I am posting underneath your eloquent words on September 11 because music played a central role in that day for me and for all of my orchestral colleagues, and I thought the recollection might be of some interest. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was in Lucerne, Switzerland, about midway through a two-week tour of Europe. We were to play Mahg that evening at Lucerne’s beautiful lakeside hall. The day was free from rehearsals, so I went for a jog along Lake Lucerne in the mid-afternoon. Upon returning to the hotel’s lobby, I overheard something about a plane having hit the World Trade Center. Imagining a small plane and an accidental crash, I went to my room, turned on the television, and watched with the same horror that millions of Americans felt that day.

    Our orchestra’s leaders quickly realized that an immediate gathering of the group was necessary, since due to the time difference in Europe, there remained a scant few hours before our scheduled concert was to begin. In a hotel conference room, our Music Director at the time, Daniel Barenboim, told the orchestra that he felt the concert should happen. A colleague suggested that in addition to the music itself providing comfort, the communal feeling of being onstage together was much preferable to sitting alone in our hotel rooms glued to the news. It was also mentioned that professionalism dictated that we owed it to the ticketholders to perform. We decided that anyone who felt strongly that they were unable to go onstage that night would not be forced to play. With the exception of one colleague (his family lived in New York and he had not yet been able to make contact with them), everyone played.

    There was discussion adding some commemorative music to the program. Our librarians carry parts for certain pieces of music with them on all of our tours, just in case they are needed for some unforeseen reason. Barber’s Adagio was discussed, and the idea was rejected because the situation was still practically unfolding before us. That music seemed premature. In the end, we opted to begin the concert with our National Anthem. Many of the Swiss people in the audience may have been hearing it for the first time, and they applauded politely afterward. This addition was for us more than for them.

    It felt very strange to be far from our homes and families during such an unprecedented catastrophe. In their place, we had each other. Although an orchestra always tries to function as a large chamber group in the best sense possible, I must say that we never achieved it more than we did that night.

    Most Sincerely,

    Brant Taylor

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November 1, 2013

And What Then?

I have a hard time getting my brain around abstractions.  So when I read with alarm about the latest debt limit crisis in the United States Congress and the possibility that Uncle Sam might actually close our government’s doors, I tried to imagine the situation in terms of my own profession—music—and, even more specifically, in [...]

October 1, 2013

Calling Planet Earth

Dear Key of Strawberry, Allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Brzjk and I live on planet Ulfz located many light years from you.  We have been aware for some time that life exists on your planet—I believe you call it Earth.  Nevertheless, we Ulfzians have been reluctant to make contact with you.  Quite [...]

September 1, 2013

Discovery

One year into a 23-month mission, NASA‘s Mars rover Curiosity has assured its place in the history of planetary exploration as the most ambitious and one of the most successful attempts to date to explore the surface of another planet. Curiosity’s data allowed the mission’s science team to establish that Mars once had an environment [...]
Tom Heimberg

August 1, 2013

Tom

I met Tom Heimberg during junior high school recess when we were both twelve years old. The popular sport during recess was something we unofficially called Chinese handball—a game played with a rubber ball against an upright surface. Tom and I became quite professional at discussing topspin, slices, drop shots, and fake outs, but as [...]

July 8, 2013

Drunk as a Skunk

I know of no one among all my musician friends and colleagues who will drink anything alcoholic before performing. Even those who enjoy an occasional glass of wine, beer, or an enticing margarita are very, very careful to imbibe only after rather than before a concert. Simply put, it’s hard enough to play well while [...]

June 1, 2013

Fees

We were enjoying an after-concert snack at the hotel restaurant when David Soyer, our cellist in the Guarneri String Quartet, took a sip of his beer, leaned back expansively, and announced in a mock Eastern European accent, “I rub stick against rope.  Make many zlotys.” No, we weren’t somewhere in Poland where people deal in [...]

May 1, 2013

Suzy

Little Suzy was in the midst of working on a piece with her piano teacher when she suddenly stopped playing, crossed out Johann Sebastian Bach’s name at the top of the page, and wrote her own name above it. “Why did you do that, Suzy?” her surprised teacher asked. “He’s not playing the piece. I [...]
Thou Shalt Not Steal

April 1, 2013

A Bible Story

I once stole a bible. It was wrong, I shouldn’t have done it, and part of me would like to forget that it ever happened. But this day, April Fools’ Day, seems as good a time as any to tell the story of my shameful deed. The theft took place when I was a young [...]

March 4, 2013

Gibbsy

Rudolf Kolisch’s name came up while I was at the Marlboro Music Festival this summer. The distinguished violinist had been a Marlboro participant late in life. Along with his other remarkable accomplishments, Kolisch was the rare violinist who played the instrument “left-handed.” Because of a childhood injury to the middle finger of his left hand, [...]

February 2, 2013

Fritz Kreisler

“Did you ever get to perform the Fritz Kreisler String Quartet?”  I’ve been asked this question again and again over the years, undoubtedly in response to a scene in “High Fidelity,” the 1987 documentary about our Guarneri String Quartet. In that scene, I bring the Kreisler String Quartet in A Minor, a work I dearly [...]

December 28, 2012

The Interview

Giving interviews is something musicians have to do surprisingly often—we usually do them to stir up a little interest and sell a few tickets to our concerts. On one occasion last summer my radio interviewer had done his homework well. He knew a great deal about me, and the music I was going to perform [...]

November 22, 2012

An Open Letter to Sammy Rhodes

You think quitting smoking is hard? Try quitting a string quartet. My four-step program might help violist Samuel Rhodes, who just announced his retirement from the Juilliard String Quartet at the end of the season. The following is my letter to him. Dear Sammy, I read the news of your retirement from the Juilliard String [...]
cJQuZXoyc5U

September 7, 2012

A Night to Remember

Have you ever heard a performance that you will never forget no matter how long you live? I have. And have you ever gone out on a blind date with someone who is known to thousands, perhaps even millions of people—just about everyone except you? I have. Not only that, but both events happened on [...]
Arnold Giving Colbourn Commencement Speech

May 7, 2012

Colburn School Commencement Address

By Arnold Steinhardt Good morning. I’m honored to be speaking to you at this 2012 Colburn School commencement and equally honored to teach at the school. I was born and raised in Los Angeles and it pleases me immensely to know that Colburn, with its faculty of distinguished musicians, is now the pride of the [...]
The Steinhardt String Quartet, Press Poster

April 1, 2012

The Steinhardt String Quartet

Hartz-4-Artz your internet culture source April 1, 2012 From the Music Desk: Arnold Steinhardt To Form New String Quartet Arnold Steinhardt, first violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet that retired in 2009, has announced plans to form a new string quartet. Mr. Steinhardt recently told Hartz-4-Artz reporter N. Nam Trebor that he deeply misses the [...]
Arnold Steinhardt Sixth Grade Class Photo

March 1, 2012

Teach Me!

What makes a good teacher? For that matter, what makes a bad one? Some teachers merely pass on information. Others excite a student’s interest through their own love for the subject. Some teachers employ fear and intimidation. A very few manage to teach you how to become your own teacher. The craft (or is it [...]
Jascha Heifetz

February 2, 2012

Jascha

Mr. Jascha Heifetz (born 1901, died 1987) Violin Virtuoso Section Heaven February 2, 2012 Dear Mr. Heifetz, Today, February 2nd, is your birthday. Happy birthday, sir, and my deepest thanks for the miracle of your artistry. I have listened to you play the violin throughout my entire life—actually my entire life plus nine months to [...]
The Arnold Steinhardt Metronome

January 5, 2012

You’re On Your Own

My daughter, Natasha, once came home from her weekly piano lesson and asked to use my metronome—a request from her teacher. I told Natasha that I didn’t own a metronome. At the next lesson, her teacher insisted I go out and buy one. The clerk at my local music store looked at me oddly as [...]
Meryl Streep as Roberta Guaspari

December 4, 2011

Uh-Oh

I began to study the violin with a series of teachers who taught music and the instrument, but who as time went by also saw fit to teach me the elusive craft of performance. Toscha Seidel, an early teacher, challenged me to break out of my shell and show the music’s emotional character. My next [...]
Rock Concert T-shirt

November 1, 2011

Listen

I had just settled down with my ice cream cone in front of Ralph’s Pretty Good Café when a garbage truck rumbled to a stop directly in front of me. To my consternation, the driver got out with the motor still running and noisily began to empty garbage cans into the truck. No, I said [...]
Manuscript of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge

October 3, 2011

Opus 130

Not long before I graduated from the Curtis Institute of Music in 1959, John Dalley, a fellow violin student, asked me whether I’d like to work on Beethoven’s late String Quartet in B Flat, Opus 130. The Paganini String Quartet had recently performed at the school, ending their program with another late Beethoven Quartet, Opus [...]
Arnold Steinhardt's Violin Case

September 9, 2011

My Violin Case

What’s a violin case for? Well, a violin for one. And bows to go along with it, of course. What else? Extra strings, rosin, and a mute. Also, a tuning fork and chin rest fastener. Oh, I almost forgot—music stored in the case cover pouch. That’s about it, right? Wrong. At least, forgive the pun, [...]
Rudolf Serkin, pianist, and Arnold Steinhardt, violinist, 1980

August 2, 2011

Marlboro at Sixty

The following article appeared in a booklet, “60th Anniversary Reflections on Marlboro Music”, that celebrated the event with a weekend gathering at Marlboro on July 9 and 10 of hundreds of participants past and present from all corners of the globe. In August, 1957, Jaime Laredo and I, two young violinists hoping for a career [...]
Stage F-F-Fright

July 1, 2011

Stage F-F-Fright

I must have been only seven or eight years old when I first performed in public. My teacher, Mr. Moldrem, had me play two melodies, one from the Beethoven Violin Concerto and the other from Brahms First Symphony. Moldrem, well known for his ability to teach youngsters, presented his students regularly in concerts. Before the [...]
Del Gesu Beare, Scrolls

June 6, 2011

An Old Friend

Sam, a widower in the autumn of his life, lost thirty pounds, had a face lift, dyed his hair, took elocution lessons, bought a smart new wardrobe, withdrew all the money from his bank, and flew to Miami for a brand new life. Soon after, Sam met a lovely woman at his hotel’s casino and [...]
Practice, Practice

May 3, 2011

Practice, Practice

After the Second World War, my parents were able to rent out a room attached to the back of our garage due to a severe housing shortage. The rumpus room, as they called it, was sparsely furnished, but that was enough for a succession of people to perch there for the time they needed to [...]
The Duo

April 1, 2011

The Duo

After forty-five years making music together, the Guarneri String Quartet played its very last concert on October 27, 2009. People often ask me whether I miss playing quartets. Of course I do. I miss not only the concerts, but also the camaraderie, the rehearsals, the traveling, the exotic food, and the interesting people along the [...]

March 1, 2011

A Meditation on the Meditation

In the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria, the courtesan, Thaïs, reflects on her past life of worldly pleasure. Looking into the mirror, she worries that her beauty will soon fade. The monk, Athanaël, arrives at her palace, admonishing Thaïs that there is one kind of love she does not yet know. He exhorts her to [...]
Forty Year Story

February 3, 2011

Forty Year Story

In the spring of 1970, Judith Serkin, a cello student at the Curtis Institute of Music, told me that she and four other students at school, cellist Peter Wiley, violist Geraldine Lamboley, and violinists Lucy Chapman and Jill Levy, hoped to study Schubert’s Two Cello Quintet during the next semester. Judith asked whether I would [...]
Perfect Pitch Tablets from Tone Deaf Comics

January 3, 2011

Perfect What?

My daughter, Natasha, told me recently about a gifted young boy she knows who has learned to read at an early age and already plays the piano with astonishing originality. As if to offer a final and irrefutable proof of the boy’s extraordinary musical talent, Natasha added one more thing. “You know, he’s got perfect [...]
David Soyer

December 6, 2010

Dave

David Soyer, cellist and founding member of the Guarneri String Quartet, passed away on February 24, 2010—one day after his 86th birthday. Michael Tree, violist, and John Dalley and I, violinists, the other founding members, played in the quartet with Dave for almost forty years and we knew him for close to fifty. Peter Wiley, [...]
Paganini's Birthday

October 27, 2010

Paganini’s Birthday

Today, October 27th, is Niccolo Paganini’s birthday. Below is a reprint of an article I wrote on this occasion which appeared in the October issue of The Strad magazine. Next, as an attachment, is Caprice #24.25, my arrangement of Paganini’s 24th Caprice. Finally, I include a letter that to my great astonishment Paganini just wrote [...]
Photo from Opus

October 4, 2010

Opus

I saw Opus a while ago, a play by Michael Hollinger that deals with the inner workings of a string quartet. Since I have been a violinist in the Guarneri String Quartet for many decades, you can imagine that I awaited the opening curtain with some anticipation. The subject of my profession is not exactly [...]
Hermes/Mercury, God of Travel

September 6, 2010

Psssst

I hear a lot of griping from my friends these days about travel. Trains are much more luxurious and dependable in Europe. Japanese taxi drivers wear white gloves and decorate their cars with curtains while in New York City, taxis are, well, let’s not even talk about it. And the deluxe plane travel of years [...]

August 2, 2010

In a Sentimental Mood

I recently heard an all-Stravinsky concert performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. A few days later, a review of the evening by Anthony Tommasini appeared in the April 23, 2010 edition of the New York Times. A comment he made about the orchestra’s rendition of The Firebird Suite caught my eye: “The Firebird’s Lullaby, [...]
Dinner Music

July 1, 2010

Dinner Music

Uncharacteristically early for an appointment, I slowed my pace up Manhattan’s Lexington Avenue. Better early than late, I thought, but what on earth was I to do with myself for the next 30 minutes. As I approached 86th St., the answer appeared almost by magic in the form of Papaya King, a hot dog stand [...]
Disney Hall

June 2, 2010

Something New, Something Old

I happened to be performing in Los Angeles just as the city’s new and glittering Disney Hall opened several years ago. A week earlier, I called my mother who was living in Southern California to tell her of my arrival. “Oh, wonderful,” she said. “You can take me to Disney Hall.” That was fine with [...]
Joe Vita

May 4, 2010

Joe Vita

I left the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University last year after having taught a graduate violin class there for over two decades. Among other things, I miss the lively conversations I often had with colleagues at student recitals, oral exams, juries, or over a pizza at the local Italian restaurant. Topic [...]
Twelve Note Story

April 23, 2010

Twelve Note Story

Take a deep breath and try to settle down. I know, I know. The task is daunting, but you’ve worked hard. Just be relaxed. Be focused. And now get practical. For starters, think of a good tempo. Not so easy based on the first two or three notes that are slow and deeply personal. Better [...]
News Alert

March 30, 2010

News Alert

The United States Bureau of Weights and Measures has just announced at a national news conference that chamber music may cause global warming. The issue first came to the bureau’s attention when directors of several distinguished music conservatories notified it of alarming and unexplained rises in temperature at odd times of the school day. Government [...]
Sophisticated Traveler

February 28, 2010

Sophisticated Traveler

I planned to take the 2 PM Eastern Airlines shuttle from New York City. That would have gotten me into Boston by three with plenty of time to grab a bite, take a taxi to Jordan Hall, change, practice some, and relax a bit before the Guarneri String Quartet concert at 8 PM. But an [...]
Grammy Award

January 18, 2010

Grammy Awards

The Guarneri String Quartet was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of Best Chamber Music Performance this year for our Hungarian Album on RCA Red Seal. The CD consists of Ern? Dohnányi’s Quartets Nos. 2 and 3, and Zoltán Kodály’s Quartet No. 2, three works of striking beauty. The Grammy Awards (originally called [...]
Shall We Dance?

January 4, 2010

Shall We Dance?

Many years ago, I had occasion to play a Bach Partita for the pianist and scholar, Arthur Loesser. When I finished, Loesser asked me whether I knew how to dance the partita’s five movements. I vaguely knew that the movements were based on old dance forms, but I had assumed that the dance steps themselves [...]
Looking for Work

December 1, 2009

Looking for Work

The Guarneri String Quartet retired, yet Arnold Steinhardt continues to perform in public. Photo by Dorothea von Haeften. Violinist in Recently Retired String Quartet Looking for Work * Skills Proficient in chamber music. Works best with people willing to overlook occasional lapses in intonation, phrasing, and tone. Performs virtuoso solo works, but no higher than [...]
Birth Pains

November 4, 2009

Birth Pains

Mozart’s String Quartet, K. 421 in D Minor, occupies a special place in the hearts of the Guarneri String Quartet. It was the very first music we read through after deciding to form as a group. Why that work? Hard to remember after all these years, but I would guess that its emotion charged and [...]
The Guarneri Quartet

October 6, 2009

For the Very Last Time

On June 12, 2007, the Guarneri String Quartet sent out the following announcement: Dear Friends, We, the Guarneri String Quartet, have decided to retire at the end of the 2008-9 season, our forty-fifth year before the public. This has not only been a long journey, but a deeply satisfying one as well. What could be [...]
Gray's Papaya

September 1, 2009

Gray’s Papaya

“We’ll drive you home,” said Frank Salomon, an old friend and long-time presenter of the Peoples’ Symphony Concerts at Washington Irving High School. The Guarneri String Quartet had just finished a performance there, the last ever on the series before our retirement. Moments later, Frank behind the wheel, his wife Martha, my wife Dorothea, and [...]
Second Concert

August 3, 2009

Second Concert

The following is a slightly extended version of Second Concert, that appeared in the June publication of the new magazine Listen: Life with Classical Music. Our string quartet played a concert at Emory University in March of this year. Whenever I’m in Atlanta, I stay with my friends, Murphy Davis and Ed Loring, ministers who [...]
Arthur Rubinstein

July 7, 2009

Really

A member of the audience, somebody I’d seen backstage more than once before, came up to me recently after a concert I had just played. He smiled broadly, shook my hand enthusiastically, and said, “Great concert… really.” In the midst of thanking him, that last word, “really,” finally registered. Really? Excuse me sir, but what [...]
Life, Death, Music

June 13, 2009

Life, Death, Music

Last summer, Emily Hsiao, a teenager whom I’d never met, e-mailed me. She asked whether the Guarneri Quartet would have time to listen to music students in her high school when we played in Ann Arbor, Michigan that winter. Only hours after my visit to the school, a brutal attack on one of those students [...]
Almost on the Riviera

May 11, 2009

Almost on the Riviera

Did you always believe what your parents told you when you were young? I certainly did. I may not have always had the good sense to obey them or heed their advice but their wisdom was unquestionable. Take education, for example. My parents believed mightily in the importance of formal knowledge and therefore the need [...]
The Abode

April 1, 2009

The Abode

Alter Bock, a dedicated amateur string quartet player, has just announced plans for the creation of a home for retired chamber musicians. “I’m concerned that these wonderful musicians I’ve heard and admired most of my life have a nice place to spend their golden years.” He spoke to me from the music room in his [...]
Yehudi Menuhin

March 5, 2009

Genie in a Bottle

I ran into the violinist, Jennifer Koh, not long ago. Jenny is a highly gifted young musician who happens to have a keen interest in string players of old. At some point, our conversation turned to Yehudi Menuhin, one of the great violinists of the twentieth century. We talked about Menuhin’s instantly recognizable style, the [...]
A Brush with Fame

February 8, 2009

The Brush With Fame

Ah, Los Angeles! So-called city of angels, a place where the sun shines almost always, where palm trees flourish, a place that knows no winter-in short the city where I was born and raised. But in my adolescence, Los Angeles was much more than a hedonist’s playground. Thanks to the movie industry, the balmy weather, [...]
New Years Thoughts

January 1, 2009

New Year’s Thoughts

A drawing in the New Yorker magazine several years ago depicted a tawdry back alley with a few empty cans and bottles strewn about. The caption above read: Life without Mozart. Its message apparently affected many of us. I saw the drawing on peoples’ desks, walls, and refrigerator doors for years afterward. As a member [...]
The Swan

December 1, 2008

The Swan

When I was eleven years old, my violin teacher assigned me The Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns. I had no idea that The Swan was a famous cello solo or that it was part of a much larger work, The Carnival of the Animals. I had never even heard of its composer, Saint-Saëns, or seen his [...]
Mr. Oliver

November 10, 2008

Mr. Oliver

I enrolled in a music appreciation class when I was a high school student. Near the beginning of the semester, the teacher of the class took ill and a substitute, Mr. Oliver, replaced him. Mr. Oliver knew his subject well. He played us everything on the school record player from Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony to Peruvian [...]
Tooth Talk

October 8, 2008

Tooth Talk

I was having my teeth cleaned by the dental hygienist the other day when she offhandedly asked whether my children were also in the music industry. Fortunately, with my mouth wide open and filled with dental gear, I was only capable of answering with a few rather inarticulate and muffled noises. Otherwise, I might have [...]
What Good is Music

September 11, 2008

What Good is Music?

[Originally written and published in September 2002]. I lost no loved ones on 11 September 2001, nor was my home destroyed or my work affected in any palpable way by the tragic attack on our nation; and yet, the events of that morning have prodded me to look inward and take personal inventory. As a [...]
A Tale of Three Violinists

August 10, 2008

A Tale of Three Violinists

I stood in the artist’s dressing room, warming up nervously before my sole rehearsal with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. For a twenty-two-year-old violinist just starting a career, performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with this distinguished group of musicians was an important engagement. My palms were sweating, my heart beat rapidly, and I began to pace back [...]
Last Words to a Son

July 11, 2008

Last Words to a Son

Andrea, the head nurse at the assisted living home where my mother has lived for many years, called last month to tell me that mother had stopped eating, that she was drifting in and out of consciousness, and that she was failing rapidly. The next day, my son Alexej and I flew to Southern California [...]
A Dog's Tale

June 12, 2008

A Dog’s Tale

I’m a wonderful teacher. I know, you don’t have to tell me. It’s not nice to brag. But truth above all, I always say. Here. Let me show you why I’m so good. We have a dog named Tessa. As far as I can tell, Tessa doesn’t have much feeling for music one way or [...]
Remembering Izzy

May 10, 2008

Remembering Izzy

Photo by Allen Cohen Every one of us has to die. We know that. We also know that sooner or later all of us will be forgotten. Even Einstein. Even Beethoven. Nevertheless, we humans doggedly strive for meaning in our lives and harbor the secret (or not so secret) wish to accomplish something of sufficient [...]
A Noteworthy Day

March 2, 2008

A Noteworthy Day

I heard a great deal of music yesterday. Let me rephrase that. Yesterday, I heard a multitude of sounds—some longer, some shorter, higher or lower, louder or softer—as I made my way through my waking hours. The sounds appeared sometimes as individual tones and sometimes in groups of two and three. They often repeated themselves [...]
Solo Bow

February 2, 2008

Solo Bow

The Guarneri String Quartet played a concert in Wisconsin several years ago. Why do I remember that this particular concert was in Wisconsin? Probably because Wisconsin is a cheese-making state and a delicious selection of cheese was set out at the after-concert party. It’s funny what details remain vibrant in one’s mind, especially in light [...]
In the Key of Strawberry

January 1, 2008

In the Key of Strawberry

An unexpected thought interrupted the sentence I was reading in the morning newspaper, followed by several other thoughts in quick succession. I had just remembered last night’s dream: My wife, Dorothea, and I were riding on a bus in a foreign country. Through the window we espied an open-air flea market with an array of [...]
Hiroshi Iizuka

December 1, 2007

Cousin Sam

“How much time you giving me today, maestro?” This was more or less the way Sam began most of our phone conversations. Sam Schloss was my cousin, more specifically: my mother’s mother’s sister’s son. I would usually call him during a break in one of the open rehearsals the Guarneri String Quartet held during its [...]