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Education Update Online

November 2006
Book Review of Violin Dreams: A Memoir by Arnold Steinhardt
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

Even if you don’t recognize the name of the lead violinist and founding member of the world-renowned, 43-year-old Guarneri String Quartet, you’ll be absolutely delighted by this lively, down-to-earth autobiographical romp about how a kid from L.A., the son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants, who loved ball games, telling jokes and playing pranks, who disliked practicing and who would barge into his room with a body throw to the bed (once, breaking a bow his family could hardly afford), came to trust his ears and heart—and eventually soul—to evolve into a much-revered and admired soloist, orchestral and chamber music player, teacher, scholar and long-time lover of the violin. The word “lover” fits because Arnold Steinhardt is nothing if not sensual talking about music and especially about his two great life-long passions – Storioni and Bach. At 69, he looks back with affection and amusement at his many affairs with, among others, Guadagnini, Stradivari and Guarneri del Gesù, culminating finally in his choice of a Lorenzo Storioni, from Cremona, the violin-making capital of the 18th century. As for Bach, Steinhardt was smitten, obsessed, early on, especially with the famously difficult Chaconne, for unaccompanied violin, the fifth movement of Bach’s Partita in D Minor, the piece that became for Steinhardt the touchstone.

Violin Dreams is well titled because dreams (inspirational as well as anxious) led Arnold Steinhardt to follow instinct as well as education. Without being didactic, the memoir also provides a wealth of information about music lessons, teachers, instruments, institutes and groups and is full of quotable lore and delicious anecdotes, some of them laugh-out-loud hilarious. The picture he presents of himself as a sensitive, eager and playful youngster is memorable: he grows in confidence but never seems to lose the ability to assess himself honestly, critically. He generously credits stern taskmasters such as George Szell and lovingly recreates the accented-speech advice of various great player-teachers of the past, such as legendary Eugene Ysaye, virtually unknown today, or master pedagogues like Toscha Seidel, who scowled at young Arnold, telling him he played like a “dead fish.”

Violin Dreams should be required reading not only for aspiring musicians but for anyone facing the inevitable negotiation of head and heart in the pursuit of perfection. Parents are crucial, and Steinhardt is grateful that his, particularly his mother, a Klezmer addict back in a Polish shtetl, who encouraged him to practice (though he cheated at first), but he is well aware of the difference between being nurtured and force fed, the latter not his lot. He is belatedly admiring of how much violin makers (luthiers) count in advancing expertise, as much as studying with Szegetis and Heifetzes, and he is fascinating in what he recounts of the history of the remarkable 73-piece instrument that claimed him at the age of six. He also conveys a sense, at least in the circles in which he traveled, of a community of friends, schoolmates and mentors—Mischas, Jaschas, Toschas and Saschas—who, no matter how competitive or removed, seem never to have been beyond advancing their common love of fiddling.

Particularly memorable is Steinhardt’s account of why he decided to become a chamber music player rather than a soloist, concertmaster in a major orchestra or teacher. All the stories, however, are filled with humor and warmth, and as if all this entertaining and accessible prose were not enough, Violin Dreams comes with a CD on which Steinhardt plays Bach’s Partita in D Minor twice—commenting on the 40 years separating the performances.