I have always imagined that he who plays classical music, particularly he who, like Arnold Steinhardt, can glory in being first violinist for the Guarneri String Quartet, is not made as others are. His concerns are lofty, his passions refined. He would be the servant of the music he renders, the vessel through which Bach and Mozart flow. I was not surprised to have my preconceptions confirmed in reading Arnold Steinhardt’s musings and recollections about his life in the etheric realm of classical music.
In Violin Dreams, Steinhardt shares his search for the right violin, “jilting” his first instrument after having the privilege of handling a Spanish Stradivarius that “had wings on it.” It is a pilgrimage through the better to the best (his current great Storioni, made by one of the great Cremonese masters). Certain that he would be a violinist from adolescence, Steinhardt’s life moved him from fiddle to fiddle and composition to composition, his skill and art perhaps captured best in Bach’s Chaconne, a piece which he deconstructs and rebuilds note by note in order to understand and convey its holy quality. The alluring solo masterpiece provides the background music throughout this charming tale of instruments loved and lost, and the man who played them.
Even when he is ripping off a tango on a cheap practice violin for an Indian folk musician and his buddies while en route to Machu Picchu, we have the sense that Steinhardt’s music exceeds the moment. Yet he takes the time and does not regret giving the Indian a quick music lesson. “A quite respectable sound sprang out of the violin. The young man’s face registered surprise. Then he threw back his head and burst out laughing for sheer joy."
That hike up to Machu Picchu was for the author one of the few pleasure trips in a life apparently full of exciting world travel. But as he reminds us, “Managers usually arrange concert tours with maximum profit in mind, meaning minimal time in between for relaxation.” Berated by his mother for going to Rome and not visiting the Sistine Chapel, he and his wife finally take the opportunity to use ten days off to hike the Inca trail. But even then the violinist must practice. Not with his exquisite concert violin, of course, but with the afore-mentioned el cheapo that nonetheless is of sufficient quality to give his Indian fellow-musician a thrill upon hearing the bow draw true.
Steinhardt is reminded of his mortality by an operation on his arm that might or might not save his ability to play after an agonizing period of nerve loss. The operation is a success, but “Never again would I take my calling for granted. The illusion of permanence in my life had shattered forever.” When a friend dies, he is asked to play at the funeral. Nothing but the Chaconne will do. “There was no applause when I finished. One does not applaud after a sermon.” Steinhardt’s book is a sermon upon the rightness and sacred duty of his calling to play.