The Beatitude of Playing Bach

Arnold Steinhardt, Violin Dreams, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006

Like the hundreds of other people who had gathered at Saint Pius V Church for Dan Horkheimer’s funeral last August, I was moving between despair and disbelief in trying to assimilate the fact of his murder.  As I walked into the church, I saw at a distance a familiar face—Cece Weinkauff, who was playing violin before the Mass.  Eleven and a half years earlier when she was 14, Cece played Massenet’s Meditation at Mev’s funeral in Saint Francis Xavier College Church.

A few weeks later, she and I visited at Kayak’s on Skinker.  She enthusiastically recommended Arnold Steinhardt, Violin Dreams, which I promptly ordered and read. It’s a captivating memoir detailing his quest for the perfect violin, his journey to becoming  a world-class violinist, and his routines and rituals, such as carrying photos of the greats in his violin case to remind him of the nobility of his calling (like Heifetz). There’s so much in the book he doesn’t address, as it evidently isn’t relevant to his dream life, his real life, that is, his immersion in violins, their power, pedigrees, “personalities,” and magic.

I came away with a joyful realization of how much great music there remains to be discovered, explored, and savored! (How blessed Cece is to be able to play—day in and day out—such works!)  Here are some that Steinhart mentions:  Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin, Bartok’s First Rhapsody, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Wieniawski’s Scherzo Tarantella, Ernest Bloch’s Baal Shem Suite, Paganini’s Caprices, Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata, Mozart’s Divertimento in B Flat, Mozart’s G Minor two-viola quintet, Schubert’s two cello quintet, the song cycles of Schubert and Schumann, Mendelssohn’s octet, and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden, among others.

Bach is a most potent presence in Steinhardt’s book, as indicated in such passages as the following:

  • I would realize that Bach had actually provided me with a splendid example of improvisation on the movement’s skeletal frame—a collection of scales, arpeggios, fanciful turns, discreet pauses, and a final little cadenza that any decent Baroque fiddler would have been expected to summon up on the spot but that most modern violinists would not or could not. [80]
  • My parents had not raised my brother and me with any sense of religion. When I first heard Elman at age eleven, I doubt that I had ever been in a place of worship, and yet that is exactly what the D major section evoked then and now—a private sanctuary where I could commune with the unknown and unnamed.  [82]
  • I also hoped that the Chaconne would stay with me as a companion, a point of orientation, and a source of bedrock wisdom. [112]
  • Perhaps Bach was a stand-in for the rabbi or protest I never had—a prophet whose music moved me deeply but seemed nonetheless just beyond my grasp. [129]
  • Bach remained a stubborn constant in my life. If I succeeded in playing the sonatas and partitas flawlessly, my technique in general would inevitably improve. If I began to grasp their overall design, my horizons for all music would broaden.  [155]
  • Bach’s music could be devout, intellectual, complex, but also imaginative, playful, melancholy, daring. [155]
  • To me the Chaconne is one of the most beautiful, incredible compositions. On one staff, and for a small instrument, this man pours out a world full of the most profound thoughts and powerful emotion.  [184]
  • Was it far-fetched to think that Bach, a devout Christian, might have offered the Chaconne as an expression of the Holy Trinity, its bedrock spiritual principle? [190]

Enough writing! Time to go… and listen.

–spring 2008

1 Comment

  1. What strikes me is the routines and rituals – all the ‘greats’ seem to have these quirks. For ourselves and our children it’s easy to want to be free of the rituals that seemingly slave us, but perhaps it is just such focused devotion to a recurring theme or idea that brings brilliance.

    Bach was always a difficult delight for me to play. He is frustratingly accurate and structured in a way that I am not, but mastering a piece brings a strange satisfaction – like perfectly ironed hospital-corner sheets or pristine lines on a lawn.

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