String Quartet Fever

December 4, 2015

Here’s a riddle that made the rounds a few years ago:

What is one Russian?

An anarchist.

What are two Russians?

A chess game.

What are three Russians?
A revolution.

What are four Russians?

The Budapest String Quartet.

If the first three parts of this playful riddle attributed to the violinist Jascha Heifetz are open to question, the last has at least more than a kernel of truth to it. The Budapest String Quartet, one of the reigning quartets of the twentieth century, was formed by three Hungarians and a Dutchman, but it finished its career a half a century later composed of four Russians. How this happened is the story of many quartets: Somebody leaves. Another takes his or her place. Repeat.

I once ran into Robert Koff, the original second violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, several years after he had left the group. “Well,” he asked cheerfully, “how is the Juilliard Nonette these days?” At that point, the Juilliard had had five personnel changes and a total of nine different members. In the Budapest String Quartet’s case, ten men would call themselves members of the group over time.

The Budapest String Quartet was formed in 1917 by four friends whose jobs in various opera orchestras slacked off when World War One broke out. All had been pupils of two renowned Hungarian musicians, violinist Jenö Hubay and cellist David Popper. Hubay and Popper had been part of an earlier Budapest String Quartet, and the four young musicians, Emil Hauser and Alfred Indig, violins, Istvan Ipolyi, viola, and Harry Son, cello, (the lone Dutchman), decided to call themselves the Budapest Quartet in honor of the original one. They also decided, bravely, to live entirely from concert proceeds, something no previous quartet had ever attempted.

I must have initially heard the Budapest’s name mentioned in reverentially lowered voices at the same time I received my very first string quartet lessons in 1955 as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music. Jascha Brodsky, first violinist of the Curtis String Quartet, was coaching four of us on Mozart’s G Major String Quartet, K387. The work was new to me, and for all intents and purposes, so was the string quartet medium. I was amazed at how compellingly a mere four voices were able to convey Mozart’s musical ideas. This was worth further exploring. I went out and bought the Budapest’s recordings of Beethoven’s late string quartets.

The quartet members’ names listed on the recordings, Josef Roisman and Jac Gorodetzky, violins, Boris Kroyt, viola, and Mischa Schneider, cello, were unknown to me. This was troubling. How could players of such impressive technique and musicality have escaped my attention? We young musicians loved nothing better than to talk shop late into the night over beer and pretzels, but truthfully, the talk was mostly about the renowned soloists of the day, not about individual members of a chamber music group. The Budapest String Quartet was simply the Budapest String Quartet, its individual members encased hermetically within and relatively unknown until discovered mainly by those who had come down with a case of string quartet fever – that is to say, those who had been introduced to and intoxicated by the enormously rich and varied quartet repertoire.

As I listened for the first, the second, and then the third time to the Budapest’s recordings of the late Beethoven quartets, their playing struck me as brilliant but never forced; nuanced but never affected; elegant, even suave, but with the gravity Beethoven’s groundbreaking masterpieces demanded. It was also democratic playing. Gone was the centuries-old tradition of the first violinist as so-called leader who often supplied everything from bowings, fingerings, and phrasing to an overarching musical vision. Each player’s voice rose to prominence when necessary, and each voice seemed to manage the impossible: to blend with the others while retaining its distinct personality.

While I was at music school, the Budapest Quartet began a series of yearly concerts in the 1950s at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newly created Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. At some point, I was able to purchase a single ticket for one of those sold-out concerts. Sitting in the balcony, I looked down at four figures slowly emerging from the wings –each more or less the same height and build and each equally spaced from one another as they approached their seats. Was this visual conformity a prerequisite for fine quartet playing, I wondered?

There was one change of personnel from my Beethoven recordings. Alexander Schneider, the brother of Mischa, was now second violinist. What I came to know later, when I myself began to catch quartet fever, was that this string quartet’s membership was not set in stone and that Roisman was the second first violinist, Schneider the fourth second violinist (depending on how you count), Kroyt the second violist, and Schneider the second cellist in the group’s long career. I also learned that with each replacement had come new ideas, new problems, and inevitable disagreements.

For example, when Roisman entered the group, he found that two of the members were unable to play spiccato, the springing motion in the middle of the bow that is an indispensible part of string technique. Roisman had to spend tedious hours practicing the scherzo of Beethoven’s Quartet in F major, Opus 59, No.1 at the point of the bow, or Spitzen in German, to accommodate the others. For years the Budapest played this way, so the Germans snidely called them Das Spitzenquartett, the Point Quartet.

I do not remember what the Budapest Quartet played that night, only that their music making combined intelligence and precision ensemble with an irresistible suppleness and warmth. There was never anything forced or artificial in their performance, only a kind of rightness to every phrase. The four men moved little in their seats and seemed not to even cue one another, yet the music seemed to lift out of their instruments with a sense of inevitability.

The_Budapest_String_Quartet

The Budapest Quartet’s Four Russians (left to right): Josef Roisman, Boris Kroyt, Alexander Schneider, and Mischa Schneider

It never occurred to me to go backstage and congratulate the men at concert’s end. After all, I did not know them and I felt much too awkward as an insignificant student to introduce myself to these great artists. Besides, their string quartet world, however alluring, was still a distant one in my eyes. Like so many others of my generation, I dreamed of being the next great soloist. String quartets? That was for pleasure, not a profession. I left the concert without the slightest inkling that the Budapest Quartet and its four members individually were about to play a significant role in my life.

In the spring of 1958, an announcement appeared on the Curtis bulletin board:

“Viola auditions now being held for the Casals Festival Orchestra. Contact Alexander Schneider.”

Not long after, two of us from the school climbed four flights of stairs to Schneider’s Lower Manhattan apartment. A man of modest height and compact build opened the door. “Hallo. Vell, come in,” he said with a thick Russian accent. Sasha, as Schneider was called, became the first of the four Russians in the Budapest Quartet, all with thick Russian accents, whom I would come to know one by one over the next fourteen years. The audition did not go well for the two of us, then it did, then it didn’t. Sasha had no trouble speaking, sometimes shouting his mind as criticism but also compliments flew at us. Fortunately, Sasha liked my playing and I was accepted as last chair violist in the orchestra, but the two of us left his apartment in a daze, having just been accosted by an irrepressible and unpredictable force of nature.

I first met Mischa, Sasha’s older brother, later that year at the Leventritt International Violin Competition, I a contestant, he and Sasha both judges. Mischa and Sasha unquestionably looked like brothers, but from there on the resemblance was only occasionally evident. Where Sasha was boisterous, theatrical, and often outrageous, Mischa was soft-spoken, endearing, and thoughtful. When I walked out on stage to play, I could hear Sasha say to Mischa in a stage whisper, “Vait a minute. Isn’t dat the last chair violist in the Casals Festival Orchestra?”

The summer of 1959 was my first as participant at the Marlboro Music Festival. During those seven weeks, I was immersed in nothing but chamber music for the first time in my life. Over the years, Sasha, then Mischa, and finally Boris Kroyt would come to the festival as invaluable mentors. What luck to have three-quarters of the Budapest String Quartet at Marlboro!

At the end of the summer, I headed west for my first job out of music school as assistant concertmaster of the Cleveland Orchestra. Several hours into the trip, an exit sign for Buffalo, New York, appeared. This was Mischa Schneider’s hometown. On a whim, I pulled off the highway and called him. “I vill make offer eempossible to refuse,” he said on the phone. Mischa proposed dinner at his home and a ticket to the Budapest’s first all-Beethoven concert of the season that very night.

At 8 p.m., the Budapest String Quartet, Roisman, Schneider, Kroyt, and Schneider, made their way on stage in measured steps, exactly equidistant from one another as I had remembered from earlier, and sat down. I was nervous for them. Over dinner, Mischa had confessed that the quartet had not been together all summer and that this first concert of the season would take place without a single rehearsal. The late Beethoven Quartet in E Flat, Opus 127, opened the program, a large-scale masterwork with an obstacle course of difficulties. What kind of madness was an unrehearsed performance? It was the sort of thing we would do in music school on a dare. But the Budapest was playing for an audience of chamber-music aficionados who were reverently attending a Beethoven cycle – all sixteen concerts in six concerts. These people were going to church.

The first violinist usually leads the opening chords with a visual sign, but Roisman, a study in suavity, merely put his bow on the string and began to play. By some act of telepathy, the others knew exactly how to join him in perfectly interlocking harmony. Beethoven’s stentorian chords rang out grandly, as if an announcement of the memorable cycle to follow. There were a few lapses in a performance that drew only on their extensive experience, but I will remember forever the sweep and stylishness of their playing.

Something else struck me forcibly, as it had earlier. All the quartet’s voices seemed equal, each one shining forth when necessary and then receding into the texture. I asked Mischa about this over tea and cookies when we returned to his home later that night. “The Budapest is the first democratic quartet. Our style of working is very Jewish. Everyone talks at once,” Mischa laughed, still tickled by the quartet’s modus operandi. A quartet without leaders or followers, I mused. Was this democracy, Communism, or utopia?

Democracy, perhaps a bit of utopia, and certainly the remarkable and extensive quartet repertoire itself were in my thoughts as I spent summer after summer at the Marlboro Music Festival. John Dalley, violin, Michael Tree, viola, and David Soyer, cello, fellow participants, must have felt similarly. We had already played together in various combinations for several years at the festival. Like planets caught in a gravitational field, the four of us slowly came together out of mutual respect and love for the string quartet repertoire. In 1964 we formed the Guarneri String Quartet at Marlboro. Unquestionably, the Budapest Quartet hovered over each of us as inspiration and role model.

Sasha celebrated with a bottle of champagne and advice – some of which the Budapest Quartet had adopted:

Accept no outside engagements that interfere with quartet rehearsals or concerts.

No wives or girl friends allowed at rehearsals or discussions.

Discussion or criticism of concert performances directly afterwards is forbidden. Save for the next rehearsal.

Mischa also had something to say:

Everybody talks about how wonderful you’ll be as a quartet. Take my advice. Retire before you play a note so you won’t disappoint anyone.

And finally, Boris, who had been violist of an earlier Guarneri String Quartet that had toured Europe between the two World Wars contributed something special:

Every quartet needs a name. I give you the Guarneri name as a present.

The Guarneri String Quartet’s first concert, one of several thousand over the next forty-five years, took place at the end of that summer on Nantucket Island. The Budapest, however, remained very much a part of our lives. In 1966, our quartet recorded Tchaikovsky’s sextet, “Souvenir of Florence,” with Boris Kroyt and Mischa Schneider, both already in their late sixties. As it turned out, the Budapest disbanded soon after and the Tchaikovsky was one of the last professional recordings the two men made together.

What better musicians than Boris and Mischa, both born into the Russian language, culture, and music to guide us through this Russian landscape masquerading as Italian. “Ach, Boris. Leesten to this. Only Tchaikovsky could have written such a loffly melody,” Mischa exclaimed, looking upward as if for some higher confirmation. “Ya, vanderful,” Boris agreed. We all did. Slavic melodies roam through the “Souvenir” enticingly, lengthy sequences hypnotize, and alluring rhythms beg to be danced.

And that is exactly what happened. The six of us were huddled together in the sound booth listening to the melancholy and lilting opening of the third movement float out of the speakers. Abruptly, the mood is shed for a joyous dance that sparkles with deft scales and castanet-like rhythms. Boris, ordinarily a reasonable, measured kind of man, could not contain himself. He bolted out of the booth onto the adjacent dance floor and began to pirouette and leap around the room. His shock of grey hair bobbed up and down as if it were a dance partner. Around and around the ballroom floor he flew as the rest of us, jaws dropping, looked on amazed from our front-row seats. Boris danced as if his life depended on it. Only the reappearance of the movement’s opening Slavic melody doused his exuberance. He returned to the recording booth and resumed his accustomed manner as if nothing had happened.

The reserved and private Joseph Roisman was the only one who remained personally unknown to me as our quartet headed into the 1970s. After one of our Buffalo concerts, Mischa, who tended to mix up his v’s and w’s, came backstage looking thoughtful and spoke to me. “Your wiolin is veek”, he said. I had to admit that the violin I had been playing for years sounded “veek” to my ears as well. In short order, Mischa called Roisman, now retired, who expressed a willingness to sell his violin to me. “Steinhardt,” Roisman said on the phone (he always addressed me by my last name), “come to my apartment, try the violin, and then we’ll talk.”

A small, slender man with a domed forehead and thinning hair, Roisman greeted me with a pipe in his mouth. His wife, Pola, made tea for us, and then he handed me the violin. I gingerly took the instrument and played it for Roisman and his wife in their living room. That unmistakably rich and throaty sound I had heard in Roisman’s hands for so many years poured forth. I played on and on, bewitched.

“Steinhardt,” Roisman said, seeing how affected I was, “I will sell the violin to you someday, but not just yet. I still enjoy playing quartets for fun with my friends. Give me a little time.” I left Roisman’s apartment without the violin but beside myself with excitement. In the not too distant future, I would be playing a miraculous-sounding instrument.

Several months after my visit, Mischa called to tell me that Roisman had died suddenly, on October 10, 1974, and that Pola, following the wishes of her late husband, would sell me the violin. Not long after, Pola once again served tea to me in the Roisman’s apartment. Then, with tears in her eyes, she retrieved the violin in its case and handed it to me.

Roisman’s violin, the work of the Cremonese master Lorenzo Storioni, has been in the Budapest Quartet for its entire fifty-year career – first played by Emil Hauser, the original first violinist, and then by Roisman who replaced him. I have played the violin in the Guarneri Quartet from that poignant day when Pola Roisman handed it to me until our retirement as a quartet in 2009.

For almost one hundred years, the Storioni has passed from one string quartet player to another. If the violin happens to fall into the hands of yet another quartet player when it finally leaves mine, that violinist will have an easy time of it. After all, the violin already knows the repertoire.

Musicians hand down more than their instruments to the next generation. The members of the Budapest String Quartet are no longer with us, but their playing lives on in the hearts, minds, and memories of those who heard them. For each of us in the Guarneri Quartet, the Budapest Quartet was not only our inspiration. They were also our mentors who helped launch a career that lasted almost as long as the Budapest’s with only one change of personnel when our cellist David Soyer retired and Peter Wiley, his former student, took his place.

Here’s another riddle:

What are five Americans?

The Guarneri String Quartet.

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Comments

  1. From Ellen G. on December 5, 2015

    Lovely piece, thank you. I bought those same Budapest LPs of the late Beethoven when I was a grad student in Berkeley in the 1960s. I ruined them by playing them over and over on my cheap, portable hi-fi record player without changing the needle. The C-sharp minor got the most plays–what a revelation! But they changed my life.

  2. From Lola on December 5, 2015

    Just for the sake of this wonderful article’s accuracy: though a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, David Popper was born in Prague, where he studied, and only much later settled in Budapest. So I guess he’s as Hungarian… as the Budapest Quartet.
    Here’s a glorious version of his Spinning Song:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0F9TDRKiixg
    Always such a pleasure to read you!

  3. From Sonya Hamlin on December 5, 2015

    Ah, Arnold! Your wonderful ability to let us into your soul is what flows through your musicianship but now also through your delicious stories. Thanks so much for letting us in…XXX Sonya

  4. From ed ranney on December 5, 2015

    what a fabulous posting – great thanks for sharing this wondrous tale!!

    cheers to you & Dodo
    Ed

  5. From Alan Margolies on December 5, 2015

    I have enjoyed all of your reminiscences here. This one stands out because it reminds me of the one time I heard the Budapest. It was at the 92nd Street Y probably in late 1956 or 57 and the program probably all Beethoven. I was ignorant of the music then but enjoyed it immensely. My remaining impession then and still to today was that the tone of the quartet in that hall was like velvet.

  6. From ruben greenberg on December 5, 2015

    Heart-warming and beautiful prose as usual. When I see that a new installment of you “blog”-to use a barbaric word-comes up, my face and whole soul light up. Has a practicing musician-pun intended(!)- ever written so beautifully about his art? I am wondering whether you had any personal experience of the Hollywood String Quartet, as your are originally from Los Angeles. There is so little written about this wonderful ensemble. Thank you!

  7. From Hava Beller on December 6, 2015

    Amazing how you usher us – your listeners – into your world,
    keeping us enthralled and on our toes, always wanting more.
    Loved your description of the Budapest Quartet. I could almost feel the rich sound of Roisman’s violin in your hands.
    Thanks for including us in your world.
    Love, Hava

  8. From Mimi Ezust on December 6, 2015

    Thank you for your wonderful stories…
    My first violin teacher played with the Budapest for a short time, too…
    Edgar Ortenberg taught in Philadelphia at the Settlement Music School and Temple University.

  9. From Harvey Zirofsky on December 7, 2015

    It’s fascinating to see how other people respond to your writing. My first thought after reading this was that I can imagine you swirling around the ball room just as Boris did in the past. Maybe, you will dance for all of us in Florence.

  10. From David on December 10, 2015

    Thank you for sharing this remarkable story with us. As always, very inspirational!

  11. From Warren Liebesman on December 10, 2015

    i cannot improve on what the two previous writer said. I adore your writing. It is s filled with ardor, passion and love for the music and the people who fill your pages. You are a maestro in ever sense of the world. FYI: I used to be a “duffer” violinist in my teens before stopping my lessons as I was disgusted by what I head. But one day, after school, as usual I sopped in my mother Beatrice Liebesman’s little antiques store — it was called the Bee Hive Antiques –near our home on Thwaites Place in the Bronx (somewhere around 1959). And then I heard something coming from the radio in my mother’s little area the back — Jascha Heifetz playing the Mendelssohn. To say I was transfixed, mesmerzed is to put it mildly. I had never even knew of him (my only previous recording was that of Ruggiero Ricci – not bad himself! But Heifetz showed me the difference between a pearl and a glittering diamond. I just stood there through the entire recording. That moment, in many small ways, changed my life. I had never, ever been excited over a piece of music before, and never suspected there were musicians with such technique and soul Thanks again for your most wonderful tales!

  12. From Ivan Mueller on December 17, 2015

    Thank you for sharing your experience with the Budapest Quartet of four Russians. The Takacs Quartet still has some Hungarians in it, but for how long?

  13. From Gracie on January 4, 2016

    Couldn’t describe the experience with Roisman, Schneider, Kroyt, and Schneider even better than you, Arnold. True, they will always be a space in our hearts. Their music was amazing.

    Gracie of Instrumentees
    http://instrumentees.com/

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December 1, 2014

Fifteen Seconds of Fame

The American poet, Galway Kinnell, died last October. I had the pleasure of knowing him and seeing him occasionally during the years he lived in New York City. One evening, Galway and his wife to be, Barbara, invited me and several other friends to dinner. Introductions were made all around and a superb meal along [...]

November 1, 2014

Moonlighting

November is hunting season in upstate New York where my wife, Dorothea, and I have a home. And if it’s hunting season, then it’s time for our hunters to show up. Several decades ago, three men—let’s call them Andrew, Bob, and Charlie—knocked on our door and politely introduced themselves. They told us that they worked [...]

October 1, 2014

The Silent Note

Do you remember the phrase in that old Coca Cola commercial, “The pause that refreshes?” It did nothing for me at the time because I don’t even like the drink. Still, the commercial initiated something quite unintended. Rather than coaxing me to go around the corner and buy a bottle of Coke, the single word [...]

September 1, 2014

Talent

Ninety-seven young violinists showed up at the Curtis Institute of Music’s annual violin auditions last spring with the hopes of becoming students at the school next fall. Thirteen made the semifinal round and of those, five were chosen by us, the violin faculty. Some who auditioned were still diamonds in the rough. Others already played [...]

August 1, 2014

Violin-less

It’s that time of year again.  I’ve worked hard for it, I deserve it, and nothing’s going to stop me from it.  Yes, I’m packing up my violin and bow, putting them in the closet, and then I’m not going to practice for a while. Just for a few days. Well, maybe a week. Mmm, [...]

June 2, 2014

Kissing Cousins?

Story #1 My old Ford Mustang convertible needed a paint job several years ago so I took it to the local body shop in upstate New York where I live. Once all the details had been discussed with the shop owner (let’s call him Norm), I remembered something that had always bothered me. The first [...]

May 1, 2014

In the Ear of the Beholder

“Here’s a challenge for you,” a friend posed over dinner some time ago.  “Name the four great child prodigy classical music composers.”  He leaned back, smiling smugly in the knowledge that I probably wouldn’t be able to guess them all.  Two were obvious: “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, of course, and Felix Mendelssohn,” I blurted out.  My [...]

April 1, 2014

News Bulletin

In The Key of Strawberry is pleased to post “Dear Dr. Arnie,” the syndicated musician’s advice column hosted by the legendary Dr. Arnie. Examples of his advice, featured below, will undoubtedly be of invaluable help to musicians of every persuasion. Dear Dr. Arnie, I have an orchestra audition coming up next month and worrying about [...]

February 24, 2014

Objects

Last summer I was once again a participant in the Marlboro Music Festival.  As always, the school generously provided my wife, Dorothea, and me with a house off campus.    This time we were given the former home of David Soyer, the cellist of our Guarneri String Quartet for thirty-seven of its forty-five-year existence.   Dave passed [...]

February 1, 2014

Violin Collection

I own three violins. I have a Lorenzo Storioni made in Cremona, Italy around 1785.  This violin’s sound is dark and husky.  Its varnish is lustrous, and the swirling patterns of its wood grain are remarkably beautiful. I also have a violin made for me in 2006 by Samuel Zygmuntowicz, a distinguished American string instrument [...]

January 1, 2014

Me and my Violin

Marc Lifschey, one of the greatest oboists of his era, once told me that after retiring as a performer and teacher, he had sold his oboe. On the face of it, giving up an instrument you no longer use seems perfectly reasonable, but nevertheless I was taken aback.  Marc was not merely an excellent oboist; he [...]

December 1, 2013

But the Melody Lingers On

About to walk across New York City’s Central Park on a sunny winter day, I suddenly heard the strains of Santa Claus is Coming to Town wafting out of a nearby workman’s truck radio.  What a silly melody, I thought to myself absentmindedly.  Twenty minutes later, I had crossed the park but to my consternation, [...]

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 [...]