January 5, 2021
Today, January 5th, is the birthday of violinist Erica Morini. Born in Vienna in 1904, she first studied the violin with her father, Oscar Morini, and later at the Vienna Conservatory with Otakar Ševčík. Morini made her debut at age eleven with the Leipzig Gewandhaus and Berlin Phiharmonic orchestras under Arthur Nikisch. She was immediately hailed as among the very best of her young generation.
I first discovered Erica Morini’s playing from recordings. I was then a music student at the Curtis Institute of Music, developing violin skills while searching for my own musical identity. Morini unquestionably presented herself as a masterful violinist, but my immediate impression was of a deeply sensitive musician.
At the time, I was under the sway of the great Russian violinists, such as Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman, and Nathan Milstein. These were brilliant virtuosos with oversized musical personalities. Morini’s musical profile was more discreet. Her playing possessed equal parts thoughtfulness and virtuosity, intimacy along with fireworks, always in devoted service to the music at hand.
I only once heard Morini in live performance. She came to play the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra while I was assistant concertmaster there. The Tchaikovsky, one of the most beloved and widely played violin concertos in the repertoire, has all the hallmarks of the composer’s genius: drama, soaring lyricism, throbbing melancholy, and unbridled virtuosity. Most fiddlers, yours truly included, have studied the work, performed it, taught it, and heard it performed innumerable times. Inevitably, certain performing traditions have developed and set in over the years. Morini’s performance of the Tchaikovsky was masterful but devoid of those well-worn but dreaded musical clichés that have crept into the music, as if she were oblivious to all of the concerto’s past iterations. Where others might have taken time, Morini occasionally dared to take even more time. When I expected her to pause at the top of a phrase the way most of us might, she would sometimes charge brazenly through the passage as if on some kind of urgent mission. But above all, Morini’s interpretation of this overplayed warhorse was deeply felt, and it went straight to my heart.
Not long afterwards I mentioned to the Cleveland Orchestra’s legendary conductor, George Szell, how much I admired Erica Morini’s artistry. “If that’s so, I’m happy to arrange for you to play for her,” he volunteered. Szell was a scary figure, brilliant but exacting, uncompromising in his musical vision, at times cruel and bullying, and yet, what a dream of an orchestra he had created! Not only that, he had a generous side that occasionally surfaced. He must have viewed me as a gifted young man but still a work very much in progress. It was Szell who had arranged for me to study with the Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti for an entire summer, and had even paid for my plane trip to Switzerland, where he resided.
And so, I played for Erica Morini in her New York City Fifth Avenue apartment. It was furnished in a way that made me feel I was in the Vienna of some fifty years earlier. Morini, simply and elegantly dressed on stage, made a striking figure, but face-to-face her personal warmth made me feel that the woman and the artist might be one and the same.
We spent the next hour with fiddles in hand—I with my Giovanni Pressenda, the first fine violin I was to own, and Morini with her Antonius Stradivarius, the “Davidoff,” a present from her father when she turned twenty-one, and her lifelong musical partner. I don’t remember what I played for Morini, but afterwards she demonstrated with a few short passages that streamed effortlessly and with breathtaking beauty out of her beloved Stradivarius. And then Morini proceeded to speak about music, the violin, sound production, and bow control.
This short but cherished encounter with Erica Morini was exceptional in another way. All my teachers up to then had been men. As a matter of fact, the only woman violin soloist I had ever heard perform was Morini. It led me to believe that until Morini’s time, there was in the violin market place basically only room for one woman per era. Off the top of my head I can come up with very few: Maude Powell (1867–1920), who was the first American violinist to achieve an international reputation; Ginette Niveu (1919–1949), the French violinist who died tragically age thirty in a plane crash; and Ida Haendel (1928–2020), the Polish-born violinist. As a man, I cannot begin to imagine the many burdens these women must have endured traveling, performing and managing a career in a male-dominated world. Nonetheless, Harold C. Schonberg, music critic of the New York Times, threw Morini a well-intentioned but ultimately left-handed compliment by calling her “probably the greatest woman violinist who ever lived.” This did not sit well with Morini. “A violinist is a violinist,” she said, “and I am to be judged as one—not as a female musician.” Still, I suspect that Morini and her female colleagues of past generations would be overjoyed, if a bit jealous, to witness how much things have changed. Today I can easily name ten or twelve great women violinists who are making impressively successful careers as soloists and teachers.
Erica Morini must have been in her late fifties when I heard and played for her., but the story doesn’t end there. In 1974, a decade or so later, my wife, Dorothea, had the opportunity to photograph Morini. Dorothea found herself in the same Fifth Avenue apartment where I had played for Morini earlier. They must have hit it off, for there are easily a dozen wonderful images of Morini from that afternoon. One of them stood out enough for Dorothea to make a fine print of it. Morini sits holding her beloved “Davidoff” Stradivarius, and looks inward with those beautiful, melancholy eyes of hers.
There is a regrettable passage from celebrity to obscurity that inevitably overtakes many in the public eye—famous today, forgotten tomorrow. I don’t believe this will happen to Morini, whose artistry continues to give meaning to our lives through the miracle of recordings.
Because of a bizarre twist of fate, Morini’s name remains alive for an entirely different reason. While she lay dying in a hospital, aged ninety-one, someone who had access to her apartment stole her “Davidoff” Stradivarius, as well as paintings, letters, and scores. Morini was never told of the theft, and to date the crime remains unsolved.
The thieves are highly unlikely to read this blog, but perhaps in their desire to make a buck, or in this case many millions, they have researched Erica Morini’s life on the internet and come across her performances.
Please listen to Erica Morini perform the Brahms and Tchaikovsky Concertos, or at the very least the slow movement of the Beethoven. It doesn’t matter that you may not be acquainted with this kind of music. I’m convinced that what you hear will move you and perhaps touch you in an unexpected way. You might reconsider your dark plans, and with Morini’s deeply felt playing as a kind of sublime accompaniment, spontaneously decide to return her Stradivarius and other valuables.
Whether this happens is an open question, but based on the infinite power of music, and the alluring artistry of Erica Morini’s playing, beware, dear thieves.
It just might.
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