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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I have followed your. career (attended all Los Angeles Music Guild concerts) and read your several books. I was an enthusiastic amateur chamber music player for my entire adult life until I lost my hearing several years ago. I am now 90 years of age but treasure my memories.
Your devoted fan,
Thank you, Arnold, for this beautiful tribute (and to Dorothea for such a deeply touching image), and especially for your words concerning female violinists. For years, I taught a course called Women in Music. At one point, a colleague asked, rightfully, whether there was a course titled Men in Music? Happy New Year to you and Dorothea.
Happy New Year! I enjoy reading your brilliantly written stories. Thank you for sharing this inspiring experiences.
Dear Arnold — I am a follower of your wonderful “In The Key of Strawberry”. But I want to reach out and tell you how very special this one is on Morini — a must read for all of us who dare to call ourselves teachers. Your beautiful writing about her combining technical skills and musical insights is inspiring. Also – beautiful photo from Dorothea. I send my best wishes to you and your family . Joan
A very touching tale; hope the thieves read this. Perhaps! I do enjoy your stories, almost as much as your playing. I’m waiting now for Death and the Maiden quartet. I was emboldened to order it after reading the end of “Indivisible by Four” and also I sang the Schubert song in Lotte Lehman’s master class in 1951 at The Music Academy of the West. Please keep writing.
Thanks for the nice story. I hope the thieves are subscribed to your mails!
What a sad story, about thoughtless thieves, but her playing must have brought such joy to those who heard her music. and thanks Arnold for telling me about her sensitivity and beautiful playing
What a great story! I wish I had heard her play! Thank you!
What a beautiful memory. I shall always remember the one time I heard Miss Morini perform live. It was at the Met Museum’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, probably in 1969 or 70. I remember being simply charmed, as if under a spell by a magical genie. I hope those, or that, thief will be so moved. Thank you, Arnold.
Dear Mr. Steinhardt,
Thank you so much for your essay about Erica Morini, a violinist I heard at Jorgensen Hall on the University of Connecticut campus during my years there in the early 1960s. I remember her performance dimly now but at the time I wrote a review of it for the campus newspaper. It was my first publication ever so I was at sea as to how to write a review, let alone one on a violinist I never heard of. I was a violin student before going to UConn and a devoted Chamber music fan while there, however, so I appreciated her bow work and confident and graceful stage presence. I was also intrigued by the fact that she was the first distinguished woman performer I had the pleasure of hearing. Your comments about her are very nostalgic for me. What a nice birthday present you have given her.
The weird thing is, I woke up this morning thinking about Erica Morini. Of course your piece had not yet been posted, nor had I any idea of her birthdate. Thank you for this beautiful and respectful vignette, and for sharing the classic portrait by your wife of this great lady.
Perhaps the Davidoff will turn up again, and the art. I don’t hold much hope for the conversion of the predators responsible for travesties such as this, but treasures do reappear sometimes and we can but hope.
There was a Music & Arts CD of Morini playing the Tchaikovsky and the Brahms, under Horenstein and Szall respectively. A treasurable disc!
Another entertaining, informative & lovely (albeit rather poignant at the end) story! Thanks for this (& the many others), keep ‘em rolling, & be safe in these strange times Maestro Steinhardt!
Thank you, Mr. Steinhardt, for this very touching and personal tribute to Erica Morini. As a child in the ’50s and into the ’60s, my two favorites were Milstein (today still!) and Miss Morini! To me, your characterization of her and her playing is spot on, as they say. I have enjoyed KOS for some time. This entry touched my heart. Thanks again, and for being the man and artist that you are.
Wonderful article! I didn’t know much about her, even though my career has also been as a woman violinist. Thank you for painting a lovely picture and making her come alive.
You didn’t mention Camilla Wicks, but she was very fine, and I think we probably heard her play, maybe at Hollywood Bowl – do you remember? I think she recorded the Sibelius too.
Happy new year, music now and forever, Dan
Great Story! I am moved and educated. Horrible that the violin has never been found! BTW today is a great day for America. Georgia contributed two Senators to the Senate that are Democrats. Hard Work ahead to right what was wrong!!!
If you haven’t previously come across the performance you might enjoy Ms. Morini, GS and the CO performing the Beethoven Concerto at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzT_40bvSZQ on You Tube. There is also a tape of her and GS with the CSO performing the Mozart Turkish.
I am writing a book about being a “late starter” string musician. Would it be okay if, in my book, I quote you a few times from your book, Indivisible By Four? Sorry to post this here, but I don’t know another way to contact you.
Today is January 5, 2023 — two years after you posted this wonderful article. Happy Erica Morini’s birthday! As it happens, I am writing a historical fiction in which Morini features as one of the main characters and I would love an opportunity to chat with you and your wife, if possible, about your encounter with her, which you have described so beautifully above.
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