October 31, 2020
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.
The worms play pinochle on your snout.
Your stomach turns to an icy green
and pus shoots out like white whipped cream.
You wipe it up with a slice of bread,
and that’s what you eat when you are dead.
So, folks, have I gotten you into a nice, shivery Halloween mood with this creepy poem? Yes, we all have to die one day, but why weren’t we informed of this upon emerging from the birth canal? There should at least have been a sign as we entered the world congratulating us on being born, offering best wishes for a wonderful life, but advising us that our lives would inevitably have to end. On second thought, never mind. I totally forgot that babies can’t read.
So we must die, but then what? Some people believe in an afterlife, some don’t, but we musicians are blessed in this regard. Without a doubt, each and every one of us has the possibility of a life after death, and even without that unpleasant business of icky worms playing pinochle on our snouts.
That is, if we record.
I was thinking of this, when my wife, Dorothea, and I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, recently. Amongst all our belongings, the moving van brought my entire record collection. This included CDs, 33? rpm long-playing records, which I cherish because of their warm sound, a couple of 45 rpm discs, and even ancient 78 rpm records that I hang onto for sentimental reasons even though I haven’t had the means to play them for years.
Young people may not even be aware of 33, 45, and 78 rpm records, which could for a time be played on record players equipped for all three versions. Hence the following joke: A lady goes into a record store and asks the sales person for a recording of the musical Hello, Dolly. “Certainly, Madam. What speed would you like,” he asks. The lady thinks for a moment, and then, while marking time slowly with her hands, she sings, “Hello, Dolly”.
But where was I? Ah yes, the record collection. There I was in my new den, organizing and shelving dozens of discs. The violinist Jascha Heifetz here, the singer Maria Callas over there, Billie Holiday on this side, Bruno Walter conducting Beethoven Symphonies up there on top, and the crooner Nat King Cole front and center. And as I dealt with all those recordings, they gradually began to assume another form entirely in my perhaps overactive mind. Yes, they were certainly recordings, but in a sense, were they not also miniature coffins with each artist interred for eternity? And now that the internet has taken over the world, musicians for the most part have decided to abandon their old burial plots. They’ve moved into no-fuss virtual caskets instead. But whatever the burial arrangements, at the touch of a button, any musician of your choice will miraculously emerge and perform for you before returning to his or her coffin. And unlike cryogenics, in which a body can be frozen in the hopes of future scientific breakthroughs that would successfully bring it back to life, the technology of recording has been available to us ever since the American Thomas Alva Edison invented in 1877 what became known as the phonograph.
Edison’s invention came about by sheer accident. He was experimenting with a device that would record telephone signals on a tinfoil and paper cylinder. Instead, he accidentally recorded his own voice—a discovery that soon led Edison to the breathtaking ability to record and produce sounds. It was an overnight worldwide sensation after being first exhibited publicly on November 29, 1877.
Thanks to the German-born Russian entrepreneur, musician, and scholar Julius Block, the phonograph made its way to Russia early on. Block, a personal friend of Edison, decided, on arrival in Russia in 1888, to make a series of recordings on wax cylinders of the country’s most celebrated people. At a gathering of distinguished musicians, Bloch played a cornet solo on the phonograph for them. The great pianist Anton Rubinstein was almost paralyzed with astonishment as he listened. But when Rubinstein’s friends tried to coax him to let Bloch record him playing the piano, he refused, saying that he “did not want to perpetuate his mistakes.”
This was a momentous decision on Anton Rubinstein’s part, for he was on that razor’s edge of history: BR, before recording, and AR, after recording. Think of it! If Edison had invented his phonograph a mere century earlier, we could have heard Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Paganini, and on and on.
As it is, I have the luxury of listening to an almost infinite number of recordings that have been made since Edison invented the phonograph, starting with such musicians as Sergey Taneyev and Anton Arensky playing various piano pieces in the 1890s, and the violinist Joseph Joachim playing Brahms Hungarian Dance #1 in 1903. Since then, innumerable musicians lie quietly and oh-so-patiently in their coffins waiting for you to beckon, then play their hearts out, and finally retreat without fuss to their abode of eternal rest.
I, myself, am one of those interred musicians. On command I will emerge from my coffin and play all kinds of things for you. How about Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita in D minor, which concludes with the monumental Chaconne? Or, if you like, ask for me and the other three colleagues of mine in the Guarneri String Quartet to leave our various burial places and play for you—say, a Haydn Quartet? Done. How about Schubert’s Death and the Maiden or any of the six Bartok Quartets? It’s a deal. And we won’t complain about iffy travel arrangements, bad hotel food, or paltry concert fees beforehand. Instead, the Guarneris will perform exactly as we always have, and then discretely slip back into our coffins without a single further word.
As for Anton Rubinstein, one of the greatest pianists of his era, we music lovers will not be able to hear him. What magic came from the piano keys when he played? Because Rubinstein refused to cross that momentous Rubicon between BR and AR, we will never know.
The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.
But then we hear old Rubinstein shout:
I have the temerity
to thumb my nose at posterity!
So I simply cannot afford,
Have a happy (shudder) Halloween.
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My Dear Arnold,
As always, a pleasure to read your latest thoughts. Whenever I read these pieces I try to listen to pieces you have referenced. Is there any particular source you recommend to hear the works sited? I could go on Google music but you might have a better source.
A wonderful piece dear Arnold and I have often thought how lucky musicians are that through
recordings they really can be eternal and in my experience, the wonderful thing is that when you
have known and loved those artists during their lives their whole beings come to life through
their music, it isn’t just that you listen with all the joy you always had but you relive those occasions when you heard them and those great artists who
gave themselves entirely to their playing are personified in their music. You are in for a very long life dearest Arnold. With eternal love and admiration Annabelle
Dear Mr. Steinhardt,
I am a violinist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I had the privilege to study with Almita Vamos and Shmuel Ashkenasi at Northwestern University in the recent years. It is a sincere joy to always read your blog’s texts and to learn from your incredible spectrum of knowledge about history, art and music.
Regardless of not have meeting you in person, you have been an awesome source of inspiration through your recordings, articles, interviews and a couple of videos shared on YouTube. I hope to have the chance to meet you one day and I wish you all the best to you and your beloved ones.
Enjoy your Halloween and stay away from the worms. You bring a lot to light to the World with your music and teaching. Yours sincerely. Tomaz.
For years I sat on the stage of the Grace Rainey auditorium and cherished the wonderful sounds of the Guarneri string quartet. Meeting you in the green room after a solo recital at Weill around 1992. (Alan Alda was there)I remember well the amazing presentation of the Bach Chaccone you presented at Grace Rainey around 2008. Greeting you at the Marlboro Festival was a treat around 2011. And first meeting you in Toronto in 1978 when my high school daughter played for you to audition for Curtis. She did not get in, but went on to Eastman and has had a fine career as a violinist both performing and teaching. She is currently the only violin teacher at Amherst College. It is my joy today to read your excellent stories in the key of strawberry.
Thank you. Best wishes. Good health and continue good work. Madge Briggs
I was born and raised in a place where I was unlikely ever to hear any world-class performers, but music was the most important thing in the world to me. Then I discovered that the library would let me the records out! Today I have thousands of the greatest musicians of my lifetime just waiting on my shelves to be called to perform for me again!
Dearest Arnold…..you bring me/us joy in this dystopian time…..I wish you and your family health, safety and blessings in your new home/locale…..quite a difference from nyc….and I hope/pray/ deeply believe that we will be together again at Marlboro next summer…..one way or another…you’re not allowed to disappear????????????????
I look forward to every one of your stories and have read both of your books, where you are also interred, it must be pointed out. And that is even though I am a cellist. This particular story might be competing for favorite but not sure — they are all so clever. By the way, the Guarneri was the first string quartet I had heard live — long ago in my 20s. You were playing in Jordan Hall of the New England Conservatory. You and the G are interred in my brain! I see you even now when I wish to exhume that performance!
What a delightful column, Arnold! We have LP records, cassette tapes, and CDs up the kazoo But we’ve gotten absurdly lazy. We just shout, “Alexa! Play the Mozart Clarinet Quintet.”
Dearest Arnold, I am always so moved and tickled when you jump out of my inbox. On topic, I found a recording, redigitalized is Rachmaninov playing his own concerti and sonatas and I was blown away by what today’s technology can brings. I hope you and yours are both well and loving your new digs. Also, just want you to know that I have 20 Guarneri albums on a continuous loop that I play at full volume in my study. It enclosed me in a bubble of beauty to keep me focused on my writing. The memoir is in it’s fifth revision, all 90,000 words of it, and it’s almost there. My thee readers, a nuclear physicist, a poet and kibitzers, and a French painter who doesn’t really know me well and does not speak, only reads English all said they couldn’t put it down. The physicist said that her dog kept bringing the leash ask when they could go out, and her husband keeps on asking when can we eat. She says it’s all my fault, that she laughed and cried and the offered to read it again and sent me back a fully proofread copy which was a real Machiavel! Wish you would reconsider. I’d love to have the opinion of a memoirist ??
The opening poem reminded me of a palindrome, created by a composer friend of mine, which is excellent dietary advice.
“Sup not on pus.”
Thoroughly enjoyable; thanks so much, and for your wonderful book, Violin Dreams. I was a singer, and I wonder if there are any songs that relate to the movements of the Chaconne: i.e. Sarabande.
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