Life and Death, and Music
January 27, 2023
I’ve often heard that New Yorkers, living cheek to jowl with their neighbors, tend to keep to themselves. But that certainly wasn’t our experience when my wife Dorothea and I moved into apartment 11A of a building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in late 1972. We quickly got to know several of the building’s residents, and eventually met Petra and John Shattuck four floors directly below us in 7A.
Dorothea and I were immediately drawn to the Shattucks, a most warm hearted and high spirited couple. John was an attorney heading the legislative branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. Petra, on her way to being a lawyer herself, taught politics and civil liberties at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. Through the years our friendship deepened, and I took great comfort and pleasure in witnessing John and Petra’s thriving and meaningful professional work, and their closely knit family, now with three lovely children, Jessica, Rebecca, and Peter.
But, without warning, the Shattuck’s lives suddenly and irrevocably changed when Petra was only forty-six years old. After a morning jog in March 1988, Petra arrived at the law office where she worked with a severe headache. The unimaginable happened not long after, when Petra died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
John asked me to play at Petra’s memorial service that took place several months later, and I chose Johann Sebastian Bach’s towering Chaconne, the fifth and final movement of his Solo Violin Partita in D Minor. In 1720, Bach returned home after extended travel with his employer Prince Leopold, to find Maria Barbara, his wife and the mother of his seven children, dead and already buried.
Bach rarely used the chaconne dance form, and there is a theory, unsubstantiated but credible, that he composed this particular Chaconne as an expression of grief over his beloved wife’s sudden and unexpected passing. I can hear Bach’s anguish, even anger, in the opening notes, and feel them gradually evolve into ruminative prayer. And I sense a melancholy that begins to lift as the work surges forward to its end, bursting with hope and optimism.
Although separated by some 250 years, Johann Sebastian Bach and John Shattuck’s stories are strikingly similar—both men were happily married with children, and both suffered the tragic loss of their wives. If only Bach could reach across the centuries and console John: I’ve been there, friend, I know what you’re going through. You will survive and ultimately rise up through your grief to thrive once again. But wasn’t that deeply felt message already imbedded in Bach’s Chaconne that I had just performed for John, his children, and the rest of us at Petra’s memorial service?
Petra Tölle Shattuck was born in Saarbrücken, Germany, during World War II. As a child she witnessed the horrors of the war firsthand and grew up with a heightened awareness of how the Nazi Party had offered false hope of order and pride to her country, but had instead sowed destruction and murdered millions in the name of racial purity. Perhaps because of Petra Shattuck’s impassioned involvement with issues of human rights and the need for laws enabling the disenfranchised to better control their own destiny, John found an inspired way to harness his grief.
With the help of family, friends, and colleagues, John created the Petra Foundation in 1989. Its goal was to recognize and support people closest to Petra Shattuck’s heart—the unsung heroes who, often with scant resources, fight for social justice in their communities. In it’s twenty-five year existence, the Petra Award provided money, and use of the Foundation’s resources to one-hundred fellows to help further their work involving such wide-ranging issues as poverty, homelessness, workers rights, native-American rights, and racism. Permeating the yearly awards ceremony was the comforting feeling that Petra’s death had set into motion something truly meaningful.
A wonderful fringe benefit was the opportunity to meet and get to know the Foundation Fellows. Dorothea and I became friends with Fellow Murphy Davis and her husband, Eduard Loring. Murphy was an advocate for death-row inmates and homeless people. Murphy and Ed were Presbyterian ministers who ran the Open Door Community, a homeless shelter in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. When I performed in Atlanta, I would often stay with them in guest quarters attached to the shelter. For the first time in my life I witnessed up close the brutal, precarious, and heartbreaking life of the homeless.
On one such visit, I arrived just as lunch for the homeless was finishing, and Murphy and Ed spontaneously asked me to play for the group. Afterwards, a forty-five year old African-American man who had spent years in jail and who had been seriously involved with drugs, told Ed he had never been that close to a violin before. He said he was very surprised and unprepared by how deeply moved he was by the music. Call it a compliment, or merely a comment, but it’s one I shall never forget.
Despite dealing constantly with the darkest of issues in her work, Murphy also had to cope with various cancers that plagued her for much of her adult life. Nonetheless, Murphy was one of the most joyful people I’ve ever known. Somehow she managed to live with equanimity, grace, and an irresistibly playful sense of humor.
At one point, my pianist brother Victor and I played a benefit concert for the Open Door Community. The day before our performance, a local Atlanta newspaper, advertising events of the week, mixed up the names under featured photos of me and an African-American harmonica player. I was listed as Snooky Williams, and from that day on, Murphy never called me anything but Snooky.
At the beginning of October 2020, I got a call from Murphy. “Snooky, would you be willing to do me a favor and play for my funeral?” she asked. I had already heard the sad news that there was no remedy for this latest variant of Murphy’s ongoing cancer. Still, I was somewhat unnerved by her request. I, like so many musicians, have often been asked to play at funerals; it’s usually the living survivors, however, who ask for music honoring their departed loved ones. ”But Murphy,” I blurted out, “you’re still alive. Of course I’ll play for your funeral, but can’t I also play for you now?”
Shortly after, via Zoom, I greeted Murphy, who lay looking pale but still smiling in her hospital bed, surrounded by Ed, their daughter Hannah, and an attending nurse. I played the Meditation, a long, sinuous, and emotion-laden violin solo originally from the opera Thaïs by Jules Massenet. The Meditation was my way of telling Murphy just how much she meant to me. “Thank you, Snooky,” she said softly when I finished.
Murphy passed away only a week or two later, and, as promised, I played for her funeral service—once again, music served to express how much I (Snooky) loved her. This time it was the first movement of Bach’s Solo Violin Partita in D Minor, a bookend of sorts with the work’s last movement, the Chaconne, which I had played for Petra Shattuck’s service those many years ago.
And, speaking of Petra, you might want to know that both Johannes Sebastian Bach and John Shattuck went on to have very happy second marriages. Bach had another thirteen children with Anna Magdalena. John and Ellen Hume had only one child together, Susannah—but who’s counting?
We live, we die, but the miracle of music is always there for crying, laughing, joyful dancing, mourning, and for ushering us from this world into the next.
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That beautiful performance of the Chaconne at Petra’s funeral endures still. Certainly one of the most moving I have ever heard. Earl and I lived half a block away from the Shattucks on Francis Avenue. Our daughter and their second daughter were chums. Often Petra and I walked the kids to the local school. She was indeed extraordinary, and so are their kids. I miss her still.
Marth Potter Kim
I was touched by this story and it brought tears to my eyes, especially with your ending. So very true that music is our salvation. Thank you for your thoughtful “strawberries” as I always look forward to reading them. ( I still remember hearing you in Cleveland when I was attending Western Reserve University in 1960!)
What a beautiful writing on Bach and death. I remember your moving performance of the Chaconne at Grace Rainey around 2007 or 2008. My daughter, Sarah and I spoke to you afterwards. You remembered a student- Yuki McQueen -who is a good friend of Sarah’s. I’m 90 now and hoping that Sarah will play the Chaconne at my memorial at St. Bart’s.
Thank you for sharing, Arnold. Wonderfully written and a beautiful story.
Beautiful! and so inspiring! Thank you. This story will stay with me for the rest of my days.
Thank you for your beautifully composed stories and thoughts. I feel enriched and calmer
after reading each edition. I am reminded of the best parts of my life and how much music and friends who perform, or just play for the joy of it, have brought warmth and light into my life.
That is beautiful, Arnold!
It was very touching to read about Petra who had died not too long before I met John at Harvard –when Anika became a Freshman there. Your story reminds me of The Petra Foundation, Petra’s story and John.
I just lost Tony two months ago after 32 years of marriage. He had Lewy Body Dementia. I have, in fact, been listening to a lot of Bach. Stay well!
Beautiful! Thank you, Arnold!
Deeply meaningful as we are losing precious people
all around us these days.
Much Love to you and Dodo!
Nancy – and Hal, too!
Hi Arnold, Your “strawberries” are always poignant, warm, and pluck at my heartstrings. Thank you so very much for these periodic remembrances from your long and distinguished career. I look forward to seeing you at Marlboro Music this summer.
At such a tumultuous and angry time in this country right now, your words which bring to life these beautiful unsung heroes offer such a vibration of grace, inspiration and hope. Thank you Arnold! And thank you Bach!
OMG – what heart/gut wrenching stories – and thank god for dear friends and for music. Thank you, Arnold for brining friendship and music to your friends and their families. Julie Nagel
Thank you for telling us about these two lovely, beautiful souls. Saddened that their lives were so shortened. And thank you for the music you played to honor them.
Another great and moving story. Be careful though because every one reading this is going to ask you to play a the their funeral. The good part is that you’re going to have to live a very long time.
What a moving tribute to these two cherished friends! And what wonderful choices you made to play for them. Thank ypu for this remembrance.
What a touching story, and how blessed you are, Arnold Steinhardt, to be able to share with others not only your beautiful gift of music, but your engaging writing style. Years ago I recommended your book, Violin Dreams, to my bookclub. None of them were classical music lovers, and I wondered how they would receive it. They LOVED your book! One of them was planning a trip to Italy with her husband and added Cremona to their itinerary.
You are a true Renaissance man, multitalented and giving.
Thank you for so eloquently describing how music helps us endure life’s seemingly unbearable sorrows and helps dispel the cynicism and hopelessness that can obscure life’s joys.
Thank you for this touching story!
Thank you…a beautiful story!
Thank you mr.Steinhardt, this is just what I needed tonight.
Wonderful stories Mr. Steinhardt.I played the second movement of the Kabalevsky concerto for my grandmother’s funeral many years ago in Ireland.
Thank you. This is such a moving and tender story, wonderfully told. I feel a certain grace in being able to read your reflections these many years after meeting you at Harpur College, now the State University of New York. I feel such joy in learning how your lifetime continues to gift in new and beautiful ways.
Hello, Arnold Steinhardt. I am re-reading, with pleasure, your wonderful Violin Dreams in preparation for a lecture-recital entitled “The Spirituality of J. S. Bach: The Chaconne”. I will present this at Robertson & Sons Violin Shop in Albuquerque where I work. I am fascinated with the tales of the multiple violins you have played during your career and truly love the way you weave the Chaconne throughout your life. I play the 1823 Joannes Franciscus Pressenda you purchased around 1959 with the guidance of Joseph Gingold to play with him on the first stand of the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. I am honored to be the Pressenda’s present owner and to celebrate its 200th birthday this year!
Hello Arnold Steinhardt. I am re-reading, with pleasure, your Violin Dreams in preparation for a lecture-recital entitled “The Spirituality of J. S. Bach: The Chaconne”. I will present this in March at Robertson & Sons Violin Shop in Albuquerque where I work. I am fascinated with your tales of the multiple violins you have played during your career and truly love the way you weave the Chaconne throughout your life. I play the 1823 Joannes Franciscus Pressenda you purchased around 1959 with the guidance of Joseph Gingold to play on the first stand with him in the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell. I am honored to be the Pressenda’s present owner and to celebrate its 200th birthday this year!
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