March 10, 2022
My brother, Victor, was born on this day, March 10,1943. Ordinarily, I’d call Victor to wish him happy birthday and to talk as we’ve done regularly throughout our lives. But Victor passed away last July 30th. He was 78 years old.
Victor was my kid brother, six years younger than I, and it never entered my mind that he would leave this earth before me. The oldest should go first in an orderly world, you’d think, but Victor suffered from an incurable Parkinson’s-like disease offering no cure and only a debilitating downward journey that in his case lasted seven years.
For our entire lives, Victor and I got along wonderfully—whether operating our toy train set as kids, playing ping-pong as teenagers, hiking in the mountains as adults, or making music together throughout our lives. Our loving relationship was due in large part to Victor’s gentle nature, his humor, and his respect and ready acceptance of people just as they are.
Our parents were passionate music lovers, and so it was inevitable that we were both encouraged to learn an instrument. I took up the violin at age six, and Victor the piano at age seven. Hardly less surprising was the fact that both of us became professional musicians. Mom and Dad must have passed on their music-loving genes to us, and, just as importantly, we were marinated in music growing up. Our parents took us to concerts regularly, the radio in the house was always on the classical music station, and Dad often brought home recordings of some of the great musicians of the day for us to listen to.
Still, despite having the same parents and growing up with many of the same musical influences, Victor and I became very different musicians. I never wanted to compose music and undoubtedly would have had little gift if I had tried. But not Victor. At age nine or ten, two works I was practicing at the time must have caught his attention: Bach’s so-called “Air on the G String,” an arrangement for violin and piano of the second movement of his Third Orchestral Suite, and “The Hot Canary,” a popular novelty piece. Victor’s response was to present me with “Hot Air on the G String.” The melody was slightly jazzy, but surprisingly well crafted. Could my brother have sensed that this duality—the popular versus the serious—was a harbinger of his future as a composer?
Victor rapidly developed into an excellent pianist and musician. Home from school, I would often stop my own practicing to listen admiringly to his growing authority and sensitivity as he worked through such monumental works as Beethoven’s Eroica Variations and his Sonata Opus 31 No. 3. Victor soloed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at age fifteen, and upon graduation from high school was invited by the renowned piano pedagogue Rosina Lhévinne to study with her at the Juilliard School of Music. I imagine Victor felt pressure to follow the well-worn path for aspiring young musicians living in Southern California to go East and study at one of the distinguished music conservatories. I, his older brother, had done so, as had many of his fellow piano student friends.
However, Victor rejected that path. He had grown into not only a person of talent and thoughtfulness, but also someone already keenly aware of his comfort zone. For example, after a superb performance of the Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto with one of the Los Angeles orchestras, Victor announced, “I had no memory lapses, but all I could think of was that I might. And so that’s it. I will never, never, ever play music by memory again.” And for the rest of his life he never did.
Another example: Victor and I hiked summer after summer in the Sierra Nevada mountains—sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend or two. Once, when it looked like we’d arrive at our planned campsite long after dark, our group suggested leaving the trail and taking an uncharted shortcut over the mountain saddle just above us. Victor, however, was uneasy about scrambling over unknown terrain. “You all go,” he said. “I’ll sleep on this side of the mountain and meet you tomorrow morning.” When Victor showed up for breakfast the next day, I asked him whether he wasn’t scared sleeping alone in the wilderness, as I certainly would have been, with bears and other assorted wild creatures roaming around. “Nah,” he said, “sleeping alone is fine, but climbing into the unknown without a path—now that really makes me nervous”.
And so, Victor turned down Rosina Lhévinne’s offer to study with her at Juilliard. He told me that New York City was too crazy a place and that having to deal with all the competition at such a high-powered music school was simply not for him.
Remaining in Los Angeles turned out to be a good choice. Victor continued his studies with Aube Tzerko, a charismatic piano teacher in the area. The name “Aube Tzerko” struck me as so odd that I once asked Victor about it. He explained with relish that Tzerko had traveled to Berlin as a young man in order to study with Arthur Schnabel. But when he introduced himself to the great pianist as Abraham Kotzer, Schnabel burst out laughing. “Kotzer” means “one who vomits” in the German language. In an instant, Abraham became Aube and the scrambled letters in Kotzer emerged as Tzerko.
Victor also studied composition with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Henri Lazorof at UCLA, where he earned an M.A. in composition. These distinguished teachers undoubtedly presented him with a solid if traditional education, but Victor was already headed down his own distinct path.
If parents have a lot to do with how their children turn out, I’d lay some of the responsibility for my brother’s personality on our dad, Mischa Steinhardt. Dad loved to pun and play with words. Perhaps this was due to the fact that he spoke Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, Russian, and English. Victor and I as kids would roll our eyes when we passed a cemetery and heard Dad say, “You know, people are dying to get in.” Or, another of dad’s favorites on Independence Day, “If you drink a fifth on the fourth, you may not go forth on the fifth.”
Undoubtedly, a lot of Dad’s wordplay resurfaced in Victor. If I suggested a rehearsal time for an upcoming recital, Victor might respond with, “Let’s not rehearse. Let’s hearse, and if it doesn’t go well then we can re-hearse.” Once, when the University of Oregon was looking for a violinist to fill an open position in the music department—a place where Victor taught for much of his adult life—I suggested the violinist Andor Toth to my brother for consideration. “Wait a minute, Is Andor one or two words?” he asked. And for his occasional visits with our family, Victor’s puns were so numerous that our young son Alexej put a quota on them. “One hundred puns and you’re out of here, Victor,” he would threaten in mock seriousness.
And so, Dad’s sense of play rubbed off on Victor, and Victor’s rubbed off on his musical compositions. When does funny become serious, or serious funny, you might ask. Victor’s “Seventeen Variations in the Form of a Limerick” appears to be an elaborate joke, but in reality it is an ambitious and highly imaginative work. On the other hand, what about his “Sonata Boogie for Violin and Piano,” and “Ein Heldenboogie for Solo Piano?” Are those works serious? Yes. Are they humorous? Yes. Victor once told me what he loved about out-of-tune train whistles was that you often couldn’t tell whether the chord was minor or major. It was that sense of in-between that tickled him. Even so, there was no in-between to Victor’s “Tango for Violin and Piano,” which makes you want to weep as it comes to an end, or his short “Arietta for Viola and Piano,” which begins imaginatively with all four of the viola’s open strings and then bursts into vibrant and heartfelt song.
Of course, there was no question about such pieces for piano as “Dog Walk,” “The Love Pickle,” and “Octaboogie.” Victor was simply having fun. At one point, he set out to expand the concept of entertainment by intentionally writing an utterly silly piece for violin and piano. And our dad unwittingly played a part. When we were growing up, Mom would often ask, “Mischa, what do you want for dinner?” “Gedaemte gedullas” (Yiddish for steamed shoe leather) was Dad’s answer. The title of Victor’s experiment in tomfoolery was a foregone conclusion. He called it “Gedaemte Gedullas.”
From 1968 to 2007 Victor was a professor of piano at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He was beloved as both teacher and music colleague. Along with teaching, Victor often performed over the years as a soloist, and with a long and impressive list of chamber music collaborators. They included cellists Leonard Rose, Jules Eskin, and Ron Leonard; violinists Ida Kevafian, Josef Suk, and Pamela Frank; violist Michael Tree; clarinetists David Shifrin and Michael Anderson; flutist Ransom Wilson; and the Penderecki, Peterson, Los Angeles, Lafayette, and Guarneri String Quartets.
But I’ve left out one collaborator—Victor’s brother, Arnold. Victor and I first performed together in a recital on January 17, 1960. I remember that the program announcement caused me great embarrassment: The San Gabriel Philharmonic-Artists Association presents Arnold Steinhardt, violinist, accompanied by his brother Victor Steinhardt. My kid brother was only seventeen at the time but he was already no mere accompanist. Among music by Stravinsky, Roy Harris, and Schubert, the program included Beethoven’s Spring Sonata.
Victor and I performed together frequently through the years and made records as well. He was a superb pianist and musician, and a joy to work with. In rehearsal Victor was never shy in offering thoughtful musical ideas, but he was also willing to accept mine, and always with grace and good humor. In all the years we played together, I do not recall a single argument.
I spent a good amount of time with Victor and his loving and deeply devoted wife of thirty years, Betsy Parker, during the last days of my brother’s life. Naturally, Victor and I spoke of his illness, his approaching death, and how his beloved Betsy might fare after he was gone. And in so many words and gestures we were able to express our deep love for one another and for the blessed gift it had been throughout our lives. But our conversations often drifted into something oddly normal, as if the last consequential event in Victor’s life, looming with great speed toward him, was still at a respectable distance. We reminisced about events in our childhood, about Andy and Rafi, their beloved dachshunds, and about music, musicians, and composers. We talked with no apparent rhyme or reason about Mozart, Debussy, Shostakovich, and Victor’s own music. At one point I told Victor I’d recently read that John Cage was a great expert on fungi. “Really?” Victor said, “I didn’t realize he was such a fun guy”.
Victor’s disease had often been grueling, but as his death came nearer, a calm settled over him. At one point, in a pensive mood, Victor said to me that no matter how hard I tried I could not be him, and no matter how hard he tried he could not be me. On the face of it, those words seemed almost laughably obvious, and yet I thought I could see what he was getting at. We had made our different journeys through life, and Victor had come to the realization with a certain amount of assurance, acceptance, and even a measure of satisfaction that yes, this was who he was, and this was who he was meant to be.
In those final days Victor lovingly greeted dear friends who came from all over to spend a last cherished bit of time with him, and when the end finally came, with Betsy and me holding his hands, Victor left this earth peacefully.
A couple of days before Victor passed away, something unexpected crossed my mind. “Victor, you’re going to die, and then I’m going to die. But if there turns out to be some kind of life after death, what music would you like to play with me?” Victor thought for a moment, smiled, and said, “Let’s play Schubert’s Fantasy for Violin and Piano again.” The Fantasy, a work filled with haunting mystery and ineffable beauty, is notoriously difficult for the violinist but especially so for the pianist. Victor had performed the Fantasy masterfully. I smiled back at my brother and said, “You’re on.”
Now, with Victor gone I sometimes think back on that conversation and realize I had missed a golden opportunity to steal one of his lines. “You’re on, Victor, but let’s not rehearse. Let’s hearse, and if it doesn’t go well then we can re-hearse.”
Arietta by Victor Steinhardt, performed by the Steinhardt brothers.
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