What Good is Music?
September 11, 2008
[Originally written and published in September 2002].
I lost no loved ones on 11 September 2001, nor was my home destroyed or my work affected in any palpable way by the tragic attack on our nation; and yet, the events of that morning have prodded me to look inward and take personal inventory. As a professional violinist, I ask myself: What good is the music I play? Does my work make a difference to anyone?
Ironically, that particular September 11th was a day I had looked forward to for a long time. Over 30 years earlier, my brother Victor, my friend Michael Riesman and I—three musicians on vacation—climbed Mt. Sill, one of the many fourteen thousand foot peaks in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The climb had been long and strenuous but not really dangerous, and Mt. Sill itself quite unremarkable—basically a towering mound of rocks devoid of any vegetation save the occasional red, orange and green lichens that baked in the hard, high-altitude sun. The view was what we had come for, and when we arrived at the summit panting, it more than fulfilled our expectations: layer after layer of craggy mountains extending both north and south for almost a hundred miles. An unearthly silence hung in the air—the absence of sound itself a deeply moving music that played to the far-reaches before us.
Suddenly we noticed that the sun was moving toward the horizon. It was late and in a few hours the temperature on Mt. Sill would drop below freezing. Although the three of us had been on the top for barely twenty minutes, we reluctantly began our trek back to camp—my elation tinged with the disappointment of leaving so quickly. That night, snug in my sleeping bag, I gazed up at the star-filled sky and vowed to return someday. I have always treasured hiking in these mountains with their verdant valleys, rushing waterfalls and glaciers nestled in the upper reaches of massive rock formations. It has been a perfect antidote to my sedentary indoor life as a musician.
Last September, over three decades after my initial trip, my dream of climbing Mt. Sill again became a possibility. My wife Dorothea, our son Alexej and I climbed into the Sierra Nevada over Bishop Pass with two friends, Maru and Paulo, and set up camp in Dusy Basin, altitude 10,500 feet. In contrast to the strange, almost lunar terrain above us, our camp was situated just below the tree line alongside a lovely stream that meandered through long grasses and a few brave trees and bushes that dared to put roots down in this severe high-altitude environment. For several days, we made only small excursions to nearby lakes and the more lushly vegetated canyons down below while our bodies acclimatized to the thin air. Because of an impending recital, I occasionally practiced on a cheap violin that the mules had brought up along with tents and camping supplies.
Five days after our arrival in Dusy, we felt ready. September 11th would be the day for attempting to climb Mt. Sill. We were up at 5:30 a.m., Pacific Standard Time, and eating breakfast before 6:00. As we drank our coffee, unbeknownst to us, the first plane crashed into the World Trade Tower 3,000 miles away, and as we donned our day-packs, the second and third planes hit the other tower and the Pentagon. The weather had been crystal clear for the last week but on that day, long wings of clouds turned blood-red by the rising sun spread across the sky. At 6:30, Dorothea and Maru, who planned to stay put, waved goodbye to Alexej, Paulo and me. I could not help thinking to myself as the first rays of sun touched us that life was good and dreams sometimes come true. At that very moment, thousands of people had just lost their lives and the nation was in crisis.
As the day progressed, we crossed barren expanses littered with the rock debris from ancient retreating glaciers and climbed over pass after pass, each one higher than the last. By early afternoon the entire world seemed to spread out before us just as I remembered from long ago—layers of mountains pulled, twisted and tortured upwards by the earth’s inner workings, lakes big and small artfully placed in the folds of their ridges like so many jewels shimmering in the afternoon sun.
The trip had taken longer than expected, perhaps because I was 30 years older now, and suddenly rain and hail began to pelt us. Mt. Sill rose several hundred feet directly above us—so enticingly near—and yet with the weather closing in, there was no question of going on. With that familiar coupling of elation and regret, I headed back to camp with Alexej and Paolo. The top of Sill had eluded me this time but at least I had seen the miracle of the Sierra Nevada once again.
Several hours later, our tents came into view; there would be a lot to tell over dinner tonight. But inexplicably, Dorothea rushed towards us, threw herself at our son Alexej who was in the lead, and burst into tears. The story of the attack, gleaned from a transistor radio, came out in bits and starts as my wife struggled for composure: Passenger planes as deadly bombs, thousands dead, the World Trade Towers collapsed, the Pentagon in flames. We stood there dumbfounded, unable to get our minds around events that belonged in a bad movie plot. The sound of gently rushing water and the air redolent with pine made it especially incomprehensible. How could the same planet that housed the mountain paradise where we stood also be a crucible for today’s hate and violence? Questions collided with one another as I numbly trudged toward our tent. Was my daughter who lived in New York City safe? Would our country itself be attacked again? Would our very way of life survive intact? For the very first time in my secure and comfortable existence as an American, I was seized with dizzying uncertainty.
I pulled my boots off in the tent’s dim light and dropped them next to my violin case. Although I had spent almost my entire life devoted to the instrument that lay inside, what good was it really? Music was for pleasure, for fun, even for touching the soul at times, but it could not stop the terrorists from their evil doings or quell the fears of panicked people trapped in planes and burning buildings. For that matter, what good was music for anything? It did not provide a roof over your head, or warmth, or nourishment.
And yet, without knowing exactly why, I felt compelled to open the case, take out the violin with its bow, and make my way to the brook that had been our companion for the past week. In the waning late afternoon light, I played a Bach Allemande for the stream, the trees, the errant boulders scattered willy-nilly, the countless victims of the attack who now lay under smoldering cement, steel and airplane shards, and not least of all, for my very own sanity. The music—dark, mournful, even angry at times—told its own story, yet it also seemed to comment on the chaotic feelings that raced through me. Bach knew nothing of airplanes or skyscrapers but he did understand the human heart—its pain, its aching sadness. The Allemande touched and soothed me as the stream gurgled in accompaniment. I found solace in its phrases that stepped up and down, in their familiar cadences, and in the repeats of entire sections. The terrorists had unnerved me but Bach’s well-ordered and richly imaginative music began to ease my heart. I played on and on.
Arnold Steinhardt playing Bach in the Sierra Nevada Mountains on September 11, 2001. Photo by Dorothea von Haeften, September 11, 2002.
Music can make me laugh and cry and want to dance, but in that time of crisis up in the mountains, it was a desperate refuge where I could explore and give reign to my raw feelings in privacy and safety. Music became my personal grief counselor. The stories I have heard about concerts taking place during the London Blitz and the Siege of Leningrad in full face of danger, starvation and death make more sense to me now. I empathize with the lone violinist who played all night last September 11th for people at the New York City Armory looking for news of those they loved. And I understand more fully why once a nine-year-old friend, upon hearing that his father had suddenly died of a stroke, quietly went to his room, shut the door, and played the violin for himself.
Music defines me as a human being. We may have different tastes (I classical, you reggae) but I know of no one who simply doesn’t like music. We like it, we love it, we need it: for its own sake but also for romantic trysts, making love, weddings, funerals, paying bills, shopping and riding in elevators. And many of us must have needed it on 11 September 2001. What music did you turn to on that terrible day?
Our history tells us, regrettably, that to kill is also human; but I can’t help thinking that if I open my mouth in song, it can no longer curse my neighbor, if I play an instrument, it becomes harder for me to wield a knife or gun. I wonder then, could the young men who turned those planes into massive instruments of destruction have loved music? In the absence of any answer, I can only think about the camps where they were once indoctrinated to hate and destroy, and fantasize about another kind of brain-washing in which music plays for them day and night. Perhaps the sadness, joy and innate wisdom of, say, Billie Holiday or Johann Sebastian Bach might cure them of the disease called hate. After all, the Old Testament says in chapter one of Samuel: “And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took a harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him.” Music banished Saul’s evil spirits in the Bible, eased my heart by a mountain stream, and helped a young boy in his hour of desperate need. That is what music is good for.
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Our dearest friend:
Thanks for you frienship, intelligence, kindness, wisdom, and all the talent you have to be a great humand being!!!
Lots of love
My wife Kathleen and I are friends of Betsy and Victor. Victor and I have breakfast a couple times a month, and we recently got them interested in tango. I also grew up in So Cal, my father and his father spent summers in the Sierras, even participating in some first ascents. The Sierras were my first experience of the Sublime, the deeply spiritual, and the experiences I had there in my youth defined my character. I became an artist (painter) and understand and appreciate the questions you’ve asked yourself, and wonder as well what the meaning is of my art. I loved your essay—I had that experience on Mt. Electra with my brother over 40 years ago. Like countless others, am grateful for the music you and your brother) make.
I’m writing from Argentina. I apologize for my eventually poor English. Your words are beautiful, as is your playing! I’m a professional violin/viola player, long time ultra-fanatic about the Guarneri Quartet, and I seriously consider you and your quartet colleagues—including both cellists—among the elite of finest string players of all times (together with Pinchas Zukerman, Ida Kavafian, Pina Carmirelli, and Mariana Sirbu). Well, I’ve encouraged myself to write here because I have something to tell you. I’ve been looking for many years for a way to let you know this: You, Arnold, you and your quartet friends, have saved not only my career, but also my life. And not only once, but several times! And I’m not joking at all. At times when my soul and mind were in pain and disoriented, what, sadly, has happened many times in my highly conflictive existence, the supreme order, freshness and dramatic power of your music gave me reasons for keeping fighting. And that is something that my cultivated ears just couldn’t get from other recordings, from other string players. I’m the kind of listener that can recognize almost any important violinist just listening to few recorded notes. And by saying this I don’t want to look as a bluffer, but to show you that I’m not just a frivolous music lover. Absolutely not! I make of quartet playing—and listening—a religion, or what’s even more: an authentic search of the highest truth. I have discovered many profound reasons why the Guarneri Quartet is the perfect expression of the forces of nature, a kind of portrait of God. Each one of you is expressing a different kind of energy, forming together a “gestaltic” effect. Again, this is no joke. I know I sound as a mad theoretic, but I’m not. When you say in your first book, Indivisible by Four, that your rendition of the great quartet literature is just one more, my friend and saviour, you are not right at all. Your playing has such philosophical depth, such intense organic sense, that has to be placed at a unique point of human achievement. So, that is my humble testimony of a magnificent art that gave me the joy and the inspiration; I hope that this awkward attempt to express my feelings and experiences in this complex travel that life is, gives to you another point of view in relation with the scope of your playing.
Sincerely, and with eyes in tears,
Dear Mr Steinhardt,
Even though Sept 11, 2001 was seven years ago, I still remember the song I turned to during that period after hearing about the tragedy – ‘Amazing Grace’, on the piano. Music does bring peace to our hearts because it was created by the Prince of Peace.
What a joy to hear the Guarneri quartet in Ann Arbor today. The molto adagio of Op. 132 was
other-worldly in its beauty.
PS In the program was a copy of your first appearance in AA on February 25, 1971. That is the
day Valissa was born!
Let me add my voice to the many others here who have thanked you for everything you have done to enrich our lives with chamber music.
Though I have been a cellist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for ten years, my lifelong musical love affair is with string quartets, and the first part of my professional career in music was with a full-time quartet. You and I met once very briefly after a Guarneri concert at the Met Museum in New York in the mid 1990s. My quartet, which very much looked up to your quartet, was hearing you play live for the first time. The after-concert scene was typically busy, and I am always conscious of taking more of a performer’s time than is necessary to say a quick hello. In this case, I particularly lamented not having a better chance to speak with you, as I would have the loved the chance to ask you about any number of musical matters on my mind at the time.
I am posting underneath your eloquent words on September 11 because music played a central role in that day for me and for all of my orchestral colleagues, and I thought the recollection might be of some interest. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra was in Lucerne, Switzerland, about midway through a two-week tour of Europe. We were to play Mahg that evening at Lucerne’s beautiful lakeside hall. The day was free from rehearsals, so I went for a jog along Lake Lucerne in the mid-afternoon. Upon returning to the hotel’s lobby, I overheard something about a plane having hit the World Trade Center. Imagining a small plane and an accidental crash, I went to my room, turned on the television, and watched with the same horror that millions of Americans felt that day.
Our orchestra’s leaders quickly realized that an immediate gathering of the group was necessary, since due to the time difference in Europe, there remained a scant few hours before our scheduled concert was to begin. In a hotel conference room, our Music Director at the time, Daniel Barenboim, told the orchestra that he felt the concert should happen. A colleague suggested that in addition to the music itself providing comfort, the communal feeling of being onstage together was much preferable to sitting alone in our hotel rooms glued to the news. It was also mentioned that professionalism dictated that we owed it to the ticketholders to perform. We decided that anyone who felt strongly that they were unable to go onstage that night would not be forced to play. With the exception of one colleague (his family lived in New York and he had not yet been able to make contact with them), everyone played.
There was discussion adding some commemorative music to the program. Our librarians carry parts for certain pieces of music with them on all of our tours, just in case they are needed for some unforeseen reason. Barber’s Adagio was discussed, and the idea was rejected because the situation was still practically unfolding before us. That music seemed premature. In the end, we opted to begin the concert with our National Anthem. Many of the Swiss people in the audience may have been hearing it for the first time, and they applauded politely afterward. This addition was for us more than for them.
It felt very strange to be far from our homes and families during such an unprecedented catastrophe. In their place, we had each other. Although an orchestra always tries to function as a large chamber group in the best sense possible, I must say that we never achieved it more than we did that night.
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