Swans Commentary » swans.com July 18, 2011  



"Chaconne, Anyone?"
Arnold Steinhardt Performs In Indianapolis


by Isidor Saslav





(Swans - July 18, 2011)   When first violinist Arnold Steinhardt and his colleagues voluntarily disbanded the Guarneri String Quartet in 2009 after more than 40 years of collaboration it marked an end to one of the longest running chamber music groups ever to appear on the concert stage. But Steinhardt, post "retirement," has more tricks up his sleeve and strings to his bow (more correctly for a violinist rather than an archer: "hairs to his bow"; the strings are on the violin.) Steinhardt is the author or two books, Indivisible by Four (2000) and Violin Dreams (2006), as well as the creator of an inventive internet blog arnoldsteinhardt.com upon which he regularly offers his shorter written commentary on matters musical, personal, and historical accompanied by his own recorded performances in the background.

Recently Steinhardt has found a new collaborator, the singer Tessa Border, with whom he tours in concert as "The Duo." He has also developed a solo lecture-recital "Chaconne, Anyone," during which he explores the mystery of J. S. Bach's (1685-1750) Chaconne (1720), the final movement of that composer's Second Partita, in D Minor, for unaccompanied violin. I had the pleasure of attending this latter event as Steinhardt performed it as part of the Laureate Series of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis (IVCI) at the Indianapolis Historical Society on June 7, 2011. The venue was appropriate since Steinhardt had been a long-time friend of violinist Josef Gingold (1909-1995), the great artist and teacher who helped launch the competition back in 1982.

Steinhardt walked onto the stage dressed in black slacks and shirt, his tall lankiness suggesting a bit of a Paganini-like aura. The stage had a simple small table lit up, with his violin and bow on it. First came a few personal remarks, then Steinhardt began describing his own violin background and the musical influences on the great Chaconne. Behind the small table a large movie screen was elevated at the center and back of the stage and on this screen were projected during the course of the lecture various drawings and paintings of Bach's face. These included a recent computerized reconstruction of what Bach's face might have looked like based on the exhumation and reburial of his skull in the mid-19th century. Besides that, a facsimile of the very autograph manuscript of the D Minor Sonata, which Steinhardt performed to conclude the lecture, was flashed to the audience page by page in huge size as the performance progressed.

First Steinhardt introduced the idea of a chaconne to the audience. He described the origin of this dance in the New World and its importation into Spain. It became highly popular everywhere, probably because of its strongly charged lasciviousness, which caused it to be banned in Spain in the early 17th century. Steinhardt named several examples of chaconnes in other countries such as the Chacony by Henry Purcell (1659?-1695) in England. He then described a typical bass line used by chaconne composers: a four-note descending scale. He performed for us part of the Passacaglia (a dance, like the sarabande, closely related to the chaconne) by Bach's predecessor in Austria, the violinist-composer Heinrich Biber (1644-1704), to demonstrate how this simple bass line could be decorated over and over in different ways to create an extended work.

Steinhardt described to the audience the theory put forth by German musicologist Helga Thoene, according to which Bach wrote the Chaconne in 1720 as a musical tribute at the grave, or "tombeau," to his recently and unexpectedly departed wife Maria Barbara (1684-1720). This concept is laid out in Thoene's work, Johann Sebastian Bach Ciaccona: Tanz oder Tombeau(2003). Maria Barbara Bach had died unknown to her husband while he was on an extended tour with his patron, the Prince of Anhalt-Coethen. An eerie moment in Steinhardt's lecture came when he described his own personal visit in later years to Barbara's very grave in Coethen and his performing for her the Chaconne as tombeau right there on the spot. It was like a message of tribute from the long-dead composer transmitted by Steinhardt himself personally 200 years later. Then came Steinhardt's extended "Werdegang," his own personal journey of enlightenment and discovery as he searched for the meaning of Bach's Chaconne. I was reminded of Shakespeare's "The Seven Ages of Man" because Steinhardt constructed his lecture using a similar format.


"The Seven Ages of Steinhardt"


First, Steinhardt spoke of being taken to a concert at the age of l0 to hear Mischa Elman (1891-1967), where he heard the Chaconne for the first time. Elman had been one of that legendary and electrifying world-touring crop of violinists from the class of Leopold Auer (1845-1930) in St. Petersburg, Russia. Elman's class had included names like Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987), Elman himself, Efrem Zimbalist (1890-1985), and Steinhardt's soon-to-be teacher, Toscha Seidel (1899-1962) in Los Angeles, Steinhardt's hometown. As did other violinists of the time, Elman performed the Chaconne all by itself, without any other of the movements of the D Minor Sonata in which it appears. Steinhardt said he was awestruck by the beautiful sound coming from Elman's violin that seemed like a bottomless well of tone, even though at 10 years old he may not have understood the music all that perfectly. But he could tell there was plenty of emotion in the piece anyway. He said the Chaconne continued to be a mystery to him for many years afterwards and he continued to describe the series of artists he consulted to help him solve the mystery of the piece and the proper way to perform it.

Steinhardt continued by describing his lessons as a young teenager with Toscha Seidel. Seidel, once he had settled in Los Angeles, was to be much heard on movie sound tracks since he became a leading concertmaster of studio orchestras for several decades. Seidel's method of teaching was simply to stop the student, take up the violin, and play the piece himself by way of demonstration. The young Steinhardt consulted with Seidel about the Chaconne only to be told that (like at most of his lessons with Seidel) if he would "play the piece from the HEART!" the rest would take care of itself.

Steinhardt's next stop on his journey was The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. There his lessons were with that iconic teacher of the violin during the 1900s, the Armenian-Parisian-American Ivan Galamian (1903-1981). Galamian firmly established his reputation as a teacher during the course of the last century by turning out such virtuosi as Michael Rabin (1936-1972) and Itzhak Perlman (1945-). Galamian told Steinhardt that if the basics of the Chaconne were well taken care of -- intonation, bowings, phrasings, etc. -- the rest would follow.

While Steinhardt studied at Meadowmount, Galamian's summer camp for aspiring virtuosi, Galamian invited as guest artist the famous Russian-American Odessa-born but San Francisco-raised violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001). Among his many claims to fame such as his world concert tours (which he spelled out in great detail in his autobiography My First 79 Years, 1999) and saving Carnegie Hall from the wrecker's ball in the 1960s, another famous bon mot circulated about Stern down through the years. At the height of the Russian-American Cold War in the 1950s, the idea of cultural exchange was born to try to thaw the relations between the two nuclear-ready antagonists. The thought arose to have Isaac Stern concertize in Russia while the celebrated Russian violinist, David Oistrakh (1908-1974), by coincidence likewise Odessa-born, concertize in the United States. Stern's quip thus defined cultural exchange as, "They send us their violinist from Odessa and we send them our violinist from Odessa." Stern advised me in later years that he did not use the simple term "violinist" but that he had supplied an ethnic adjective first, an adjective less than complimentary in the minds of many people. This did not sit well with the diplomatic powers-that-were in Washington.

Let Steinhardt describe his encounter with Stern in his own words:

. . . Despite Galamian's rigorous focus on violin technique, he was well aware we needed musical input and inspiration. Stern gave a lecture demonstration on Bach's Chaconne. First he took the work apart the way a car mechanic would take apart an automobile engine to demonstrate the various parts and their functions. Stern told us about the chaconne's beginnings as a dance, how the emphasis was often on the second of three beats, about the character of the three main sections, of the four-bar building blocks of the work and how they might be strung together for coherence and artistry. This was a revelation for most of us who were reasonably musical by instinct but had not yet been made aware of structure and details in music. Then Stern performed the Chaconne magnificently. Afterwards, he held up his hand for silence, stepped to the front of the stage, and said to us, "And I want you to know that I was nervous!" What a memorable event that was for me and many other students there.

Next Steinhardt told us an anecdote about working with another 20th-century string legend, the cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973) at Marlboro, that illustrious chamber music camp founded by pianist Rudolph Serkin (1903-1991) in Vermont in 1951 and celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. Concerning the interpretation of Bach, Casals told him the story of himself and his trio with violinist Jacques Thibaud (1880-1953) and pianist Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) in the 1920s. The three of them had all given a concert in Budapest. They were told that there were plenty of after-concert locales in Budapest to dine but for a maximum experience they should all go to a locale featuring the greatest Gypsy violinist in the country. They went and heard this great Gypsy. Casals said the Gypsy's freedom of interpretation and performance was the greatest lesson he could extract from that experience.

Next Steinhardt described his working with the remarkable musician Arthur Loesser (1894-1969) of Cleveland. Loesser taught at the Cleveland Institute of Music while Steinhardt was a member of George Szell's (1897-1970) Cleveland Orchestra (CO) just after graduating from Curtis. Loesser had first begun his career at the keyboard as a young man of 20 by accompanying that intrepid female pioneer of the violin, Maud Powell (1867-1920) in her several path-breaking chamber music tours across the American West. Loesser's next claim to fame flowed from his being the author of that celebrated and highly entertaining book about the keyboard instruments, Men, Women, and Pianos (1954). The final fillip to his reputation was his being the brother of Frank Loesser (1910-1969), the composer of Guys and Dolls (1950) and other Broadway smash hits. Since Frank spent his time amidst a class of people somewhat less reputable than those surrounding his distinguished musicological brother he was known as "the more evil of the two Loessers." The first thing Arthur Loesser said to Steinhardt after Steinhardt had played for him the D minor Sonata, including the Chaconne: "How do you DANCE all of these movements?" Whereupon Loesser proceeded to demonstrate the step of each dance movement one after the other! Steinhardt told us that through Loesser's demonstration the dance perspectives in Bach's secular music were suggested to him more strongly than ever.

Finally Arnold said he consulted Josef Gingold by whom he had been sitting as assistant in the CO about the Chaconne. (Gingold's 100th birthday was honored not too long ago in 2009 in both Bloomington, Indiana, where he had served on the faculty of the School of Music of Indiana University for a quarter of a century, as well as in Indianapolis where he had been the guiding spirit behind the establishment of the IVCI in 1982. See swans.com: "Josef Gingold turns 100," December 28, 2009.) Gingold proceeded to reveal to Steinhardt a schematic diagram of the Chaconne as an architectural work of music that Gingold said had been sent to him for his birthday by his good friend pianist Ralph Berkowitz (1910-). As Steinhardt recounted this, when he saw the structural analysis of this work that had been a mystery to him since his first experience of it as a boy of 10 with Elman, his eyes widened to be shown such a scientific way of approaching a piece of music. This was a concept and an approach that had never concerned him before, but from that moment became his guiding light.

(Last September 5th, Ralph Berkowitz celebrated his 100th birthday in Albuquerque, NM. Besides having been the collaborator at the keyboard for 30 years of the cellistic legend Gregor Piatigorsky (1903-1976) in their worldwide tours, Berkowitz was for 18 years the Dean at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony's summer home in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. Despite all those high-spirited egos who had peopled the faculty of the Berkshire Music Center during that time, such as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Serge Koussevitzky, etc., Berkowitz quietly smiles with pride at the fact that in all those years he never got into an argument with anybody.)

But now, at the conclusion of these remarks that took about 30 minutes, Steinhardt approached the table and took up the violin and bow. He paused while the audience waited expectantly and then began his uninterrupted performance of the D Minor Sonata finishing with the Chaconne. In between movements, he stopped, lowered his head, dropped his arms, and waited a moment between movements before continuing while the audience held its breath. Steinhardt's flawless performance from memory of the entire D Minor Sonata, including the Chaconne, was accompanied, as mentioned, by manuscript pages filling the above screen as he played. Yes, the performance was filled with rich tone (Elman) on Steinhardt's Lorenzo Storioni (1744-1816) violin, plenty of "heart" (Seidel), plenty of technical perfection (Galamian), plenty of architectural and rhythmic insight (Stern), plenty of interpretive freedom (Casals), plenty of dance-like vivacity (Loesser), and finally plenty of scientifically-projected musical structure in the Chaconne (Berkowitz) that left the audience with a highly gratified feeling that they (we) had experienced a rare experience on the concert stage. Steinhardt concluded the evening by answering questions from the audience that he fielded with his usual charm and California humor.

Steinhardt made a very interesting point afterwards when the four of us, Arnold, Glen Kwok as the director of the Indianapolis competition, and the two Saslavs, resumed our conversation at a local pub nearby. Concerning the original ornately prepared title page of the autograph manuscript of the six sonatas, Arnold noted that the six unaccompanied sonatas are described as "Sei Solo." Arnold observed that this was incorrect Italian and should have been "Sei Soli." But an intriguing re-interpretation of these two words might have been translated as "You are alone." Quite recherché, don't you think? Still another mystery to add to that of the Chaconne.


(Full disclosure statement: Ann and Isidor Saslav and Arnold Steinhardt have been colleagues, collaborators, and close friends for at least 50 years.)


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Published July 18, 2011