My great-grandfather and grandfather made violins professionally at the turn of the century, when Erie, Pennsylvania, and its numerous theater orchestras could comfortably support their industry. My father, dreaming throughout his life about time he spent in his grandfather’s workshop, made violins and repaired them in his spare time. Best of all, he took me to visit musicians who played instruments crafted by our family. I haven’t made a violin and probably won’t, but the work of my forebears continues to instruct and fascinate me.
I studied the violin and musicology at the Eastman School; its Sibley Library held aisle upon aisle of Stereo Review, American Record Guide, and High Fidelity. During my almost 11-year stay, I had plenty of opportunities to read those volumes and did so for hours on end. In all those years, I never encountered a single fellow explorer of that literature; and I myself might not have embarked on such lengthy chains of research had I not spent so many afternoons during my high-school years reading and rereading record jackets at Grant’s on my way home. And I did that because, igniting the tinder of my family background, Paul Stoeving’s Story of the Violin (Walter Scott Publishing, 1905) had stoked the furnace of my youthful imagination.
But that’s ancient history; more recently, in daily violin lessons for 15 years, my son and I explored a mountain of literature, from salon favorites to Bach’s Chaconne and Paganini’s Variations on “God Save the King,” and I took the opportunity to rethink every aspect of violin playing, relating each to the ultimate goal of musical communication. You lop off the listener, I’d contend, at your peril. Older violinists tell how concertgoers used to mob the stage when Heifetz played Hora staccato, to see up close how he did it. However cold or superficial some may have found him, when Heifetz played those encores (pace Virgil Thomson), he obviously affected someone. Nowadays, performers speak passionately about communing with composers (or composers’ eras) but seem to leave audiences out of the calculation. Yet even so uncompromising a violinist as Szigeti, however deeply he drank at the crystal spring of pure ideas, always made music effervesce for his listeners. I enjoy thinking about the instrument itself; in my reviews, I don’t skirt instrumental technique, but rather try to describe both the technico-physical and the psychico-emotive devices that define a player’s individuality, strong or—as has become all too common—weak. And I try to judge whether those elements add up, as they ought, to something grander than the sum of the parts. At the risk of sounding like the crotchety old fogy I fear I’ve become, I think for violinists that transcendental arithmetic occurred more frequently in the past than it does in the present. Finally, I try to make my reviews as accurate as I reasonably can; I live in constant fear that someone may actually read and even care about what I’ve written, implausible though that may be. But when all’s said and done, for me, writing for Fanfare is like going back to Grant’s or to Eastman’s stacks, but this time being able to linger forever among the things I love. My great-grandfather wrote about spending his life in his heart’s work; so can I.