Violin Dreams NPR coverage of Violin Dreams by Arnold Steinhardt. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
NPR logo Violin Dreams

Violin Dreams

by Arnold Steinhardt

Hardcover, 255 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $25.95 |


Buy Featured Book

Violin Dreams
Arnold Steinhardt

Your purchase helps support NPR programming. How?

Book Summary

The first violinist for the acclaimed Guarneri String Quartet recalls his lifelong obsession with the violin, from the perspective of his own forty-year musical career, discussing the quest for the perfect violin, the history of the renowned Italian violin makers, his musical pilgrimage into his family's past, and great music written for the violin, accompanied by a special CD recording.

Read an excerpt of this book

NPR stories about Violin Dreams

'Violin Dreams': Chasing Bach's Elusive Chaconne

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Violin Dreams

Chapter 1 Survival of the Fittest

“Onstage, please,” someone called out in the half-light. Standing in the wings of Carnegie Hall, I felt my heart racing and the palms of my hands turning clammy. The stage door swung open slowly, framing the broad expanse of hardwood floor where, in a matter of seconds, I would play Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin. Doubts rushed at me like a fetid wind. Would I play well? Would the listeners, music lovers with exacting expectations, be pleased? Or might I be booed for a less than stellar rendition of the great Chaconne? Then I thought the unthinkable: Just don’t play. It was my choice, after all. Either cross the Rubicon onto the heady but risky concert stage or cancel the performance entirely, something akin to jilting your bride at the altar.
As if by alchemy, a delicious anticipation unexpectedly rose up in me, quelling my fears. Of course I would play! I strode onto Carnegie’s stage, savoring tiers of seats stacked dizzyingly one on top of the other. The hall’s grandeur swept any lingering nerves away, but the applause that I expected to float forward was absent. An eerie silence greeted my entrance from the wings, and when I looked out over the stage, my heart sank. There was no audience at all. Carnegie Hall, lit on every level by strings of shimmering lights, stood empty, like a great ocean liner at dock awaiting passengers before a voyage. Only when lowering my gaze a notch did I notice that a few people were indeed occupying the front row’s center section. Curiously enough, they all had writing pads and pencils ready.
“Thank you for coming, Mr. Steinhardt,” a man with a salt-and- pepper mustache who sat on the aisle called out. “We would like to ask you questions about the violin.” Before I could respond, a woman with a cigarette in her hand leaned forward and spoke. “Would you tell us about the violin’s early history?” Apparently this self-appointed jury was bent on going through with some kind of examination. Better to humor these people and get on with my recital. After all, the audience had not yet arrived.
I began to think out loud. “Let’s see. Antonio Stradivari was the most famous. He studied with Nicholas Amati. Amati was one of the early violinmakers. Then there was Maggini. Was he the first?” The woman eyed me coolly and chose not to answer. A frigid silence lifted off the entire group as I stood at the front of the stage looking down on them.
The man spoke again. “Please tell us about the string instruments leading up to the violin — the rebec, the hurdy-gurdy, and the crwth.” The names were familiar to me, but I was forced to admit the truth. “I can’t tell you anything about the rebec, the hurdy-gurdy, or the . . .” Without a vowel to move the consonants along, my tongue snagged on crwth as if I were afflicted by a speech impediment. My face flushed with shame.
This must have been the last straw, for the entire group of judges rose and began to talk among themselves. I searched frantically in my mind for a way to dispense with these people who had entered my life like a rogue asteroid.
Then the obvious occurred to me. I would simply play the Chaconne as planned. Let Bach’s noble opening strains answer the criticism of my tormentors and banish them from the hall! But when I tried to lift the violin onto my shoulder, it became unbearably heavy, and the bow refused to move across the strings, as if a quick-setting glue had been applied to its horsehair. The Chaconne’s opening three- and four-note chords should have been easy enough to play, but to my mounting consternation, only a strangled croak came out of the violin. From the corner of my eye I saw the man with the mustache collecting pads. He mounted the stage steps slowly.
A feeling of suffocating dread rose up in me, and then I awoke. Carnegie Hall, my violin recital, even the panel of judges who moments earlier had held me hostage, were gone. To my immense relief, the concert-exam was only an anxiety dream, one of dozens I’ve had over the years.
The bright morning light nudged my sleep-laden eyes open and I slowly got out of bed. Even in my early-morning stupor, I understood one thing. I had dreamed about the Chaconne because I was about to play it. A dear friend, Petra Shattuck, had just died unexpectedly, leaving a large family grieving for her. A few days ago, her husband, John, had called and asked me to play at her memorial service. Bach’s Chaconne, solemn and ceremonial, seemed a fitting choice for all of us who mourned her. Whether played separately or as the last of the D Minor Partita’s five movements, the Chaconne stood out as a towering and emotion- charged work. It reminded me of a mighty cathedral — impposing in length, moving and uplifting in spirit, and exquisite in its details.
To prepare for Petra’s service, I had been practicinggggg the Chaconne every day — fussing over individual phrases, searching for better ways to string them together, and wondering about the very nature of the piece, at its core an old dance form that had been around for centuries. After the many times I had heard and played the Chaconne, I had hoped it would fall relatively easily into place by now, but it appeared to be taunting me. The more I worked, the more I saw; the more I saw, the further away it drifted from my grasp. Perhaps that is in the nature of every masterpiece. But more than that, the Chaconne seemed to exude shadows over its grandeur and artful design. Exactly what was hidden there I could not say, but I would lose myself for long stretches of time exploring the work’s repeating four-bar phrases, which rose and fell and marched solemnly forward in ever-changing patterns. The upcoming performance for Petra clearly weighed on me. Why else would the Chaconne worm its way into my nocturnal wanderings?
An hour later, hurrying down the hall of Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, where I have taught for many years, I passed the studios of Susan Starr, concert pianist, and Doug Johnson, music historian. Ah — the woman with the cigarette, the man with the salt- and-pepper mustache! We faculty members recently had lobbed questions at a squirming violinist undergoing his final oral exam. Most of what we had asked covered ground I knew intimately about the repertoire for the instrument, but some questions about the violin itself had stumped me. I emerged from the exam room feeling vaguely uncomfortable. If I myself knew so little about the violin’s origins, what right did I have to judge this young student?
Was my life too busy, was sheer sloth the culprit, or did the violin interest me only as a conduit for the music I played? After all, nobody expected a carpenter to know the hammer and saw’s history. Odd, though, wasn’t it, for me to be so ill-informed about an instrument that demanded such intimacy? When I hold the violin, my left arm stretches lovingly around its neck, my right hand draws the bow across the strings like a caress, and the violin itself is tucked under my chin, a place halfway between my brain and my beating heart. Instruments that are played at arm’s length — the piano, the bassoon, the tympani — have a certain reserve built into the relationship. Touch me, hold me if you must, but don’t get too close, they seem to say. To play the violin, however, I must stroke its strings and embrace a delicate body with ample curves and a scroll like a perfect hairdo fresh from the beauty salon. This creature sings ardently to me day after day, year after year, as I embrace it. Shouldn’t I want to know something about it?
But these are grownup thoughts, whereas my violin study began with a child’s perspective. At the age of six, the dawn of my awareness, I accepted all the wonders of life — my beloved toy train, the fairy tales that frightened me, a butterfly’s miraculous flight, and even the first magical sounds of my violin — at face value. When I rode my bicycle down the block, the thrill of its motion and the joy of having finally learned to ride it were what interested me, not the bicycle’s design or history. Why would I think any differently about the violin when I was learning to hold it and make it do my bidding? Unlike a lawyer, firefighter, or bus driver, who begins and ends his or her career as an adult, I am still inhabited by that unquestioning child who began violin study many years ago.

All morning long that day at Rutgers I worked with my violin students. I heard the things that violin lessons are made of — scales, études, Bach, Mozart, Paganini. Hanfang Jiang, a gifted student from China, played Bartók’s First Rhapsody for me. Hanfang played well, very well, and I was pleased with her progress, but did she know when the violin had come into being and who the first violinmakers were?
When lunchtime arrived, I walked over to the school library with my sandwich and thermos and began pulling books about stringed instruments off the shelves. Reflexively, I looked around for my dream’s tormentors. Isn’t it a little late? I imagined my anxiety- dream judges snickering at my attempts to learn about the violin some sixty years after taking it up.
I came across illustrations of two early bowed instruments from India, the ravanastron and the omerti, each made of a hollowed cylinder of sycamore wood and played in the manner of a cello. The primal simplicity of the violin’s ancestors was breathtaking: a sounding box, a stick attached to it, and a couple of strings stretched across the structure. Any one of us could approximate it with some spare wood, a knife, and a little time to kill. It seemed only a step or two removed from the most primitive attempts at an instrument. The early hunters could not have failed to notice the twang of a bowstring as it drove the arrow toward its unsuspecting prey. I imagined the hunting party later that evening, gorged on the kill, recounting stories of its conquests by the campfire. Some sated cave dweller, motivated perhaps by idle curiosity, stretched a thin strip of cast-aside animal skin over a hollow gourd and plucked it absentmindedly with one finger. He raised his eyebrows in mild astonishment at the reverberant sound. A new musical instrument, the prototype of the guitar, the banjo, the mandolin, the balalaika, might have been born that evening as the fire’s embers died away.
The ravanastron illustration also showed its mate, a bow of the most basic kind — nothing more than a slender, curved piece of wood with a string attached at both sides, but still recognizable as a distant cousin of today’s violin bow. It has been said that the history of the violin is really the history of the bow. When I draw my bow across the violin’s strings and coax out a sustained sound, a small miracle takes place. As if by magic, my gesture is able to produce an astonishing range of sounds akin to the human voice. The bow is a magic wand that sets the violin apart from plucked instruments. The accomplished guitarist creates the illusion of sustained sound by grouping notes together that individually die. But if my bow arm is in good working order, I need no such subterfuge. Germans call the violin a “stroke” instrument, an apt name, considering what the bow does.
But I have more difficulty imagining a script for the bow’s Eve than the violin’s Adam. Back at the same campfire after the hunt, how did the tribe’s musical-instrument inventor get the idea of stroking his musical string rather than plucking it? In response to his mate’s complaints about that awful twanging sound, he might have taken a smooth piece of cane or reed left over from a woven basket and drawn it across the strings. Perhaps he even notched it, if the sound proved insufficient — one of the innumerable little breakthroughs, along with myriad failures and dead ends, that culminated in the elegant object made of pernambucco and ebony wood, ivory, silver, mother-of-pearl, and horsehair that I hold in my right hand every time I hold the violin with my left.
I glanced again at the ravanastron illustration and realized with a start that I’d seen something like it recently in the New York City subway, of all places. While changing trains at Times Square station in rush hour, I thought I heard a violin above the din. A small crowd had gathered around a young Chinese man who sat between the express and local train tracks, playing with great energy on a cellolike two-stringed instrument. It sounded like a violin run amuck — the pitch rising and falling wildly, the vibrato frenzied, the music passionate. Despite his instrument’s foreignness, the sliding connections between notes and minute inflections of bowing were the completely familiar gestures of my string world. I stood transfixed in the crowd, listening to what was unmistakably virtuoso playing. When the music came to an end, the crowd clapped enthusiastically and began to disperse.
I lingered out of something more than curiosity. We belonged to the same fraternal order, so to speak. We were both string players. When our eyes met, I mimicked the motions of a violinist and then pointed to my own body. The man’s face lit up. “I play the urheen, an ancient instrument from China, where I was born,” he said in clear English. “Here you sometimes call it a Chinese fiddle. Sit down!” With that, the man abruptly stood up and pulled me over to the stool on which he had been playing. “No, no, no,” I protested, but to no avail. In a series of deft motions, he pushed me onto the stool and handed me his instrument and bow. “Play,” he commanded, grinning widely. “No, no,” I repeated more urgently. More or less the same group of people again collected around us to see what the fuss was about. It had taken only several seconds, ten at most, for me to be transformed from amused bystander to the main attraction. What had I gotten myself into?
I do not play the cello and I certainly don’t know how to play the urheen, but the man seemed unconcerned about those insignificant details. He gave me a lesson on the spot — even as I said “No, no” for the third time — by guiding both my hands on the instrument with his. To my amazement, a passable sound came out of the urheen and the crowd clapped once again. The rumble of an approaching train provided the excuse I needed to hand the instrument back and get up. This time it was the urheen player’s turn to say “No, no,” and we both laughed as I boarded the N train. An American violinist and a Chinese fiddler eyed one another with a sense of newfound familiarity through the closing doors.
I returned to my book and flipped the page. As if by command, an illustration of the urheen stared up at me. Next to it was a picture of the modern Turkish or Arabian kemangeh a’gouz, a ravanastron-like instrument. I looked at the kemangeh, meaning “ancient bowed instrument” in Persian, and wondered why it was familiar to me. After all, I had never paid much attention to any of the instruments featured in this dry textbook. Then I remembered the Azerbaijani taxi driver who had recently picked me up at La Guardia Airport. He looked at my instrument case as I got into the cab and asked what was inside. Half an hour later, I paid him in front of my apartment building. Once again he looked at the violin case in my hand, and then he glared at me accusingly. “Can you crrry on the violin?” he demanded to know. I was taken aback. “In my country they have such a crrrying instrument, the kemangeh. You can really crrry on it. Can you crrry on that?” I assured him that I could, would, and have cried on the violin. The driver must have realized as we stood facing one another by the still-open trunk of his taxi that a winner in the crying contest would never be decided this way. Suddenly he opened his mouth wide and began a vocal imitation of his native instrument, accompanied by the flailing arm movements of a kemangeh player. If you believe the taxi driver, and I do, the kemangeh and its relatives may have been crying for millennia.
The afternoon sunlight gradually moved across the library’s walls and my book’s cast of musical instruments marched in a slow processional toward the birth of the violin. There were the instruments of my anxiety dream, the three- and six-string Welsh crwths, dating as far back as the ninth century, and the pearshaped rebec from Arabia. The musicians in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Hugh Rebeck, Simon Catling (Catgut), and James Soundpost, were undoubtedly rebec players. Then came the Arabian rabab, the Gothic fidula or fiddle, and the French vielle, followed by the enormously successful family of fretted viols that appeared in Europe only a few years before the violin. They had the appearance of small, mischievous animals that could be kept in line only by the bows that played on them.
The Italian Renaissance inspired a flurry of new ideas and experiments in all fields, but especially in the arts. Large-scale musical events now took place in the open air, creating a need for a louder bowed instrument with a soprano voice. Makers of lutes, a fretted plucked instrument whose body was in the shape of a pear cut lengthwise, must have contributed significantly to the violin’s genesis. To this day violinmakers are called luthiers — literally, lute makers. Did the experimentation going on in each instrument maker’s shop gradually, inevitably lead up to the violin? Or was there one person who rose above the title of craftsman — an artist with the vision to collect these countless experiments and consolidate them into a vision of aesthetic and tonal perfection? None other than Leonardo da Vinci had an inventor’s interest in wind instruments. Some have claimed he played the violin. The thought that he might have been the violin’s creator is tantalizing. Nonetheless, the violin’s origin around 1530 remains obscure, and candidates for the honor of having made the first are many.
The violin was a dramatic improvement over its distant relatives. It had significant new features: the curvature of both top and back to spread the sound vibrations, and openings in the top in the shape of an f. The instrument’s proportions were wonderfully balanced. Unlike its cousins the viola, the cello, and the double bass, which came in a variety of successful sizes, any slight alteration in the violin’s dimensions caused a marked change in the quality and fullness of its sound. I had assumed self-centeredly that the violin’s fixed measurements were a thoughtful gesture to performers, allowing us to switch easily from one instrument to another. But no less a master than Stradivari, who experimented briefly with a “long” model, soon realized its drawbacks and returned to a more traditional measurement.
The violin caught on quickly. It is known that in about 1555, the French court imported a dance band of Italian violinists, and in 1573, when Catherine de Médicis put on an elaborate affair in which sixteen of the most beautiful ladies and young girls represented the sixteen provinces of France, “the music was the most melodious one had ever seen and the ballet was accompanied by some thirty violins playing very pleasantly a warlike tune,” wrote an observer. About the same time, Andrea Amati was already making violins of such quality in Cremona, Italy, that he was able to found a family dynasty, and Cremona quickly became a center of violinmaking, where the greatest makers of all time, Antonio Stradivari and Joseph Guarneri del Gesu, soon thrived.
According to Anthony Wood, a seventeenth-century Oxford University historian, musicians who played viols, the refined fretted instruments of the court, looked down their noses at this brash newcomer called the violin. Wood wrote that “the gentlemen in private meetings I frequented played three, four, and five parts with viols, a treble viol, tenor viol, countertenor and bass, and they esteemed a violin to be an instrument only belonging to a common fiddler, and could not endure that it should come among them for fear of making their meeting to be vain and fiddling.” The two competitors, one aristocrat, one commoner, managed to exist uneasily side by side for more than a century until the violin’s power, versatility, brilliance, and singing nature turned the viol into an endangered species. In 1640, G. B. Doni summed up the instrument’s power succinctly: “In the hand of a skillful player, the violin represents the sweetness of the lute, the suavity of the viol, the majesty of the harp, the force of the trumpet, the vivacity of the fife, the sadness of the flute, the pathetic quality of the cornet; as if every variety, as in the great edifice of the organ, is heard with marvelous artifice.” The violin’s story struck me as downright Darwinian. Call it survival of the fittest. Just substitute rebecs, crwths, viols, and fiddles for apes, Neanderthal man, and Lucy. And the parallel goes further. Darwin was a strict adherent of the ancient motto Natura non facit saltum — Nature does not make big leaps. He believed that ancestors and descendants must be connected by “infinitely numerous transitional links” forming “the finest graduated steps.” But fossil records show few indications of gradual change, just as there is very little to link the lute and viol makers inhabiting fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy with the first recorded violinmakers. Paleontologists are still arguing over whether new species only seem to appear suddenly because fossil records are so scant, an argument easily applied to the violin’s breathtaking arrival in a near-finished state.
Much of what I read that day in the library will probably make no lasting impression on me. I am a violinist, not a historian. What difference does it make that either Gaspard Tieffenbrucker or Gasparo da Salo might have made the first violin around 1530? What remains indelible is the miracle of this little box with four strings that emerged from the ferment of the Renaissance. The violin has essentially remained the same since its origins almost five hundred years ago. It has seventy parts, seventy-two if top and bottom plates are each made from two pieces of wood. Each of its separate parts is indispensable.
We will probably never know the violin’s exact birthdate or whether the honor of first maker should be awarded to Gaspard Tieffenbrucker, but his portrait and a verse were supposedly found in one of his instruments: “I lived in the woods, until I was slain by the relentless axe. Whilst I was alive I was silent, but in death my melody is exquisite.” I leaned back in my chair in the library to ponder this sentimental nugget. My own violin was made from a tree that was probably felled over one hundred years before it was crafted into an instrument. The melodies I play on it probably come out of a three-hundred- year-old piece of wood. If any living thing has claim on immortality, it would be that tree.
My reverie was broken by the realization that I had a student violin recital to hear. I hurried back to the music building feeling a little better. In just an hour’s reading, I had exorcised most of my postdream ghosts. Still, in the hope that dreams are sometimes something more than a dubious fringe benefit of sleep, I did not want to forget this one. Dreams are not reality, yet they must have some significance. Mine had just sent me to the library. But what might the dream offer other than a dry history lesson? Was it my guidance counselor, spiritual adviser, psychic, Greek chorus, bridge to the subconscious, deliverer of unvarnished truths, doomsday seeker, frivolous entertainer? Or was it merely a purveyor of nonsense? I tried to match my dream with this menu. “Unvarnished truth” rang true. When I thought about the Chaconne, the unvarnished truth was that Bach’s intricacies had yet to be solved. Copyright © 2006 by Arnold Steinhardt. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.