His latest memoir, Violin Dreams, takes as its two motives Bach's Chaconne (from the D minor Partita) and nothing less than the history of the violin. Here, Steinhardt takes a brief moment to chat with Playbill Classic Arts Managing Editor Ben Finane.
Ben Finane: Are you going to miss playing with the Guarneri Quartet?
Arnold Steinhardt: Would you ask me that maybe a year after I quit? I don't know. I've spoken to two quartet players whose quartets have disbanded or retired. One of them says he doesn't miss getting up for rehearsal; the only thing he says he misses is when he's teaching, he gets a little pang because he thinks he'll never play that particular piece of Schubert, Bart‹k, Beethoven again. Another player (who shall remain nameless) told me he wakes up every morning feeling as if a limb is missing. [Laughs.] Listen: it will be 45 years for us. I would imagine that if you do something you hate for 45 years, that when you stop doing it you think, 'Jesus, what do I do with myself?' So if you love it... I don't regret the decision. We've had a privileged life playing this great music and I don't think we sound so terribly bad and that's better than sounding terribly bad before we stop. [Laughs.] Better a little too early than a little too late.
BF: Tell me about the challenges of interpreting Bach.
AS: Bach occupies a special place in the literature as far as how people view his music. Given that everybody interprets every piece of music differently, with Bach you struggle to find your own way. And then I have found that for so many people, once they find their own way, there is no other way. Take Wanda Landowska's famous remark to her colleague: 'You play Bach your way, I'll play Bach his way.' As a young person, I played Bach for my own teachers and for Joseph Szigeti, my last teacher, the great Hungarian violinist, for Pablo Cassals, and I heard Isaac Stern do a wonderful master class, and Arthur Loesser danced the entire D minor Partita for me: these were all revelations big and small, but finally you have to do the job yourself and you have to find your own way and: as in any other piece: what you do is on an underground level; what comes out in the hopes of artistry and content is on a subliminal level and you're not really sure what you're doing. After you've practiced and after all the information and making all kinds of adjustments and plans, then finally you just take off and try to speak from some interior place.