MOST musical instruments are played at some degree of physical distance, writes Arnold Steinhardt in "Violin Dreams." Pianos and organs remain at arm's length; most wind instruments are touched by fingers, tongue and lips alone. The violin, however, is cradled and massaged in a snug bodily embrace.
Steinhardt treats his memoir much the same way. First violinist of the Guarneri String Quartet since it came together 42 years ago (three of the original four are still there, awesome longevity for players who sit in close proximity while scratching gut, horsehair and arguments at one another), he performs his share of cradling and massaging, along with a sometimes bothersome vibrato.
Early in his career, Steinhardt played a Bach adagio for the revered cellist Pablo Casals. First response silence, then a "Good, very good," a different form of silence, then anecdote as verdict: Decades earlier at a restaurant in Budapest, a Gypsy violinist came up, bowed and played the same adagio better than Casals had ever heard it. "He did not know how one should or should not play Bach, and so he simply played freely and from the heart," the old master said. "You play intelligently and with spirit. Now let yourself go."
In "Violin Dreams," Steinhardt does so, sometimes to excess. His writing can be large and lush -- a heavy foot on the sustain pedal, in piano terms -- and every so often he pops in a dream as extra indulgence. He's something of a sleep artist -- at one point, he finds Arthur Rubinstein in a trash can -- but dreams have the approximate effect on memoir writing that spring melt has on pond skating.
Casals also spoke of "freedom with order," and "Violin Dreams" is at its considerable best when Steinhardt chastens and orders his writing into the engrossing specifics of a life devoted to violin playing and to violins themselves. These, in their history, character and personality, become players -- as well, of course, as played on.
His parents, Polish-born, Jewish and living modestly in Los Angeles, worshiped music. Throughout her pregnancy, his mother regularly put Beethoven's violin concerto on the gramophone. A bricklayer's hands, the delivery nurse remarked of Arnold's big ones. "A violinist's," his mother corrected her. At 6, he began lessons on a toy-sized violin.
Steinhardt writes of the distorted postures required by violin playing, noting that only by starting very young can these become natural and ingrained. It takes special parents, passionate about music and passionately determined, to find fortitude for imposing the rigorous practice required. Steinhardt, who carries photographs of great violinists in his fiddle case, proposes a portrait gallery of their parents.
A series of teachers pronounced him talented, but he hated to practice. What amounted to a road-to-Damascus conversion took place at age 11, when he heard Mischa Elman play Bach's towering masterpiece, the Chaconne from the Partita in D-minor for unaccompanied violin.
From then on, he writes, with his high school friends able to flirt with choices (doctor, lawyer, whatever), he had none. He began to practice four and five hours a day and was admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In his last year there, he won the prestigious Leventritt International Violin Competition; after graduating, he was hired as assistant concertmaster with the Cleveland Orchestra under the brilliant, autocratic, detail-sweating George Szell. Abandoning the violinist's dream of becoming a soloist but unsatisfied by orchestra playing, he founded the Guarneri Quartet with three other young string players. Thus began four decades of worldwide bookings, continual travel and universal recognition as one of the great chamber music ensembles of our time.
Steinhardt draws engaging portraits of other renowned violinists, present and past. Quite as engaging are his portraits of the violins he has owned, including a relatively obscure Dollenz, which cost his parents the equivalent of $4,000 and was found to be a copy. The violin he owns today, once thought to be a Guarneri del Gesu, was later identified by experts as the work of Storioni, another Cremona master. Throughout, we read of shifting, argued attributions. "They say that there is no such thing as history but only historians," he writes, dolefully adding, "Perhaps there are no violins either, only opinions about them."
A near-mystical theme runs through this musical memoir. It is a lifelong fascination with Bach, who was "first my chore, gradually my interest, finally my quest." Bach forms a small part in the chamber music repertory, but he and the solo D-minor Partita, and specifically its Chaconne, stand for the writer somewhere between obsession and the Holy Grail.
Steinhardt's largeness of style, which elsewhere can annoy, comes marvelously alive when he writes of his efforts to master the Chaconne, with its shattering chords and its seemingly impossible (for a single violin) contrapuntal lines. He calls it a force of nature. A fellow musician dances it for him. He dreams of Bach dancing. And in an excellent touch, he includes two of his versions, recorded many years apart, in a CD enclosed inside the back cover. *