Violin Dreams, on the surface, is a simple book, recounting Arnold Steinhardt's life as a violinist from his first days of playing, up to his career as first violin of the Guarneri Quartet - the quartet, by the way, from whom I first "learned" the Beethoven quartets. The book also tells of Steinhardt's lifelong quest for the "perfect" violin. But this is only the surface of the book. Intentionally or not, Steinhardt's very simple prose conceals a sub-stratum of deep feeling, musical insight, and a man's search for meaning in his own life.
As a sports professional, I found Steinhardt's confrontation of the possible loss of his ability to play at all deeply moving. What are we, when the thing we have lived for is taken away? If we are nothing without our profession and our tools, then we are nothing with them - as Steinhardt points out.
Arnold Steinhardt, it turns out, is a great deal more than just his violin. He grows increasingly curious about the music behind the music - repeatedly, we return to the Bach Partita for Violin solo No. 2 in D minor, from which the chaconne becomes a touchstone of Steinhardt's "journey towards music", as Victor Gollancz once memorably put it. He travels to wonderful places such as Machu Pichu (on foot, which says something about the man). He pays homage to the luthiers of Cremona. He grows through friendships with some of the world's great musicians, and from friends less musically exalted. And each journey brings Steinhardt, and the reader, closer to music, and to something both basic and ennobling.
At the end the book, I was taken by surprise at how emotionally engaged I had become. John Steen has pointed out that the real purpose of the critic is to make us hear music better and to lead us to deeper engagement with it. Away from his violin, this is exactly what Arnold Steinhardt has done with this book. I loved it, am buying multiple copies to give to musical friends, and recommend it heartily.
Now back to practicing, with no hope of every playing at Mr. Steinhardt's level, but with an increased love of the instrument, and of making music.