This Day in Jewish History

1920: Isaac Stern, Violinist Who Couldn't Play in Germany, Is Born

As the virtuoso who would save Carnegie Hall would explain: He couldn't 'make love' to audiences in the country behind the Holocaust.

Rob Bogaerts, Wikimedia Commons

July 21, 1920, is the birthdate of Isaac Stern, one of the great violinists of the 20th century, who is equally well known for being the “savior” of New York’s Carnegie Hall, and as a steadfast supporter of music education in Israel.

Isaac Stern was born in the town of Kreminiecz, then part of Soviet Ukraine. This was the birthplace of his mother, Clara Stern, who had studied voice at the St. Petersburg Conservatory. His father, Solomon, was an artist from Kiev who made a living as a house painter.

When Isaac was less than a year old, the family emigrated to the United States, settling in San Francisco. (Both parents would lose their entire families in the Holocaust.) They were middle-class, and completely secularized in their Jewishness: Isaac was brought up in a home with no adherence to Jewish ritual, and, like his father, he did not have a bar mitzvah.

At age six, Isaac began learning piano with his mother, and switched to the violin two years later. His most important teacher was Naoum Blinder, with whom he also played the Bach Double Concerto in his first professional performance, with the San Francisco Symphony, in 1936.

The following year, Stern debuted in New York, at Town Hall. Although the reviews were largely positive, they were also condescending, emphasizing his potential rather than his virtuosity. The 17-year-old Stern had come to New York with the intention of staying, but returned to San Francisco instead and applied himself to practicing “day and night,” as he wrote in his memoir.

Location, location, location

Practice, of course, is the way to Carnegie Hall, and it was Stern’s debut performance there, in 1943, in tandem with pianist Alexander Zakin, that was really the turning point of his career. Writing in the New York Herald Tribune, composer and critic Virgil Thomson, for example, now called him “one of the world’s master fiddle players.”

His dream of being a violin soloist, rather than a “mere” player in an orchestra, had come to fruition. He was represented by the impresario Sol Hurok, and soon was making highly regarded recordings.

Stern himself never claimed to have outstanding technical skills, but he brought a great deal of feeling and intelligence to his playing. In explaining why he could not bring himself to perform in Germany, for example, Stern wrote how, when he played, "I am engaging in a dialogue between myself and my listeners. It's as if I'm making love to the audience. . . My visceral memories of that dreadful, inhuman Nazi period make it impossible for me to talk to and make love to audiences of Germans.” He called it “my personal burden.” (Stern did lead nine days of master classes in Cologne, in 1999.)

When New York was building Lincoln Center for the Arts, in 1960, it was assumed that it no longer had a need for Carnegie Hall. Isaac Stern disagreed, and undertook a one-man struggle to have it declared a national landmark. Two decades later, as president of the Carnegie Hall Corporation, he oversaw its complete overhaul.

Playing favorites?

Stern played an important role in helping to launch the careers of many musicians, including violinists Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, Shlomo Mintz and Cho-Liang Lin, as well as pianist Yefim Bronfman. He also is said to have discovered cellist Yo-Yo Ma as a child.

At the same time, musicians whom Stern was not fond of sometimes reported that he used his considerable influence to stymie their careers.  

In Jerusalem, Stern founded the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and the Jerusalem Music Center. Many of Israel’s most accomplished musicians were trained at the center, in Mishkenot Sha'ananim, where Stern frequently came to lead master classes.

Stern was also one of the few musicians who refused to stay away from Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. A performance with the Jerusalem Symphony at the Jerusalem Theater was interrupted by a missile attack: While concert-goers donned gas masks, Stern – unmasked - played a Bach Sarabande.

In later years Stern’s playing deteriorated, as he himself acknowledged. But he remained busy until his death from heart failure, on September 22, 2001.

As the orchestra leaves to don gas masks during an Iraqi missile attack on Israel during the First Gulf War, 1990-1991, Isaac Stern takes center stage and treats the Jerusalem audience to a solo.