Consolation and Melody:
By Jonathan Kiefer

When bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, Isaac Stern was at home in San Francisco, listening to the New York Philharmonic on the radio. Stern, then 21, was already an accomplished professional violinist, and a nascent musical emissary. He was keenly aware, as he later wrote, that "music became a necessary island of peace that, if only briefly, took people away from the enormous strains that were part of everyone’s wartime consciousness." That insight whetted his career, and it makes his death, eleven days after the atrocity often called the second Pearl Harbor, especially poignant. Again the world comes apart at its seams, but for once Isaac Stern is not available to perform. Losing him is one of the less cited but more mournful ways in which, last September, we ended an era.

Of course it’s unlikely that had he stayed around, Stern would have stopped the war. But certainly he would have defended that island of peace, in a way that would inevitably seem more enduring and articulate than any candle-lit pop-star TV benefit or Madison Square Garden rock-a-thon. He would have done what he always had: persuasively reiterated the value of music, and by extension, the value of human civilization.

That’s a tall order, but Stern took it personally. Even the current crop of great instrumentalists, many of whom he taught and some of whose technical abilities admittedly exceeded his own, can’t match his pervasive cultural influence. To begin with, Stern performed, and recorded, all the major works for violin, including some, like Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, that were composed with him in mind. He appeared on every major stage in the world (and, if surreptitiously, in a few classic films, like Fiddler on the Roof). Most importantly, he guarded music’s treasures, whether by nurturing young talent, preserving property, or ensuring high visibility and financial support. The Stern era was anything but idle, and his advocacy was self-propagating: the fate of orchestral music in the 21st century will owe much to its guidance from Isaac Stern in the 20th.

His real memorial, and the altar to his legacy, is Carnegie Hall, a place he once described as "America’s promissory note for the future of music." If you know anything about Carnegie Hall, you know that the way to get there is by practicing, that it’s the heart of New York’s—if not the Western world’s—musical culture, and that it would be long gone were it not for Isaac Stern. In 1960, Stern took stock of the hall’s past and took action for its future, famously leading the campaign to save it from demolition, and officially inaugurating himself as a musical activist. He served as the hall’s president from then until his death, helped restore it in 1986, and of course performed there, hundreds of times. Stern would probably agree that if one of them absolutely had to go, better him than Carnegie Hall.

And so, perhaps it is ungracious to have expected another encore, to keep applauding with the hope that he’s not really gone, that he’ll return to offer some solace for these trying times with one more show, one more chance to see him live under the lights—the spry bounce of his snow-white tufts; the glint of thick horn-rims; the eyebrows arching, furrowing, arching again; the jowly cheeks trembling, perspired; the rapt, inward focus or the impish, dimpled grin. And of course, the fiddle itself, the glorious music.


Stern hadn’t been a prodigy, nor a technical virtuoso. But he’d developed an honest and refreshingly organic approach to his instrument: he could bring an enormous range of emotion to bear on a piece without ever seeming to intrude. It was what in jazz they call a great feel; when he played, he never repeated himself. Stern once described the trait he most admired in the late flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, another high-profile soloist in classical AND jazz, as being "involved with the meaning of every note." He told his students not to try impressing listeners but instead to simply share with them the beauty of the music.

His friend Nancy Bechtle, the former president of the San Francisco Symphony, recalls:

I was going down to Stanford one day, and listening to the Beethoven violin concerto on the radio, and I stopped and sat in the car—I had to know who was playing. And you know it’s fairly long; I had come in partway through… and I sat in the car and thought, this is so fabulous! And I waited… and it was indeed Isaac. Maybe it’s because the Beethoven concerto is so familiar to everybody, that when you hear him play it… at least to me, it’s… maybe the best one I’ve ever heard. The sweet parts are sweeter, the dramatic parts are more dramatic. I think with certain people’s playing, it’s like their character comes through. And I somehow could feel that this was somebody very special. Not even knowing that it was Isaac. Not even knowing that it was somebody I loved.

A few years ago, critics began complaining that Stern had played past his prime. True, his technique had abraded, but Stern’s prime would not be defined solely by dexterity with the violin. His musicianship was also a matter of stage presence—in the sense of charisma and of simply being present, available, alert. In both senses, he had become a superstar. Stern’s musical life began in San Francisco, and during his last performance there, before he’d even played a single note, he received a prolonged, thunderous ovation from the capacity crowd. The applause seemed unending, so Stern turned to conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and said, "Hey, why don’t we quit while we’re ahead?"

He’d never do it, of course. Stern called performing his reason for being, and he called the stage his home. It was a nice home to visit; you always felt welcome there, assured of a good party, a gracious host, and intimate introductions to compelling and extraordinary people, like Johann Sebastian Bach, or Wolfgang Mozart, or Béla Bartók, or Leonard Bernstein, for starters. When crediting his best performances to ingenious composers and receptive listeners, Stern was serious, even if he seemed a little coy. For a world-class instrumentalist, he was uniquely extroverted, lucid, and self-aware—accustomed, and committed, to being the center of attention. He was, in other words, a professional enchanter, who loved the music of his own voice.

No doubt this had helped him develop the theory that sometimes artists have more leeway than ambassadors. Aside from being the first American violinist with so broad a populist appeal, Stern was the first to gain real international esteem, and he used it. As he recalled in My First 79 Years, an autobiography written with the novelist Chaim Potok, Stern felt duty-bound to "emphasize that Americans, too, possess dignity and cultural maturity—something that others were not always willing to grant us." To Isaac Stern, music was a precious cultural resource, to be bestowed, traded, or, in some cases, withheld. He imposed sanctions throughout his career, even in what had been the first fertile gardens of Western music, Austria and Germany, whose behavior during World War II had deeply disturbed and conflicted him. He eventually relented, most notably by making sure his children and proteges did not inherit his paralyzing attitudes.

Stern had also discovered a deep affinity for what he considered the underdog nation of Israel. In 1964 he became the chairman of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, and he played through some of Israel’s darkest hours, including the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and most famously, the Gulf War in 1991, when an impending missile attack scattered the orchestra, but not the soloist. Nor his guests; they remained, listening through their gas masks, to the Sarabande from Bach’s D Minor Partita for Solo Violin.

"A great act of courage? Nonsense!" Stern later wrote. "I was there to do something very specific: bring comfort through music. It was really a blessing for me under such circumstances to feel useful. We’d all had enough of destruction. I wanted to balance it—to defy it—with music." And, as always, the audience wanted to let him.


His mother, Stern’s colleagues will tell you, had once been asked what it was like to have a musical legend for a son. She replied that if Isaac had been a shoemaker, he’d have been the world’s best. Mothers have obligations to say such things, of course, but Mrs. Stern might have taken it further. For instance, one might presume that had Isaac Stern been a shoemaker, his product would have found the feet of sentimental favorite Olympian athletes and civil rights marchers and United Nations dignitaries and Nobel-winning doctors and—why not?—maybe even Neil Armstrong. One might also presume that Stern shoes would be stylish, but never gaudy, and very comfortable.

Obviously it wasn’t so. Like Mozart, with whom he shared the ability to make music seem inevitable, Isaac Stern clearly made the right career choice. In the best possible way, his career was his life, and his life was ours.

Stern liked to quote an adage coined by George Bernard Shaw: "The best thing in life is to die young—but delay it as long as possible." So he did. The requiem he deserves is a hopeful, energetic one, complex and lyrical, loyal to history but forever forward-looking. It will contain many diverse movements and a rich orchestration, suited to only the most passionate players. It will be emotive but subtle, and full of harmonic possibilities unimagined until now, but perfectly plausible. It will somehow explain what it means to be human and civilized, and won’t need any translation. It will resonate most in Carnegie Hall, but sound just as good in the car. It will bring some consolation, just when we need it, and its melodies will stay in our minds for a long time.