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Pauline Lerner

Not by bread alone

July 6, 2006 at 5:02 AM

Music has nearly incredible power to sustain and nourish people in good times and bad. Isaac Stern’s autobiography, “My First Seventy-Nine Years” bears witness to this power.

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1962 was a defining event for a whole generation of Americans, most of whom felt it as a deeply personal loss. Stern was scheduled to play a concert in San Antonio on the night of the assassination, and he told the concert manager that he couldn’t do it as planned, but he agreed to go onstage and play whatever moved him. “There are many ways that people pray,” he told the audience. “Musicians pray sometimes by playing certain kinds of music. I will play some Bach.” He chose Bach because he felt that all of Bach’s music was “…permeated with his faith, his devotion to God.” Stern had often played it quietly to himself when he was in a dark frame of mind. This time he played the Chaconne, and he cried uncontrollably towards the end. (One time, in my darkest hour, some people from played some of Bach’s music, including the Chaconne, for me. It helped save my life, and I will always remember and be grateful for it.)

In 1973, when Israel was at war with Arab nations, Stern convinced some high level politicians to allow him to fly to Israel to play his violin for the people there. People from all walks of life came to hear his free concerts. One, a flight attendant from El Al who had just worked for 26 hours flying people in and out of the country, told him, “You have no idea what it meant to have music for an hour and a half, and just bathe the insides in something other than the horror we have to face every single day.” After he had played in numerous hospital wards, an official asked him to play for the most severely injured. Stern was taken to a room with four men burned almost black from head to toe and suspended in harness-like contraptions to protect their skin from contact with their beds. Stern went to each patient in turn and asked whether they wanted to hear him play. Each man said yes, provided that the others did, too. Again, Stern chose to play something by Bach which he felt would be quiet, inward-directed, and soothing. When he finished playing, there was dead silence, but he saw one man raise his head slightly to look at the violinist. Stern motioned to the nurse to step aside, went over to the man, bent down, and played directly to him. He then went to each man in turn and played directly for each one. Reflecting on this experience later, Stern wrote about “the need felt by the Israelis to retain those aspects of civilized life that have kept humankind together all through its history; that never before had the cultural elements of their society been so vital to them, so basic to their existence as during this terrible war.”

In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, Stern flew to Israel and received permission to play with the Israel Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta in small concert halls which could be evacuated quickly if necessary. During one concert, in the middle of a Mozart concerto, an official came onstage, announced an air-raid alert, and told everyone to put on their gas masks and stay calm. Everyone complied, but their fear was almost palpable. Stern took off his own mask, told the audience to listen, and played the Sarabande from Bach’s D Minor Partita. He watched the audience, with gas masks on, become still and wait for the thud of the missile. They heard a distant explosion, but Stern continued playing. Soon the alert ended, the gas masks came off, and the people in the audience jumped to their feet and applauded wildly. Stern had a gratifying feeling of balancing -- and even defying –- destruction with music.


Note: The photo, minus the violin, and caption come from an Israeli government website.

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