For his “family project” at school, my son chose my grandfather, father of my father (now dead) and my uncle (still living). My uncle is a great storyteller and my son and I hung up the phone just now feeling inspired. I already knew the outline of my grandfather’s life: He was an extraordinary violinist, toured Europe as a child, came to this country from Odessa, Russia as a teenager and debuted in Carnegie Hall; he was the concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony at age twenty, and founded his own string quartet which toured the country and was acclaimed etc. In 1928, he established Music Mountain, a summer home for his string quartet in Falls Village, Connecticut. (Music Mountain still continues today as a chamber music festival dedicated to the string quartet. My uncle runs it). My grandfather died before long playing records came out so we only have 78s of his performances; they are extraordinary performances. It is embarrassing to admit this so frankly, but here goes: I am thrilled to be descended from him.
Here are the new stories I heard today. My uncle remembers going over to Serge Koussevitsky‘s house near Lenox when he was a child and watching my grandfather and Koussevitsky pace back and forth on the long brick terrace, Koussevitzky’s arm draped over my grandfather. No one could figure out what they were saying, because they talked in Russian, “for hours,” said my uncle. “What the h— was that about?” my Brooklyn born grandmother asked afterwards. Apparently, Kousevitzky wanted my grandfather to change his performance times at Music Mountain because he was afraid that Music Mountain would take Tanglewood’s audience, which was absurd, as Music Mountain can only seat about 375 people and Tanglewood, even then, could seat 22,000. My uncle remembers watching Bernstein prance by while they drank their tea waiting for the Russian to end.
My grandfather knew Ravel who loved how he played his violin sonata; I already knew he was friends with Stravinsky and Prokofiev, Bloch and Barber. I did not know that the violinist Nathan Milstein drove up to the Mountain one day during the war (in the 40s) with Prokofiev’s second violin sonata in hand. No one else had seen it yet or even knew it existed. “Look at this, ” Milstein said, “It looks interesting. Let’s play it.” So, since my grandfather was also a brilliant pianist, he played the piano part and Milstein played the violin.
My grandfather lived in a world which I wish I could have known; he was friends with writers and actors, playwrights and painters. He had no use for prejudice of any kind and was a good friend of Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison. Ellison told a story about going over to my grandparents’ apartment to deliver a manuscript and being rebuffed by a doorman “so rude that you were tempted to break his nose.” My grandfather had to come down and escort Ellison upstairs himself.
Why tell these stories? I don’t usually. They don’t mean much to anyone but us. But today I felt the backbone, the musculature of our Jewish musical heritage as I watched my son grow prouder and prouder. It feels worth the risk of being accused of that absurd, almost defensive family pride which I do not like in others and have fought off in myself. But these stories give me courage to go on fighting the artist battle. I remember my father telling me that my grandfather took every performance seriously, whether it was for three people in South Dakota or for thousands in New York. He would not eat the entire day beforehand, always had his violin in his hand, and needed hours of silence before he went onstage. He loved to play. I think my father told me this to comfort me. He and my mother had come to a reading of mine and were the only ones there besides the bookstore owner and two descendants of Anne Bradstreet (who was the subject of the book I was reading from). I still remember the pride I felt at that moment, the solidarity with my grandfather and all artists, even though I had felt so humiliated a few hours earlier. The owner had gestured towards the rows and rows of empty chairs and said, “Let’s just give them a few more minutes.” but a few more minutes passed and no one came. Even after a quarter of an hour no one came. Maybe this is why we need ancestors. Or at least why I do.