Voices
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Smashed violins

It takes some digging to verify a story

Issue: "Orphaned no more," July 30, 2011

Since taking up the regular practice of journalism some 50 years ago, I've ruefully concluded there may be no more important wisdom for my colleagues and me than this: Nothing spoils a good story like a little research. Some of the best have grown into what are called urban legends. At their worst, they're no better than sloppy gossip.

I had an opportunity this past week to test one of my all-time favorite stories in such a manner-and you deserve to know the results.

The story goes like this: In a major German city-maybe Berlin?-and very likely in the early 1930s, a prominent Jewish violinist was to perform at the local concert hall. But in anticipation of his performance, a music critic for the city's Nazi-dominated newspaper reminded everyone that this violinist wasn't as deserving of his reputation as some had suggested. "When he finishes his performance," the critic suggested, "our applause will be less for his skill than for the Stradivarius instrument on which he plays. It's the excellence of the violin we'll be cheering, not the man playing it."

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And so it was as the performance came to its end. The applause was thunderous, but everyone-including the violinist-knew how ambiguous its meaning had become.

That's when the violinist walked over to a nearby chair, violently smashed the violin against the chair's back, and held up its splintered remains for all to see.

Then he walked quietly to the edge of the stage, opened a case that no one had noticed, and took out the Stradivarius everyone thought, until then, he had been playing. The encore he played for his undeserving audience would never be forgotten.

For 30 years I've loved that story. For 30 years, I've never known whether it was true. Truth be told, I never checked it out-partly because I was scared I might discover the story was phony. But then, last week and very unexpectedly, I found myself shaking hands with a man who could almost certainly point me in the right direction. Stephen Clapp, longtime dean of the Juilliard School of Music in New York, was playing his violin and accompanying the congregational singing at my little church during a memorial service for his sister-in-law, Jinny Clapp.

"Will you promise not to laugh if I ask you a strange question?" I asked him during the family reception after the service. His eyes twinkled as I reached the end of my story. "Is it true?" I begged him hopefully.

"I knew where you were headed with your story," he said. "It has all the marks of being true. But was it Isaac Stern, was it Fritz Kreisler, or was it Jascha Heifetz? There are arguments on several sides. I tend to think it was Heifetz."

Kreisler, in fact, was only half Jewish. His mother was German Protestant, and he was baptized as a Christian at the age of 12. There's also an intriguing account from 1913, when Kreisler found himself accompanying Heifetz, who was then a 12-year-old violin prodigy. After hearing Heifetz's version of a Mendelssohn concerto, Kreisler reportedly commented to his colleagues: "We may as well break our fiddles across our knees." Did that merely set the stage for the later story-or did it plant a seed in the young violinist's mind?

Stern, born in 1920, was too young to fit the story I first heard. But it's possible he played the central role in a less political version of the account where a prominent violinist, upset because everyone tended to mention the tone of his Stradivarius rather than his own playing, smashed the violin over a chair and then asked the shocked audience: "You didn't know this was only a cheap fiddle?"

And it was supposedly Heifetz who, annoyed on another occasion at the attention being given his Stradivarius, reminded onlookers that not in their whole lives would they ever hear anything from a violin sitting in its case.

The journalist in me admits I haven't proven my case. But I did do a little digging-and I'm happy to report to you that in this case, the research didn't spoil my story.

Email Joel Belz

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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