Isaac Stern’s Judaism, His Genius, and Its Limitations

August 17, 2020 | Terry Teachout
About the author: Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary.

Writing of the master violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001), Terry Teachout notes that he shared much in common with his frequent collaborator, the composer Leonard Bernstein:

They were, to begin with, the first world-class classical musicians to have been trained solely in the United States, a fact of which the American press took proud note. In addition, they were extroverted and outgoing—naturals for television, and their TV appearances brought them to the attention of ordinary Americans who knew little about classical music. Finally, they both devoted vast amounts of time and energy to a variety of public causes, most notably the state of Israel, which they supported fervently, speaking unapologetically of their shared Jewish heritage (unlike, say, Fritz Kreisler or Bruno Walter, who converted to Catholicism and thereafter steered clear of the subject of their Jewishness).

Throughout his long career, which included much travel abroad, Stern played not once in Germany. As Teachout writes, “he could not forgive the German people for having let the Holocaust happen.”

While believing Stern to be a “violinist of the first rank, no mere crowd-pleaser but a musician of incontestably high seriousness,” Teachout takes seriously the criticism that Stern lacked the level of genius displayed by the other great violinist of the 20th century—namely the aforementioned Kreisler and the archetypal Jewish musical prodigy, Jascha Heifetz.

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