Was I Fiddling While Rome Burned?
As a violin student at The Curtis Institute of Music from 1984-1990, I was deeply disturbed by many questions. Why is there so much hate, violence, and injustice? Why are we destroying our environment? And what am I supposed to do in response to this? Many hours were spent reading when I was supposed to be practicing. I searched for answers in books about religion, anthropology, feminist theory, history, and science. Taking in the history with a focus on the horrors left me with anxiety and dis-ease about what I was doing in music school. I loved music, but was I just fiddling while Rome burned? Was the activity of making music a vain pursuit of empty entertainment? Even worse, was the European classical music in which I was immersed just a sweet frosting on the oppressive culture of my dominating, colonizing, earth-destroying race? Heavy questions, yes. One could ask similar questions now.
Photos above: Sharon Mautner, cellist and I in front of the Curtis Institute of Music circa 1985. She was my first roommate in Philadelphia. Other photo, from left to right: my sister Ellen-Maria Justen, Szymon Goldberg, and I after I played the Beethoven Concerto in a concert at Curtis, 1989. Unfortunately the picture is not very flattering of Mr. Goldberg, but I have very few pictures from this period of my life.
“Are you Pregnant?”
Around the time of my graduation from the conservatory in 1990, my teacher Szymon Goldberg, who was 81 at that time, invited me for tea at his home. “Why did you decide not to go to Europe?” he asked. I had been accepted into an international violin competition in Belgium but had decided not to go.
Then he said, “I must ask, are you pregnant?”
“No, Mr. Goldberg, I’m not pregnant!” I said and laughed awkwardly. Apparently he saw my wild side and thought maybe I had “gotten into trouble” in the old-fashioned way.
“No, I’m joining a religion,” I pronounced.
“Which one?” he asked.
“Jehovah’s Witnesses,” I answered. At that time I was looking for the “truth” to explain everything. One finds what one seeks, so I found a religion claiming to have the only truth. The Witnesses’ version of radical Christianity includes the belief that God is going to step in, fix all of our problems, and create a peaceful earth. This former radical feminist, nature-worshipping wild girl underwent a drastic turnaround to become one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a phase of my life which lasted eight years. (Note from 2016: I am not involved in any organized faith system.)
Mr. Goldberg did not miss a beat in the conversation. “Ah, yes,” he said. “I have a friend in that religion in Australia.”
He looked at me with his wise, kind eyes and said something I did not really understand until much later.
“Do you know - Music can be like a religion?”
This was not a phrase that my teacher spouted glibly. It was hard-won wisdom. Szymon Goldberg left his home in Poland when he was only 8 years old to study in Berlin with the renowned teacher Carl Flesch (author of the scale studies.) He never saw his family again. At age 16, he became the Dresden Philharmonic’s Concertmaster, and then at age 19 he became the lead Concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic. That was one of the biggest honors in the music world then, in 1928, and it is still so today. (For the uninitiated, the Concertmaster is the leader of the violins and works closely with the conductor.) Goldberg was the favored collaborator of the influential conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, but that made no difference when Hitler took power. Along with the other Jews in the orchestra, Goldberg was compelled to leave and had to make a career elsewhere. He therefore was able to leave Germany before things got really bad, and he began concertizing as a soloist, playing recitals all over the world. The following audio on youtube of Beethoven's Sonata for Violin and Piano was recorded in 1936.
Captured and Interned in Java
Leaving Germany, however, did not get him far enough away from the Nazis. During a concert tour in Java (then called the Dutch Indies, a Dutch colony), the Japanese invaded the island and put all persons of European descent into internment camps. Goldberg was arrested, along with his wife Anna Maria and the pianist Lili Kraus, who was performing with him on tour. Although the Japanese themselves had nothing against Jews, they soon came under pressure from their Nazi allies to single them out for worse treatment than that given the others. Based on the limited information I have dug up online, these were not concentration camps with horrors to the extent of the ones in Germany, but the Japanese did detain their prisoners in harsh conditions and forced them to do manual labor. Szymon, Anna Maria, and Lili survived.
Conversation with Yoda in a Philadelphia Diner
Flash forward to 1989: Mr. Goldberg invited me to have dinner with him on occasion, and we would go to Day’s Deli, a crusty old Philly diner right around the corner from Curtis. He wanted me to ask him questions about music. I had no idea what questions to ask about music. As a young, inexperienced person trying to understand the world, I wanted him to talk to me about Life. Unable to contain my curiosity, I asked him about his internment camp experience.
My teacher was a very soft-spoken man who chose his words carefully. To me he seemed the embodiment of Yoda, Master of the Force from Star Wars, even looking a lot like Yoda. He did not dwell upon or talk about the hardships of his life. He also never portrayed himself as a victim or spoke hatefully about the people who had treated him so unjustly. As we sat in Day’s Deli at dinner, he reluctantly told me some of his story.
In the camp, there were periods of time when prisoners were allowed musical instruments. At first Goldberg was even given preferential treatment as a respected musician, playing concerts for the Japanese officers. He also played for the other prisoners in the camp. But the situation soon deteriorated and became much more harsh.
A Ragtag Orchestra: Triumph of Spirit
Mr. Goldberg recounted how some of the other prisoners were musicians of varying ability, and they were able to put together a ragtag orchestra of miscellaneous instruments, some of them in disrepair. At one point, using whatever scraps of paper were available, he painstakingly wrote down all the parts to the entire Beethoven Violin Concerto - from memory. If you don’t know it, this is a 25-minute masterpiece for violin solo and orchestra. He knew it well enough that he could recall all the separate parts and adapt them to the instruments they had in the camp. They then performed it for the others. He spoke of this as a labor of love and faith, an activity of spiritual triumph over senseless oppression and cruelty.
A Fellow Prisoner Remembers
I found this account (published after Goldberg's death) from a fellow prisoner, describing one performance he gave in the camp:
"I was ten years old when I was put in the same concentration camp as Mr Goldberg. He performed Bach's solo Sonata for us, and I listened crouching right next to him on the floor, so closely that my face almost touched his knees. This was the moment I learned of the existence of such pure beauty. I decided to learn the instrument myself after this experience, and now my son and my grandson enjoy the violin too. When the conditions in the camp worsened, and we were no longer allowed music, I still clearly remember him walking with a little stick in his hand practicing, moving his fingers and wrist beautifully during forced labour. I also remember how his clear eyes were full of warmth. Through knowing Mr Goldberg, I learned of the most important things we must pass on."
Lifelong Dedication to the Essence of Great Music
After the war, Mr. Goldberg re-established his career as a highly esteemed performer and teacher. In his later years, beginning when he was 75 and I was 19, I had the great fortune of being his student for five years. My younger sister, Ellen-Maria Justen Willis, was also his student. At that time he was not performing violin concerts, but he still practiced several hours a day. He would play the solo music of Bach every day without fail. In lessons, he would demonstrate his points on his 1730 Guarneri del Gesu violin, and I still vividly remember how beautifully he played certain phrases for me. (The violin is now played by my friend and fellow Goldberg student Nicholas Kitchen. Read about it here.)
Szymon Goldberg was not interested in anything show-off or superficial. He only taught the music he believed was great music. I studied with him most of the major violin solo works of the European tradition, much of which is by German or Austrian composers - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and the list goes on. In spite of the fact that most of his family members perished in the Holocaust, and the Berlin Philharmonic refused to reinstate him after the war, he was dedicated to the music tradition which is dominated by German composers. Although he never verbally articulated this to me, his actions indicate that he believed the music he played transcended national association and the horrible evils which reared their heads during the war. (What would German music be without Jewish performers and composers? Very different! Jewish musicians and the German musical tradition have been inextricable for hundreds of years.)
Great Music Transcends Nationalism and Even Time
The attitude of Mr.Goldberg is also my attitude today, in answer to one of my questions asked early on. I would like to believe that the best composers have been individuals who had a desire to channel their highest ideals and reflect the good in human nature. These composers represent the good of what European culture has to offer, in contrast to the destructive and horrific aspects. Those creating music were reaching for something beautiful, something expressing the better side of humanity. Many composers viewed their work as service to God, not to the ruling state, even though princes and religious rulers often paid their bills. This is not to say these composers weren't influenced by the cultures in which they lived. I am also not saying that this is the only musical tradition which speaks to our higher selves. Music from any part of the world and any culture can transport us in ways which enrich our spirits. The intent of the musician, with the receptivity of the listeners, activates the spiritual potential of any music.
"Our jobs are to be the best musicians we can be."
Worldly affairs of current events, politics, and cultural challenges never came into my lessons with Mr. Goldberg. We also never discussed matters of entering competitions, political connections in the music world, how to win an audition, or personal matters. In the lesson studio we focused only on how to make the music as beautiful, meaningful, stylistically appropriate and perfect as possible. Mr. Goldberg’s teaching style was not for everyone, and a few students left his studio. But I am so grateful to have been his student. His teachings have stuck with me and still give me much to think about.
After many years and a slow process of personal evolution, I have finally gotten the sense of what Mr. Goldberg meant by "Music can be like a religion." He also said, when I spoke of the world’s problems, something like this, and I paraphrase, “There will always be wars, and social problems, and people doing terrible things. Leave the politics to the politicians. Our jobs are to be the best musicians we can be.”
Music can be so much more than entertainment
The highest goal of music is to inspire and lift up others, to bring hope and joy even if - especially if - external circumstances are ones of great adversity. Music is often lumped in with the idea of entertainment, but it can be so much more. We are again in a time when racism, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, and clashes between classes threaten the advances we have made in the realm of civil rights in America, which could affect advances in human rights all over the world. I believe it is important to take action however one can, including participating in political and legal action to defend human rights and our environment. In addition, for those of us who are musicians, how important it is that we continue to channel the spiritual values of unity, love and beauty through our music. Music can provide solace and sanctuary, whether one is playing it or listening to it.
Ending note: Mr. Goldberg held no grudges against the Japanese people. In the first year of my studying with Mr. Goldberg, his first wife died after a long convalescence. Two years later he married the Japanese pianist Miyoko Yamane, and he moved to Japan around 1991 or 92 (after I graduated), playing recitals and recording with her. I saw how happy he was and what a refreshment of energy he experienced in these last years of his life. He also conducted a chamber orchestra in Japan. Mrs. Goldberg created a website to preserve the memory of this inspiring man.