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Updated Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 07:01 AM

An engrossing history of a venerable instrument

By Tim Page
The Washington Post

“The Violin: A Social History of the World’s Most Versatile Instrument”

by David Schoenbaum

Norton, 710 pp., $39.95

Amateur musicians are often among the most sensitive and trustworthy chroniclers of the art. One thinks immediately of the presidential historian Edmund Morris’ acutely perceptive take on “Beethoven: The Universal Composer,” or longtime USA Today columnist Jeannie Williams’ unshrinking evaluation of a magnificent tenor and a deeply difficult man, “Jon Vickers: A Hero’s Life.”

And now the historian David Schoenbaum, best known for books such as “Hitler’s Social Revolution” and “The United States and the State of Israel,” has ventured forth with “The Violin,” which is informed, he says, by his status as a “lifelong amateur violinist.” It’s a terrific read — one of those rare epical surveys that can be read in a single long stretch or picked up and savored, chapter by chapter.

“The Violin” examines its subject from a wide variety of different perspectives, from its first known appearance in the early 16th century through the legendary early Italian instruments crafted by Amati, Guarneri and Stradivari, on to the early 21st century, where “an estimated 50 to 80 percent of the student violins on the market were Chinese instruments of respectable quality and affordable price.”

Ah, yes — price. It is no secret that the greatest of the early violins have proved one of the supreme investments of all time, better than California or New York real estate if not quite on the level with startup shares in Microsoft or Apple.

Schoenbaum charts this market — which began after World War II and has gone ever higher, even through recession years — with the skills of a top financial reporter.

Nothing associated with the violin seems beyond the author’s interest. His topics include the development of the modern bow; differing schools of instruction; the creation (and, too often, early ruination) of prodigies.

He takes us through poems, plays and novels in which the violin has a central role, including “The Kreutzer Sonata,” Leo Tolstoy’s bizarre attack on supposed seductive qualities in music, which Schoenbaum rightly calls “among the most famous rants in world literature.”

There are anecdotes about violinists ranging from superstars such as Itzhak Perlman and Midori to occasional practitioners such as Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, who played a mostly private recital in North Carolina but did not neglect to invite The New York Times. (“Mr. Farrakhan’s sound is that of the authentic player,” a critic reported.)

The frustrations of generations of Soviet musicians are encapsulated in the career of David Oistrakh. On his first tour of the United States, he played 39 concerts in less than two months. When his colleague Isaac Stern asked him about the hectic schedule, Oistrakh’s answer was revealing. “If I stopped playing, I’d start thinking,” he said, “and if I start thinking, I’ll die.”

Schoenbaum deftly melds history, criticism, legend and occasional snatches of good gossip into a book that will be necessary reading for anybody who plays (or tries to play) the violin and ought to appeal to anybody simply in search of some engrossing and exhaustive nonfiction.

Tim Page is a professor of music and journalism at the University of Southern California.


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