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Isaac Stern on prodigies’ pitfalls

A historic letter from Isaac Stern to Henryk Szeryng offers fascinating insight into his thoughts about raising a violin prodigy


Yesterday I uploaded a video documentary about Ilona Fehér, the Hungarian-born Israeli violin pedagogue who taught players such Pinchas Zukerman, Shlomo Mintz and Shmuel Ashkenasi. In the film one hears the young Shlomo Mintz talk and play. We are reminded of his phenomenal sound at that age but he also talks about the pressure that Fehér put him under, telling him before his breakthrough concert, standing in for Itzhak Perlman, that he had to play at least as well as Perlman – no pressure there! She herself admits how she often made him cry.

Seeing Mintz on such fine form reminded me of a letter I came across a couple of years ago when I visited the wonderful archives of the Library of Congress. It’s a letter from Isaac Stern to Henryk Szeryng, who had shown an interest in the young Mintz, then aged 15, and was about to teach him in masterclasses.

The letter, which I transcribe below, is fascinating for several reasons. Firstly, you see the powerful Stern-machine in action – he was known for making and breaking musical careers, and here he discusses recommending Mintz to Sol Hurok, one of the leading impresarios of the era. And yet you also see the philosophy and care behind his approach, and the way he tries to protect his young protégé against what he saw as dangerous adulation, and to guide his education to include ‘music history, chamber music and general knowledge’. He also credits Fehér for her commitment to Mintz.

Anyway, it’s a fascinating snapshot from a different era:

‘I have recently received word that you heard a young violinist, a protégé of ours, of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation in Israel, Shlomo Mintz. I was told you were very much impressed with his talent and performance and that you invited him and his father for a two week stay of study in your masterclass in Geneva.

’I am delighted to learn that you felt so strongly about the young man whom I first heard four years ago when he was only ten. Of course, I immediately became interested in him and his work and made arrangements at once for a special scholarship from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. Ever since, he and his family have been the responsibility of the foundation and plans for his development have been arranged most carefully including his eventual training abroad, probably in the United States.

‘I last heard him play in February of this year as part of a recital and also at great length at the Orchestra House. I also had long discussions with his parents and his excellent teacher Ilona Fehér who has given more unstintingly of her time and attention, five to six days a week, than anyone I have ever heard of. There has been a great deal of publicity about him in Israel and already word of him has reached to the United States and I have spoken about him at length to Mr Hurok and Walter Crude. To both of them I have indicated he certainly would be available to the Hurok office but that I felt he was at least a year or two away from the beginnings of any professional exploitation.

'He should continue his studies and particularly widen them in terms of music history, chamber music and general knowledge'

’I would be enormously grateful if you would let me know what you think of him and if you could help me in continuing his path that has been so carefully prepared over these years. That is, that he should continue his studies and particularly widen them in terms of music history, chamber music and general knowledge because he is an extremely bright boy with a good head. All the remarks and expectations that have already been aroused in Israel must of necessity create an effect on such a young person, even though he seems healthy and outwardly cool. But you know what people are like and how they tend to exaggerate without knowing the enormous dangers and pitfalls that really go into the making of a career. Only those of us who’ve been through it, in every facet of it, really know what it’s all about.

'I really have something of a problem in this respect to convince people to be careful of the values of this kind of adulation at too early a stage in life'

‘Most of all, I would appreciate it if you would see that he does not appear unduly as a soloist either privately or publicly during his stay in Geneva. He can learn a great deal from you and the experience of being in another country, hearing other young people; watching you work with others and learning to expand his curiosity and hear other standards can be of inestimable value to him. The adulation and the praise he gets as an extraordinarily talented youngster has already been there and I really have something of a problem in this respect to convince people to be careful of the values of this kind of adulation at too early a stage in life. I have devoted, personally, as much time to this young man this young boy over these last four years as I did in the past to Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman and Miriam Fried and others. Fortunately, it seems that all the advice turned out well and they have been launched happily into successful and useful lives of fine music-makers and nothing could please me more.

’I know that I can count on your care in this case and I appeal to you as a colleague to watch over the young man and see that he gains the most of his time but that it goes to his talents and not to his head.’

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