There is a story, possibly not even apocryphal, about Groucho Marx attending a celebrity screening of a documentary about Artur Rubinstein, who was in attendance. Rubinstein asked Groucho how he liked the film. "I was a little disappointed," Groucho said. Rubinstein, who was very pleased with the film, asked why. "I always thought you played the fiddle," Groucho explained.
Groucho knew well enough that Rubinstein was a pianist. Everybody did; that was the point. But Groucho always believed that a little deflation was good for the soul. The joke, which seemed to be on Groucho, had a kind of gentle double edge.
What is true is that a handful of musical virtuosi acquire a fame that goes beyond the world of music to embrace those who don't know an arpeggio from an axle and don't much care. But they know the virtuosi as figures equally of romantic extravagance and monastic dedication.
Rubinstein was one such figure, Jascha Heifetz was another, and so was Vladimir Horowitz, who died over the weekend and who was one of their shrinking pantheon.
They are, or generally were, foreign and therefore exotic (domestic virtuosi have a harder time of it). Their auras were of the romantic temperament, a grandeur not far short of imperial and with impatience to match. As a stereotype, the long-haired musician has populated many a cartoon and many a B-movie.
But beyond the plumages, the virtuoso has always had a subtler, deeper appeal, or so it has seemed to me. Anyone who has so much as touched a piano, a fiddle, even a guitar, knows what sweat sweet music demands. Taking piano, as we used to say, we discover in frustration how fast a simple scale exercise separates the have-talents from the have-nots, even at a low level of skill.
The genius of the great musicians inspires awe, but it is also a given, the gift of God or DNA that allows eye, hands and head to collaborate as they do for few on Earth.
But even the gift of genius needs work. And the virtuoso is, with all else, a walking symbol of endless practice, solitary study, the essentially lonely pursuit of perfection that does not cease with success.
There is something enviable, appealing and exciting about the presence of perfection born of long devotion, and the art can be not only musical performance but the trapeze or juggling. We stand in awe of what it took to get where the artist is.
Soon enough, the musical virtuosi's standards are only their own; they are beyond the shaping guidance of teachers and are performing out there where only they can identify their personal best. (The critics may confirm or deny what the artist feels, but even praise may not alleviate the cold fear that he or she is slipping.)
In his last years, it is possible that Heifetz could have continued to enchant audiences with the cool elegance of his playing. But a shoulder ailment had taken away some of the virtuosity, and while he still played, it was in solitude where only he could hear the echoes of his own perfection.
I heard Horowitz in person just once, at his legendary 50th anniversary concert at the Music Center. He was not the flamboyant virtuoso of legend but an unassuming, almost nondescript figure until his fingers touched the keyboard and the fire began. Then one heard what was in every sense the music of a lifetime.
The passing of Vladimir Horowitz is a deep sadness; the world is diminished and even though the playing lives on in perfect reproduction, the matchless presence is beyond electronics.
It is possible to wonder whether the unrelenting childhood discipline where virtuosity begins is still possible in a world of such countless distractions and such short-circuited attention spans. Yet, there are child prodigies of immense gifts and quite remarkable emotional precocity to be heard, for example, with the Young Musicians Foundation Orchestra in Los Angeles.
What is true is that tomorrow's virtuosi will be the more impressive because they will have had to resist the blandishments of their time to work with the fierce, Old World determination that let the in-born genius of Vladimir Horowitz reach all the world.