The path of the man is undoubtedly even more singular than that of the musician. Like Casals, he considered himself to be a man before being an artist, although he thought that art was the greatest possible achievement of the human being. Passionate about literature, history and painting, curious about science, he was not only an artist and an intellectual, he also became involved in political life and occasionally proved to be a visionary organizer of musical events.
It is difficult to imagine anyone who was exposed to so many contradictory influences, and who managed to assimilate and overcome them, and subsequently draw such riches from them. His mother tongue and initial culture were Russian. However, from an early age, he was so eager to integrate into the country that had welcomed his parents that he developed a passion for the most American of sports, baseball. After an initial Russian musical education with Siloti, which was based upon freedom and pleasure, he later studied with Serkin in the most rigorous Germanic tradition. Of Alsatian ancestry dating back to Napoleon, he had inherited a love for France and its language. His parents, of such different character and background which had long caused friction, were on one side Orthodox, and on the other, Jewish. Istomin would eventually distance himself from any religious observance.
Confronted with the upheavals of history and the profound changes taking place in the musical world, Istomin forged his own path, based on his instinct, his rigorous intellectual and moral demands, and the ideal he had of the role of an artist.
A Beethovenian temperament
In the profile he wrote in The New York Times, James Gruen confessed to being confused by Istomin’s personality. He believed that although Istomin showed “masterful and dazzling control” on stage, he was in fact a tortured and enigmatic being. Gruen was struck by his ‘’brooding Beethovenesque disposition’’, and many people who were familiar with him noticed it too. His grumpy character and reluctance to smile, combined with sudden, rare but violent outbursts of anger remind one of Beethoven. But above all, there was a common need for solitude and the same intense pain following disappointments, which would be swept away by the strength of will, the desire to live, faith in humanity, and the certainty that good would eventually prevail. The Waldstein Sonata is the ideal expression of this spirit, and it was Istomin’s emblematic piece.
His sense of certainty made him appear to be arrogant, but within him existed a great deal of doubt, humility and self-derision. At first sight, he seemed quite cold and distant, even intimidating, but very quickly, one discovered warmth and humanity behind his modesty. It was very difficult for him to hide what he was feeling, and he could not refrain from saying what he thought. This sincerity was harmful to his career, but even though he became a little more careful with age, he never abandoned it. After getting angry, he forgot quickly and never held a grudge, as evidenced by his many disputes with Stern, which never jeopardized their sense of fraternity.
Whether in terms of musical integrity or career and life ethics, Istomin absolutely refused to make any concessions, whatever the consequences: he never played a piece in which he had nothing personal to say, never attempted to seduce the audience, did not cultivate people who could further his career, and never hesitated to speak out against injustice or to become involved in politics.
He had a boundless sense of curiosity, and his mind could bubble over at any moment: “I can’t go on without knowing” was one of his favorite expressions. He kept a childlike enthusiasm, always ready to become enthused about a project or an idea. In this process there was a paradoxical association of intuition (according to Plato, the instant awareness of the truth of an idea by the soul) and the desire for knowledge and intellectualization.
On the material level, he was quite detached from the sense of ownership. He had never bought a house or apartment before moving to Washington with Marta, and he never owned a car. All his money went into books and works of art, and generally into things which gave him pleasure, such as great restaurants or fine wines. He wanted his comfort and standing, especially for travel (flights on Concorde!) and hotels. He found that this suited his status as an artist and compensated for the obligations of his itinerant life.
His deep-seated mistrust for managers and the music business made him exacting about fees. He could not bear to be exploited, but he was always willing to adapt his conditions when he felt it was justified. He also showed great generosity when it came to giving benefit concerts, or in offering his fees. He was just as generous with his friends in trouble, so much so that Marta sometimes had to ask him to be more careful!
In Istomin, there was a sense of openness to others, a benevolence and an ability to listen which are rarely found. Pianists were never rivals, and he enjoyed being friendly with very simple people. His friendships were characterized by a great sense of tact and loyalty, as witnessed by the organization of Clara Haskil’s American tour in 1956, or by the invitation to Horszowski, who thus finally could make his debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1978.
The search for God
As his mother was Jewish, he could consider himself tu be Jewish, but he refused his Bar Mitzvah and remained very far from the Jewish religion. If he faithfully and generously supported Israel, it was with the idea of a secular state and a deep distrust of religious parties.
Istomin had read up on and done extensive research of all religions. He agreed to marry Marta in the Roman Catholic religion. In his later years, he became increasingly closer to this religion, but it was out of the question for him to adhere to it, because he would have felt as though he were betraying his mother.
Istomin’s interest in the great theories of physics was also a spiritual quest, as was his interest in astronomy, which allowed him to grasp the sublime beauty of the universe. Like Casals, Istomin marveled at what is divine in each of us, the unexplainable miracle of life and uniqueness of each human being.
However, for Istomin, the most convincing evidence of God’s existence was art! He told Jacobson: “To me, art is the highest activity possible. Whether it is painting or poetry, music or dance, this is the very best thing that we are capable of – also the most demanding.”
Art has to do with the mind and the spirit, the reaching beyond the physical and material, even the explicable. You can’t really describe a phrase of Mozart or Beethoven or a line in a great drawing. It proves the existence of a dimension that‘s more dense and yet simpler. If you have for even a moment experienced that reality, you have felt an aspect of God.’’
He was aware that he was an artist, and a part of music – an infinitesimal part, but still a part! He did not take any pride in this but felt a sense of responsibility to develop the gifts he had received as much as he could.
The place of music and the other passions
“Every morning, after breakfast, I play the piano. These are the most efficient hours for working. But music is in my head 24 hours a day, it’s obsessive, it can even be overwhelming, but that’s the way it is… And it’s certainly the case of all musicians! At the moment I have a Mozart sonata, Debussy’s Hommage à Rameau, an impromptu by Chopin, a symphony by Beethoven. It’s always going round and round in my head, it’s like cut-outs, Cubist collages!’’
His musical sensitivity was so exacerbated that all music, even when he only heard it and did not play it, haunted him for a long time. At night, when he had no concert to give or to attend, he would refrain from listening to any music, knowing that it would be difficult for him to fall asleep afterwards.
He felt the need to protect himself to a certain extent from music, which was so invasive. He also needed to escape from the confined environment of the musical community where he would have suffocated in the end. He had a very cordial and supportive relationship with other pianists and musicians, but he had few real music friends, except for those with whom he had discussions and shared interests other than musical ones.
Turning to other interests was a necessity for his equilibrium which satisfied his curious spirit and brought him immense pleasure. Moreover, Istomin was persuaded that cultural richness nurtures musicality, not directly but through the development of sensitivity and intelligence.
When the artist changed into a manager
Istomin proved to be an outstanding organizer on several occasions, managing very different events. He rose to the challenge of taking over the artistic direction after Schneider for the 1953 Prades Festival, taking care of everything, even fund raising. He did the same in Mexico in 1976, with a constant eye towards ensuring that the festival would boost Mexican musical life. In 1986, he set up an idealistic piano competition, named after his friend William Kapell. Even more surprisingly, he led the Committee of Artists and Writers supporting Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate for the 1968 presidential elections, so effectively that Humphrey would have liked to have appointed him to be his advisor for Cultural Advisor.
Each time, he refrained from remaining involved for too long, for fear that it would be at the expense of his essential mission as a musician.
After Beethoven, the other great figure – this time a literary one – to whom we could refer is Montaigne, whom he adored. Istomin possessed a similar blend of curiosity and skepticism, introspection and openness to the world, humility and pride, as well as the cult of friendship and a passion for books.
The adventure of Istomin as a man is even more fascinating than as a musician. He is the symbol of a man who was torn between different cultures and who was shaken by the great tragedies and changes of the 20th century. He drew from this an extraordinary richness, an appetite for life and a mixture of realism and optimism, all the while managing to preserve his freedom and moral rectitude, and continuing to follow his own path.
He was a musician of the old days in a “modern” musical world. He was too much of an artist for the politicians, and too interested in the course of the world and in the other arts for musicians to really consider him as one of theirs. The Americans thought he was too European, the Europeans too American. He didn’t belong anywhere, and he belonged everywhere! Fond of the great literary and artistic traditions, he was also passionate about science and cutting edge technology. He loved baseball and B movies but championed the need for elitism in culture. He wanted to grasp everything, to learn about everything, to encompass everything, and to ceaselessly move forward, as far and as high as possible! In January 1989, he told Patrick Ferla: “Every day when I get up, I wonder what I would like to do better today. And the answer is: Everything!’’