Stefan Szemler’s Stradivarius and Me

Sometime around 1952 in a galaxy far, far away called Sioux City, Iowa, I found a violin teacher. I had been playing since I was about 10. Let’s go back to the beginning.

My mother asked me, “Johnny (She was the only one who called me that.), what’s the most beautiful musical instrument you’ve ever heard?”

I answered, “The violin, mom.”
She said “Okay, let’s find you a violin and a teacher.”

I’ve got to hand it to mom. That was an inspired approach. My first teacher was Sister Paulette at St Joseph’s elementary school in Mason City, Iowa, who, at the time, didn’t seem much bigger than me and I was a shrimp. She loved to play and she should be canonized as a saint for having to listen to all that screeching. Learning to play the violin is NOT a pretty thing to be a part of and teaching it requires a tremendous amount of patience. Mom had found me a 3/4-sized violin and every week I had a lesson. Occasionally, I actually practiced in between.

My second violin, a German-made Hopf, which I played til it recently cracked, mom said she got in an estate sale from a family friend in New Albin (in northeast) Iowa, where I had spent much of my boyhood. It had been owned by a Union Army officer in the Civil War, she said, and passed down through the family. I recorded mom telling me the whole story but that’s for another installment.

This story is an homage to Stefan Szemler, my best violin teacher. When I first met him I was 14. Initially he scared the shit out of me. He was a big bear of a Hungarian with heavy eyebrows that did their own dance when he played. He was probably about six-foot three and 270 pounds and his violin looked like a toy in his hands. Next, he was intimidating – he played me something so spectacular and moving that I got teary. He was amazing! I was thinking, “In a million years I’ll never play like that.” But in those days I don’t remember having a great deal of self-confidence. I didn’t get his back-story right then but it trickled through in bits and pieces throughout the next three years or so as I waited for my folks to pick me up from my lessons and got talking to his wonderful wife.

He had played first violin (First chair or Concertmaster, I believe) in the Hungarian Symphony before Hitler invaded Hungary. He already had some renown at the time and thought he’d be okay in his little music bubble there. When he discovered at the last possible minute that he was not okay, he managed to escape Hungary with just his wife, a suitcase and his genuine Stradivarius violin! The Nazis were notorious for confiscating great instruments and artwork and it was likely they were after that Strad. The Szemlers eventually made it to the U.S. and settled in Sioux City. Why there, I don’t know, but he eked out a living teaching and concertizing. He played in the Sioux City Symphony which was conducted by a fellow Eastern European, Leo Kucinski, at the time. Szemler had been offered enough money for that Strad through the years to have lived in luxury the rest of his life. I remember asking him why he didn’t just sell it, buy another really good violin and not have to worry about making his rent. He just looked at me with this thin and knowing smile and shook his head like “Grasshopper, one does not sell his best friend.” I should have known better. They’d been through a lot together and it was his voice. It didn’t have a thick Hungarian accent. It was always understood. It spoke a language of eternal emotions. A universal language of love.

I don’t remember how it all ended except that I felt badly about it. I’d also been playing football at Heelan High School and would occasionally catch a pass wrong and screw up a left finger which would draw a sad, “John, John, please don’t ruin your fingers,” from Szemler. At that point I was also more motivated by girls and it hadn’t escaped me that they weren’t all that interested in guys who played the violin. I was also acting and singing in plays and musicals so, along with homework, I didn’t have much time to practice.

Though I always loved classical, the music that was my personal soundtrack then was more about Elvis, Chuck Berry, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, The Four Freshmen, Artie Shaw, Louis Armstrong and Stan Kenton. (Even then I was eclectic.). I often wonder if I’d have been more motivated to continue if he’d have said “John, why don’t you work on a fiddle part for a Chuck Berry tune.” It might have changed my life. But that would not have been in his vocabulary since he didn’t believe it was “real” music.

I guess I finally just came to the conclusion that I was wasting both my time and his. He was a musical genius and a kind and gentle man who deserved a student who aspired to be as great as he was. I thank him for teaching me well enough to play several seasons in the Siouxland Youth Symphony, giving me a lifelong love of classical music and giving me enough chops to pick up my fiddle again in the late ’60s. With the help of tolerant musician friends I got back enough chops that I can improvise on some blues, rock, pop, and country now and use it to connect with my own spirit and the source of all inspiration.

I know Stefan Szemler is happy in the biggest concert hall of all. After seeing the great film “The Red Violin,” though, I wonder where his Stradivarius is now, and if whoever owns it knows Stefan Szemler is part of its story.

©2005 John Braheny

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2 Responses to Stefan Szemler’s Stradivarius and Me

  1. Shirley Allen (Zoernig) September 1, 2009 at 12:33 am #

    My son, Kevin Zoernig, studied piano with Stefan Szemler from 1963 (he was 5 years old) until about 1968. The only reasoon he changed teachers wasa that we moved acros town, and there were, by that time many children, and getting to Szemler’s house was a problem, so we got a teacher in the neighborhood, and he could walk to his lessons. Mr. Szemler was very fond of Kevin, and Kevin was a good student. He is now a teacher, composer, and performer, but in the jazz field, which Mr. Szemler would not appreciate. He gave Kevin an exxcellent foundation. Imagine a 5-year old with that bear of a man! My next son, Lawrence also took some lessons, but unfortunately, Mr. Szemler kept saying “why can’t you be like your brother?” Lawrence switched to cello when he was 9, and is now a professional cellist.

  2. Suzanne McLaughlin June 27, 2010 at 8:20 pm #

    Well, the anti-spam word to contact you was happiness, so I guess that’s fairly appropriate, Johnny. Thanks for the post. It’s nice to hear from family even in a round-about way. I spoke with Henrik tonight. I also took a peek at Peter’s My Space page and saw him playing the guitar and singing. What a blast. Hope you are well and happy, too. Much love.

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