Artist Blog by Cellist Julian Schwarz: Is Talent Inherited?

By Julian Schwarz

Having been born into a multi-generational musical family, I was often told “it’s in your genes” or “it must run in the family.” This always struck me as odd, especially as a youngster, as I was spending hours in the practice room honing my craft. If it were all in my genes, why was I working so darn hard anyway? If we take this one step further, the whole idea of talent is a rather abstract idea in the first place. I recently sat on a jury for a competition in New Jersey when, after a particularly gifted student auditioned, a colleague on the jury said, “I always aim to dispel the notion that talent actually exists, but after hearing that, it is a hard angle to defend.” It is true, that there are moments in music when one cannot simply deny the existence of something special––something undeniable, and sometimes inexplicable. And there was a certain moment in my life when the case for inherited musicality made an extremely compelling case.

My maternal grandfather, Sol Greitzer, was a violinist born in the Bronx in 1925. After returning from his service in the United States Army, as a runner in the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, he found the high frequencies of the violin too piercing for his artillery sensitized hearing. He switched to the viola, and quickly ascended the ranks of the NBC Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. In 1972 he became the principal viola of the NY Phil under Pierre Boulez.


His premature passing in 1989 took him from this earth prior to my birth, and I neither had the chance to meet him nor to hear him play. As a young boy I was told frequently by family “he would have loved you,” which, though sentimental and sweet, made me yearn to have known him. This sentiment became stronger in the family as my deep love for the game of baseball grew (let’s go Mets)—as he was a fan of the game and always wished for a son among his three daughters.

My grandfather Sol passed before the age of instant recording, so very little evidence of his playing remains to this day. It was not until I was 17 that I heard even a note. By this time my musicianship had developed to a certain point, and my first string of concerto appearances had come to pass. My mother had received an old live radio broadcast of my grandfather playing the Stamitz Viola Concerto with the New York Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta on the podium. I was beyond excited to hear his tone, phrasing, and overall style. After putting the disc in my portable CD player, my sense of expectation built through the opening tutti. Every cadence raised my heart rate as I was ready to hear what I had been missing for years.

Finally, his warm, rich tone entered and I was taken aback. I started to cry. I could not believe my ears. His phrasing was elegant, his vibrato constant, his portamento tasteful yet old fashioned; this was the playing I always envisioned for myself. This was the playing that more closely resembled mine than any cellist or string player I had heard up to that point.

Without ever hearing him, without ever meeting him, and without ever feeling his presence, I had grown up to sound just like him––in every way. There were subtle differences, but the similarities were undeniable.

Who knows if musicianship is inherited, but at that moment I felt connected to a man I never knew, and so wished I had.