The Russian-born violinist performed in everything from the New York Philharmonic to "Fiddler on the Roof"

When Isaac Stern, 81, died of heart failure Sept. 22 in New York City, the world lost more than just a talented violinist. It lost a symbol of how a great musician can inspire and enhance humanity.

Born in the Soviet Union, Stern immigrated to the U.S. as an infant. He grew up in San Francisco, where he started playing violin at 8 after hearing a neighbor play the instrument. His Carnegie Hall debut in 1943 prompted composer and critic Virgil Thomson to anoint the 23-year-old one of the world’s master fiddlers. Though not the most dazzling virtuoso, Stern was regarded for his unique grace and rare depth—able to veer easily from warm to imperious.

Stern’s celebrity extended from countless performances with the New York Philharmonic to unseen playing on the 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof—even appearing on Sesame Street. His repertoire, covered extensively in more than 100 albums, was steeped in standards. Yet he supported such modern composers as Henryk Górecki and Béla Bartók.

Never shy about backing causes, Stern led a campaign to spare Carnegie Hall from the wrecking ball in 1960 and was a charter member of the National Endowment for the Arts. He was actively engaged in Israel’s musical life: He often played with the Israel Philharmonic, including a 1967 concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein after the Six-Day War. In 1979 he made a barrier-breaking trip to China, documented in the Oscar-winning From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China.

In recent years, Stern had begun to take account of his extraordinary life, releasing a 44-disc set, Isaac Stern: A Life in Music, in 1995, and a memoir, My First 79 Years, in 1999. ”Two things are necessary for a life in music,” he wrote, ”a clear idea of what you want to be, and the arrogance to pursue it.” Thankfully, he was blessed with both.