Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Jascha Heifetz: The Perfect Violinist

Great Artists

I have discovered three things which know no geographical borders — classical music, American jazz, and applause as the sign of the public's favor.
Jascha Heifetz

For almost a century, Jascha Heifetz was the performer all others wished to emulate, a genius whose technique and musicianship earned him accolades as "the perfect violinist".
Miriam Horn,
U.S. News & World Report, December 21, 1987

Its silken tone, technical perfection, regard for the composers' slightest markings, aristocratic spirit; its lyricism was intense, and the elegance and purity of phrasing, always remarkable. . . . Most of these characteristics were already evident at Mr. Heifetz's New York debut [in 1916].
—Harold C. Schonberg,
music critic for the New York Times

In the featured video clip, Jascha Heifetz plays Rondo by Mozart. There are a number of other performances where Heifetz plays a difficult piece so well, including Paganini Caprice No. 24, Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence: First Movement, and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major: First Movement.Via: Youtube

The spotlight is on the great violinist, Jascha Heifetz, the perfect violinist. Audiences marveled at his ability to remain motionless during a performance, save for the movement of his bow arm and the glide of his fingers on the strings. Some might describe his bearing and manner as upright and classical, but no one could doubt the full power and emotion that he brought to bear when playing the violin.It was delightful magic in his hands.

Iosef "Jascha" Ruvinovich Heifetz was born in Vilnius, Russia on February 2, 1901, the eldest of three children born to Anna Sharfstein and Ruvin Heifetz. Heifetz entertained audiences worldwide for most of the 20th century before died in America, in Los Angeles, California, on December 10, 1987, at age 86. Those are the broad brushstrokes. There is much more.

For one, Jascha Heifetz is a child prodigy, who started to play at age three. His father, Ruvin, a violinist and concertmaster of the Vilna Symphony Orchestra, was his first instructor. As the official website puts it:
He started to play on a quarter-sized violin given to him by his father in his native city of Vilna, Russia (now called Vilnius, Lithuania), and at age seven made his public debut in Kovno (now known as Kaunas, Lithuania). He entered Leopold Auer's famous class in St. Petersburg at age nine and in three years was acclaimed a child prodigy of unexampled gifts.
He was ready to perform for the public. The young teenager played in Germany and Scandinavia and in Russia, causing a sensation wherever he performed. His presence then was equivalent to the feelings that The Beatles incited in young hearts of the 1960s, a rock star of his era.

Except he was not yet a teenager or even a tween. Consider this scene. When the 10-year-old Heifetz performed at an outdoor concert in St. Petersburg, Russia, before 25,000 spectators on April 30, 1911, there was such a reaction among the spectators that police officers needed to protect the young violinist after the concert.

Heifetz's family wisely took the young prodigy out of Russia after the October Revolution. He played his first concert in America at famed Carnegie Hall in New York City on October 27, 1917.  As one music critic put it: "The 16-year-old violinist seemed the most unconcerned of all the people in the hall as he walked out on the stage and proceeded to give an exhibition of such extraordinary virtuosity and musicianship as had not previously been heard in that historic auditorium."

Jascha Heifetz, circa 1920. “Criticism does not disturb me, for I am my own severest critic. Always in my playing I strive to surpass myself, and it is this constant struggle that makes music fascinating to me.”
His reputation was established, and he made the United States his home. He became an American citizen in 1925. and lived the American Dream, settling into a comfortable house in 1940  in Beverly Hills, California, where he resided until his death.

Setting a Standard

What set Heifetz apart was how he played and performed. His playing set the standard for technique, and he was as close to perfection as was possible for a human. Then there was the matter on how he played:
Second only to Heifetz's reputation for perfection, was his reputation as a stoic. During a performance he was rarely seen to smile or reveal any emotion. Heifetz learned such behavior from his father, who taught that the violin, when played properly, could express all the emotion of the music. Facial expressions and other mannerisms were superfluous to a competent violinist, or so Ruvin Heifetz instructed.
Heifetz played far and wide, travelling more than two million miles in his lifetime, a tireless performer. During the Second World war, he played at Army hospitals and performed mess hall jazz for soldiers at Allied camps across Europe. Using the alias, Jim Hoyle, he wrote a hit song, "When You Make Love to Me (Don't Make Believe)," sung by Bing Crosby.

He made a number of recordings, chiefly with RCA Victor. As is common with internationally known violinists, he owned a number of famous violins, including the 1714 Dolphin Stradivarius, the 1731 "Piel" Stradivarius, the 1736 Carlo Tononi, and the 1742 ex David Guarneri del Gesù. The last of which he preferred and kept until his death.

Heiftez stopped performing in 1972, after an operation on his right shoulder was not fully successful. His bow arm was affected and he could never again hold the bow as high as he wished. His farewell concert took place in Los Angeles on October 23, 1972, capping 61 years of performing.

But he continued in other pursuits. He continued to give private performances, and taught master classes at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), University of  Southern California and at his home studio in Beverly Hills, California.

Heifetz married twice: First to silent motion-picture actress Florence Vidor in 1928, adopting her seven-year daughter, Suzanne, and having two more children, Josefa (born 1930) and Robert (1932–2001) before divorcing in 1945; and second to Frances Spiegelberg, in 1947, with whom he had another son, Joseph. The second marriage ended in divorce in 1962.

When Heiftez was asked by a journalist for details of his life, he replied as follows: "Born in Russia, first lessons at three, debut in Russia at seven, debut in America in 1917. That’s all there is to say, really." It must be said that Heifetz let the music do the talking, and that speaks volumes.


  1. One aspect of the greatness of Heifetz is his respect for the rhythms that composers indicated. There is no excess rubato in his playing. He doesn't introduce a slight pause after the first beat of a measure, as some performers do when they are trying to express emotion. Heifetz understood the meanings of the pieces he played and didn't try to alter them.

  2. Dear Prof Jochnowitz:

    Yes, you're quite correct. He allowed the greatness of the music in its natural form to speak to the audience.

  3. Our new film on Heifetz, "God's Fiddler"' will be completed in April, with the premier at the Colburn School in LA.

    See a preview on our site


  4. Dear Peter,

    Thank you for the information on the film.

  5. I have taken a look at the preview of the documentary. It sounds as if it will give a personal look at Heifetz the person.



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