Heifetz, Jascha (Iossif Robertovich)

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Heifetz, Jascha (Iossif Robertovich)

Heifetz, Jascha (Iossif Robertovich), great Russian-born American violinist; b. Vilnius, Feb. 2, 1899; d. Los Angeles, Dec. 10, 1987. His father, Ruben Heifetz, an able musician, taught him the rudiments of violin playing at a very early age; he then studied with Ilya Malkin at the Vilnius Music School, and played in public before he was 5 years old; at the age of 6, he played Mendelssohn’s Concerto in Kovno. In 1910 he was taken by his father to St. Petersburg, and entered the Cons, there in the class of Nalbandian; after a few months, he was accepted as a pupil by Leopold Auer. He gave his first public concert in St. Petersburg on April 30, 1911. The following year, with a letter of recommendation from Auer, he went to Berlin; his first concert there (May 24, 1912), in the large hall of the Hochschule für Musik, attracted great attention: Artur Nikisch engaged him to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto with the Berlin Phil. (Oct. 28, 1912), but his appearance proved uneventful. He then decided to continue his studies with Auer in St. Petersburg and in Germany. While visiting Auer in Norway in 1916, he played in a joint concert with Toscha Seidel before the king and queen of Norway. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, he went to America, by way of Siberia and the Orient. His debut at Carnegie Hall in N.Y. (Oct. 27, 1917) won for him the highest expression of enthusiasm from the public and in the press. Mischa Elman, the prime violinist of an older generation, attended the concert in the company of the pianist Leopold Godowsky. When Elman complained that it was too hot in the hall, Godowsky retorted, “Not for pianists” Veritable triumphs followed during Heifetz’s tour of the U.S., and soon his fame spread all over the world. He made his first London appearance on May 5, 1920; toured Australia (1921), the Orient (1923), Palestine (1926), and South America. He revisited Russia in 1934, and was welcomed enthusiastically. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1925, and made his home in Beverly Hills, Calif. Heifetz made regular tours throughout the world, appearing not only with the foremost orchs. but as a recitalist. As a chamber music artist, he played in trios with Rubinstein and Feuermann, and later with Pennario and Piatigorsky. He taught classes of exceptionally talented pupils at the Univ. of Southern Calif, in Los Angeles (1962–72). In 1974 he made his last public appearance and thereby brought to a close one of the most extraordinary violin careers in history.

The Olympian quality of Heifetz’s playing was unique in luminous transparency of texture, tonal perfection, and formal equilibrium of phrasing; he never allowed his artistic temperament to superimpose extraneous elements on the music; this inspired tranquillity led some critics to characterize his interpretations as impersonal and detached. Heifetz made numerous arrangements for violin of works by Bach, Vivaldi, and contemporary composers; his most famous transcription is Hora Staccato by Grigoras, Dinicu, made into a virtuoso piece by adroit ornamentation and rhythmic elaboration. In his desire to promote modern music, he commissioneda number of composers (Walton, Gruen-berg, Castelnuovo-Tedesco, and others) to write violin concertos for him, and performed several of them.


H. Axelrod, ed., H. (Neptune City, N.J., 1976; 2nd ed., aug., 1981); A. Weschler-Vered, J. H. (London, 1986).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire