Jascha Heifetz is remembered as the greatest violin virtuoso of the twentieth century. Even before his first American concert as an adolescent at Carnegie Hall, the most prominent violinists of the time deferred to Heifetz’s great talent and recognized his superior ability. The music from his violin, praised as “silken,” graced stages the world over. Heifetz’s career spanned 61 years, from his first debut concert with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1911 at the age of ten, until his farewell concert in Los Angeles, California, in 1962 at the age of 61. Motionless and stoic, Heifetz played notes of perfection, yet he moved only the tips of his fingers, or so it appeared to those who witnessed him play, and it was the depth and perfection of the tones that amazed even the greatest violinists among his contemporaries. Heifetz, who also taught music and on occasion wrote music, left his legacy on film and on widely distributed recordings. During the prime of his recording career, from 1917 to 1965, he recorded enough music to fill more than 24 full-length records.
Heifetz was born losef Ruvinovich Heifetz in Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania, on February 2, 1901. He was the son of Anna Sharfstein and Ruvin Heifetz, a violinist and concertmaster of the Vilna Symphony Orchestra. The elder Heifetz taught his son to play, beginning at the age of three, and by the age of five, the boy was accepted at the Royal School of Music in his hometown, having already mastered in its entirety the extremely difficult Kayser etude collection. Within four years of entering the conservatory, Heifetz completed that program of study. He then auditioned with Leopold Auer, a world-renowned violin teacher, who accepted the young prodigy as a student. Heifetz, in his first public appearance at the age of seven, performed the Mendelssohn Concerto. At his solo recital with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra three years later, Heifetz appeared before an audience of 5,000 people. By that time, he had performed in a public concert in St. Petersburg and as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic. Heifetz toured Europe as a pre-teen and performed a debut concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City at the age of 16.
It was respected music critic Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times who first cited Heifetz’s violin playing for its “silken tone,” an epithet that remained with Heifetz throughout his lifetime and after his death. The eminent violinist Fritz Kreisler, upon hearing of young Heifetz’s talent, arranged for the boy to perform a private concert for Kreisler and other renowned virtuosos. After hearing Heifetz play, Kreisler paid him a great compliment and acknowledged that his talent was far superior to that of any other violinist of the time.
Heifetz’s instrument of choice was a 1742 Guarnerius del Gesù violin, a priceless instrument known to collectors
For the Record…
Born Iosef Ruvinovich Heifetz on February 2, 1901 in Vilna, Lithuania; died on December 10, 1987, in Los Angeles, CA; oldest of three children of Anna Sharfstein and Ruvin Heifetz; married Florence Vidor, August 20, 1928; divorced, 1945; children: Josepha and Robert; married Frances Spiegelberg, January 1947; divorced, 1963; one son: Joseph. Education: Royal School of Music, Vilna; studied under Leopold Auer.
Performed Mendelssohn Concerto, age 7; first recital, age 9; soloist with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, age 10; European tour, age 12; New York City and Carnegie Hall debut, October 17, 1916; farewell concert, Los Angeles, October 23, 1972; recorded with RCA Victor, 1917-75.
Awards: French Legion of Honor, 1957; Grammy Awards for Best Classical Performance, Chamber Music (with Gregor Piatigorsky and William Primrose), 1961; Best Chamber Music Performance (with Gregor Piatigorsky and William Primrose), 1962; Best Classical Chamber Performance, Instrumental (with Gregor Piatigorsky), 1964; Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, 1989.
as the David Guarnerius because it was a relic of the nineteenth-century concertmaster Ferdinand David of the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Prior to acquiring the David Guarnerius, Heifetz played on a Stradivarius originally loaned to him in 1937 after the owner of the instrument heard Heifetz play. Among his handful of concert bows he kept a Kittel, given to him by his early teacher, Auer. Heifetz kept the precious instruments close by his side in a double case at all times.
Heifetz never ceased to astound audiences with his professional stature. He possessed the uncommon ability to play music that was regarded among the finest that the world had ever heard, yet with perfect posture he appeared neither to move nor even to flinch during a performance. Likewise he never smiled. His fingers possessed full mastery of his instrument and barely moved while producing a delicate vibrato and tone that was consistently described in superlatives by even the most well-healed music experts. Dr. H. R. Axelrod, editor of Heifetz, remarked that the violinist “established a completely new set of standards for violin playing.” It was said that the noted playwright George Bernard Shaw advised Heifetz that his perfection might cause vindictive gods to seek retribution against him, and that he should intentionally play one single bad note daily to protect from such vengeance.
After World War I, Heifetz and his family immigrated to the United States, a move that set the stage for his Carnegie Hall debut on October 17, 1916. A then-16-year-old Heifetz left the audience in awe. After the concert, Schonberg cited the teenager’s performance for its aristocratic elegance. Six years later, when Heifetz performed on another occasion at Carnegie Hall in 1922, an angry mob of concertgoers stormed the building in an effort to obtain admission to the sold-out concert.
Heifetz’s professional life in the 1930s was characterized by heavy concertizing and repertoire expansion. In 1933 he canceled 45 German engagements in protest against Hitler’s attitude toward Jewish artists. At the invitation of the Soviet government he returned to his homeland for the first time in 17 years in 1934. It was a profoundly emotional experience and he was especially moved to be given his first, tiny violin, which an uncle had kept for him. Heifetz never visited Russia again.
During the post-World War II years, Heifetz’s interests turned to the performance and recording of chamber music, much of it in trio. Among his regular accompanists were pianist Arthur Rubinstein and Gregor Piatigorsky on the cello. In 1950, the trio was heard on Tchaikovsky’s Trio in A Minor, Mendelssohn’s Trio in D Minor, Schubert’s Trio in B-flat, and Ravel’s Trio in A Minor. Heifetz recorded many hours of beloved music during that era and turned his talents to teaching as well. He joined the staff of the music department at the University of Southern California and embraced the rising new media of radio and television. Among his media presentations were a series of master classes for television audiences in 1952. Later during the 1950s he assisted in screening young musicians for a New York radio series called “Musical Talent in Our Schools.”
On December 9, 1959, Heifetz performed for the world diplomats at the United Nations in New York City. He went on to appear at major concert venues worldwide. He traveled more than two million miles during his career, performing hundreds of concerts annually. He performed regularly in a chamber trio with cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and the beloved pianist Arthur Rubinstein. On other occasions he was accompanied by pianist Emmanuel Bay. Together the pair was known to perform the works of contemporary composers such as Irving Berlin in addition to the classical compositions of the Great Masters. Additionally, Heifetz spent many hours in recording sessions for RCA Victor Records, and he entertained a brief career in films, including They Shall Have Music in 1938.
Heifetz appeared in a farewell concert in Los Angeles, California, on October 23, 1972, having performed publicly for 61 years. Already 71 years old at that time, Heifetz nonetheless continued with his recording sessions for three additional years, until the pain of an arthritic shoulder forced him to abandon performances in 1975. An expansive compilation of Heifetz’s recordings is included in The Heifetz Collection, a 46-volume set available on 65 CDs.
Heifetz never allowed his demanding concert schedule to preclude his involvement in organizations and projects that concerned him. His social concerns and political involvements were numerous. He was a member of the American Guild of Musical Artists and a charter member of the American Federation of Radio Artists. He contributed behind the scenes for radio and television shows in the early 1950s. Later in the 1950s he served as the Regents Professor of Music at the University of California at Los Angeles, and he was a professor at the University of Southern California.
Throughout his public career, Heifetz guarded his privacy. He became an naturalized American citizenship in 1925 and made his home in Southern California. He enjoyed life, and despite his special talent, his interests were wide and varied. Sailing was his passion, and he named his boat Serenade. He loved movies, cars, and tennis and in 1921 won an amateur tennis championship. Likewise he enjoyed ping-pong, was an avid photographer, and collected rare first edition books. Interestingly, during the Great Depression, Heifetz adopted the pseudonym of Jim Hoyle and under that name composed and published so-called tin-pan alley songs.
On August 20, 1928, Heifetz married actress Florence Vidor. The couple divorced in 1945; they had two children, Josepha and Robert. He married his second wife Frances Spiegelberg in January of 1947 and divorced in 1963. He had one son, Joseph, from his union with Spiegelberg. Late in 1987, Heifetz suffered a fall, from which he never recovered. Weeks later he developed complications and on December 10, 1987, Heifetz died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. His children and one sister survived him.
Truly a legend in his own time, Heifetz received an honorary doctorate of music from Northwestern University in 1949, was a decorated commander of the French Legion of Honor, won three Grammy Awards as part of ensembles, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. After his death, and according to his wishes, Heifetz’s David Guarnerius violin went on display at the De Young Museum of Art in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Sonatas and Partitas (Bach), RCA Victor, 1952.
Beethoven Sonatas, RCA Victor, 1952.
Conus, RCA Victor, 1952.
Spohr #8, RCA Victor, 1954.
(With Chicago Symphony) Brahms Concerto, RCA Victor, 1955.
Beethoven Concerto, RCA Victor, 1956.
Sinfonia Concertante (Mozart), RCA Victor, 1956.
(With Chicago Symphony) Sibelius, RCA Victor, 1959.
(With Boston Symphony) Prokofiev Second Concerto, RCA Victor, 1959.
(With Boston Symphony) Mendelssohn Concerto, RCA Victor 1959.
(With New Symphony Orchestra of London) Scottish Fantasy (Bruch), RCA Victor, 1961.
(With New Symphony Orchestra of London) Bach Double Concerto, RCA Victor, 1961.
Glazunov Concerto, RCA Victor, 1963.
The Heifetz Collection, Vols. 1-46, RCA Victor, 1997.
The Legendary Jascha Heifetz, EMI Classics, 1999.
Jascha Heifetz: The Supreme, RCA Victor, 2000.
Axelrod, Herbert R., editor, Heifetz, Paganiniana Publications, 1976.
Encyclopedia of World Biography Supplement, volume 20, Gale Group, 2000.
Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, volume 2, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1999.
New York Times, November 30, 1987, p. C17; December 28, 1987, p. C20.
U.S. News & World Report, December 21, 1987, p. 16.
National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences website, http://www.grammy.com (December 14, 2000).
Tower Records, http://www.towerrecords.com (January 17, 2001).
Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) was widely acknowledged as the greatest violinist of the 20th century. Critics repeatedly voiced agreement that the "satin tones" of his music approached perfection in both expression and intonation.
With a delicately controlled vibrato and inspired musical interpretations, Jascha Heifetz attracted audiences in numbers rarely seen before or since. He first created an international stir when he toured Europe during his early adolescence. By the age of 16 he had performed a solo concert at Carnegie Hall. Although scores of recordings remain as a testament to his great talent, his death in Los Angeles, at the age of 86, left the world of music in mourning over the loss of his "silken bow."
A Prodigy at Three
Jascha Heifetz was born in the Lithuanian capital of Vilna (Vilnius) on February 2, 1901. He was one of three children—and the only son—of Ruvin (Rubin) and Anna Heifetz. Ruvin Heifetz, a violinist and concertmaster of the Vilna Symphony Orchestra, introduced his son to the violin at the age of three. Within a year, young Heifetz had learned seven different finger positions and was able to play the Kayser etudes, an advanced series of exercises. His parents sent him to the Royal School of Music where he studied under Ilya Davidovitch Malkin and completed the conservatory program within three years. Picture perfect in a blue velvet Lord Fauntelroy suit, replete with lace collar and cuffs, Heifetz performed in concert repeatedly, from the age of five years old. After some persuasion, he obtained an audition with the esteemed violinist, Leopold Auer. Despite his initial reluctance to hear Heifetz, Auer acknowledged the boy's genius and accepted Heifetz as a private student. Following a significant performance in St. Petersburg under Auer's direction, Heifetz went on to perform in Germany with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1911. He then toured Europe and, by the age of 12, his reputation as a prodigy preceded him. On one occasion, when the adolescent Heifetz was on tour in Berlin, he had the honor to meet one of his contemporaries, violinist Fritz Kreisler. Kreisler had heard of Heifetz and insisted that the boy play for him. Heifetz obliged and the impromptu performance solicited Kreisler's highly publicized comment that he and his colleagues (violinists) might as well, "all now break our violins across our knees."
When Heifetz first performed for an American audience at Carnegie Hall in 1916, critics applauded the unparalleled talent of the 16-year-old genius. Many years later, Harold C. Schonberg, music critic for the New York Times, cited Heifetz's playing: "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." Schonberg stated further that, "Most of these characteristics were already evident at Mr. Heifetz's New York debut [in 1916]."
In 1920, Heifetz toured much of the world. He traveled even to remote areas of the South Pacific where a violin was never seen before. Overall, he traveled two million miles during the peak of his young career. He habitually performed to sell-out crowds. In 1922, when he returned to Carnegie Hall for a series of four concerts, a melee ensued among would-be spectators who were unable to obtain tickets for the sold-out performances. They attempted to force their way into the auditorium, and the New York City police were summoned to quell the uproar.
Heifetz performed with a Tononi violin until an appreciative admirer loaned him a Stradivarius. He was honored to use the instrument and, in 1937, purchased it outright. Later in his career he purchased a 1742 Guarnerius del Gesu violin that once belonged to Ferdinand David, the 19th century virtuoso and concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus. The David Guarnerius, as the violin was known, at one time belonged to another great violinist, Wilhelmj. Heifetz habitually carried a double violin case in which he stored both the Guarnerius and the Stradivarius. He kept his violin case very near to him at virtually all times. Heifetz also kept more than one-half dozen bows-including a prized Kittel bow that he received as a gift from Auer.
Approached "Spiritual Ecstasy"
Heifetz performed impeccably and, according to Dr. Herbert R. Axelrod, his playing "established a completely new set of standards for violin playing." 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. Audiences marveled at Heifetz's ability to remain motionless during a performance, except for the exaggerated ebb of his bow arm and the delicate glide of his fingers on the strings. Even his vibrato technique was controlled and contained. He accomplished this feat without visible movement of his arm or wrist, employing only a subtle movement of his fingers to produce incomparably smooth tones. Even in his rare cinema appearances, Heifetz emoted only through his instrument and rarely flinched. In time, film directors of his day came to accept that Heifetz was not an actor but was indeed the world's greatest violinist.
A brochure that accompanied the first RCA Victor recording of Heifetz in 1917 described his "innate musicianship," and declared that, "He is playing as Mozart might have played, because the stream of consciousness within him is a fountain of music, and his violin is spokesman of his dreams." The brochure declared of Heifetz's recording of the Schubert Ave Maria, "Nothing more exquisite can be imagined than the tone of that spiritual ecstasy." The reviewer described likewise a "silvery gloss" that emanated from Heifetz's Scherzo-Tarantelle.
An Established Virtuoso
The Heifetz discography grew lengthy over the years. He recorded the Bach Sonatas and Partita unaccompanied in 1935 and again in 1952. That same year pianist Emmanuel Bay accompanied Heifetz in his recording of the Beethoven Sonatas. Some years earlier, during the 1940s, Heifetz and Bay performed a variety of contemporary favorites including "Deep River," "White Christmas," "Claire de Lune," and "Humoresque." Also during the Great Depression and war years Heifetz composed contemporary tunes in keeping with the times. Under the pseudonym of Jim Hoyle he wrote "tin-pan alley" ditties such as "When You Make Love to Me-Don't Make Believe." During the Second World War he toured army camps and performed overseas for the soldiers.
During the post-war years his interests turned to the performance and recording of chamber music, much of it in trio. Among his regular accompanists were pianist Arthur Rubinstein and Gregor Piatigorsky on the cello. In 1950, the trio was heard on Tchaikovsky's Trio in A Minor, Mendelssohn's Trio in D Minor, Schubert's Trio in B-flat, and Ravel's Trio in A Minor. Heifetz recorded many hours of beloved music during that era and turned his talents to teaching as well. He joined the staff of the music department at the University of Southern California and embraced the rising new media of radio and television. Among his media presentations he prepared a series of master classes for television audiences in 1952. Later during the 1950s he assisted in screening young musicians for a New York radio series called "Musical Talent in Our Schools," and on December 9, 1959, he performed before the United Nations in New York.
As the 1950s drew to a close, Heifetz gradually eased his intensive performance schedule. He took sabbaticals from time to time and made time for other escapes from the concert halls. He was named as the Regents Professor of Music at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and served as the artist in residence during the late 1950s. In 1961, he taught master classes at the University of Southern California (USC) and was joined in this pursuit by his long-time trio partners, violist William Primrose and cellist Piatigorsky.
Heifetz performed a final farewell concert in Los Angeles on October 23, 1972. He continued his academic involvement and recorded for RCA as well. A shoulder operation in 1975 brought an end to the recording sessions, but he expressed no regret and continued to teach, primarily at USC, despite severe arthritic pain. In 1975, RCA Records, in an unprecedented tribute to the retired Heifetz, issued a comprehensive collection of 24 records containing virtually every recording he ever made. The collection spanned Heifetz's career with RCA, from 1917 to 1965. In 1977, the record label released six additional platters of Heifetz chamber music.
People and Politics
Heifetz lived an intensely private life away from the concert stage. He became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1925. On August 20, 1928 he married the silent film actress, Florence Vidor. They had two children, Josepha and Robert, and divorced in 1945. Heifetz established his permanent residence in California and enjoyed an affluent lifestyle. He played tennis and was particularly fond of sailing. His sailboat, which he named the "Serenade," was one of his joys. His fondness for books led him to collect first edition volumes. In January 1947, Heifetz married Frances Spiegelberg. They had one son, Joseph (called Jay), and divorced in 1963.
As a young man, Heifetz explored other creative outlets. Cameras intrigued him. He also owned his own company, which distributed lamps designed by the virtuoso himself. In 1937, he joined the new American Federation of Radio Artists as a charter member. He served as a vice-president of the organization under vaudevillian, Eddie Cantor. Heifetz also joined the American Guild of Musical Artists and fought with that group to prevent non-members from performing in major entertainment venues. Heifetz created a stir and was physically attacked in 1953, following a performance in Jerusalem, when a Jewish man became irate over Heifetz's performance of a violin sonata by Richard Strauss. Heifetz himself incited the incident through his apparent disregard for an Israeli national ban (since repealed) against the public performance of the works of German composers.
Heifetz received many distinguished honors during his life. In 1949, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of musicology from Northwestern University, and in 1957 he was given memberhsip in the prestigious French Legion of Honor. He also received a Grammy Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Late in October 1987, Heifetz developed complications from a fall and was hospitalized at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center where he died on December 10. His three children and younger sister, Elza Behrman, survived him. Upon his death, Schonberg whimsically dubbed Heifetz the "great stone face," and paid tribute in an obituary to the "playing machine." Conductor Erich Leinsdorf called Heifetz "nonpareil."
Heifetz, edited by Herbert R. Axelrod, Paganiniana Publications, 1976.
New York Times, November 30, 1987; December 12, 1987;December 28, 1987. □
HEIFETZ, JASCHA (1901–1987), U.S. violinist. Born in Vilna, Lithuania, Heifetz started playing at the age of three under his father's tuition, and later studied at the Vilna music school. At seven he played the Mendelssohn violin concerto in public and at 10 entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where his teacher was Leopold *Auer. In 1912 he played with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Nikisch. At the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, the family decided to emigrate and reached America via Siberia and Japan. Heifetz ultimately made his home in Beverly Hills, California. His playing early reached perfection, never relied on excessive display, and was marked by aristocratic restraint. It set a new style in violin mastery. He was acclaimed in the United States, toured abroad with triumphant success, and was received with enthusiasm in Russia in 1934. He appeared in Ereẓ Israel in 1925, and donated his fees for the promotion of music in Tel Aviv. He first played with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in 1950, and again in 1953, when his inclusion of a work by Richard Strauss (whose works were not played publicly in Israel because of his association with Nazism) in his programs provoked a bodily attack on him by an extremist youth, in which Heifetz was slightly injured. In later years he lived in semi-retirement. He was also an accomplished pianist, and made many transcriptions for violin and piano. Composers dedicated violin concertos to him, among them Sir William Walton, Erich *Korngold, Louis *Gruenberg, Joseph *Achron, and Mario *Castelnuovo-Tedesco.
A. Holde, Jews in Music (1959), index.
[Uri (Erich) Toeplitz]