Who was Jascha Heifetz? Everything you need to know about the iconic violinist

Jascha Heifetz’s formidable technique and instantly recognisable sound made him a superstar among violinists, but behind that seemingly effortless ability lay hard graft and a generous heart, as Julian Haylock explains

An image of Jascha Heifetz playing the viiolin
Published: March 8, 2022 at 11:13 am
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Violinist Jascha Heifetz was a phenomenon. His playing sounded like no one else’s, and his immaculately honed technique and unflappable stage presence created an aura of invincibility. A perfectionist in all things musical, he insisted that ‘the discipline of practice every day is essential. When I skip a day, I notice a difference in my playing. After two days, the critics notice, and after three days, so does the audience!’

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As Heifetz saw it, ‘there is no top – there are always further heights to reach’. His preference for fast, flowing tempos was facilitated by a dazzling technique and a clear-focused sound, coloured by a fast-narrow vibrato and subtly warmed by his preference for plain gut (as opposed to steel-wound/metal) D and A strings. Adding to the sensation of unflappable calm were his impassive facial features and no-nonsense, free-flowing bowing action. Although in concert Heifetz produced a luminous sound, on disc (especially in later years) he preferred a relatively close, almost analytical image, free of ambient cushioning.

It was the tantalising gulf between Heifetz’s cool demeanour and the molten intensity of his playing that so fascinated his audiences. The legendary Fritz Kreisler – Heifetz’s own favourite violinist – was so affected by his incandescent virtuosity that he despaired ‘we might as well take our fiddles and break them across our knees’. For Itzhak Perlman, Heifetz was quite simply ‘the violinist of the century. There’s basically Heifetz – then all the rest!’

When and where was Jascha Heifetz born?

As if to add to the mystique surrounding his playing, Heifetz drily summed up his early career in one short sentence: ‘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.’ Born in Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire) in 1901, Heifetz’s first teacher was his father, a capable player who quickly realised he was dealing with a talent way beyond his own. Remarkably, in only four years, Jascha progressed from an infant beginner to playing the Mendelssohn E minor Concerto on a half-sized violin to an astonished audience of over a thousand.

Three years later, aged just ten, Heifetz began lessons with the renowned pedagogue Leopold Auer, who appears to have taught his students more by a process of friendly coercion than strict task-setting. ‘Don’t ask me how he did it,’ Heifetz reflected, ‘for I would not know how to tell you.’ Auer was far too astute a teacher to let his admiration show unduly, but in a private letter admitted ‘in all my 50 years of violin teaching, I have never known such precocity’.

When did Jascha Heifetz become famous?

While still Auer’s student, Heifetz established his early reputation, including making his Berlin concerto debut at short notice, aged only 11, playing the Tchaikovsky under conductor Arthur Nikisch. According to one onlooker, the tumultuous applause Heifetz received that night was encouraged from the platform by the normally restrained Nikisch and the players of the Berlin Philharmonic. The Tchaikovsky became one of Heifetz’s signature pieces, a work he felt was ‘already so overloaded with sentiment, that all you have to do is play the notes – it will come out anyway!’

What year did Heifetz and his family move to the United States?

By the time Heifetz and his family left Russia prior to the October Revolution in 1917, bound for the US, his reputation had preceded him. Yet nothing could have prepared the audience for the incendiary playing at his Carnegie Hall debut recital (with pianist André Benoist) on 27 October 1917. Stories surrounding this career-defining concert are now legion, yet even the coolest examination of the evidence leaves little doubt that Heifetz’s playing of (amongst other things) Paganini’s Caprice No. 24 and Wieniawski’s Second Concerto created a sensation. The newspapers were buzzing with news of the wunderkind (Heifetz was still only 16 at the time), including a review in the New York World that reported: ‘Nothing that he undertook was without a finish so complete, so carefully considered and worked out, that its betterment did not seem possible.’

Among the musical glitterati that night was violin virtuoso Mischa Elman, a former Auer pupil of an older generation. According to one story which hit the popular press, turning towards his pianist friend Leopold Godowsky, Elman muttered ‘It’s getting awfully hot in here,’ to which Godowsky replied, with a knowing twinkle in his eye: ‘Not for pianists!’

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Jascha Heifetz first recordings

Just two weeks later, Heifetz cut his first discs for the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor), effectively marking the start (a few early Russian and domestic German takes aside) of a recording career spanning some 55 years. Today, when we can stream almost anything, it is easy to forget just how revolutionary the recording process was at that time. Music lovers could now, in the comfort of their own homes, listen repeatedly to musicians they had never seen perform live. Within a very short space of time, musicians’ reputations became founded upon their recorded rather than concert legacy.

When Heifetz made his London Queen’s Hall debut in 1920, RCA could already boast sales of around 70,000 units in Britain alone. Heifetz’s reputation hadn’t just preceded him by word of mouth – many fans had a fair idea of what they were in for before Heifetz had even played a note on English soil.

The new(ish) recording technology had its downsides, however. In order to squeeze their interpretations onto existing side-lengths (around 3-5 minutes, depending on disc size), some artists had little choice but to gently speed up their interpretations. Others found the pressure of producing a ‘clean’ take incredibly stressful, resulting in countless retakes, while others found the need to keep reasonably still and limit extraneous noises to a minimum inhibiting. Such strictures played to Heifetz’s strengths. His rapier-like precision, keen musical focus and absolute physical discipline were tailor-made for the recording process.

What made Jascha Heifetz recordings so unique?

Another important factor that made Heifetz’s recordings so unusually compelling was his lack of reliance on stagecraft when playing ‘live’ to enhance the musical impact of his performances. For Heifetz, everything he wished to express was concentrated in the microcosmic perfection of his playing. Nothing was left to chance and was worked out down to the last detail beforehand. This gave him the necessary freedom (like fellow violinist Nathan Milstein) to improvise fingerings as the mood took him. In that respect, every performance and recording became part of a continual learning curve.

For some listeners, the results could sometimes feel almost glacial in their cool perfection. Yet the essential difference between Heifetz and his peers was really a matter of degree. He spoke the same musical language, but did so with such fine-tuned reflexes that if you musically ‘blinked’, even for a second, you would almost certainly miss something. There were also those who felt Heifetz tended to overshadow his partners when playing chamber music, even with ‘Million Dollar Trio’ co-members, pianist Arthur Rubinstein and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. But, as the young André Previn (among others) pointed out, this wasn’t so much a case of his playing too forcefully, but rather because ‘he was musically so much more interesting than everyone else’.

Heifetz’s recordings played an important role in establishing the Sibelius, Elgar and Glazunov concertos, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy and JS Bach’s Solo Sonatas and Partitas (among others) as repertoire standards. And some of his most treasurable playing on disc can be found in the Korngold, Rózsa, Walton and Castelnuovo-Tedesco No. 2 (I profeti) concertos, all written in a post-Romantic idiom and premiered by Heifetz. Yet he was not all that taken with ‘modern’ music in general. ‘I play works by contemporary composers for two reasons,’ he once claimed. ‘First, to discourage the composer from writing any more, and secondly to remind myself how good Beethoven is.’

Between his 1917 US debut and his final public appearance in 1974 at the University of Southern California alongside Piatigorsky, Heifetz sustained the same impregnable musical poise and implacable stage presence. As he once put it, ‘If I don’t smile, it’s only because I’m so absorbed in my playing that I forget everything else.’ He owned several important violins during his career, but the one he valued above all others was a 1742 Guarneri del Gesù once owned by Ferdinand David (1810-73), dedicatee of the Mendelssohn E minor Violin Concerto. His preferred bow was a Nikolai Kittel given to him by Auer.

Heifetz was a generous donator, not only of instruments and bows to his students, but by giving numerous benefit concerts for various good causes. In 1919 he appeared at the Metropolitan Opera House with fellow émigré Sergei Rachmaninov, raising a small fortune to help offset the government deficit following the First World War.

During the Second World War, he gave innumerable concerts, often at great risk to his personal safety, playing from the back of a touring flatbed truck in and near war zones. Countless are the stories of his deep concern for injured soldiers, in whose company he would allow the ‘mask’ to drop, tell jokes and share reminiscences. Ironically, the greatest threats to Heifetz’s life came after the war, when in 1953 he was attacked in Jerusalem by a man wielding a crowbar for playing Richard Strauss’s Violin Sonata (Heifetz having done so despite requests by Israeli officials not to do so), and in 1959 when he slipped on a floor in a Beverley Hills delicatessen, fractured his hip and almost died from the resulting infection.

When did Jascha Heifetz retire?

A right shoulder injury finally persuaded Heifetz to retire from public performance, although he went on playing in private with pupils and colleagues. In the meantime, he accepted two university teaching posts and became one of the most notoriously exacting mentors in history. For Heifetz, violin playing was a ‘perishable art’ that ‘must be passed on as a personal skill – otherwise it is lost’. He stressed especially the importance of scales for technical and intonational accuracy – not just in single notes but in consecutive thirds and tenths. He taught over 150 pupils during his ten-year stint at the University of Southern California, and afterwards continued to teach privately. Those who passed Heifetz’s uncompromising regime to become soloists in their own right included Erick Friedman, Eugene Fodor and, most notably, Pierre Amoyal, to whom Heifetz gifted a beautiful Vuillaume violin.

When did Jascha Heifetz die?

Heifetz died on 10 December 1987 following a brain haemorrhage, a few weeks short of his 87th birthday. Widely mourned, behind his austere stage presence was a man who cared passionately about a range of causes. He was a devoted union supporter and became so concerned about the air quality in LA that he had his car converted to electric power long before it became fashionable. He was also a gifted mimic (especially of other violinists), an accomplished pianist with a penchant for breaking into tin-pan alley classics and jazz, a fine arranger of around 150 pieces, and composed the popular song ‘When You Make Love to Me (Don’t Make Believe)’ under the pseudonym ‘Jim Hoyl’, a light-hearted alter ego he adopted away from the glare of public celebrity.

Above all, Heifetz’s tremendous sense of humour made him the heart and soul of any gathering. His self-deprecating wit extended to his directing a performance of ‘Tales from Vienna Woods’ dressed as Johann Strauss II (complete with tuxedo and mustachios) at a benefit concert which helped save the Metropolitan Opera House from imminent closure.

But perhaps the most poignant of all Heifetz stories concerns his being stopped in New York’s Manhattan district and asked by a music fan how to get to Carnegie Hall. Without missing a beat, the great man replied: ‘Practise, practise, practise!

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We named Heifetz one of the greatest violinists of all time

Authors

Julian HaylockJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

Julian Haylock is the former editor of CD Review and International Piano Magazines and reviews of CD Classics Magazine. He is also the author of biographies on Mahler, Rachmaninov and Puccini, and co-author of the Haylock and Waugh pocket guides to Classical Music on CD and Opera Music on CD.

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