Heifetz – A Talk By Stephen Bryant

Having previously given a talk to the Esher Recorded Music Society about my career they asked me back to talk to them again! I chose, this time, to give a talk about Heifetz – an idol of mine from the age of 11 or so.

I began playing the violin when I was 6 years old and when I was 12 I went to have lessons with a well respected local teacher called Kenneth Piper in Beckenham, Kent. He was a great believer in an ‘all round’ musical education and a favourite part of my weekly lesson was when he played me recordings of great musicians on his record player. Invariably old and scratchy, these records were of such musical giants as Fritz Kreisler, Pablo Casals and, of course, Jascha Heifetz. Mr Piper and I would discuss their technique and he would often slow down the recordings – playing 78 rpm’s at 45 rpm so we could hear whether Heifetz, for instance, was indeed playing all the notes in a particularly fast passage and so we could listen to the mechanics of his outstanding vibrato. Mr Piper was a huge fan of Heifetz as was the well-known violinist Hugh Bean who I went on to study with years later as a postgraduate student at the Royal College of Music. I moved onto the RCM Junior College, still studying with Mr Piper and after my Saturday morning lesson I would go to W H Smith’s in Croydon to pick out any Heifetz recordings – of which there was a surprising number!

These recordings inspired me and were a source of great motivation – I truly believed that when I got older I would be able to play like Heifetz! Possibly one of the most depressing moments in my violin playing career came when I realised that I wasn’t going to reach that standard of violin playing or attain those qualities – but then, I am in very good company!I never had the opportunity to hear him live so my knowledge is based completely on recordings – live, studio and the odd TV and film recording. I collected most of his recordings on vinyl, then on tape cassette and then on CD.

There is some debate as to whether Jascha Heifetz was born in 1900 or 1901. What we know for certain was that he was born to what can only be described as ambitious parents, who were said to have had ‘a horror of mediocrity’. (1) His father Reuven was concertmaster of the Vilna Symphony Orchestra (a noble profession!) and as such could provide a comfortable living for his wife Anna and his young family. Vilna, in Lithuania had a thriving Jewish population – indeed the Jewish community made up almost fifty per cent of the city.

Violin playing was a long-held tradition in Jewish families and secrets of the trade were often passed down from father to son. Jascha would listen to his father practising – taking a great interest in the music he heard. So, for his third birthday, Reuven bought him a quarter size violin and began to give his young son lessons. Jascha was never allowed to practice on his own – indeed it is said that his violin was locked away between practice sessions. So, always supervised by his father, he never made the mistakes that children usually make when practising and his technique was therefore assured almost from the start.

Heifetz, many years later, said of his early lessons ‘my father gave me my first lessons and though I do not remember being made to practice, I think there were times when I could have preferred something more playful. Let us say that my father ‘persuaded’ me to practice, and I am glad that he did’. (2) Reuven also believed that it was ‘poor showmanship’ to show facial expressions or excessive movement when playing – he felt only the violin and the music should convey the emotions. What was perceived as cold detachment later in Heifetz’s career had it’s roots firmly in Vilna and those early lessons with his father. After two years study it was decided that the young Jascha needed to move to another teacher and so he began lessons with Ilya Malkin, a former pupil of the great Hungarian teacher, Leopold Auer.

In 1907 Malkin persuaded his former teacher to listen to his young pupil even though Auer begged not to hear him, saying ‘… I have had enough of these little geniuses. Please spare me.’ (3) Six year old Jascha played him the Mendelssohn Violin concerto and Pagannini’s 24th Caprice. Auer was stunned – when he finally spoke he asked Reuven to bring the boy to St Petersburg to study with him.

This was a big move for the Heifetz’s as it meant uprooting the whole family and although it took a long time to make up his mind, the ambitious Reuven knew it was the right decision. So in 1910, Jascha went to study with the great master himself at St Petersburg Conservatory and the year after made his official debut in April 1911. Auer was a demanding teacher but had a human and kind approach to his pupils.

His years of experience and empathetic nature meant that he got the best from each pupil using a mixture of discipline, understanding and often humour. For instance, if a pupil was playing badly he would comment … ‘I suppose you have just had your bow rehaired’ or ‘These new strings are very trying aren’t they?’ (4) to get his message across! Heifetz said of his teacher ‘what was very important was that the more interest and ability the pupil showed, the more the professor gave of himself. He was a very great teacher!’ (5)

In 1912 Heifetz travelled to Berlin and made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic playing the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. After the concert he was invited to dinner by the critic and violinist Arthur Abell who had also invited as many great violinists he could get his hands on, including Hubermann, Flesch and Kreisler.

Heifetz offered to play for them, but when it was realised that he had no accompanist with him, Fritz Kreisler, himself an accomplished pianist, offered to play the piano part. At the end, his esteemed accompanist stood up and said to the assembled group- ‘Well, gentlemen, now we can all break our violins!’ (6) By the time Jascha was a teenager Russia was becoming unsafe and the country was starting to spiral out of control. Jews were persecuted and as everyday life deteriorated Reuven began to think urgently about moving the family out of harm’s way. America was the obvious choice – and so in 1917 the Heifetz family sailed into San Francisco to begin a new life.Jascha was already known by reputation in his adopted country and everyone was eager to hear this prodigy and to see if the rumours of a ‘wunderkind’ were true.

His American debut recital was arranged – New York’s Carnegie Hall was the venue chosen and Reuven and Jascha journeyed across America for this momentous occasion.

The pianist Andre Benoist was engaged as accompanist – he was available because the American violinist Albert Spalding, whom he usually accompanied, had just enlisted for military service. Benoist had heard the young Heifetz in 1913 when he and Spalding had visited St Petersburg and been invited to the conservatory to hear some of Auer’s most promising pupils. Benoist says in his memoirs ‘Then came young Jascha … this exquisite youth attacked the outrageous difficulties of the Ernst F Sharp Minor Concerto with such sureness that it left one stunned.

Technical problems virtually did not exist for him. He just tossed off runs in thirds, sixths or tenths while counting flies on the ceiling. All this he did with an air of boredom and listlessness that sometimes became annoying. His facial expression never changed. Whether his violin sang like a thrush, or his fingers galloped through well nigh insuperable difficulties, he remained ‘poker faced’. ….. (7) In rehearsals for the Carnegie Hall concert Benoist witnessed a completely different side to the young Heifetz- he says- ‘It took a good many days before I was able to break through Jascha’s natural crust of distant coldness; but when I did, I found a boy with the nature of the friendliest puppy: shy, but full of fun, pranks and practical jokes. Of course, he played the violin like a young god, but never referred to it in action or conversation.’ (8)

The concert was fixed for the afternoon of 27th October 1917 and the programme chosen. He would play: Vitali – Chaconne, Wieniawski – Concerto in D minor, Schubert – Ave Maria, Mozart – Minuet, Chopin- Nocturne in D major, Beethoven – Ruins of Athens arranged Auer, Tchaikovsky – Melodie, Pagannini – Caprice no 24.

The concert was a triumph. Critics and public alike heralded Jascha Heifetz as ‘a perfect violinist’. One critic wrote- ‘It was an occasion never to be forgotten, this sweeping triumph of a boy…who cast a spell of utter amazement over every professional listener….’ (9) At the concert the violinist Mischa Elman was seated next to the pianist Leopold Godowsky. During the interval Elman turned to his neighbour and exclaimed ‘It’s terribly hot in here isn’t it?’ to which Godowsky replied ‘Not for pianists!’ (10) This now famous tale was overheard by a journalist and widely reported in the papers next day. After his London debut Heifetz received a letter from an admirer:

My dear Heifetz

Your recital has filled me and my wife with anxiety. If you provoke a jealous God by playing with such super-human perfection, you will die young. I earnestly advise you to play something badly every night before going to bed instead of saying your prayers. No mortal should presume to play faultlessly.

George Bernard Shaw (11)

Heifetz became a sensation, a superstar in America and around the world virtually over night. His fee was five hundred dollars per concert arranged through his management company, The Wolfssohn Music Bureau. His mother however decided that he wasn’t earning enough money and endeavoured to get his fees increased – it would appear that she even threatened that Jascha would get sick unless she got her own way. The Wolfssohn Music Bureau hurriedly increased his fees!

After Austria, Germany, Italy and France had succumbed to his genius, Jascha returned home to America, a young man.Heifetz’s childhood had been anything but normal. He was not allowed to do the things that most children do – as he described it – not allowed to ‘indulge in the rough and tumble games that children enjoy’. (12) So, now he was able to, he began to enjoy all those things hitherto denied him. He took up sports – tennis, golf, ping pong and baseball. (13) He learned how to drive and bought himself a sports car- (years later concerned about the pollution levels in California, he became an early eco campaigner and bought himself an electric car). Naturally, his violin practice began to take a back seat, as he himself said ‘After I came to America my one aim it seems to me now, was to enjoy myself.’ (14) His performances inevitably began to suffer and audiences and more specifically critics picked up on this slight dimming of his powers.

The critic W J Henderson wrote a rather scathing review after a recital in 1921 which Heifetz years later related – ‘He wrote that I was letting the public, and him down, and that I had better watch my step. He said that it was not enough to play a piece – you must think it. He said that I owed it to myself and music never to be content. I knew that the man wished me well – he hit home because he wrote the truth. I began to take a good look at myself. I started to practise seriously. I curbed my youthful extravagances. I shall always be grateful to Henderson.

He jolted me out of my complacency and put me on the right path. Critics can sometimes be very helpful. He died some years ago and I will always regret that I did not meet him. He did me a great service.’ (15) So, Jascha knuckled down once more, and, jolted out of his carefree attitude the mature, perhaps ‘finished’ musician – if that can ever be said of a true artist, started to appear.

Pre Heifetz there had evolved two main types of violin playing – the ‘brilliance of execution and flamboyant musicality’ of Ernst, Vieuxtemps, Wieniaswki and Sarasate or those such as Spohr, David or Joachim who despised anything vulgar or showy. Heifetz combined both styles and added an unparalleled technical brilliance – to quote the writer, Henry Roth – ‘the standard of instrumental mastery introduced by Heifetz in 1917, has never been surpassed’. Vibrato was a relatively modern tool – from the 1880s onwards it had been used as a means of adding an emotional dimension to string playing. Indeed, were we able to hear violinists pre 1880, we would be shocked by their lack of tone quality. Ysaye, Kreisler and Elman embraced this new technique – and then along came Heifetz!

His playing, as all that heard him agreed, was technically nigh on perfect. His vibrato, all too often a blunt instrument used as a disguise, was for Heifetz a tool of the utmost brilliance. It was intense and focused but could also be used with the utmost delicacy. Then there was the Heifetz portamento – where he slides into a note – not the gut wrenching ‘will he ever make it?’ slide, but a perfectly judged move he used with discretion. His teacher, Auer encouraged his pupils to make the violin ‘sing’ and Heifetz’s bow control, his ability to sustain a note and hide bow changes is perhaps the nearest a violinist has ever come to reproducing the human voice. His playing is instantly recognisable – there is no mistaking him for anyone else – quite simply none can match his tone, vibrato, intensity and, I would argue, emotional input.

By the 1930’s, the public, now used to Heifetz’ perfect technique and performances, began to show discontentment with his stage manner. His lack of warmth towards his audience – acknowledging rapturous applause with a mere nod of the head and a stony face, combined with a lack of visible emotion alienated him from some concert- goers and critics. Audiences, then as now, were used to showmanship.

Facial expressions to convey emotion, moving and swaying about, heavy breathing and the general appearance of performers having to work hard and endure unimaginable suffering for their art sells tickets! Put before these audiences a technically brilliant musician who puts the emotion of the music into his playing, as opposed to the visual and it is no wonder that audiences and critics thought him and his playing ‘cold’. He made everything look too easy! Another criticism levelled at him and no doubt related to the accusations of emotional coldness was that his musicianship was somehow superficial – all gloss and no substance.

Virgil Thompson’s famous ‘Silk Underwear’ review of 1940 is worth quoting at length not only because it illustrates this growing unease at Heifetz’s detached manner but also because it is a brilliant piece of writing:

Mr Heifetz’ whole concert rather reminded one of large sums of money. If ever I heard luxury expressed in music it was there. His famous silken tone, his equally famous double stops, his well known way of hitting the true pitch squarely in the middle, his justly remunerated mastery of the musical marshmallow, were like so many cushions of damask and down to the musical ear. He is like Sara Bernhardt, with her famous ‘small voice of purest gold’ and her mastery of the wow-technique. First-class plays got in her way; she seldom appeared in one after thirty. Heifetz is at his best in short encore pieces and in lengthy chestnuts like Spohr’s eighth concerto, where every device of recitative style, of melodic phrase turning, and of brilliant passagework is laid out, like the best evening clothes and the best jewellery, for Monsieur to put his elegant person into.

No destination, no musical or emotional significance is implied. The Strauss Sonata, a work of the author’s early manhood, lacks none of that composer’s characteristic style. The themes could only be his (albeit one was practically straight out of Carmen), bombastic, second-rate (I accept the one that starts the last movement, which is bombastic and first rate), inflated, expressing nothing but the composer’s fantastic facility, his jubilant gusto at writing music. Mr Heifetz’s execution of this was almost embarrassingly refined.

Of his Mozart, the less said the better. It is of the school that makes a diminuendo on every feminine phrase-ending, that never plays any phrase through with the same weight, that thinks Mozart’s whole aim was to charm, that tries so hard to make out of the greatest musician the world has ever known ..something between a sentimental Clown and a Dresden china clock that his music ends up by sounding affected and frivolous. If that is Mozart, I’ll buy a hat and eat it. Four-starred super luxury hotels are a legitimate commerce. The fact remains, however, that there is about their machine- tooled finish and empty elegance something more than a trifle vulgar. (16)

To counteract this wave of unfavourable press, Heifetz was persuaded to employ a PR guru in the guise of a Mrs Constance Hope. Her job was not easy- she had to sell an intensely private man who quite simply did not have anything to prove to a public who wanted him to be what he patently wasn’t – one of them! Mrs Hope wrote ‘Jascha Heifetz doesn’t need anybody to tell the world how great he is. He has been doing just that and quite convincingly with his own two hands and a fiddle since he was seven.’ (17) The public had an ambivalent relationship with Heifetz and although appearing detached and unmoved he cared deeply about what audiences thought of him.

One critic wrote ‘Kreisler walks on stage imagining that he is playing for two thousand friends. Heifetz walks on stage like a killer; he believes that out of the 2000 listeners, 1,999 of them came to listen to him playing one false note….’ (18) and with attitudes like that it was an uphill struggle to change people’s perception of him. Although aware of his alleged cold public persona, Heifetz was a product of his abnormal upbringing and as such was unable to change, even had he wanted to. He was, deep down, quite insecure and still wary and cool with people he didn’t know that well. For many years, he employed a man called Sam Epstein as a page turner. Throughout their long association their relationship was rather formal with conversation limited to ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’! After about 15 years – Epstein, whilst talking to Benno Rabinoff (another pupil of Leopold Auer) commented on how beautifully Heifetz had played on a recent recording of Saint-Saens’ Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. Rabinoff suggested that perhaps Epstein should tell Heifetz himself – which he duly did. Heifetz was amazed and replied ‘you mean I finally played something you liked?’ (19)

Much has also been written about his failings at personal relationships. In 1928, he had married the Hollywood starlet Florence Vidor and together they had two children, Josepha and Robert. Florence and Jascha divorced in 1945 and he remarried a year later and had another son. But this marriage too, was doomed to fail and he divorced for a second time after sixteen years. His relationships with other musicians were also, at times, strained. However, when other violinists talk of Heifetz they agree as to his unequalled standing amongst them. Henryk Szering called him ‘the emperor’, (20) David Oistrakh said ‘there are many violinists – then there’s Heifetz’. Isaac Stern said of him ‘Heifetz represents a standard of polished execution unrivalled in memory by any violinist either by book or by personal knowledge’. (21) Even Frank Sinatra was an admirer – saying that he ‘influenced and shaped’ his way of singing and interpretation.’ (22) Many violinists found their careers suffered with Heifetz’s appearance on the scene – Henry Roth says – ‘In one fell swoop, the boy Heifetz eliminated the traditional artificial separation between so called bravura techniques, lyric orientated players and specialized stylists.

He was all three in one. And a long list of concert calibre violinists, including elite pupils of his own teacher, Auer, along with leading lights from the studios of Hubay, Sevcik, Flesch and Ysaye were instantly downgraded following his sensational debut’. (23) Dr Axelrod, in his biography of Heifetz, wrote – ‘Jan Kubelik was considered as one of the greatest violinists of his time until Heifetz came on the scene….Many violinists celebrated Heifetz’s debut by retiring from the concert stage’. (24)

Later in his career, Heifetz started to perform and record more and more chamber music. With Rubinstein and Piatogorsky, Heifetz formed what was to become known as ‘The Million Dollar Trio’ (so called because of its perceived earning potential!) and together they performed and recorded some of the great chamber music repertoire. He did not see eye to eye with Rubinstein either on a personal level or musically. They argued about practically everything – even down to whose name should have top billing – Rubinstein said ‘I told him that even if God played the violin, it would still be Rubinstein first.’ He added ‘I know every violinist worth knowing and Heifetz is the worst man I ever met. He’s a great musician, but absolutely awful as a person….’ (25) Many of their problems stemmed from the fact that they were very different personalities, as is illustrated when Rubinstein recounts in his memoirs taking Heifetz to what was in effect an orgy! – Heifetz was extremely uncomfortable and Rubinstein wrote ‘I was highly amused, but Jascha Heifetz almost fainted. He begged me to leave….’ (26)

The viola player, William Primrose worked closely with Heifetz on many projects and recordings, but later in his career, Primrose began to go deaf and it was feared at one point that he would lose his hearing altogether. After a recording session of Dvorak’s Piano quintet, Op 81 that included Primrose, Heifetz and Piatogorsky among others, Heifetz listened back to the tape and realised that the viola was out of tune. He refused to allow the release of the recording and a devastated Primrose left California. Now this can be interpreted on two levels – either Heifetz was protecting his own artistic integrity or he was protecting Primrose – the release would have left Primrose open to criticism and would maybe have finished his career for good.

However, Heifetz did have a sense of the ridiculous and was able to laugh at himself. Before playing to soldiers at a Pacific Coast Station he began with a joke to relax his audience, announcing ‘The first number will be a prelude by Bach. Don’t be scared. Besides I’ve made up my mind to play it whether you like it or not.’ (27) On another occasion 9000 tickets were sold for a theatre in Tel Aviv that had just 1000 seats which accordingly meant that he had to do the concert nine times! He says ‘After the first playing, the cab driver who brought me to the concert, and stayed to listen while he waited for me, said in the wings: ‘I have never heard that cadenza before.’ ‘I replied: it’s my own. The pity is, I will have to play it eight more times! And then the cab driver put me in my place saying: ‘You don’t have it so bad – I’ll have to sit through it eight more times!’ (28)

As a teacher, Heifetz never achieved the success that he craved. He felt that his reputation as a teacher had suffered because of a lack of good students, but it was more likely that his dictatorial manner drove students away. He was a hard task master and he never allowed his students to be individual. It was his way or nothing. Erick Friedman made a recording of the Bach Double with Heifetz. When interviewed by Samuel Applebaum for his series of books ‘The Way They Play’, Friedman was guardedly candid. Asked what he was like as a teacher he said ‘Heifetz is not one to spoon feed his pupils. He expects the pupils to conform to his extraordinary standards and it is up to the pupil to make the best of the situation……Naturally, with a person of his self assurance and authority, there were occasional moments of difficulty.’ (29) Later, Friedman, perhaps disenchanted with being thought of as a Heifetz clone, turned his back on music and studied medicine.

Heifetz gave his final concert in 1972 at the Los Angeles Music Centre and the tape of this became his last recording. Always a deeply private man he continued to play chamber music but became more and more isolated from the world – and an operation on his arm in 1975 meant that he was unable to play for some time. He spent his final days in his Malibu Beach house with his beloved ocean for company. On December 10th 1987, Jascha Heifetz died at the Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles. Arguably the greatest violinist the world has known, he left a wonderful collection of recordings for future generations to marvel at!

Perhaps Heifetz should have the last word. In a rare insight into his emotional response to music he wrote ‘Music is not only in the fingers or in the elbow. It is in the mysterious ego of the man; it is his soul.’ (30)


Jascha Heifetz – Artur Weschler-Vered published by Hale p20 quoting Heifetz – S Chotsinoff (RCA)

Heifetz – Edited by Dr Herbert R Axelrod published by Paganiniana p138

Jascha Heifetz – Artur Weschler-Vered p35

Heifetz – Edited by Dr Herbert R Axelrod p129

Heifetz – Edited by Dr Herbert R Axelrod p128

Heifetz – Edited by Dr Herbert R Axelrod p473

The Accompanist – An Autobiography of Andre Benoist published by Paganiniana p225

The Accompanist – An Autobiography of Andre Benoist p274

Jascha Heifetz – Artur Weschler-Vered p63

Heifetz – Edited by Dr Herbert R Axelrod p420

Jascha Heifetz – Artur Weschler-Vered p86

Jascha Heifetz – Artur Weschler-Vered p69

Jascha Heifetz – Artur Weschler-Vered p68

Jascha Heifetz – Artur Weschler-Vered p69

Heifetz – Edited by Dr Herbert R Axelrod p65/p69 Artur Weschler-Vered

Jascha Heifetz – Artur Weschler-Vered p87

Heifetz – Edited by Dr Herbert R Axelrod p145

Jascha Heifetz – Artur Weschler-Vered p93

Jascha Heifetz – Artur Weschler-Vered p187

Heifetz – Edited by Dr Herbert R Axelrod p49

Jascha Heifetz – Artur Weschler-Vered p147

Jascha Heifetz – Artur Weschler-Vered p148

Heifetz – Edited by Dr Herbert R Axelrod p56

Heifetz – Edited by Dr Herbert R Axelrod p51

Heifetz – Edited by Dr Herbert R Axelrod p614

Heifetz – Edited by Dr Herbert R Axelrod p617

Jascha Heifetz – Artur Weschler-Vered p114

Heifetz – Edited by Dr Herbert R Axelrod p422

The Way They Play – Samuel Applebaum and Henry Roth published by Paganiniana Book 5 p12

Heifetz – Edited by Dr Herbert R Axelrod p132

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