Hommage to Heifetz – One of the Greatest Violinists of all Time

“An artist will never become great through imitation, and never will he be able to attain the best results only by methods adopted by others. He must have his own initiative.” ~ Jascha Heifetz

Jascha Heifetz needs no introduction to anyone familiar with classical music, or a fan of the violin; but out of respect to a great artist, here goes. There will be more than a hint of hero worship! As far as violin playing is concerned, he reached the peak of Mount Olympus. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do. He was, quite simply, a legend in his own lifetime.

heifetz_as_a_young_boy

Jascha Heifetz (2 February 1901 – 10 December 1987)

There are shades of Mozart in his youth: as a child prodigy he began playing the violin aged three, gave his first public performance aged five, and was accepted into the St. Petersburg Conservatory aged nine. He was first influenced musically by his father, played for royalty, took Europe by storm as a teenager, thrilled American audiences in Carnegie Hall at the age of sixteen and embarked on his first world tour aged nineteen. The rest, as they say, is history…

Many believe he has done more than any other 20th century violinist to elevate the standard of modern violin playing. But, paradoxically, he wasn’t all about technique. He was that rare breed of musician that transcended the physical boundaries of his instrument and became a true artist. Artistry for me, more so than technique is what sets him apart from other violinists. He took all the skills that were available to him, boundless natural talent, hours of practice, his almost flawless technical skill, emotional and mental mastery, and molded them into his individual, personal style, his unique artistry.

heifetz-quote

He was blessed with divine ability on the violin, which was brought about in a most heart-warming way. As a baby he would cry while his father was looking after him and he did not know how to calm him. Being a professional violinist and concert master of the Vilnius orchestra, (now in Lithuania), Rubin Heifetz would play his violin to baby Jascha, and it stopped him crying!

We should never underestimate the impact of early exposure to music on a human being. Whether they grow up to be one of the greatest musicians the world has ever seen or not, its benefits are immeasurable.

Probably the most well-known superlative that has been heaped on him was the sobriquet and documentary film title: ‘God’s Fiddler’. Even his teacher at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg, the revered Leopold Auer, when asked why he had not mentioned Jascha Heifetz in his list of top students retorted, “He’s not my student, he’s a student of God.”

The celebrated violinist Fritz Kreisler commented after hearing Heifetz’s debut in Berlin, “The rest of us might as well take our fiddles and break them across our knees!” From Kreisler!

heifetz-quote2

In a letter from his father to his uncle, when Jascha was just 10 years old, his father talked of the praise that had been showered on his son, not just by his teachers, but by the St. Petersburg press and musical community, who had been gushing over him after his first professional recital, saying that he was unique, not just in Russia, but in the whole world. The weight of expectation was firmly on his young shoulders.

His name has become synonymous with excellence. Many musicians, regardless of their instrument, have heard the scathing phrase: “He’s no Heifetz!”  The great cellist, Pablo Casals was dubbed the ‘Heifetz of the cello’. Pretty much every performance of Heifetz’s is a masterclass in violin mastery and perfection.

Performances

Jascha Heifetz’s performing career spanned over sixty years, during which time he played in a total of 2,368 performance events. The bulk of his performance was naturally given in recitals, both solo and with orchestras. He made 197 recordings and 82 radio broadcasts. His chamber work was the rarest of his performance appearances, with only 28 concerts under his belt.

By the time he gave his London debut in 1920 he had already sold 20,000 copies of his early recordings.

Jascha Heifetz was a crowd pleaser, an audience wower, he was born to perform.

But all the talent in the world would not have served him without the relentless work ethic and self-discipline that he exhibited throughout his life. The one time he allowed his practice schedule to lapse for a little too long served as a painful, but essential lesson in his blossoming career.

Let’s have a break and listen to some early, vintage recordings of the wunderkind!

Soon after his debut Heifetz performed a devilishly difficult programme piece by Beethoven, the Chorus of Dervishes from The Ruins of Athens.

heifetz-ruins-of-athens

It has triplet fingered octaves, a previously unknown piece to me, but very evocative:

The Russian Revolution ensured that Heifetz remained in America and he became a citizen of his adopted homeland in 1925, where he lived for the rest of his life. At first he settled in New York and moved to California in the late 30’s. During the Second World War he toured camps across Europe with the USO, playing to soldiers to lift morale and give some cultural interlude from the horrors of war.

“The performer must create an illusion for the audience.” ~ Jascha Heiftez

One of his students, professional violinist and pianist, Ayke Agus who later became his accompanist, assistant and confidante, tells of a story that Heifetz had impressed upon her about one such wartime recital.

He had arranged to play to the troops in the open air, but the weather had taken a turn for the worse and on the day of the concert it was raining. Heifetz was offered the chance to pull out of his obligation, but he replied that as long as he could breath, move and walk he would perform.  Only one soldier stood in the deserted, muddy, wet field to listen that day. Ayke insists that Heifetz told her he thought it was one of his best ever performances.

In his later life as his performance career diminished Heifetz would often reminisce to her about his soloist days. She relays the story of when Heifetz played a private concert for Hellen Keller, who very touchingly could feel the music vibrations through her fingertips as she held on the scroll of his violin. She had impressed Heifetz greatly.

Shock, horror, a bad review!

For most of his early life Jascha Heiftez had received nothing but praise. And rightly so, he was one of the most outstanding violinists of his time, and indeed of all time. But his popularity in America, which furnished him with success and freedom, enabled him to let his hair down a little and enjoy the good life. In his own words, Heifetz admitted that it was not until he had reach adulthood that he could behave like a child.

In his childhood he had endured a strict regime of musical studies. It’s certainly understandable that he would want to relax and enjoy the fruits of his success for a while. But the lack of practise during his first four years in America had begun to show in his performance.

Nothing had prepared Heifetz emotionally for a bad review, and when scathing criticism came his way after one fateful New York concert, it wounded him deeply and jolted him out of complacency.  Although his pride was hurt, Heifetz actually agreed with the reviewer that he owed it to himself and music never to be content. It seems he became his own biggest critic from that day on.

After his ego recovered Heifetz applied himself to rigorous preparation and practice schedules before his concerts. He had set the bar impossibly high, and now the challenge was always to live up to an incredibly high standard.

“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.” ~ Jascha Heifetz

What really blows my mind was the speed, accuracy and co-ordination of his hands and bow. Heifetz’s hands in slow motion:

Philosophy

Jascha Heifetz believed that the audience should never feel like the artist is struggling to achieve anything. And in all his clips, no matter how fast and furious the piece, or even slow and legato, he has perfect control and makes it look effortless. He likened performance to making the perfect pitch in baseball. No-one would see, or even understand the effort that had gone into it.

His positive mind set comes across brilliantly in a great interview about violin mastery on David Jacobson’s blog.

When once asked by a student, “What are the most important attributes for an artist?” Heifetz responded candidly: “Self-respect musically speaking, integrity and enthusiasm.”

His personal philosophy was drawn from Rudyard Kipling’s poem, If, which he carried a copy of at all times. He said of particular relevance to him was the idea of treating the imposters of triumph and disaster just the same. He understood that an artist’s life meant treading that path between the two. Let’s face it; most of what he achieved was a total triumph, even to the extent that his unrivalled standard of perfection made him a target.

He was labelled as ‘cold’ and unemotional. It’s true that he didn’t show feelings so much on his face as is more common now-a-days. How silly for his critics to get their nickers in a twist over a lack of facial expression, when he clearly made the music his mode of expression. This video makes the point perfectly:

Jim Hoyl

At the height of his fame Jascha Heifetz wrote some popular songs under the pseudonym Jim Hoyl, which was easy to use with the same initials.

Here is Heifetz playing the piano to his own song, When You Make Love, which had been sung by none other than Bing Crosby :

He would also travel under this alias so as not to be easily recognised and identified. It struck me that he was humble and modest despite his international fame.

Teaching

After 1974 Heifetz dedicated himself to continuing the teaching legacy of his beloved tutor in St. Petersburg, Leopold Auer. In his own words Heifetz had said about Auer: “The professor was stern and very exacting, but a sympathetic teacher.” I feel these words describe his own pupils’ experiences. Ayke Agus had expressed what seemed close to terror, “It felt like we were victims.” She related how he would cover the technical aspects, the musical aspects as well as make them play on out of tune violins to prepare them for any eventuality they might face as professional musicians.

He held twice weekly lessons structured in the same way as Leopold Auer. My living hero on the violin, Itzhak Perlman, tells of his Masterclass experience as a 14 year old with Heiftez:

There is a great clip of Heifetz himself warming up for practice with scales, left handed pizzicatos and he even plays sections of the first movement of Beethoven’s violin concerto, which consists of beautiful melodic scales!

Ayke tells of how Heifetz would teach them the importance of bowing technique, and how Heifetz impressed on them that the colour of the tone came from the bow arm. He likened it to a painter with a brush never having the same evenness of colour and shade on the canvas, it wasn’t uniform.  He taught them to reach out to people’s hearts.

heifetz-beethoven

Heifetz himself found staccato bowing the most difficult thing to learn and tried to in-still in his students what Ayke Agus refers to as an ‘honest staccato’, which can only be achieved by having a stiff arm, lifting the bow on and off the string slowly and accurately before attempting a fast tempo.

Hora Staccato:

Heifetz did a series of televised Masterclass sessions in the sixties. I have chosen the one dedicated to Bach’s ‘Chaconne’. If you have read this earlier post on one of my favourite pieces of solo violin music, then you will know that Heifetz’s interpretation is untouchable.

Interests and idosyncracies

Jascha became known for deliberately playing badly, in order to demonstrate how not to do it. It was something of a party trick. He was also a keen photographer, ping pong player and motorist. Years before Elon Musk was born, Jascha Heifetz spent a significant amount of his money building his own electric car in 1965.  He didn’t like the smoke and pollution and decided he would do his bit for the environment.

Transcriptions for the violin

Heifetz also adapted other composer’s works for the violin. He met and admired George Gershwin, arranging his songs from Porgy and Bess for the violin.

Being a true patriot he also arranged the Star Spangled Banner:

The story behind one of his most beloved encore arrangements – Estrellita:

Heifetz’s Violins

Jascha Heifetz owned several high value violins, his preferred performance violin being the 1742 ‘ex-David’ Guarneri del Gesù, closely followed by his 1731 Stradivarius.

A touching interview with luthier Hans Benning, who Heifetz chose to maintain his violins:

Violin Concerto Recordings:

There are no words to describe the pure magic of these vintage recordings!

“You can ‘just listen’ to the Brahms violin concerto and enjoy it keenly. But if you read about Brahms’ life, you appreciate it more. And, if you’ve listened to recordings of it, you will appreciate it ten times as much.” ~ Jascha Heifetz

Heifetz’s sound was, and still is distinctive, original and silky, his tonal quality unsurpassed. His sublime phrasing, his unique musical language just send me to another realm and inspire me to practice. I love that you never get sentimentality from Heifetz, but you always get his enthralling blend of power and emotion.

If there was any downside to his stellar success I think it showed-up in his private life. He was married and divorced twice, and by some accounts wasn’t particularly close to his three children. He had to balance his career with his family, and I don’t think his relationship with his own father was a warm one. Heifetz was quite introverted and said in interviews that he had felt lonely at the top. His fame had come at a price.

I hope you’ve enjoyed his music as much as I have, and please share the post if you think the world needs more Heifetzes!

It feels fitting to bow out, (if you’ll pardon the pun!) with Heifetz’s final recital:

One thought on “Hommage to Heifetz – One of the Greatest Violinists of all Time

  1. Pingback: The Great Virtuoso Violinists/Composers of the 19th Century: Joachim | rhap.so.dy in words

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