Jascha Heifetz

1901 1987

Jascha Heifetz

Violin

Biography

By 1911, ten year old Heifetz was regularly playing shows in front of thousands of people, and had become a sensation in both Russia and Europe. His debut in Berlin the following year was met with a raucous reception and characteristic sentiments of envy from all violinists present.Fritz Kreisler, whom Heifetz greatly looked up to, declared after the concert “we might as well take our fiddles and smash them across our knees.” However if was nothing but supportive of the young protégé, even sitting down at the piano to accompany the young Heifetz on one song.

That same year, Heifetz made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, substituting for Pablo Casals who was too sick to attend, as well as premieres in Warsaw and Prague. Although he was supposed to play his American debut as early as 1914, the First World War and the following Russian Revolution made travel difficult for him. In the end the only way he was able to get to Carnegie Hall was the long way: by taking the Trans-Siberian Railroad from St. Petersburg to Japan, going by ship to Hawaii and then San Francisco, and then travelling by train across the whole breadth of the continental United States to arrive in New York in August of 1917.

Even excluding the tours with the American military, Heifetz was one of the most well-travelled musicians of his time. His London debut in 1920 kicked off decades of travel which would see him visiting Australia, numerous countries in South and East Asia, and North and South America. Many of these required grueling journeys by sea before the invention of modern commercial aviation. However, everywhere Heifetz went, his reputations and recordings preceded him.

The frequent despairing comments from violinist who came to see Heifetz were often centered around his masterful, nearly perfect technique, which is often described as the best in history. This led some to describe his playing as cold and unsentimental, although this is hardly the case. It is true that Heifetz had a stoic and controlled stage presence, but the sounds emitting from his violin were powerful and poignant. His massive tone, created through a combination of heavy pressure from the bow and vigorous vibrato, is one of the finest and history, and was well suited to his interpretations of the great violin works from the Romantic era.

Many forget that Heifetz himself was also a composer and arranger. Most of his works understandably featured the violin, and he made many well-known transcriptions for the instrument that are still in use today. His first major his was his arrangement of Grigoraş Dinicu’sHora Staccato (1906), which he completed in 1930. Another major contribution was arranging several works from his long-time friendGeorge Gershwin, including his Three Piano Preludes (1926) and several songs fromPorgy and Bess (1935). Despite the strength of these works, it is for his masterful and expressive command of the violin that Heifetz will always be known.

Header image courtesy of Russian Mind Other image couresy of the Violin Site, the New Yorker and Covering Media

The Russian-born Jascha Heifetz is widely regarded as the premier violin virtuoso of all time. His flawless technique and warm, expressive tone won him instant admirers all over the world, and he also composed and transcribed many pieces for violin that are still in the standard repertoire.

Heifetz was born Vilnius, currently the capital of Lithuania but then part of the Russian Empire. His father Ruvim was the concertmaster of the Vilnius Symphony Orchestra who bought his son a violin when he was only two years old. He learned how to play first from his father, before studying with Elias Malkin. From the start, there was little doubt that Heifetz was a once-in-a-generation prodigy. By the age of six he had mastered many complex études and could performMendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. In 1910 he enrolled at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied with the great violinist and pedagogue Leopold Auer.

It is difficult to overstate the impact of Heifetz’s Carnegie Hall debut that October. Sixteen year old Heifetz was instantly deemed “a genius, a transcendentally great violinist” byMusical America and “a master… whose equal this generation will probably never meet again” byThe New York World.  However, probably the most memorable quip from the evening is from violinist and fellow student of Auer, Mischa Elman. As Heifetz began to play, Elman whispered “it’s awfully hot in here” to his neighbor, the pianist Leopold Godowsky, to which he replied “not for pianists.” This conversation probably encapsulates the feeling in the audience more than any newspaper heading: Heifetz had just changed everything.

Immediately after his Carnegie Hall performance, Heifetz travelled to Camden, New Jersey to make the first of what would end up being hundreds of recordings, which document nearly the full span of his seven-decade career. Most of these were with the Vic­tor Talk­ing Machine Com­pany, later RCA Vic­tor. Heifetz was lucky that his career went into full swing just at the dawn of the recording age. Because of this he was one of the earliest musicians to have his music heard all over the world, and it is because of these recordings that we can still hear his masterful approach to the violin today.

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