Jascha Heifetz

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Jascha Heifetz
Heifetz LOC 38890u.jpg
Background information
Born February 2 1901(1901-02-02)
Vilna, Lithuania,
Russian Empire
Died December 10 1987 (aged 86)
Los Angeles, California,
United States
Genre(s) Classical
Occupation(s) Pedagogue, violinist
Instrument(s) Violin
Years active fl. ca. 1910-1987
Website www.JaschaHeifetz.com
Notable instrument(s)
Dolphin 1714 Stradivarius
Heifetz-Piel 1731 Stradivarius
Antonio Stradivari 1734
Carlo Tononi 1736
ex-David 1742 Guarneri

Jascha Heifetz (February 2, 1901 – December 10, 1987) was a Jewish-Lithuanian violin virtuoso often hailed as the greatest violinist of the twentieth century.

A child prodigy, Heifetz made strong impressions on audiences and fellow musicians in Europe before making his debut at Carnegie Hall in 1917. He soon became the most recognized violist in the world, and his name became equated with excellence as he recorded the great violin works with superb technique and emotional expression. He also acted and performed in films and recorded jazz and popular works.

Heifetz was an outspoken critic of the government of the Soviet Union and was thought to be a traitor by the Soviet authorities for having emigrated to the United States early in his career. He also caused controversy in Israel for playing the works of German composer Richard Strauss.

Heifetz became a preeminent teacher of violin in his later years in the Los Angeles area. He received the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1989.

Early life

Heifetz was born to Jewish parents in Vilnius, Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire. There is controversy over his birth year, which is sometimes placed a year or two earlier to 1899 or 1900, as his mother may have said he was two years younger than he actually was in order to make him seem like more of a prodigy. His father, Reuven Heifetz, was a local violin teacher and served as the concertmaster of the Vilnius Theater Orchestra for one season before the theater closed down.

Heifetz' teacher, Leopold Auer

Jascha took up the violin when he was three years old, his father being his first teacher. At five he started lessons with Ilya D. Malkin, a former pupil of Hungarian violinist Leopold Auer. He was a child prodigy, making his public debut at seven in Kovno (now Kaunas, Lithuania), playing the Violin Concerto in E minor by Felix Mendelssohn. In 1910 he entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory to study under Auer.

Before reaching his teens, Heifetz performed in Germany and Scandinavia and met Austria-born violinist Fritz Kreisler for the first time in Berlin. After accompanying the 12-year-old Heifetz at the piano in a performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto, Kreisler said to all present, "We may as well break our fiddles across our knees."

Heifetz traveled through much of Europe while still in his teens. In April 1911, he performed in an outdoor concert in St. Petersburg before 25,000 spectators. There was such a sensational reaction that the police needed to protect the young violinist after the concert. In 1914, Heifetz performed with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Arthur Nikisch. The conductor was duly impressed, saying he had never heard such excellence.


On October 27, 1917, Heifetz played for the first time in the United States at Carnegie Hall and became an immediate sensation. Fellow violinist Mischa Elman in the audience asked, "Do you think it's hot in here?" whereupon Leopold Godowsky, in the next seat, imperturbably replied, "Not for pianists."

At 16, Heifetz was elected as an honorary member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the national fraternity for men in music, by the fraternity's Alpha chapter at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He was among the youngest ever elected to membership in the organization. He remained in the country and became an American citizen in 1925. When he told admirer Groucho Marx he had been earning his living as a musician since the age of seven, Groucho answered, "And I suppose before that you were just a bum."

Technique and timbre

Heifetz is considered to be one of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century, as he possessed an immaculate technique and a tonal beauty that many violinists still regard as unequaled. On occasion his near-perfect technique and conservative stage demeanor caused critics to accuse him of being overly mechanical, even cold. Others insisted he infused his playing with feeling and reverence for the composers' intentions.

His style of playing was highly influential in defining the way modern violinists approach the instrument. His use of rapid vibrato, emotionally charged portamento (slides between two pitches), fast tempos, and superb bow control coalesced to create a highly distinctive sound that make his playing instantly recognizable to many aficionados. Violinist Itzhak Perlman, who himself is noted for his rich, warm tone and expressive use of portamento, describes Heifetz' tone as like "a tornado" because of its emotional intensity.

Early recordings

Heifetz made his first recordings in Russia during 1910-1911, while still a student of Auer. The existence of these recordings was not widely known until after Heifetz' death.

Shortly after his Carnegie Hall debut in 1917, Heifetz made his first recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company. He would remain with Victor and its successor, RCA Victor, for most of his career. Although Heifetz often enjoyed playing chamber music, some critics have blamed his limited success in chamber ensembles to the fact that his artistic personality tended to overwhelm his colleagues. Several notable collaborations include his 1940 recordings of piano trios by Beethoven, Franz Schubert, and Brahms with cellist Emanuel Feuermann and pianist Arthur Rubinstein as well as a later collaboration with Rubinstein and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, with whom he recorded trios by Maurice Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Felix Mendelssohn. Both formations were sometimes referred to as the Million Dollar Trio.

He recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto in 1940 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini, and again in stereo in 1955 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Münch. A live performance of Heifetz playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, again with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, was also released. He also performed and recorded Erich Wolfgang Korngold's violin concerto, at a time when many classical musicians avoided Korngold's music because they did not consider him a "serious" composer after he wrote many film scores for Warner Brothers.

War years

Heifetz recorded several works by George Gershwin and other American popular composers.

During WWII, Heifetz commissioned several pieces, notably the Violin Concerto by Sir William Walton. He also arranged a number of pieces such as Hora Staccato by Grigoraş Dinicu, a Romanian gypsy whom Heifetz is rumored to have called the greatest violinist he had ever heard.

Heifetz also played and composed for the piano. Not limited to classical genre, he performed mess hall jazz for soldiers at Allied camps across Europe during the Second World War. Under the alias Jim Hoyle he wrote a hit piano song, "When you make love to me, don't make believe."

From 1944 to 1946, largely a result of the American Federation of Musicians strike banning commercial recording by members, Heifetz went to American Decca Records, which had settled with the union in 1943. He recorded primarily short pieces, including his own arrangements of music by George Gershwin and Stephen Foster. These were pieces he often played as encores in his recitals. He was accompanied on the piano by Emanuel Bay or Milton Kaye. Among his Decca recordings were several featuring Bing Crosby. However, Heifetz soon returned to RCA Victor, where he continued to make recordings until the early 1970s.

Later recordings

Heifetz often recorded with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Returning to RCA in 1946, Heifetz continued to make a number of 78-rpm discs, including solo, chamber, and orchestral recordings. RCA began releasing long-playing recordings in 1950, including concertos taken from 78-rpm masters. The company also began to make new high-fidelity recordings with Heifetz, primarily with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Münch and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner.

A two-CD RCA compilation titled Jascha Heifetz - The Supreme, published in 2000, gives a sampling of Heifetz's major recordings, including the 1955 recording of Johannes Brahms' violin concerto and the 1957 version of Peter Tchaikovsky's violin concerto with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; a 1959 recording of Jean Sibelius' violin concerto with Walter Hendl and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; a 1961 recording of Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy with Sir Malcolm Sargent and the New Symphony Orchestra of London; a 1963 recording of Alexander Glazunov's A-minor concerto with Walter Hendl and the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra; a 1965 recording of George Gershwin's Three Preludes with pianist Brooks Smith; and a 1970 recording of Johann Sebastian Bach's unaccompanied Chaconne from the second Partita in D minor.

Political issues

Russian defector

The consensus among the Soviet musical elite was that Heifetz and his teacher Leopold Auer were traitors to their home country and the Soviet cause. Although Heifetz had emigrated at a very young age, the Soviets were inclined to brand any American collaboration as infidelity due to the political circumstances following World War II and the ensuing Cold War. Heifetz, meanwhile strongly criticized the Soviet regime, and he condemned the International Tchaikovsky Competition for being biased against Western competitors.

Third Israel tour

On his third tour to Israel in 1953, Heifetz included in his recitals the Violin Sonata by Richard Strauss, whose works were unofficially banned in Israel along with those of Richard Wagner. Pressured to omit Strauss from his performances, Heifetz argued, "The music is above these factors... I will not change my program." Throughout his tour the performance of the Strauss Sonata was followed by dead silence.

After his recital in Jerusalem Heifetz, was attacked outside his hotel. The assailant escaped and was never found. Heifetz announced that he would still not stop playing the Strauss, but he omitted the Strauss piece from his next recital without explanation. His last concert was canceled after his swollen right hand, injured in the attack, began to hurt. He left Israel and did not return until 1970.


Heifetz owned the 1714 Dolphin Stradivarius, the 1731 "Piel" Stradivarius, the 1736 Carlo Tononi, and the 1742 ex David Guarneri, del Gesù, the latter of which he preferred and kept until his death. The Dolphin Strad is currently owned by the Nippon Music Foundation. The Heifetz Tononi violin used at his 1917 Carnegie Hall debut was left in his will to Sherry Kloss, Master-Teaching Assistant to Heifetz, with "one of my four good bows" (Violinist/Author Kloss wrote "Jascha Heifetz Through My Eyes, and is Co-Founder of the Jascha Heifetz Society). The famed Guarneri is now in the San Francisco Legion of Honor Museum, as instructed by Heifetz in his will, and may only be taken out and played "on special occasions" by deserving players. The instrument has recently been on loan to San Francisco Symphony concertmaster Alexander Barantschik.

Later life

Heifetz with his student Rudolf Koelman (left)

After an only partially successful operation on his right shoulder in 1972 Heifetz ceased giving concerts and making records. Although his prowess as a performer remained intact and he continued to play privately until the end, his bow arm was affected and he could never again hold the bow as high as before.

Heifetz taught the violin extensively, first at UCLA, then at the University of Southern California, in collaboration with his friend, the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. During the 1980s he also held classes in his private studio at home in Beverly Hills. His teaching studio can be seen today in the main building of the Colburn school in downtown Los Angeles, where it is now used for masterclasses. During his teaching career Heifetz taught, among others, Erick Friedman, Carol Sindell, Adam Han-Gorsky, Robert Witte, Yuval Yaron, Elizabeth Matesky, Claire Hodgkins, Yukiko Kamei, Rudolf Koelman, Varujan Kojan, Sherry Kloss, Elaine Skorodin, Eugene Fodor, and Ayke Agus.

Heifetz died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, at age 86.


Heifetz influenced generations of twentieth-century violinists, of whom he remains one of the most outstanding examples. He also left an impressive catalog of recorded music featuring his performances of the history's greatest and most challenging violin pieces. He also recorded a relatively large number of pieces on film which demonstrate his superb technique, many of which can be seen today on the Internet.

Heifetz also had a minor career as an actor. He played a featured role in the movie They Shall Have Music (1939), in which he played himself, stepping in to save a music school for poor children from foreclosure. He later appeared in the 1947 film, Carnegie Hall, performing an abridged version of the first movement of Tchaikovsky's violin concerto. Heifetz later recorded the complete Tchaikovsky concerto with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as one of RCA Victor's "Living Stereo" discs. In 1951, he appeared in the film Of Men and Music. In 1962 he appeared in a televised series of his master classes, and in 1971 he starred in an hour-long television special, Heifetz on Television that featured a series of short works.

Heifetz was married in 1928 to the silent motion picture actress Florence Vidor, whose seven year old daughter, Suzanne, Heifetz adopted. The couple had two more children, Josefa (born 1930) and Robert (1932-2001) before divorcing in 1945. In 1947, Heifetz married Frances Spiegelberg, with whom he had another son, Joseph. The second marriage ended in divorce in 1962.

Heifetz's son Joseph (Jay) is a professional photographer. He was formerly head of marketing for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl and the chief financial officer of Paramount Pictures' Worldwide Video Division. Heifetz's daughter, Josefa Heifetz Byrne, is a lexicographer, author of Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure and Preposterous Words. Heifetz's grandson Danny Heifetz is an accomplished drummer/percussionist and has played with Mr. Bungle, Dieselhed, Secret Chiefs 3, and Link Wray.

In 1989, Heifetz received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Agus, Ayke. Heifetz As I Knew Him. Portland, Or: Amadeus Press, 2001. ISBN 9781574670622
  • Axelrod, Herbert R. Heifetz. Neptune City, N.J.: Paganiniana Publications, 1976. ISBN 9780876666005
  • Kloss, Sherry. Jascha Heifetz Through My Eyes, Ball State University/Music, Muncie, IN, 2000. ISBN 0967859026
  • Weschler-Vered, Artur. Jascha Heifetz. New York: Schirmer Books, 1986. ISBN 9780029344804
  • Campbell, Margaret: The Great Violinists, Robson Books, London, UK, 2004. ISBN 1861056230

External links

All links retrieved March 31, 2018.


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