Jascha Heifetz

More than a cen­tury after his pub­lic debut, the name Jascha Heifetz con­tin­ues to evoke awe and excite­ment among fel­low musi­cians. In a per­form­ing career that spanned 65 years, he estab­lished an unpar­al­leled stan­dard of vio­lin play­ing to which vio­lin­ists around the world still aspire.

The day after the 19-year-old Heifetz’s Lon­don debut, George Bernard Shaw wrote him a now leg­endary let­ter. “If you pro­voke a jeal­ous God by play­ing with such super­hu­man per­fec­tion,” Shaw warned, “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 so faultlessly.”

Heifetz is widely con­sid­ered to be one of the most pro­foundly influ­en­tial per­form­ing artists of all time. Born in Vil­nius, Lithua­nia — then occu­pied by Rus­sia — on Feb­ru­ary 2, 1901, he became a U.S. cit­i­zen in 1925. Fiercely patri­otic to his adopted coun­try, he gave hun­dreds of con­certs for Allied ser­vice men and women dur­ing World War II, includ­ing tours of Cen­tral and South Amer­ica, North Africa, Italy, France, and Ger­many, often play­ing from the back of a flatbed truck in dan­ger­ous conditions.

In 1928, he pub­lished the first of dozens of acclaimed vio­lin tran­scrip­tions. Many, includ­ing his arrange­ments of selec­tions from Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” are now part of the stan­dard reper­toire. Using the pseu­do­nym Jim Hoyl, he even wrote a pop song that became a hit in 1946.

In his later years, Heifetz became a ded­i­cated teacher and a cham­pion of causes he believed in. He led efforts to estab­lish “911” as an emer­gency phone num­ber, and cru­saded for clean air. He and his stu­dents at the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia protested smog by wear­ing gas masks, and in 1967 he con­verted his Renault pas­sen­ger car into an elec­tric vehicle.

As a result of his vast recorded legacy, Heifetz’s vio­lin play­ing is no less influ­en­tial today than it was in his life­time. To legions of vio­lin­ists he remains, quite sim­ply, “The King.”

Jascha Heifetz