Biography

Jascha Heifetz, widely regarded as one of the great­est per­form­ing artists of all time, was born in Vil­nius, Lithua­nia, which was then occu­pied by Rus­sia, on Feb­ru­ary 2, 1901.. He began play­ing the vio­lin at the age of two. He took his first lessons from his father Ruvin, and entered the local music school in Vilna at the age of five where he stud­ied with Ilya Malkin. He made his first pub­lic appear­ance in a stu­dent recital there in Decem­ber 1906, and made his for­mal pub­lic debut at the age of seven in the nearby city of Kovno (now known as Kau­nas, Lithua­nia). With only brief sab­bat­i­cals, he per­formed in pub­lic for the next 65 years, estab­lish­ing an unpar­al­leled stan­dard to which vio­lin­ists around the world still aspire.

Heifetz entered the St. Peters­burg Con­ser­va­tory in 1910. He stud­ied first with I.R. Nal­ban­dian, and then entered the class of Leopold Auer in 1911. By then his pub­lic per­for­mances were already cre­at­ing a sen­sa­tion. One out­door con­cert in Odessa in the sum­mer of 1911 report­edly drew as many as 8,000 peo­ple. The young Nathan Mil­stein, who was in the audi­ence, recalled that the police sur­rounded the boy when he fin­ished play­ing to pro­tect him from the surg­ing crowd.

In 1912, Heifetz appeared for the first time in Berlin, which was then one of the great musi­cal cen­ters of the world. “He is only eleven years old,” Auer wrote in his let­ter of intro­duc­tion to the Ger­man man­ager Her­man Fer­now, “but I assure you that this lit­tle boy is already a great vio­lin­ist. I mar­vel at his genius, and I expect him to become world-famous and make a great career. In all my fifty years of vio­lin teach­ing, I have never known such pre­coc­ity.”[1]

Heifetz’s Berlin debut took place at a pri­vate press mati­nee on May 20, 1912, at the home of Arthur Abell, the Berlin critic for Amer­i­can mag­a­zine, Musi­cal Courier. Heifetz played the Mendelssohn con­certo with Mar­cel van Gool at the piano. Crit­ics and many of the lead­ing vio­lin­ists of the day attended, includ­ing Carl Flesch, Hugo Heer­man, Willy Hess, and Heifetz’s idol, Fritz Kreisler. “You should have seen the amaze­ment on their faces,” Fer­now glee­fully reported to Auer, and “when Fritz Kreisler sat down at the piano and accom­pa­nied Jascha in his Schön Ros­marin pan­de­mo­nium broke loose in the room.” After hear­ing Heifetz play, Kreisler report­edly turned to his fel­low vio­lin­ists and said, “We might as well take our fid­dles and smash them across our knees.”

Heifetz’s pub­lic debut in Berlin took place four days later at the large hall of the Hochschule für Musik. A sold out audi­ence packed the 1,600 seat hall. Fer­now wrote to Auer that the recital was “a sen­sa­tional suc­cess” and that “the pub­lic was wild with enthu­si­asm.” Then, on Octo­ber 28, 1912, Heifetz replaced the ail­ing cel­list Pablo Casals to make his debut with the Berlin Phil­har­monic play­ing the Tchaikovsky con­certo under the direc­tion of the leg­endary con­duc­tor Arthur Nikisch. Years later, Arthur Abell wrote: “When Jascha fin­ished play­ing there occurred a demon­stra­tion such as I have sel­dom wit­nessed in more than sev­enty years of attend­ing con­certs. Nikisch him­self led the applause and the whole orches­tra joined in.”

Heifetz also made debuts in War­saw and Prague in 1912. He was to have made his Amer­i­can debut in 1914, but the out­break of World War I pre­cluded travel. Finally, in the wake of the first stage of the Russ­ian Rev­o­lu­tion in 1917, the Heifetz fam­ily made an ardu­ous jour­ney to the United States. They trav­elled by way of the Trans-Siberian Rail­road from St. Peters­burg to Japan. From there they set sail for the United States, cross­ing the Pacific Ocean with a stop in Hawaii, and land­ing in San Fran­cisco. They then trav­elled the length of the United States by train, and finally arrived in New York at the end of August. Heifetz spent most of the next two months prepar­ing for his U.S. debut, which took place at Carnegie Hall on Octo­ber 27, 1917, with André Benoist at the piano.

That recital stands as one of the most sen­sa­tional debuts in musi­cal his­tory. The reviews in the many daily news­pa­pers that then existed in New York were so rap­tur­ous in their praise that Heifetz’s man­ager sim­ply reprinted them in their entirety in multi-page ads in the lead­ing music mag­a­zines. Musi­cal Amer­ica hailed the 16-year-old as a “tran­scen­den­tally great vio­lin­ist” in a full page review enti­tled “Hats Off, Gen­tle­men, A Genius!” Sig­mund Spaeth in The Evening Mail said that until Heifetz, the con­cept of the per­fect vio­lin­ist had just been an ideal. “Then,” he wrote, “a tall Russ­ian boy with a mop of curly hair walked out on the stage of Carnegie Hall and made the ideal a reality.”

William J. Hen­der­son wrote in The New York Sun that Heifetz had the “tech­nique which must make him the admi­ra­tion and the despair of all the other vio­lin­ists,” but added that “bet­ter than this is the exquis­ite fin­ish, elas­tic­ity and resource of his bow­ing, which gives him a supreme com­mand of all the tonal nuances essen­tial to style and inter­pre­ta­tion.” Pierre V.R. Key added in The New York World that Heifetz’s “breadth, poise, and per­fect regard for the turn of a phrase con­stantly left his hear­ers spell­bound. Noth­ing that he under­took was with­out a fin­ish so com­plete, so care­fully con­sid­ered and worked out, that its bet­ter­ment did not seem possible….For the moment it is suf­fi­cient to say that he is supreme; a mas­ter, though only [six­teen], whose equal this gen­er­a­tion will prob­a­bly never meet again.”

Among the many vio­lin­ists who packed Carnegie Hall that after­noon to hear Heifetz were Fritz Kreisler, Maud Pow­ell, Franz Kneisel, and David Mannes. The one every­one remem­bers, how­ever, is Mis­cha Elman—the first great vio­lin prodigy to emerge from Auer’s tute­lage. Elman had already been play­ing in the United States since 1908 and, until Heifetz set foot on the stage of Carnegie Hall, he was widely con­sid­ered to be Auer’s great­est pupil. Seated next to him at Heifetz’s debut was the pianist Leopold Godowsky. As the first half of the recital pro­gressed, Elman leaned over to Godowsky and whis­pered: “It’s awfully hot in here.” With­out miss­ing a beat, Godowsky replied: “Not for pianists.” To Elman’s ever­last­ing despair, a reporter over­heard Godowsky recount­ing the exchange dur­ing inter­mis­sion, and the story was soon repeated in press accounts around the world.

Two weeks after his Carnegie Hall debut, Heifetz trav­elled to Cam­den, New Jer­sey to make his first record­ings for the Vic­tor Talk­ing Machine Com­pany. He had already recorded a few sides for the Russ­ian com­pany Zvukopis in St. Peters­burg in May 1911, and a few home­made cylin­der record­ings have sur­vived from a ses­sion at the home of Julius Block in Berlin in Novem­ber 1912, but the Vic­tor record­ings mark the true begin­ning of Heifetz’s record­ing career. Over the next 55 years, he made hun­dreds of record­ings for RCA Vic­tor and its Eng­lish affil­i­ate HMV. All of them remain in print, inspir­ing gen­er­a­tions of new listeners.

After exten­sive tours through­out the United States in 1918 and 1919, Heifetz—long before the ease of air travel—began a series of tours to the far reaches of the world. He became one of the first musi­cians to be well known through record­ings before appear­ing in per­son. By the time he made his Lon­don debut in 1920, Britons had already bought some 70,000 copies of his records. In the com­ing decade he toured Europe, India, the Mid­dle East, Aus­tralia, Japan, China, and North and South Amer­ica, tak­ing audi­ences and crit­ics by storm wher­ever he went. An avid ama­teur pho­tog­ra­pher, Heifetz doc­u­mented these early trav­els with home movies. He returned to Rus­sia for the first and only time in 1934, giv­ing con­certs in Moscow and St. Peters­burg, where his boy­hood teacher, Nal­ban­dian, stood at the back of the audi­to­rium with tears stream­ing down his face.

In May 1925, Heifetz became a nat­u­ral­ized U.S. cit­i­zen. He was an out­stand­ing pianist, and he cel­e­brated by impro­vis­ing jazz on the piano at a party hosted by the soprano Alma Gluck and her hus­band, the vio­lin­ist Efrem Zim­bal­ist. By then, Heifetz’s fame had already tran­scended the world of clas­si­cal music. In the com­ing years, the name “Heifetz” became so iconic that it was used in radio, motion pic­ture, and tele­vi­sion dia­logue as a syn­onym for per­fec­tion. Much to Heifetz’s amuse­ment, even car­toons referred to him. He often clipped them and taped them to his fil­ing cab­i­net in his stu­dio. One, from Parade mag­a­zine, showed an irate cus­tomer com­plain­ing to his mechanic: “$120.34 for a tune up? Who tuned it, Jascha Heifetz?” Another depicted a man mix­ing a cock­tail, with the cap­tion: “Mas­ter of mixol­ogy: Hei-fizz.”

In 1939, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer built a Hol­ly­wood movie, “They Shall Have Music,” around Heifetz. In it, Heifetz—playing himself—came to the res­cue of a music school for chil­dren by play­ing an impromptu ben­e­fit con­cert. The fic­tional school in the movie was loosely based on the Chatham Square Music School in New York. In real life, Heifetz had joined forces to raise money for that school—at a ben­e­fit con­cert he par­tic­i­pated in skits and, wear­ing short pants and a sailor shirt, played in a “stu­dent” orches­tra con­ducted by Arturo Toscanini. His fel­low stu­dents included the likes of Nathan Mil­stein, Adolf Busch, Josef Gin­gold, Oscar Shum­sky, William Prim­rose, and Emanuel Feuermann.

Heifetz per­formed in ben­e­fit con­certs through­out his career. A “Vic­tory Loan” con­cert that he gave at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House in New York with pianist Sergei Rach­mani­noff in April 1919 raised an incred­i­ble $7,816,000 to help pay for expenses incurred by the U.S. gov­ern­ment dur­ing World War I.[2] When, in 1933, the Great Depres­sion threat­ened to close the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera House, Heifetz returned to par­tic­i­pate in a ben­e­fit to save the Met. Dressed as Johann Strauss, Jr., he took the podium to con­duct the “Tales from Vienna Woods Waltz.” Dur­ing World War II he gave con­certs to raise money for U.S. War Bonds and for orga­ni­za­tions such as the Red Cross, British War Relief, and the Royal Air Force Benev­o­lent Fund. His many ben­e­fit con­certs in France led the French gov­ern­ment to make him an offi­cer in the French Legion of Honor in 1939, a rank that the Pres­i­dent of France ele­vated to com­man­der in 1957. And, his last recital at the Dorothy Chan­dler Pavil­ion in Los Ange­les in Octo­ber 1972 was a ben­e­fit for the Schol­ar­ship Fund at the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern California’s School of Music.

Heifetz donated his ser­vices to the USO dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, play­ing for thou­sands of ser­vice men and women around the world—often in dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions. He played for Allied troops in Cen­tral and South Amer­ica in 1943, in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy in 1944, and France and Ger­many in 1945. He gave con­certs in and near war zones in hos­pi­tal wards, sports are­nas, and often from the back of a flatbed truck that car­ried around a cam­ou­flaged upright piano for his accom­pa­nist. One out­door con­cert that he gave in Italy in 1944 was bombed, and he briefly found him­self lost behind enemy lines in Ger­many in 1945.

Heifetz had close asso­ci­a­tions with com­posers through­out his life. At the age of thir­teen he per­formed the Glazounov con­certo under the direc­tion of the com­poser, who was then the Direc­tor of the St. Peters­burg Con­ser­va­tory. Heifetz was an early cham­pion of the Elgar con­certo. He stud­ied it with Auer shortly after its 1910 pre­miere by Kreisler, and per­formed it in Lon­don in 1920 with Elgar in the audi­ence. Sergei Prokofiev was a stu­dent at the St. Peters­burg Con­ser­va­tory when Heifetz was there, and heard Heifetz play with Glazounov. Years later, Heifetz cham­pi­oned Prokofiev’s sec­ond vio­lin con­certo, giv­ing its U.S. pre­miere in 1937, and mak­ing the first record­ing of it shortly thereafter.

Heifetz also com­mis­sioned and pre­miered con­cer­tos by William Wal­ton, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Mik­lós Rózsa, Louis Gru­en­berg, and Erich Korn­gold. He met Shostakovich when he returned to Rus­sia in 1934, knew Stravin­sky and Schoen­berg, made an effort to pro­gram music by con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can com­posers on his recital pro­grams, and had ties with Dar­ius Mil­haud, Ernest Bloch, and oth­ers. He met Sibelius in Fin­land and helped to pop­u­lar­ize his con­certo, mak­ing its world pre­miere recording.

Heifetz was a com­poser him­self. He con­tributed sig­nif­i­cantly to the vio­lin reper­toire by cre­at­ing dozens of mas­ter­ful tran­scrip­tions and arrange­ments of works by other com­posers. He pub­lished his first tran­scrip­tion, of Ponce’s Estrel­lita, in 1928. Two years later he cre­ated a sen­sa­tion with his arrange­ment of Dinicu’s Hora Stac­cato. Heifetz was a close friend of George Gersh­win, and he asked him to write some­thing for the vio­lin. Gersh­win died before he could honor the request. Heifetz helped to make up for that loss by tran­scrib­ing Gershwin’s three piano pre­ludes in 1942 and songs from Porgy and Bess in 1944. They are now among the most beloved tran­scrip­tions in the vio­lin repertoire.

In the 1940s, Heifetz—under the pseu­do­nym Jim Hoyl—wrote sev­eral pop­u­lar songs with the lyri­cist Mar­jorie Goetschius. One, When You Make Love to Me (Don’t Make Believe), became a hit in 1946. Among those who recorded it were Bing Crosby, Dick Jur­gens, Helen Ward, and Mar­garet Whit­ing, and the song was fea­tured in the sound­track to the 1949 movie, The Set-Up, directed by Robert Wise and star­ring Robert Ryan.

In the 1950s, Heifetz returned to Europe, Japan, and Israel where, in 1953, he was attacked by a man wield­ing a metal pipe for play­ing the vio­lin sonata by the Ger­man com­poser Richard Strauss. He also con­tin­ued to tour the United States and, in Decem­ber 1959, he played at the United Nations in New York. The pre­vi­ous year he began teach­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Los Angles. Leopold Auer once “put a fin­ger on me,” Heifetz told a reporter at the time. “He said that some day I would be good enough to teach.” Heifetz moved to the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in 1962 where sev­eral of his mas­ter­classes were filmed and broad­cast on tele­vi­sion. He con­tin­ued to teach at USC until 1983. “Vio­lin play­ing is a per­ish­able art,” Heifetz said. “It must be passed on as a per­sonal skill—otherwise it is lost.”

Heifetz had a long love of cham­ber music. He played it pri­vately with friends through­out his life, and as early as 1934 per­formed Beethoven’s op. 127 string quar­tet pub­licly at a ben­e­fit con­cert at New York’s Town Hall for the Beethoven Asso­ci­a­tion. He made leg­endary cham­ber music record­ings with vio­list William Prim­rose, cel­list Emanuel Feuer­mann, and pianist Arthur Rubin­stein in the 1940s. After the untimely death of Feuer­mann in 1942, Heifetz formed a trio with Rubin­stein and cel­list Gre­gor Piatig­orsky. They appeared in a series of four con­certs at the Ravinia Fes­ti­val just out­side of Chicago in the sum­mer of 1949, made a series of record­ings, and were fea­tured in a film. Crit­ics quickly dubbed them the “Mil­lion Dol­lar Trio.”

Heifetz and Piatig­orsky had planned another series of trio record­ings with the pianist William Kapell in the 1950s, but Kapell’s death in a plane crash in 1953 pre­vented that. Then, in 1961, they began a series of “Heifetz-Piatigorsky Con­certs.” In the com­ing years they tra­versed a wide range of reper­toire with fel­low musi­cians, from duos by Toch and Kodály to octets by Mendelssohn and Spohr. They gave con­certs in Los Ange­les, San Fran­cisco, and New York, and made many recordings.

Heifetz’s solo per­for­mances became rarer in the 1960s, but he returned to Eng­land to record con­cer­tos in both 1961 and 1962, and gave con­certs in Israel in 1970. He per­formed the Beethoven con­certo at the open­ing of the Dorothy Chan­dler Pavil­ion in Los Ange­les in 1964, gave solo recitals in New York in 1966 and Los Ange­les in 1968, and filmed a con­cert for tele­vi­sion in Paris in 1970 that aired in the United States on NBC in 1971. His last recital took place in Los Ange­les in Octo­ber 1972, 55 years after his U.S. debut. He con­tin­ued to per­form in con­certs given by his stu­dents at the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia until 1974, when a shoul­der injury put an end to his pub­lic career.

Heifetz cham­pi­oned a num­ber of causes through­out his life. He was active in unions, serv­ing as a found­ing mem­ber and first vice pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Guild of Musi­cal Artists in 1936 and as a found­ing mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Radio Artists in 1937. Later, 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.

Heifetz was mar­ried twice, to Flo­rence Vidor from 1928 to 1946, and to Frances Spiegel­berg from 1947 to 1963. Both mar­riages ended in divorce. He had two chil­dren, Josefa and Robert, with his first wife, and one, Joseph (“Jay”) with his sec­ond. Heifetz was an avid sailor, loved ping pong and ten­nis, and col­lected books and stamps. He died on Decem­ber 10, 1987 at Cedars-Sinai Med­ical Cen­ter in Los Ange­les, but his magic lives on through his record­ings, which remind us why the great critic Deems Tay­lor once wrote that Heifetz has “only one rival, one vio­lin­ist whom he is try­ing to beat: Jascha Heifetz.”

by John and John Anthony Maltese

John Mal­tese is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of music at Jack­sonville State Uni­ver­sity, Alabama. John Anthony Mal­tese is the Albert B. Saye Pro­fes­sor and Head of the Polit­i­cal Sci­ence Depart­ment at the Uni­ver­sity of Geor­gia. They are cur­rently writ­ing the autho­rized biog­ra­phy of Jascha Heifetz.

This biog­ra­phy may be used in whole or in part as long as the fol­low­ing credit accom­pa­nies it: “From the Jascha Heifetz Biog­ra­phy at www.JaschaHeifetz.com, © 2010 John and John Anthony Maltese”


[1] The cor­re­spon­dence between Auer and Fer­now, as trans­lated from the Ger­man by Arthur M. Abell, was printed in: Arthur M. Abell, “When Heifetz, Aged 11, Stormed Musi­cal Berlin,” Musi­cal Courier, May 15, 1952, pp. 6–7. The other quotes, includ­ing Abell’s descrip­tion of Heifetz’s debut with the Berlin Phil­har­monic, are from this same source.

[2] “Huge Sum in Notes Earned by Encores,” New York Times, April 29, 1919.