Jascha Heifetz: Violinist Nonpareil

by John and John Anthony Maltese

The tri­umphs of Jascha Heifetz are well known: first pub­lic per­for­mance in his home­town of Vil­nius, Lithua­nia (then occu­pied by Rus­sia) at the age of 5; Berlin Phil­har­monic debut at the age of 11; one of the most mem­o­rable debuts in the annals of Carnegie Hall at the age of 16; fol­lowed by tours, long before the ease of air travel, to the far reaches of the world: Japan, Aus­tralia, South Amer­ica, India, the Mid­dle East, and beyond—conquering audi­ences wher­ever he went. In all, he had a pub­lic career last­ing some 65 years.

Heifetz was already “Heifetz” from a star­tlingly early age. Sascha Lasser­son, who stud­ied vio­lin along­side the young Jascha in Leopold Auer’s fabled class at the St. Peters­burg Con­ser­va­tory was asked years later what Heifetz’s play­ing was like as a child. Lasser­son thought for a moment and said sim­ply, “He hasn’t improved a bit.”

Fritz Kreisler—Heifetz’s idol—heard the 11-year-old Jascha play the Mendelssohn con­certo and then accom­pa­nied him at the piano in his own Schön Ros­marin at a pri­vate con­cert in Berlin in April 1912. When Heifetz fin­ished, Kreisler famously turned to the other vio­lin­ists present and said, “We might as well take our fid­dles and smash them across our knees.” Prim­i­tive home record­ings of Heifetz made in Berlin a few months later prove that the acco­lades of crit­ics and fel­low vio­lin­ists were not mere hyperbole.

Kreisler’s admi­ra­tion of Heifetz never waned—nor did Heifetz’s admi­ra­tion of Kreisler. The two often attended each other’s con­certs. At one such Carnegie Hall recital in March 1953, Heifetz played Kreisler’s Recita­tivo and Scherzo in honor of the aging com­poser who sat in the sec­ond row. When he fin­ished play­ing, Heifetz motioned for Kreisler to stand, to thun­der­ous applause.

In his final years, Heifetz kept a signed Kreisler pro­gram on the wall of his stu­dio at the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Daniel Mason, one of Heifetz’s stu­dents, told us that Heifetz made it clear that Kreisler was still his big love. “He didn’t play Kreisler’s pieces much in pub­lic, out of respect to Kreisler,” Mason said, “but he played them often in class. And when he played them in class he imi­tated Kreisler per­fectly. He could sound exactly like Kreisler.”

Even Kreisler was once fooled by Heifetz’s play­ing of one of his own com­po­si­tions. At a trib­ute held for Kreisler by fel­low musi­cians in 1940, the great Amer­i­can vio­lin­ist Albert Spald­ing dressed up like Kreisler. He put soap on his bow so that it wouldn’t sound when he drew it across the strings. Behind a cur­tain Heifetz played one of Kreisler’s com­po­si­tions while Spald­ing pre­tended to be Kreisler per­form­ing. After­wards, Kreisler went up to Spald­ing and, assum­ing it was a phono­graph behind the cur­tain instead of Heifetz, said, “It was so nice to hear one of my old records!” Heifetz beamed when he heard what Kreisler said. Years later, Heifetz recounted the story to his stu­dents, and Daniel Mason said it was the only time he could recall when Heifetz seemed gen­uinely proud of his own playing.

Heifetz also had a tal­ent for a dif­fer­ent type of mim­icry. Another one of his pupils, Elaine Sko­rodin, recalls a din­ner party she attended at Heifetz’s home. Before din­ner, he announced that he and his accom­pa­nist, Brooks Smith, wanted to play a short recital. The guests were pleas­antly sur­prised and took their seats in his stu­dio. But when Heifetz started to play, every­one froze. His rhythm and into­na­tion were off. How could this be? Heifetz’s face was expres­sion­less, as usual, but he was look­ing at his guests out of the cor­ner of his eye and, despite a gal­lant effort, Brooks Smith could not con­tain a smile. Heifetz was engag­ing in one of his old party tricks: imi­tat­ing, per­fectly, a bad student.

Of course, Heifetz’s own sound on the vio­lin was entirely unique. He played with gut D and A strings, but pro­duced an intense tone with a fin­ger­tip vibrato that he would adjust to cre­ate impec­ca­ble nuances. His tech­nique was, to put it mildly, amaz­ing, but he was no mere tech­ni­cian. Instead, he used his tech­nique to fur­ther his art. It gave him the flex­i­bil­ity to sculpt every phrase, no mat­ter its dif­fi­culty. His tonal palette was vast, and always per­fectly coor­di­nated and controlled.

Heifetz believed that any obsta­cle on the vio­lin could be over­come. If his stu­dents’ strings went out of tune while they were play­ing, he would not allow them to stop and re-tune the vio­lin. One time, when a stu­dent com­plained that it was impos­si­ble to con­tinue under such con­di­tions, Heifetz picked up his vio­lin, put it rad­i­cally out tune, and pro­ceeded to play Paganini’s 16th caprice flaw­lessly. When he had to sub­sti­tute a fin­ger for a note that would ordi­nar­ily have been an open string, he did it auto­mat­i­cally and per­fectly. The entire class was dumbfounded.

Daniel Mason, who wit­nessed that feat, came away con­vinced that there was absolutely no phys­i­cal bar­rier between what Heifetz heard in his head and what he was able to pro­duce on the vio­lin. On another occa­sion, a stu­dent was play­ing the Schu­bert A major Duo on a vio­lin that was badly out of adjust­ment. A dif­fi­cult octave pas­sage in the slow move­ment proved to be prob­lem­atic on the instru­ment. Heifetz took the vio­lin and, unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, also had trou­ble in the octave pas­sage. He made a face and was just about to say some­thing, when Grant Beglar­ian, the Dean of the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern California’s School of Music, unex­pect­edly walked into the stu­dio for a cer­e­mo­nial visit.

After intro­duc­tions and pleas­antries, Heifetz said, “Where were we?” He still had the student’s vio­lin in his hands. All the stu­dents waited to see what he would do. He could have sim­ply returned the vio­lin, but by doing so he would have lost face in front of the stu­dents. So he stepped up to the moment. He put the vio­lin back under his chin and did the only thing he could do under the cir­cum­stances: he played the pas­sage per­fectly despite the lim­i­ta­tions of the vio­lin. Beglar­ian was obliv­i­ous to the sig­nif­i­cance of this, but it made a strong impres­sion on the class. Heifetz handed back the vio­lin and said sim­ply, “Mind over matter.”

Though Heifetz is known best as a vio­lin­ist, he also had an extra­or­di­nary tal­ent for the art of arrang­ing and tran­scrib­ing works for the vio­lin. He trans­formed every­thing from key­board works by Chopin and Poulenc to songs by Ponce and Gersh­win into lit­tle mas­ter­pieces that sounded like they were meant to be played on the vio­lin. One, Hora Stac­cato, tran­scended the world of clas­si­cal music and became a bona fide sen­sa­tion. Many of these tran­scrip­tions can be heard in this set and have entered the stan­dard reper­toire of today’s violinists.

Heifetz could also impro­vise beau­ti­fully. One time while teach­ing he asked the class pianist to play the accom­pa­ni­ment to the Mendelssohn con­certo. He then pro­ceeded to make up an entirely new vio­lin part on the spot. His orig­i­nal com­po­si­tions were lim­ited to pop­u­lar songs writ­ten under the pseu­do­nym Jim Hoyl. One, “When You Make Love to Me (Don’t Make Believe),” became a hit in 1946. Among those who recorded it were Bing Crosby, Helen Ward, and Mar­garet Whit­ing. Once the song had made it on its own, Heifetz con­fessed to writ­ing it.

Over the years, Jim Hoyl became some­thing of an alter ego to Jascha Heifetz. The name Heifetz was a dif­fi­cult one to live up to. As “Heifetz,” he was a leg­end: on dis­play, judged, unable to let down his guard. At the height of his career, Heifetz was a house­hold name—one syn­ony­mous with per­fec­tion. For this shy and intensely pri­vate man, being Heifetz must have been a dif­fi­cult bur­den. And so “Jim Hoyl” became the antithe­sis of “Jascha Heifetz”: relaxed, anony­mous, tin pan alley. Heifetz’s fish­ing licenses bear the name Jim Hoyl, and at parties—when he really let his hair down—Heifetz asked oth­ers to call him Jim.

A story recounted by Daniel Mason is a reveal­ing and mov­ing one. In 1976, the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia wanted to cel­e­brate Heifetz’s 75th birth­day with a gala event. Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, Heifetz refused. He did not like pub­lic cel­e­bra­tions of birth­days and anniver­saries, and he shunned trib­utes. When his man­ager, Arthur Jud­son, sug­gested a sil­ver anniver­sary com­mem­o­ra­tion of his 1917 U.S. debut, Heifetz refused. Late in life he also refused to be hon­ored by the Pres­i­dent of the United States at the annual Kennedy Cen­ter Hon­ors in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Aware of all this, Heifetz’s stu­dents nonethe­less wanted to cel­e­brate his birth­day. So, they decided to hold a sur­prise birth­day party for him in class. They knew that hijack­ing class for such a pur­pose was per­ilous, but they came up with an idea that they thought Heifetz might like. He always insisted that in order to be good all-around musi­cians, his stu­dents must be able to play another instru­ment beside the vio­lin. Thus, he required them all to take piano lessons and to accom­pany one of the other stu­dents in class once a semes­ter (Heifetz, him­self, was a very accom­plished pianist).

So, the stu­dents decided that they would sur­prise Heifetz with a per­for­mance of a tango. But, they would all play instru­ments that they really didn’t know how to play. The result was a very dis­mal sound­ing ensem­ble, but one that they hoped Heifetz would appre­ci­ate. In order to exe­cute the sur­prise, they had to enter Heifetz’s stu­dio at USC before he arrived—something they had never done before. The plan was for them to start to play as soon as he entered the room. When fin­ished they would serve cake and other food and refresh­ments to their sur­prised teacher.

On the day of the sur­prise, the stu­dents were ter­ri­fied. No one knew how Heifetz would react. When he walked into the stu­dio, the stu­dents launched into a per­for­mance of their rag-tag tango. Heifetz was car­ry­ing his vio­lin case in one hand, a black bag in the other, and he wore a hat. At first he just stood in the mid­dle of the room and didn’t move. More ner­vous than ever, the stu­dents pushed onward with their tango, glanc­ing to see what Heifetz would do. Very slowly, he put down his vio­lin case, and then very slowly he put down his bag. With a grand ges­ture he lifted off his hat and, in a mag­i­cal moment, began a solo dance around the room.

“It was mag­i­cal because we knew the joke was okay with him, but also because he was a great dancer, so it was really beau­ti­ful to watch him,” Mason told us. When they fin­ished play­ing, the stu­dents rushed to the next room and brought in the cake and began to sing, “Happy Birth­day, Mr. Heifetz”—it was always Mis­ter Heifetz. But he quickly inter­rupted them: “You’ve got the wrong guy,” he said. “You don’t want me. You want a friend of mine. I think he’s nearby. I’ll go get him.” He then left the room as Jascha Heifetz and returned a few sec­onds later as Jim Hoyl. “He said ‘Jim’s here,’ and then we were call­ing him Jim, and he was a totally dif­fer­ent persona.”

Heifetz’s reserve has often been mis­taken for cold­ness, or worse. He was for­mal.  He was a man of few words, highly orga­nized, deeply patri­otic, and extra­or­di­nar­ily dis­ci­plined. Immac­u­late in every­thing he did, he expected the same from those around him. But, in the end, he was more demand­ing of him­self than of any­one else.

When the pianist Mil­ton Kaye audi­tioned to be his accom­pa­nist in 1944, Heifetz warned him that he expected only the best from him. “If you are an artist, you do things cor­rectly,” Heifetz explained. “Not half way – fully.” He paused and looked at Kaye. “Do you want to be an artist?” he asked. Kaye nod­ded. “Then no approx­i­ma­tion,” Heifetz said. The blood must have drained from Kaye’s face, because Heifetz then offered some reveal­ing words of com­fort: “If you think I am tough on you, remem­ber, I am twice as tough on myself.”

Beneath Heifetz’s for­mal exte­rior was a boy­ish sense of humor. He loved games and par­ties. Espe­cially in his early years he would par­tic­i­pate in elab­o­rate skits—often writ­ten by his brother-in-law and one-time accom­pa­nist, Samuel Chotzi­noff. The pianist Jacob Lateiner, who col­lab­o­rated in cham­ber music con­certs with Heifetz and cel­list Gre­gor Piatig­orsky in the 1960s, and who can be heard in sev­eral of the cham­ber music record­ings in this set, later wrote that Heifetz was “prob­a­bly the best host I have ever met in my life.”

Lateiner would rehearse daily with Heifetz and Piatig­orsky from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with a break for lunch. Heifetz never dom­i­nated the rehearsals, accord­ing to Lateiner, but they worked very hard. “Our prepa­ra­tion was such that by the time we got to the per­for­mance there was room for spon­tane­ity.” This prepa­ra­tion reflected a maxim that Heifetz passed on to his stu­dents: “Prac­tice like it means every­thing in the world to you. Per­form like you don’t give a damn.”

Leonard Pen­nario, another pianist who par­tic­i­pated in cham­ber music con­certs and record­ings had sim­i­lar rec­ol­lec­tions of Heifetz as both host and col­lab­o­ra­tor. He said that he learned more from Heifetz dur­ing their rehearsals than from any teacher he ever had, and he spoke of the great cama­raderie fos­tered by Heifetz when they played together. Inter­spersed between the hours of rehearsals were meals, after­noon swims, and games of ping pong and gin rummy.

Heifetz was gen­er­ous with oth­ers in ways that often defy com­mon wis­dom. For exam­ple, he qui­etly gave fine vio­lins and bows to his stu­dents, helped them with rent money, and insisted on vis­it­ing each of them at their own home—but always with the under­stand­ing that they not talk about it to oth­ers. Late in life, these stu­dents became a sec­ond fam­ily to Heifetz. He invited them sev­eral times a year to his home in Bev­erly Hills or his beach house in Mal­ibu. Thanks­giv­ing at the beach became a time-honored tra­di­tion. Erick Fried­man, with whom Heifetz recorded the Bach dou­ble con­certo, once said that “Heifetz’s con­sid­er­a­tion and tact for oth­ers he cares about is beyond most people’s imagination.”

Heifetz gave his last pub­lic recital at the Dorothy Chan­dler Pavil­ion in Los Ange­les on Octo­ber 23, 1972—a ben­e­fit con­cert that was recorded and is included in this set. We were both in the audi­ence. Just ahead of us, tears streamed down the face of an elderly woman as Heifetz played the slow move­ment of the Strauss sonata, and just down the row from us sat the great come­dian and better-than-he-let-on vio­lin­ist Jack Benny, who was a long­time admirer of Heifetz. Together the two had per­formed a com­edy skit and a duet for U.S. troops dur­ing World War II—part of Heifetz’s tire­less (and often dan­ger­ous) ser­vice for the USO dur­ing the war.

No one knew this would be Heifetz’s last recital, but Brooks Smith later said that he sensed it. Heifetz was very tired. He played only one short encore, Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Sea Murm­ers, and gave a brief cur­tain speech. Say­ing he was “pretty much poop-ed,” he apol­o­gized for not being able to attend a post-concert party. He then retreated to his dress­ing room and, unchar­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, refused to see any­one. It was the end of his for­mal pub­lic career.

Heifetz con­tin­ued to teach and made his last, unan­nounced, pub­lic per­for­mance at a stu­dent con­cert on the cam­pus of the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia on April 28, 1974. Piatigorsky’s pupils were sched­uled to play the Bachi­a­nis Brasileiras No. 5 for cel­los and soprano by Hec­tor Villa-Lobos. At another con­cert not long before that one, Bev­erly Sills had sung the soprano part with them. This time, Piatig­orsky strode on stage to intro­duce the work. “We can’t have Miss Sills today,” he told the audi­ence, “so we’ve looked within our own fam­ily and have found a very tal­ented boy soprano. We won’t have cleav­age or décol­letage, but we will have tal­ent.” With that, Heifetz walked on stage and per­formed the soprano solo on the vio­lin. He played the entire piece on one string, using just one fin­ger on his left hand to imi­tate the sound of a human voice.

Not long after­wards, the mus­cles in Heifetz’s right shoul­der hem­or­rhaged. Surgery and phys­i­cal ther­apy did not repair the dam­age, leav­ing him unable to raise his right arm. Nonethe­less, he still man­aged to play in class, tilt­ing and con­tort­ing the vio­lin in order to accom­mo­date the lim­i­ta­tions of his arm. If he wanted to play on the G string he would some­times ask a stu­dent to hold up his arm. In that con­di­tion, he played the entire Tchaikovsky piano trio in class. It was yet another exam­ple of “mind over matter.”

Luck­ily, we have a vast col­lec­tion of recorded per­for­mances of Heifetz chron­i­cling almost his entire career—from his first record­ings made in St. Peters­burg at the age of 10, to his final record­ings made late in his 71st year. Included in this set are sev­eral con­cer­tos that Heifetz com­mis­sioned: the Korn­gold, Wal­ton, Rózsa, Gru­en­berg, and Castelnuovo-Tedesco 2nd, as well as world pre­miere record­ings of con­cer­tos he cham­pi­oned, such as the Sibelius and Prokofiev 2nd.

As a boy, Heifetz per­formed the Glazounov con­certo with the com­poser con­duct­ing, and he was an early cham­pion of the Elgar concerto—learning it under Auer’s tute­lage shortly after its pre­miere and meet­ing Elgar in 1920. You can hear both, as well as the sonatas of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, lesser-known ones by Bloch, Fer­gu­son, and Karen Khacha­turian, and a wealth of cham­ber music that runs the gamut from Mozart and Schu­bert to Turina and Toch. Of spe­cial inter­est are sev­eral pre­vi­ously unis­sued stu­dio recordings.

The list of Heifetz’s col­lab­o­ra­tors on these record­ings is a long and dis­tin­guished one that can eas­ily be gleaned from the accom­pa­ny­ing discog­ra­phy. Less obvi­ous are the extra­or­di­nary musi­cians who per­formed in the pick-up orches­tras billed as the RCA Vic­tor Sym­phony Orches­tra. For exam­ple, it included such vio­lin­ists as Sol Bab­itz, Israel Baker, Ana­tol Kamin­sky, Peter Merem­blum, Lou Rader­man, Eudice Shapiro (who often served as con­cert­mas­ter), and Felix Slatkin. None other than Toscha Sei­del played in the vio­lin sec­tion for such record­ings as the Conus and Spohr con­cer­tos, Lalo’s Sym­phonie Espag­nole, and the 1952 record­ings of Saint-Saëns’ Intro­duc­tion and Rondo Capric­cioso and Sarasate’s Zige­uner­weisen.

Sei­del, of course, had been one of Auer’s great prodi­gies, study­ing in the same class as Heifetz. He and Heifetz had con­cer­tized together as boys, play­ing the Bach dou­ble con­certo, and Sei­del had made a very suc­cess­ful Carnegie Hall debut in 1918, just one year after Heifetz. He was—along with Heifetz, Mis­cha Elman, and Sascha Jacobsen—the inspi­ra­tion behind the Gersh­win song, “Mis­cha, Jascha, Toscha, Sascha.” (Jacob­sen led the Musi­cal Art Quar­tet in Heifetz’s record­ing of the Chaus­son con­certo for vio­lin, piano, and string quar­tet.) Sei­del even­tu­ally aban­doned his solo career for a very suc­cess­ful one as a stu­dio musi­cian in Hol­ly­wood, thus end­ing up in the orches­tra for Heifetz.

For much of his career, Heifetz had to con­tend with the claim that his play­ing was “cold.” The cel­list Lau­rence Lesser, who per­formed in the record­ings of Spohr’s dou­ble quar­tet and Tchaikovsky’s Sou­venir de Flo­rence, strongly con­tests that claim. “He was a hot player,” Lesser insists. “Nobody has ever played with more pas­sion.” Many oth­ers agree. Why, then, did the claim stick? No doubt it was partly because peo­ple lis­tened with their eyes, and Heifetz’s stage pres­ence was impassive—no swoon­ing, sway­ing, or smiling.

Before his 1971 tele­vi­sion broad­cast, Heifetz responded to a ques­tion about his stage pres­ence by say­ing: “Actu­ally, I don’t feel I’m impen­e­tra­ble, cool or aloof when I’m on the stage. I’m not even aware that I appear seri­ous. If I don’t smile…it’s only because I become so absorbed in my play­ing that I for­get every­thing else. If a smile doesn’t come spon­ta­neously, why resort to an arti­fi­cial grimace?”

Lis­ten for your­self, and see if you don’t agree with Howard Taub­man, long­time music critic at the New York Times, who once offered a retort to the charge that Heifetz was “a splen­did, heart­less violin-playing machine” by say­ing that “any­one with ears to hear” knows this charge is “rub­bish.” “For me and many oth­ers,” Taub­man wrote, “he was a non­pareil of vio­lin­ists. He had everything—technique in super­abun­dance, purity of tone, taste, lofti­ness of feel­ing.” Thanks to his many record­ings, gen­er­a­tions to come can judge for them­selves and bask in the artistry of Jascha Heifetz.

This arti­cle appears in Sony Music’s “Jascha Heifetz Com­plete Album Col­lec­tion,” and is repro­duced here with their permission.

John Mal­tese is Pro­fes­sor Emer­i­tus of Music, Jack­sonville State Uni­ver­sity, Alabama; his son, John Anthony Mal­tese, is the Albert B. Saye Pro­fes­sor and Head of the Depart­ment of Polit­i­cal Sci­ence at the Uni­ver­sity of Geor­gia. Both are long­time noted author­i­ties on Heifetz and his record­ings. They are cur­rently writ­ing a book on Heifetz.