Jascha Heifetz - Biography


Jascha Heifetz the most famous of classical violinists was born on February 2nd 1899 in Vilnius Lithuania and died on December 10th 1987 In Los Angeles (There is controversy about his birth year he insisted it was 1901 modern scholarship says 1899, protégées tend to make themselves younger).His father Rubin taught him the rudiments of music and by the time he was six he was performing in public. By this time he had entered Vilnius Conservatory By 1910 his father managed to get Heifetz into the St. Petersburg Conservatory where he studied with Leopold Auer the world preeminent violin teacher who was the original dedicatee of Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. In 1912 Auer recommended Heifetz to famed conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Artur Nikisch and their performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto created a sensation. He performed in Russia and Europe until the early stages of the Russian Revolution of 1917 when the still teenaged Heifetz escaped Russia to the USA through Siberia. Heifetz debut in Carnegie Hall on October 27th 1917 was a great critical and audience success. The concert was attended by the reigning Russian violinist in America Mischa Elman who complained during the intermission about the hall being too hot to pianist Leopold Godowsky who quipped “Not for pianists”.


He soon was touring the USA and established a recording career with Victor records making acoustic 78 sides. He toured London after the war and had George Bernard Shaw who was also a music critic state “Mr. Heifetz should play a wrong note every once in a while to prove that he is human” Heifetz early recordings already had that inimitable tone and matchless technical finish. Heifetz married the silent film actress Florence Vidor in 1928 with whom he had two sons. Heifetz was something of a social lion in the 1930’s and established friendships with Gershwin and Rachmaninoff and luminaries of the film world. Heifetz starred in a not very successful film in 1939 They Shall Have Music whose plot revolved around him staging a concert to stage to save a settlement house musical school. Eight years later he appeared in the movie Carnegie Hall performing excerpts from the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and adlibbing with conductor Fritz Reiner. Heifetz during the 1930’s made very distinguished recordings of the concerto standard repertoire with conductors like Toscanini, Beecham, Koussevitzky and Barbirolli, some people prefer these recordings to his stereo remakes for their more relaxed tempi and natural balance between violin and orchestra. Heifetz who now lived in Beverly Hills made recordings of the major piano trios with pianist Artur Rubinstein and cellist Emmanuel Feuermann (upon Feuermann’s early death Gregor Piatagorsky joined the trio). Before the war he commissioned a violin concerto from English composer William Walton that soon became a part of the standard repertoire.


Heifitz in the early 1940’s as all great artists do started to receive negative criticism for what they preserved as coldness and slickness in his playing that they claimed were suitable for virtuoso pieces but not the core Austro/German repertoire. The leader of this critical minority was the brilliant composer critic Virgil Thomson who described his playing as “silk underwear music”. Heifetz was a populist and along with Bach and Beethoven sprinkled his concerts with encores of Gershwin arrangements and the neo Yiddish Hora Staccato. Heifetz was also criticized for not performing modernist classics by Bartok, Stravinsky and Berg though he almost commissioned a concerto from Schoenberg who eventually had some else performed it. Heifetz fame was so ubiquitous in popular culture that comedians like Jack Benny and the Three Stooges used to reference him in their acts. Being a Lithuanian Jew he was very popular with émigré Jew’s who often had their sons study the violin to emulate him. Heifetz did considerable work for the USO during the war. During the war there was a recording ban by the Musicians Union concerning royalties, American Decca records settled first and Heifitz made a score or so sides of a pop crossover nature that even had a duet with Bing Crosby amongst them.


After the strike was settled he went back to RCA and recorded works like the Elgar Concerto the Bach Sonatas and Partitas and the Beethoven Violin Sonatas with Pianist Emanuel Bay and more chamber music with Rubinstein and Piatagorsky .During the 1950’s he commissioned fine conservative concertos from Korngold, Gruenberg, Castelnuevo-Tedesco and Rozsa. He began to re-record his concerto repertoire in stereo starting with the Brahms and Beethoven concertos with Fritz Reiner and Charles Much conducting. Heifetz got into the news when he insisted while on tour in Israel in 1953 on performing an innocuous youthful Sonata by Richard Strauss. Strauss at the time was banned in Israel because for a while he held a cultural post under the Nazi’s (He was to resign). A fanatical protester physically attacked Heifitz but was fended off and he received minor injuries. In the early 1960’s he often performed chamber music in Los Angeles with his close friend Piatagorsky and violist William Primrose and pianist Leonard Pennario, most of these performances resulted in recordings. Heifitz by 1970 was slowing down due to shoulder pain. After1972 he no longer performed in public. He taught at both UCLA and USC and his most prominent student was Erik Freidman. He was avid ping pong player and an auto fan that had an electrical car built for him in the late 60’s (he was an early environmentalist). He had a difficult stern personality (he like Rachmaninoff never smiled publically). His sense of privacy made nearly reclusive during his retirement. He banned anyone from writing his biography and when a gentleman named Axelrod attempted a pictorial biography with a small publisher Heifetz sued him for $75 million. Heifitz quietly passed away in Los Angeles in December 1987 and with him along with the death of Horowitz two years later a musical era passed.


In the nearly forty years since his retirement Heifetz’s reputation has held up remarkably well. A complete edition of his recordings were out by RCA on LP to celebrate his 75th birthday (or 77th?) much of which was put on CD but as of 2010 is unfortunately very spottily represented in the catalog. Heifitz is one of the most sovereign names in music making along with Rubinstein and Horowitz.   

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