February 2, 2012
Mr. Jascha Heifetz (born 1901, died 1987)
Violin Virtuoso Section
February 2, 2012
Dear Mr. Heifetz,
Today, February 2nd, is your birthday. Happy birthday, sir, and my deepest thanks for the miracle of your artistry. I have listened to you play the violin throughout my entire life—actually my entire life plus nine months to be exact, since mother attended your concerts and listened to your recordings throughout her pregnancy with me.
In my childhood, I first heard you performing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto on our family’s records. The purity and shimmering tenderness of your playing brought unexpected tears to my young eyes. Then, as a young violin student struggling with the daunting difficulties of the instrument, your virtuosity astonished me. My teacher at the time, Peter Meremblum, you may recall had gone to school with you in Russia. Hardly a lesson went by without Meremblum’s making a comment about you. “Heifetz practices six to eight hours a day. Heifetz plays two hours of scales before he even looks at a piece of music.” The Heifetz campaign continued at home. My parents urged me to work harder so that I could become the next Heifetz. And when I slacked off they shook their heads sadly. How could I expect to be a Heifetz when I wasted time playing ball? At student concerts, “He’s no Heifetz” from my dad was the kiss of death.
The steady flow of comments was a testimony to your playing. You of all people know how difficult the violin is and that only a precious few have truly mastered it. Yet you had something beyond this. They say that an accident takes place when several unlikely things converge at the very same moment. You were the perfect example of a statistical improbability, or better said, a divine accident—the confluence of an ideal violinist’s body, an uncommon musical gift, and an obsessive need for perfection on every level. But there was something more. You seemed to have the nervous system of a humming bird: you could execute the minutest details at breakneck speed, shift moods in a split second, and recklessly dare all where others were prudently cautious. I listened to your recordings in disbelief. It was simply not possible for a human being to play with such wizardry. I despaired of ever even remotely approaching your level.
For a brief time as a teenager, though, I dared to think otherwise. I liked to play a little game with you, Mr. Heifetz, putting my assigned music on the stand and your rendition on the record player. It might be any number of pieces I worked on—Tchaikowsky’s Violin Concerto, Saint-SaÃ«ns’ Havanaise, or Sarasate’s Gypsy Airs. First I listened to you, shaking my head in wonder. Then I practiced the same piece myself. At the outset, the gap between us seemed too immense to cross, but with work I improved, and with improvement my spirits soared. I was catching up. Why, I was almost as good as you! Time to swagger over to the record player and listen to you again—you whose fingers moved so effortlessly, whose phrasing was like liquid mercury, whose playing seared with white heat one moment and teased playfully the next. “Jascha, Jascha”, I muttered despairingly as the record ended. You reigned over every would-be violinist, inspiring the industrious, crushing hope for those not supremely gifted, and stalking the lazy.
Finally, I heard you in person. Small, slender, but immaculately dressed, you stepped out onto the stage with a minimum of gesture. You did not accept our welcoming applause with deep bows but merely tilted your head in our direction. As you stood in front of the Los Angeles Philharmonic waiting for your solo entrance, you hardly moved, and even when you began to play, there were no excessive gestures, no grandstanding for the public, only those motions necessary to play the violin. Visually, you gave off a feeling of reserve, even aloofness, and yet the perfection of your delivery and the range of expression were astonishing. You challenged the most difficult of passages by rushing headlong into them—a display of fearlessness that took my breath away. Yet the lyrical moments had such tenderness and sensitivity that I wanted to weep. It was a performance of fire and shimmering light delivered in a container made out of ice.
Other violin virtuosos engaged me differently than you. When I listened to Fritz Kreisler, someone I know you admired greatly and who shares your birth date, I could easily imagine a benign and loving 19th century world lit by candlelight. The Hungarian violinist, Joseph Szigeti, my last teacher, affected me no less deeply but quite differently with his keen intellect and touching nobility. But when you played, Mr. Heifetz, my heart raced and the palms of my hands broke out in sweat. The improbability of your performances was almost too much to bear.
I risked listening to you only occasionally as my years in music school came to an end and I prepared for a concert career. Your playing was too seductive, too hypnotic. I wanted to sound like you—a common if forgivable trait in young players under the spell of a great artist. It was, of course, an impossibility, but also highly inadvisable. There could be only one Heifetz. My job was to become Steinhardt, whoever he might turn out to be and however long that would take.
Last February, a weekend seminar devoted to you took place in Athens, Georgia. Pianist Seymour Lipkin and I played a recital that included Dreams in the Twilight by Richard Strauss, an unpublished transcription of yours. The next day, God’s Fiddler, a new documentary about you, was shown. Afterwards, there was a panel discussion with Seymour Lipkin who had performed with you for U.S. soldiers during the Second World War (remember that scrawny but immensely gifted kid with the big glasses?), John and John Anthony Maltese, father and son, who are writing a book about you, Peter Rosen, the film’s producer, and yours truly. We had a lively enough discussion about you as a violinist, artist, and personality, but I couldn’t help thinking that you’ve been the subject of similar if less formal conversations over the course of my entire adult life. How many times have we musicians gathered together during rehearsal breaks, back stage before concerts, or over dinner and drinks to talk breathlessly about your performances of say, Paganini’s Perpetual Motion, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Bruch’s Scottish Fantasy, Brahms’ Violin Concerto, Bach’s Chaconne, or easily dozens and dozens of other works.
Several of us who revere you, Mr. Heifetz, have coined an expression for that rare individual in any field, be it music, sports, chess, dance, etc., who has reached your exalted pinnacle of excellence. “He’s a real Jascha”, we’ll say, conferring our highest possible praise. In your case, however, that pinnacle apparently came with a price. We rejoiced reading about your earliest days as a child prodigy and loved seeing the home movies of you as a wildly successful and fun loving young man. But then came painful stories about how you began to change over the years. Jack Pfeiffer, who was both our Guarneri String Quartet’s and your record producer at RCA for several years, told us that you once called him to discuss your latest recording project. When the conversation ended, Jack apparently asked you how you were. “I called you,” you said. “You call me if you want to know how I am”.
Most of us would find it hard to imagine how much the public’s expectations and your self-imposed standards must have pressed in on you. Perhaps your iron-fisted resolve was what inadvertently began to separate you from people. Perhaps it led you, along with the devotion and kindness you often showed to your students, to become quirky, suspicious, and mistrustful of many of your friends and colleagues.
And yet, year after year, and despite whatever else was taking place in your life, you continued to play the violin like a God for me, for us. Seymour Lipkin said that despite the highly dangerous circumstances of the war raging nearby, not once in the dozens of concerts you generously gave for United States troops did you play less than your very best. Perhaps, it was only through the violin that you could truly communicate from your heart to each one of ours.
Although you passed away in 1987, I still listen to your records. Each time you play, my heart races, the palms of my hands begin to sweat, and I shake my head in wonder.
Happy birthday, and thank you, Mr. Heifetz. You are a real Jascha!
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Salut Arnold, When it comes to writing about music you’re a “real Jascha” and a “pas mal” fiddler, too, as we say here in Paris. Your balanced tribute makes him seem more real to those of us who never heard him play in person or met him. Do you ever get to coach or teach in the Heifetz studio at Colburn? It’s quite a monument to his legacy. Always enjoy your articles and hope that you have many more comments to share about great music and musicians.
A trÃ¨s bientÃ´t. RF
Salut back, Robert. And thanks for the lovely comments. As you remember, I teach at Colburn once a month these days so yes, I’ve been in the Heifetz studio although never to teach. I raise a glass of wine (French, of course) in greeting to you and send best wishes.
Dear Mr. Steinhardt, I was in the audience at your performance in Athens,Ga. and it was great to see and hear you again.Thank you for writing such a sincere letter to our hero! Yes, I heard him play 6 times in Carnegie Hall and you have said it all. You will be happy to know that Dario Sarlo (who also worked with Peter Rosen on the God’s Fiddler Film) is writing a translation of a book published in Russia that will be published next year by Indiana University Press. How much fun it will be when we really get to learn about his years before coming to America. Please keep on writing and performing
as we all love your work!
Thanks again and Happy Birthday Mr. Heifetz and Mr. Kreisler!
i wonder if Seymour Lipkin told you of the time overseas when the power went out during a performance of the Mendelssohn violin concerto. Of course Heifetz had no problem continuing without light. But how about the young pianist who was also able to continue to the end.
Thank you Mr. Steinhart for writing about Mr. Heifetz. With my untrained ears i always prefer listening to Yehudi Menuhin but i guess i have to start listening to the ‘real Jascha’ more :-). I think i will start with Porgy and Bess since i love that music. I will check out ‘God’s fiddler’ too. Best regards, lien.
Thanks, Arnold. Today there are those who love his playing and those that hate it. Few in between! He was certainly not understood in his time or now. Your thoughts capture much of this ambivalence.
As you, I was a great Heifetz admirer though I never thought to equal him, him being so unique in ability and style. He didn’t play Bach, he played Heifetz! And when all the stars aligned, the greatest Brahms concerto ever recorded, thanks also to Mr. Reiner and the great Chicago Symphony.
But also, through all my career and still today, the awe when we fiddlers speak of the greatest of the great and with reverence, “Jascha.”
Dear Mr. Steinhardt,
Thanks for the wonderful, loving entry on Jascha Heifetz. Aside from the Guarneri Quartet, Mr. Heifetz’ records probably spent the most time on my turntable. (Mp3s are great, but I do miss the turntable!). Your apt discription of his artistry matches the beautiful music he created. Thank God we have so much of his playing still available! – Joe Frame
So wonderful to read your melifluous prose. I’ll have to ask my sisters whether it was Heifetz or Kreisler
that my amateur violinist grandfather pointed out to us as the pinnacle. He was such a source of enthusiasm for the great music makers of his time, including Rubinstein playing Chopin. We were escorted to Carnegie Hall on special occasions to be sure our education wasn’t lacking. It’s been grand getting to hear you often in person, with and without the Guarneri. A confirmation that the best in life is invisible!
ps. I did notice the word “perfection” used twice here. Why not?
Arnold – we met at a deli one evening after an MD concert, I was with Joel Berman. Wonderful piece on Heifetz, it brought back many memories. When I was a kid in NYC my friend and I went to every concert he gave at Carnegie Hall. We’d buy cheap seats then sneak dowb the back stairs during intermission and “upgrade.” Of course the congratulatory visit back stage was part of the experience. More than once, there also was a young Michael Rabin with a piece of music for Heifetz to autograph. Your piece was very touching, right on the mark.
a great piece of writing about a great artist. I had the privilege of tuning his piano for several years and a few stories to tell. Mr. Heifetz was always kind, but always let me know who was the boss and never to be trifled with. Gods’ fiddler indeed!….with the same respect due.
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