As the Israeli violinist Ivry Gitlis observes, Jascha Heifetz was “a God-given gift for a God-forsaken world.”
Probably the greatest violinist of his generation, Heifetz (1901-1987) bequeathed a musical legacy that endures. Through concerts and recordings, the Lithuanian-born Jewish virtuoso set the gold standard for generations to come.
He’s the subject of a forthcoming documentary scheduled to be aired by the Public Broadcast System’s American Masters series. Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler will be shown on Thursday, April 16 at 8 p.m. and again on Friday, April 17 at 9 p.m. (check local listings).
Peter Rosen’s film, featuring Heifetz’s previously unseen home movies, readings from his letters and interviews with his pupils, is hugely entertaining.
As Rosen points out, Heifetz — the son of a violinist — was a boy wonder, having given his first public concert at the age of five. Four years later, he became one of the few Jews admitted to the conservatory in St. Petersburg. His teacher, Leopold Auer, was the greatest Russian violinist of his day. Heifetz was so talented that Auer considered him a “dream” student.
Heifetz and his family left Russia in 1918 for a four-month trip to the United States. They never returned. “The Russia we left behind would disappear,” he wrote in a letter, referring to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution that changed everything. “History would make America my home.”
Having establishing himself in New York City, Heifetz embarked on a series of world tours that took him to places like Britain, France, Palestine, Egypt, China and Japan. His Victor recordings, meanwhile, sold like hot cakes. They enabled him to partake of the good life to which he aspired.
One of the turning points in his life took place in 1922, when the critic of a newspaper in New York City panned his performance. Accustomed to high praise until then, Heifetz was so devastated by the critique that he contemplated suicide. After recovering from this blow to his self-esteem, he vowed to avoid complacency and committed himself to a regimen of disciplined practice from which he would never deviate.
Having improved his technique, he evolved into a remarkable violinist whose poker-faced demeanor belied his intense passion. One of the pleasures of Rosen’s film is watching an impassive Heifetz deliver brilliantly moving performances.
In the late 1930s, he moved to California, buying homes in Beverly Hills and Malibu, but Rosen offers no explanation why he uprooted himself from New York City, the center of the American music scene.
During World War II, he performed for American troops, delivering one of his finest performances for an audience of one lone soldier.
Heifetz began teaching after 1945, starting each class with the same phrase, “Who’s ready?” Sherry Kloss, a student who inherited the Tononi violin he used at his Carnegie Hall debut, vividly remembers these sessions. “Who could be ready for Heifetz?” she says. Itzkak Perlman, who was also one of his students, recalls playing scales for him.
Although Heifetz could be playful, particularly at parties to which he invited students, he was generally a solitary and remote person with few friends who was hard to know.
Twice divorced, he was estranged from his three children.
His difficult personality notwithstanding, Heifetz was a musical marvel. For this he will be remembered and cherished.