Who was Jascha Heifetz?

Heifetz

Born: February 2, 1901 in Vilnius, Lithuania (then part of the Russian Empire)
Died: December 10, 1987 in Los Angeles, California

Jascha Heifetz is considered by many to be the greatest violinist of all time. Heifetz’s father was a local violin instructor and noticed his son’s potential from a very young age, purchasing a small violin to teach basic techniques when Jascha was barely two years old. At five, Heifetz enrolled in a local music school and began taking formal lessons. A child virtuoso, he made his public debut at seven in the nearby city of Kaunas and, at nine, entered the St. Petersburg Conservatory to study with the famed Hungarian violinist and pedagogue, Leopold Auer. Auer reportedly wrote to a German manager, “He is only eleven years old, but I assure you that this boy is already a great violinist… In all my fifty years of violin teaching, I have never known such precocity.”

Life in and beyond the concert hall

“If you provoke a jealous God by playing with such superhuman perfection, you will die young. I earnestly advise you to play something badly every night before going to bed, instead of saying your prayers. No mortal should presume to play so faultlessly.”

— George Bernard Shaw, in a letter following Heifetz’s London debut (1920)

Playwright George Bernard Shaw’s tongue-in-cheek warning went, thankfully, unheeded. Over the course of his career, Heifetz toured internationally and throughout the United States (where his family settled after leaving Russia in 1917, shortly after which he made his Carnegie Hall debut at 16). He also performed in a number of benefit concerts and served extensively with the USO during WWII.

In addition to being an incomparable violinist, Heifetz was also a gifted pianist and composer; he expanded the violin repertoire through transcriptions and arrangements of works by other artists. (A close friend of George Gershwin’s, his transcriptions of the latter’s piano preludes and selections from Porgy and Bess are some of the most beloved to this day). Not to be outdone by the gravity of his existing accolades, he also wrote several popular songs under the pseudonym Jim Hoyl, one of which was recorded by Bing Crosby.  

A lasting legacy

Heifetz_illustration

“Jascha Heifetz” by James Charles Jr. House; Woodmere Art Museum

“The goals he set still remain, and for violinists today it’s rather depressing that they may never really be attained again.”

— Itzhak Perlman, from The Guardian

Over the course of his lifetime, Heifetz made hundreds of recordings with Decca Records and RCA Victor; he was one of the first musicians to amass a following via recordings before he appeared in person on any one of his worldwide tours.

Jascha Heifetz taught at the University of Southern California from 1962 until 1983, where several of his masterclasses were filmed and broadcast on television. In 1972, a shoulder injury put an end to his public career, but his bow arm remained unaffected and he continued performing privately until his death in 1987.  


Performances of the Primary Stages production of A Walk With Mr. Heifetz start January 31 at the Cherry Lane Theatre. For tickets and additional information, please visit our website.

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