If you are to ask a specialist who was the best violinist, chances are Jascha Heifetz will be one of the answers. Not only a violinist but also a teacher, Jascha left his mark in the classical genre. Even reviews of student violins mention his name to this very day!
The early life of Jascha Heifetz
Jascha was born in Vilna, the Russian Empire, present-day Vilnius, in the Baltic state of Lithuania. His family was Russian-Jewish. His father, Reuven Heifetz, was a violin teacher so you can tell he played an important role in his son’s career. But Jascha didn’t just become inspired seeing his father play.
Reuven (who also was the concertmaster of the Vilnius Theatre Orchestra for a short period of time before the venue was closed) tested Jascha as he wanted to see how he would respond to him fiddling with the violin. As the response was positive, Reuven bought Jascha a little violin at the age of two and started teaching him how to play it.
Of course, these first lessons weren’t necessarily difficult as they only involved bowing and the simplest kind of fingering, but it was still highly impressive that Jascha responded to this despite his very young age.
By the age of five, Hungarian violin teacher Leopold Auer became his tutor. Other students of Leopold’s were Mischa Elman, Nathan Milstein, Efrem Zimbalist, Konstanty Gorski, Toscha Seidel, and Georges Boulanger so to say he was famous would be an understatement.
Jascha proved to be a child prodigy and at only seven years old, he made his debut in the city of Kovno (today Kaunas, in Lithuania) when he played “Violin Concerto in E minor” composed by Felix Mendelssohn. At only nine years old, he was admitted to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory with Leopold as his teacher.
He would go on to play in Germany and the Nordic countries. While in Berlin, he met Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler who was so impressed he declared: “We may as well break our fiddles across our knees” after seeing Jascha’s performance. After touring other European countries, he returned in 1914 to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic.
Jascha goes to America!
After conquering much of Europe, in 1917, Jascha and his family left Russia. They traveled by train toward the east coast and finally arrived in the United States. In October of that year, he had his concert in America and became an overnight sensation. The concert was held at the famous Carnegie Hall.
The same year, Jascha was named an honorary member of the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia of the New England Conservatory of Music from Boston – he was only 16, which makes him one of the youngest people to become a member of the organization.
Not surprisingly, Jascha chose to remain in the United States and became a citizen in 1925. In the meantime, he started recording his music for the RCA Victor label with which he’d remained signed to until he died. While Jascha made some recordings in Russia around 1910 or 1911, those weren’t discovered until after Jascha had passed away.
During the 1930s, as the Great Depression hit America, Jascha recorded his music mostly for the British HMV / EMI label since RCA cut back on the expenses of the American label and classical artists were the most disadvantaged by this decision as their recording sessions were the most expensive.
Despite the fact that he also liked playing chamber music, he didn’t find much success in that area, with some critics considering his artistic persona to have the tendency to overshadow and overwhelm the other musicians.
Among the musicians he collaborated with for several recordings, we can name cellists Emanuel Feuermann and Gregor Piatigorsky, pianist Arthur Rubinstein and violinists William Primrose, Israel Baker, and Virginia Majewski.
During the 1940s as RCA Victor continued to have problems, Jascha recorded for Decca Records and although many of his recordings from this period were often short, the quality of those recordings has stood the stand of time. He also collaborated with famous crooner Bing Crosby.
In 1954, Jascha chose pianist Brooks Smith as his accompanist and the two collaborated for many years before Brooks was replaced with Ayke Agus. After the end of the 1955 – 1956 season, Jascha made a shocking announcement: he would greatly reduce the number of concerts as he had “been playing for a very long time”.
Declining health and retirement
His health also suffered greatly during this time period as in 1958 he fractured his hip when he fell into his own kitchen and later had to battle an infection with Staphylococcus which was close to costing his life. Even worse, after an operation on his right shoulder which had been a part of his success, he retired from recording and giving concerts.
Although he kept his skill after the operation and continued to play in private until his last days, his bow arm couldn’t work properly anymore which meant he wasn’t able to hold the bow as high as he used to do before.
Despite his health situation, he started giving master classes at the UCLA and the University of Southern California. Here he was a colleague of other masters of the craft with whom he worked with before like Gregor Piatigorsky and William Primrose. During the 1980s he also gave private classes in his own home studio from Beverly Hills.
Among his students, we can name Paul Rosenthal, Erick Friedman, Pierre Amoyal, Eugene Fodor, Teiji Okubo, Endre Granat and Rudolf Koelman.
Following another fall at his place at the age of 86, Jascha was taken to the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center from Los Angeles where he passed away on the 10th of December, 1987.
Critical reception of Jascha Heifetz
“Los Angeles Times” named Jascha as the best violinist since Paganini, while “The New York Times” considered that he set the standard for how the violin was played in the 20th century.
Over the course of his career, Jascha was nominated for 15 Grammy Awards and had won 3 of them. At the inaugural Grammy Awards in 1958, he was a double nominee in the same category, “Best Classical Performance – Chamber Music (Including Chamber Orchestra)”.
The nominations were for his albums, “Beethoven: Trio In E Flat, Op.3” and “Beethoven: Trio In G, Op.9, No.1; Beethoven Trio in C Minor, Op.9, No.3”, but he failed to win any of them. He would be nominated every year in several categories between 1958 and 1964.
During this time, he won two of his Grammys in the “Best Classical Performance – Classical Music” for “Beethoven: Serenade, Op. 8/Kodaly: Duo For Violin And Cello, Op. 7” in 1961 and for “The Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts With Primrose, Pennario And Guests” in 1962.
He was a triple nominee that year as he also received nominations for “The Heifetz-Piatigorsky Concerts” in the “Album of the Year – Classical” category and for “Bruch: Scottish Fantasy For Violin And Orchestra/Vieuxtemps: Concerto No. 5 For Violin” in the “Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Soloist or Soloists (With Orchestra)”.
In 1963 he won another Grammy in the “Best Chamber Performance – Instrumental” category for “Beethoven: Trio No. 1 In E Flat, Op. 1 #1”. He would receive several other nominations in the next years but didn’t win any of them. In 1989, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously.
Of course, not all reviews were positive. American critic and composer Virgil Thomson had described Jascha’s style of playing as “silk underwear music” which was not a compliment. This shouldn’t be a surprise though as the works of Virgil were known for being “detached” and “muted”, compared to the highly passionate Jascha.
Some of his releases were also received with mixed reviews, although this was more of a race occurrence.
AllMusicGuide rated his 1987 album “Bruch: Concerto No. 1; Scottish Fantasy; Vieuxtemps: Concerto No. 5” with only three stars and his 1993 “Brahms, Tchaikovsky: Violin Concertos” with only two stars, but these are seen as exceptions to the general praise Jascha has received.
The vast majority of his albums rated by AllMusicGuide have received much better reviews with a rating of four stars (2 albums), four and a half stars (4 albums) and five stars (1 album).
With many ups and downs but highly talented and influential, Jascha Heifetz has become synonymous with the art of the violin even in death.