Violinist. A legendary and almost mythical figure even while alive, he was a longtime star of the concert stage and recording studio who is considered by many to have been the greatest practitioner of his chosen instrument that ever lived. Born and raised in what was then the Russian Empire (now, Lithuania), he took to the violin early and received his initial instruction from his father who quickly discovered that the toddler's abilities were far beyond his own. After some lessons from Ilya D. Malkin, who also realized that he was not up to the task, he made his recital debut at six in Vilnius playing the E-minor Mendelssohn Concerto. The family wanted him to study in St. Petersburg with Leopold Auer, then the acknowledged grand master of violin teachers in Russia, but Maestro Auer was initially dismissive of taking-on such a young student. After finally granting the young boy an audition, Auer, too, was blown-away; young Heifetz cut his first records around 10, performed throught Europe, and at 14 earned rave reviews with the Berlin Philharmonic. In 1917, he travelled with his family to America, landing in San Francisco for what was planned as a three month stay. In the event, however, the Bolshevik Revolution intervened, Heifetz' country was gone, and he was an American for the rest of his days, becoming a citizen in 1925 while being condemed as a traitor by the Communist bosses in Russia; his Carnegie Hall debut on October 27, 1917 created a sensation, as did his initial recordings for RCA Victor which were made in Camden, New Jersey shortly after the concert. Always long on technical preciseness and short on flash, Heifetz had nothing but contempt for musicians who 'put on a show', preferring instead to let the music express its own emotion along with that of the composer; he travelled widely and was idolized wherever he went, but eventually he got his first bad review when the respected New York critic William James Henderson suggested that he was having too good a time and was trading on past glory to the detriment of preparation. Henderson's words hurt deeply because they were true and thereafter he followed the dictum of 19th century pianistic master Franz Liszt who said "If I miss practice one day, I know, if I miss two days, my friends know, if I miss three days, everybody knows", his demand for perfection extending to violin strings (he preferred specific types of gut) and to the teaching of fingering technique to his piano accompanists. Ever polite, he was a private man who was never warm and friendly, even booking his travel reservations as 'Jim Hoyle', a moniker chosen to match the "JH" on his luggage, probably a useless precaution given that he was easily recognigable. Still, he made good use of Jim Hoyle, writing a number of popular songs under that name which were recorded by Bing Crosby and others. During World War II, he joined the USO and devoted himself to the American cause, performing on the front lines of the Pacific and giving as much effort to solitary GIs as he did to his Carnegie Hall fans. The master of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms, he wrote his own transcriptions of orchestral and vocal pieces, including several from Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess", while also championing new music, commissioning and giving the world premiers of pieces by Sir William Walton, Erich Korngold, Louis Gruenberg, and others; Heifetz made a lot of money and had a good time spending it on cars, boats, homes, and travel, though he always used the travel as a learning experience, teaching himself as much as he could about the places he visited. His concert tours took him the world over, and he forever did things his own way, even programming the Violin Sonata of Richard Strauss on a 1953 visit to Israel, a decision which took courage as Strauss, who was unjustly accused of being a Nazi, was then, along with Wagner, banned in Israel. Heifetz stated that music should transcend politics and thus played the work, despite being met with silence and despite the fact that on an earlier occasion in Chicago he refused to perform under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwangler, who really was a Nazi. As the 1950s progressed, Heifetz gradually decided that he had accomplished about enough in the performing arena, a decision enforced by his near-death from complications of surgery for a fractured hip in 1958. After the mid 1960s, his concerts slowed to a trickle and following 1972 surgery on his right shoulder they ceased completely, though he did continue to make records for awhile and practiced almost to the end. Heifetz presented his first master classes in 1958 at UCLA and thereafter taught a few students there and at the University of Southern California (USC) while accepting a small number of young violinists for private instruction, treating them well and demanding no more of them than he gave of himself which was, however, everything. In his younger days he made a few movies, but really was not very good at it, though he did have an unusual sideline as a quite respected lamp designer, selling his creations via his own company. On a personal level, he was detached and austere, and few indeed were those who dared call him 'Jascha' to his face, 'JH' being about as familiar as his friends ever got. He had two wives who were apparently not a major part of his life and three children of whom he never spoke, though when they were young he appears to have made some effort to be a good father. Pretty much happy with his own company, he lived out his days in his adopted Southern California and died of injuries suffered in a fall. His recorded legacy, mostly made for RCA Victor but including some live performances as well as Decca recordings from the World War II years, is massive and almost completely available on CD. Of him the legendary Itzhak Perlman said: "None of us mortals are going to be able to reach his standard".
Bio by: Bob Hufford
1895–1977 (m. 1928)