The Russian-born violinist, Jascha Heifetz, is recognized by international critics to have been the world’s greatest violinist. He was born on 2 February 1901 in the city of Vilna, Russia (now called Vilnius, Lithuania) to a musical family. His father was a music teacher who gave his son a specially made quarter-sized violin when he was only three years old.
Heifetz learned to play music before he could even talk, and it was obvious that his talent was very special. At 4, Heifetz was admitted to the Royal School of Music, and by the age of six he had learned to play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. At seven, he was playing concerts, and made his public debut in Kovno, Russia (now known as Kaunas, Lithuania). He then entered Leopold Auer’s famous class in St. Petersburg at the age of nine, and in three years was acclaimed a child genius of unexampled gifts. In the years following his St. Petersburg debut, he did concerts in Germany, Austria and Scandinavia. At twelve, he made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. The celebrated violinist, Fritz Kreisler, was present when the boy played in Berlin, and he was quoted as saying, “I felt like breaking my violin.”
When the Russian Revolution broke out, the Jewish Heifetz family, after many anti-Semitic difficulties, fled the Bolsheviks and travelled to America in 1917. The first documented meeting of Heifetz and Prokofiev happened on 13 February 1917 during a concert in Petrograd (St. Petersburg at the time). It was Heifetz’s last recital in Russia before his family immigrated to the United States. Heifetz played a Chopin nocturne and a Paganini Etude, while Prokofiev’s work was featured during the second half of the concert.
It was in the USA the sixteen-year-old Heifetz made his triumphant debut in Carnegie Hall on 27 October 1917. The music critic Samuel Chotzinov wrote as follows regarding Heifet’z performance:
“The 16-year-old violinist seemed the most unconcerned of all the people in the hall as he walked out on the stage, and proceeded to give an exhibition of such extraordinary virtuosity and musicianship as has not previously been heard in that historic auditorium.”
Overnight, Heifetz became the musical idol of America, and during that first year he made 30 appearances in New York alone. He received his American citizenship in 1925, and amply sampled the “American way.” In the ’40s he settled into a comfortable home atop one of the Beverly Hills in California. He lived there until his death.
From then on concerts in many other countries followed. In 1940, Heifetz, in 1940, made an estimate indicating that he had spent 66,000 hours/two-fifths of his life playing the violin. Further that he had travelled amply – far enough to equal two round trips to the moon. He was paid $2,250 per concert, an unparalleled sum of money at that time. He thus became the highest-paid violinist in history.
Heifetz’s fame in the world of music led Hollywood movie producers to call on him. He made four films including “They Shall Have Music” (1939) and “Carnegie Hall” (1947). In the 1940s he moved to the Los Angeles, where he remained until his death.
Through the years of doing concerts and recording (1917 to 1965), Heifetz also taught violin at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles from 1962 onwards where the Heifetz Chair in Music was established in 1975. He also excelled at transcribing works for violin. Among the works he transcribed that is still with us today is the March and Scherzo from the Opera “Love of Three Oranges”. His last public recital was a concert in 1972 at the Los Angeles Music Center. Heifetz died on 10 December 1987 in Los Angeles, California, USA
Throughout his life, Heifetz was known for his flawless technical approach. He was even accused of sounding formal and mechanical, which also reflected his sober personality. But the fierce virtuoso never faltered, even into his 70s, and ended up recording more than 80 albums in his lifetime. He even wrote a pop song under the pseudonym Jim Hoyl called “When You Make Love To Me (Don’t Make Believe),” sung by Margaret Whiting. Heifetz received numerous honours for his hard work and talent during his lifetime. He was even made an officer of the French Legion, an award stemming from the many charity performances he did in France. He also received countless Grammy Awards, including the elusive Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989, and was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
For 83 of his 86 years, Jascha Heifetz (1901-87) played the violin, and for over 60 of them in front of audiences the length and breadth of the world.