Born Iosef Ruvinovich Heifetz on February 2, 1901 in Vilna, Lithuania; died on December 10, 1987, in Los Angeles, CA; oldest of three children of Anna Sharfstein and Ruvin Heifetz; married Florence Vidor, August 20, 1928; divorced, 1945; children: Josepha and Robert; married Frances Spiegelberg, January 1947; divorced, 1963; one son: Joseph. Education: Royal School of Music, Vilna; studied under Leopold Auer.

Jascha Heifetz is remembered as the greatest violin virtuoso of the twentieth century. Even before his first American concert as an adolescent at Carnegie Hall, the most prominent violinists of the time deferred to Heifetz's great talent and recognized his superior ability. The music from his violin, praised as "silken," graced stages the world over. Heifetz's career spanned 61 years, from his first debut concert with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1911 at the age of ten, until his farewell concert in Los Angeles, California, in 1962 at the age of 61. Motionless and stoic, Heifetz played notes of perfection, yet he moved only the tips of his fingers, or so it appeared to those who witnessed him play, and it was the depth and perfection of the tones that amazed even the greatest violinists among his contemporaries. Heifetz, who also taught music and on occasion wrote music, left his legacy on film and on widely distributed recordings. During the prime of his recording career, from 1917 to 1965, he recorded enough music to fill more than 24 full-length records.

Heifetz was born Iosef Ruvinovich Heifetz in Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania, on February 2, 1901. He was the son of Anna Sharfstein and Ruvin Heifetz, a violinist and concertmaster of the Vilna Symphony Orchestra. The elder Heifetz taught his son to play, beginning at the age of three, and by the age of five, the boy was accepted at the Royal School of Music in his hometown, having already mastered in its entirety the extremely difficult Kayser etude collection. Within four years of entering the conservatory, Heifetz completed that program of study. He then auditioned with Leopold Auer, a world-renowned violin teacher, who accepted the young prodigy as a student. Heifetz, in his first public appearance at the age of seven, performed the Mendelssohn Concerto. At his solo recital with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra three years later, Heifetz appeared before an audience of 5,000 people. By that time, he had performed in a public concert in St. Petersburg and as a soloist with the Berlin Philharmonic. Heifetz toured Europe as a pre-teen and performed a debut concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City at the age of 16.

Respected by His Peers

It was respected music critic Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Timeswho first cited Heifetz's violin playing for its "silken tone," an epithet that remained with Heifetz throughout his lifetime and after his death. The eminent violinist Fritz Kreisler, upon hearing of young Heifetz's talent, arranged for the boy to perform a private concert for Kreisler and other renowned virtuosos. After hearing Heifetz play, Kreisler paid him a great compliment and acknowledged that his talent was far superior to that of any other violinist of the time.

Heifetz's instrument of choice was a 1742 Guarnerius del Gesu violin, a priceless instrument known to collectors as the David Guarnerius because it was a relic of the nineteenth-century concertmaster Ferdinand David of the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Prior to acquiring the David Guarnerius, Heifetz played on a Stradivarius originally loaned to him in 1937 after the owner of the instrument heard Heifetz play. Among his handful of concert bows he kept a Kittel, given to him by his early teacher, Auer. Heifetz kept the precious instruments close by his side in a double case at all times.

Heifetz never ceased to astound audiences with his professional stature. He possessed the uncommon ability to play music that was regarded among the finest that the world had ever heard, yet with perfect posture he appeared neither to move nor even to flinch during a performance. Likewise he never smiled. His fingers possessed full mastery of his instrument and barely moved while producing a delicate vibrato and tone that was consistently described in superlatives by even the most well-healed music experts. Dr. H. R. Axelrod, editor of Heifetz, remarked that the violinist "established a completely new set of standards for violin playing." It was said that the noted playwright George Bernard Shaw advised Heifetz that his perfection might cause vindictive gods to seek retribution against him, and that he should intentionally play one single bad note daily to protect from such vengeance.

Career Highlights

After World War I, Heifetz and his family immigrated to the United States, a move that set the stage for his Carnegie Hall debut on October 17, 1916. A then-16-year-old Heifetz left the audience in awe. After the concert, Schonberg cited the teenager's performance for its aristocratic elegance. Six years later, when Heifetz performed on another occasion at Carnegie Hall in 1922, an angry mob of concertgoers stormed the building in an effort to obtain admission to the sold-out concert.

Heifetz's professional life in the 1930s was characterized by heavy concertizing and repertoire expansion. In 1933 he canceled 45 German engagements in protest against Hitler's attitude toward Jewish artists. At the invitation of the Soviet government he returned to his homeland for the first time in 17 years in 1934. It was a profoundly emotional experience and he was especially moved to be given his first, tiny violin, which an uncle had kept for him. Heifetz never visited Russia again.

During the post-World War II years, Heifetz's interests turned to the performance and recording of chamber music, much of it in trio. Among his regular accompanists were pianist Arthur Rubinstein and Gregor Piatigorsky on the cello. In 1950, the trio was heard on Tchaikovsky's Trio in A Minor, Mendelssohn's Trio in D Minor, Schubert's Trio in B-flat, and Ravel's Trio in A Minor. Heifetz recorded many hours of beloved music during that era and turned his talents to teaching as well. He joined the staff of the music department at the University of Southern California and embraced the rising new media of radio and television. Among his media presentations were a series of master classes for television audiences in 1952. Later during the 1950s he assisted in screening young musicians for a New York radio series called "Musical Talent in Our Schools."

On December 9, 1959, Heifetz performed for the world diplomats at the United Nations in New York City. He went on to appear at major concert venues worldwide. He traveled more than two million miles during his career, performing hundreds of concerts annually. He performed regularly in a chamber trio with cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and the beloved pianist Arthur Rubinstein. On other occasions he was accompanied by pianist Emmanuel Bay. Together the pair was known to perform the works of contemporary composers such as Irving Berlin in addition to the classical compositions of the Great Masters. Additionally, Heifetz spent many hours in recording sessions for RCA Victor Records, and he entertained a brief career in films, including They Shall Have Musicin 1938.

Heifetz appeared in a farewell concert in Los Angeles, California, on October 23, 1972, having performed publicly for 61 years. Already 71 years old at that time, Heifetz nonetheless continued with his recording sessions for three additional years, until the pain of an arthritic shoulder forced him to abandon performances in 1975. An expansive compilation of Heifetz's recordings is included in The Heifetz Collection, a 46-volume set available on 65 CDs.

Personal Glimpses

Heifetz never allowed his demanding concert schedule to preclude his involvement in organizations and projects that concerned him. His social concerns and political involvements were numerous. He was a member of the American Guild of Musical Artists and a charter member of the American Federation of Radio Artists. He contributed behind the scenes for radio and television shows in the early 1950s. Later in the 1950s he served as the Regents Professor of Music at the University of California at Los Angeles, and he was a professor at the University of Southern California.

Throughout his public career, Heifetz guarded his privacy. He became an naturalized American citizenship in 1925 and made his home in Southern California. He enjoyed life, and despite his special talent, his interests were wide and varied. Sailing was his passion, and he named his boat Serenade. He loved movies, cars, and tennis and in 1921 won an amateur tennis championship. Likewise he enjoyed ping-pong, was an avid photographer, and collected rare first edition books. Interestingly, during the Great Depression, Heifetz adopted the pseudonym of Jim Hoyle and under that name composed and published so-called tin-pan alley songs.

On August 20, 1928, Heifetz married actress Florence Vidor. The couple divorced in 1945; they had two children, Josepha and Robert. He married his second wife Frances Spiegelberg in January of 1947 and divorced in 1963. He had one son, Joseph, from his union with Spiegelberg. Late in 1987, Heifetz suffered a fall, from which he never recovered. Weeks later he developed complications and on December 10, 1987, Heifetz died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California. His children and one sister survived him.

Truly a legend in his own time, Heifetz received an honorary doctorate of music from Northwestern University in 1949, was a decorated commander of the French Legion of Honor, won three Grammy Awards as part of ensembles, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989. After his death, and according to his wishes, Heifetz's David Guarnerius violin went on display at the De Young Museum of Art in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

by Gloria Cooksey

Jascha Heifetz's Career

Performed Mendelssohn Concerto, age 7; first recital, age 9; soloist with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, age 10; European tour, age 12; New York City and Carnegie Hall debut, October 17, 1916; farewell concert, Los Angeles, October 23, 1972; recorded with RCA Victor, 1917-75.

Jascha Heifetz's Awards

French Legion of Honor, 1957; Grammy Awards for Best Classical Performance, Chamber Music (with Gregor Piatigorsky and William Primrose), 1961; Best Chamber Music Performance (with Gregor Piatigorsky and William Primrose), 1962; Best Classical Chamber Performance, Instrumental (with Gregor Piatigorsky), 1964; Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, 1989.

Famous Works

Further Reading

Sources Books

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 5 years ago

In 1934, I had the pleasure of being introduced to Jascha Heifetz by my violin teacher Josef Czukor. The highlight of that meeting was shaking hands with the greatest violin virtuoso in modern times. That event occurred after hearing the great master play Hora Staccato. The resulting applause was so great that we all felt that the roof of the auditorium in Orlando,Florida was going to collapse. The Master showed his appreciation by repeating the performance of the Hora Staccato!!.