Jascha Heifetz

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Jascha Heifetz
Heifetz in 1920s
Born(1901-02-02)February 2, 1901
DiedDecember 10, 1987(1987-12-10) (aged 86)
Los Angeles, California
(m. 1928; div. 1945)
Frances Spiegelberg
(m. 1947; div. 1963)
WebsiteOfficial website Edit this at Wikidata

Jascha Heifetz (/ˈhfɪts/; February 2 [O.S. January 20] 1901 – December 10, 1987) was a Jewish-Russian-American violinist, widely regarded as one of the greatest violinists of all time.[1] Born in Vilnius, he was soon recognized as a child prodigy and was trained in the Russian classical violin style in St. Petersburg. Accompanying his parents to escape the violence of the Russian Revolution, he moved to the United States as a teenager, where his Carnegie Hall debut was rapturously received. Fritz Kreisler, another leading violinist of the twentieth century, said after hearing Heifetz's debut, "We might as well take our fiddles and break them across our knees."[2]

By the age of 18, Heifetz was the highest-paid violinist in the world.[3] He had a long and successful concert career, including wartime service with the United Service Organizations (USO).[4] After an injury to his right (bowing) arm in 1972, he switched his focus to teaching.[5][6][7]

Early life[edit]

Heifetz was born into a Lithuanian-Jewish family in Vilnius (which was then part of the Russian Empire, and is currently the capital of Lithuania).[8]

His father, Reuven Heifetz, was a local violin teacher and served as the concertmaster of the Vilnius Theatre Orchestra for one season before the theatre closed down. While Jascha was an infant, his father did a series of tests, observing how his son responded to his violin playing. This convinced him that Jascha had great potential, and before Jascha was two years old, his father bought him a small violin, and taught him bowing and simple fingering.[9]

At four years old, Heifetz started violin lessons and in 1906, he was admitted to the Vilnius Music School where he studied with Ilya Davidovitch Malkin. Recognized as a child prodigy, he made his public debut at seven, in Kovno (now Kaunas, Lithuania) playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. In 1910, he entered the violin class of Ionnes Nalbandian at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory and later studied under Leopold Auer.[10]

He played in Germany and Scandinavia, and met Fritz Kreisler for the first time in a Berlin private house, in a "private press matinee on May 20, 1912. The home was that of Arthur Abell, the pre-eminent Berlin music critic for the American magazine, Musical Courier. Among other noted violinists in attendance was Fritz Kreisler. After the 12-year-old Heifetz performed the Mendelssohn violin concerto, Abell reported that Kreisler said to all present, 'We may as well break our fiddles across our knees.'"[11]

Heifetz visited much of Europe while still in his teens. In April 1911, he performed in an outdoor concert in St. Petersburg before 25,000 spectators; there was such a reaction that police officers needed to protect the young violinist after the concert. In 1914, he performed with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Arthur Nikisch. The conductor said he had never heard such an excellent violinist.[12]


In 1917
External audio
audio icon You may hear Jascha Heifetz performing Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D Major Opus 35 with Sir John Barbirolli conducting the London Philharmonic in 1937 Here

To avoid the Russian Revolution, Heifetz and his family left Russia in 1917, traveling by rail to the Russian far east and then by ship to the United States, arriving in San Francisco. On October 27, 1917, Heifetz played for the first time in the United States, at Carnegie Hall in New York City, and became an immediate sensation.[13][14] Fellow violinist Mischa Elman in the audience asked "Do you think it's hot in here?", whereupon the pianist Leopold Godowsky, in the next seat, replied, "Not for pianists."[15]

In 1917, Heifetz was elected an honorary member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the national fraternity for men in music, by the fraternity's Alpha chapter at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. At 16, he was perhaps the youngest person ever elected to membership in the organization. Heifetz remained in the country and became a United States citizen in 1925. A story circulates that tells of an interaction with one of the Marx Brothers: when he told the brother (usually Groucho or Harpo) that he had been earning his living as a musician since the age of seven, he received the reply, "Before that, I suppose, you were just a bum."[16]

In May 1945 Heifetz played with his son for Ivan Konev and Omar Bradley in Kassel.[17]

In 1954, Heifetz began working with pianist Brooks Smith, who was Heifetz's accompanist for many years until he changed to Ayke Agus as his accompanist in retirement.[18] He was also accompanied in concert for more than 20 years by Emanuel Bay, another immigrant from Russia and a personal friend.[citation needed] Heifetz's musicianship was such that he would demonstrate to his accompanist how he wanted passages to sound on the piano, and would even suggest which fingerings to use.[19]

After the seasons of 1955–56, Heifetz announced that he would sharply curtail his concert activity, saying "I have been playing for a very long time." In 1958, he tripped in his kitchen and fractured his right hip, resulting in hospitalization at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital and a near fatal staphylococcus infection. He was invited to play Beethoven at the United Nations General Assembly, and entered leaning on a cane. By 1967, Heifetz had considerably curtailed his concert performances.[20]

Technique and timbre[edit]

Heifetz was "regarded as the greatest violin virtuoso since Paganini", wrote Lois Timnick of the Los Angeles Times.[3] "He set all standards for 20th-century violin playing...everything about him conspired to create a sense of awe", wrote music critic Harold Schonberg of The New York Times.[21] "The goals he set still remain, and for violinists today it's rather depressing that they may never really be attained again", wrote violinist Itzhak Perlman.[22]

Virgil Thomson called Heifetz's style of playing "silk underwear music", a term he did not intend as a compliment. Other critics argue that he infused his playing with feeling and reverence for the composer's intentions. His style of playing was highly influential in defining the way modern violinists approached the instrument. His use of rapid vibrato, emotionally charged portamento, fast tempi, and superb bow control coalesced to create a highly distinctive sound that makes Heifetz's playing instantly recognizable to aficionados. Itzhak Perlman, who himself is known for his rich warm tone and expressive use of portamento, described Heifetz's tone as like "a tornado" because of its emotional intensity. Perlman said that Heifetz preferred to record relatively close to the microphone—and as a result, one would perceive a somewhat different tone quality when listening to Heifetz during a concert hall performance.[23]

Heifetz was very particular about his choice of strings. He used a silver-wound Tricolore gut G string, plain unvarnished gut D and A strings, and a Goldbrokat medium steel E string, and employed clear Hill-brand rosin sparingly. Heifetz believed that playing on gut strings was important in rendering an individual sound.[24]

Early recordings[edit]

Heifetz made his first recordings in Russia during 1910–11, while still a student of Leopold Auer. The existence of these recordings was not generally known until after Heifetz's death, when several sides, including François Schubert's L'Abeille, were reissued on an LP included as a supplement to The Strad magazine.[25]

On November 7, 1917, shortly after his Carnegie Hall debut, Heifetz made his first recordings for the Victor Talking Machine Company/RCA Victor where he remained for most of the rest of his career. On October 28, 1927, Heifetz was the starring act at the grand opening of Tucson, Arizona's now-historic Temple of Music and Art.[26] For several years, in the 1930s, Heifetz recorded primarily for HMV/EMI in the UK because RCA Victor cut back on expensive classical recording sessions during the Great Depression; these HMV discs were issued in the United States by RCA Victor. Heifetz often enjoyed playing chamber music. Various critics have blamed his limited success in chamber ensembles to the fact that his artistic personality tended to overwhelm his colleagues. Collaborations include his 1941 recordings of piano trios by Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms with cellist Emanuel Feuermann and pianist Arthur Rubinstein as well as a later collaboration with Rubinstein and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, with whom he recorded trios by Maurice Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Felix Mendelssohn. Both formations were sometimes referred to as the Million Dollar Trio. Heifetz also recorded some string quintets with violinist Israel Baker, violists William Primrose and Virginia Majewski, and Piatigorsky.[11]

Heifetz recorded the Beethoven Violin Concerto in 1940 with the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Arturo Toscanini, and again in stereo in 1955 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Charles Munch. A live performance of an NBC radio broadcast from April 9, 1944, of Heifetz playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony has also been released, unofficially.[11]

He performed and recorded Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Violin Concerto at a time when Korngold's scoring of films for Warner Bros. prompted many classical musicians to develop the opinion Korngold was not a "serious" composer and to avoid his music in order to avoid being associated with him.[11]

World War II[edit]

During the war, Heifetz commissioned a number of pieces, including the Violin Concerto by William Walton. He also arranged a number of pieces, such as Hora Staccato by Grigoraș Dinicu, a Romanian whom Heifetz is rumoured to have called the greatest violinist he had ever heard. Heifetz also played and composed for the piano.[14] He performed mess hall jazz for soldiers at Allied camps across Europe during the Second World War, and under the alias Jim Hoyl he wrote a hit song, "When You Make Love to Me (Don't Make Believe)", which was sung by Bing Crosby.

Decca recordings[edit]

Heifetz at Carnegie Hall in 1947

From 1944 to 1946, largely as a result of the American Federation of Musicians recording ban (which began in 1942), Heifetz recorded with American Decca because the company settled with the union in 1943, well before RCA Victor resolved their dispute with the musicians. He recorded primarily short pieces, including his own arrangements of music by George Gershwin and Stephen Foster; these were pieces he often played as encores in his recitals. He was accompanied on the piano by Emanuel Bay or Milton Kaye. Among the more uncommon discs featured one of Decca's popular artists, Bing Crosby, in the "Lullaby" from Benjamin Godard's opera Jocelyn and Where My Caravan Has Rested (arranged by Heifetz and Crosby) by Hermann Löhr (1871–1943); Decca's studio orchestra was conducted by Victor Young on July 27, 1946, session. Heifetz soon returned to RCA Victor, where he continued to make recordings until the early 1970s.[27]

Later recordings[edit]

Returning to RCA Victor in 1946, Heifetz continued to record extensively for the company, including solo, chamber, and concerto recordings, primarily with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Munch and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Fritz Reiner. In 2000, RCA released a double CD compilation entitled Jascha Heifetz – The Supreme. This release provides a sampling of Heifetz's major recordings, including the 1955 recording of Brahms's Violin Concerto with Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; the 1957 recording of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto (with the same forces); the 1959 recording of Sibelius's Violin Concerto with Walter Hendl and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; the 1961 recording of Max Bruch's Scottish Fantasy with Sir Malcolm Sargent and the New Symphony Orchestra of London; the 1963 recording of Glazunov's A minor Concerto with Walter Hendl and the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra (drawn from New York musicians); the 1965 recording of George Gershwin's Three Preludes (transcribed by Heifetz) with pianist Brooks Smith; and the 1970 recording of Bach's unaccompanied Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 in D minor.

Third Israel tour[edit]

In Beersheba, Israel, 1953

On his third tour to Israel in 1953, Heifetz included the Violin Sonata by Richard Strauss in his recitals. At the time, many considered Strauss and a number of other German intellectuals Nazis, or at least Nazi sympathizers, and Strauss works were unofficially banned in Israel along with those of Richard Wagner. Despite the fact that the Holocaust had occurred less than ten years earlier and a last-minute plea from Ben-Zion Dinur, the Israeli Minister of Education, the defiant Heifetz argued, "The music is above these factors … I will not change my program. I have the right to decide on my repertoire." In Haifa his performance of the Strauss sonata was greeted with applause, however in Tel Aviv it was followed by dead silence.[28]

Heifetz was attacked after his recital in Jerusalem outside his hotel by a young man who struck Heifetz's violin case with a crowbar, prompting Heifetz to use his bow-controlling right hand to protect his priceless violins. The attacker escaped and was never found. The attack has since been attributed to the Kingdom of Israel militant group.[29][30] The incident made headlines and Heifetz defiantly announced that he would not stop playing the Strauss. Threats continued to come, however, and he omitted the Strauss from his next recital without explanation. His last concert was cancelled after his swollen right hand began to hurt. He left Israel and did not return until 1970.

Personal life[edit]

Heifetz married twice for 17 years each. His first wife was silent film actress Florence Vidor, the ex-wife of film director King Vidor. Florence was 33 and Jascha was 27 when they married in August 1928, with the Jewish media commenting that she was a Christian from Texas marrying a Russian Jew. Florence brought her nine-year-old daughter, Suzanne Vidor, into the marriage.[31] The union produced one daughter, Josefa Heifetz, born in 1930, and a son named Robert Joseph Heifetz, born in 1932.[11] Jascha Heifetz filed for divorce at the end of 1945 in Santa Ana, California.[32]

Heifetz married a second time, wedding Frances Spiegelberg in January 1947 in Beverly Hills.[33] Frances was a society lady from New York who also had a previous marriage with two children, ending in divorce. Their son Joseph "Jay" Heifetz was born in September 1948 in Los Angeles. Heifetz divorced her in 1963,[11] with temporary alimony ordered by the court in January,[34] and the divorce finalized in December.[35]

Heifetz enjoyed sailing off the coast of Southern California, and he was a stamp collector. He played tennis and ping-pong, and amassed a personal library of books.[11]

Later life[edit]

After an only partially successful operation on his right shoulder in 1972, Heifetz ceased giving concerts and making records. His prowess as a performer remained, and he still played privately until the end—but his bow arm was affected, and he could never again hold the bow as high as before.

Late in life, Heifetz was known as a dedicated teacher and a champion of socio-political causes. He publicly advocated to establish 9-1-1 as an emergency phone number, and crusaded for clean air. He and his students at the University of Southern California protested smog by wearing gas masks, and in 1967, he converted his Renault passenger car into an electric vehicle.[36]

Rudolf Koelman (left) with Heifetz, 1979

Heifetz taught the violin extensively, holding master classes first at UCLA, then at the University of Southern California, where the faculty included renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and violist William Primrose. For a few years in the 1980s, he also held classes in his private studio at home in Beverly Hills. His teaching studio can be seen today in the main building of the Colburn School and serves as an inspiration to the students there. During his teaching career Heifetz taught, among others, Erick Friedman, Pierre Amoyal, Adam Han-Gorski, Rudolf Koelman, Endre Granat, Teiji Okubo, Eugene Fodor, Paul Rosenthal, Ilkka Talvi and Ayke Agus.[11]


Heifetz died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, on December 10, 1987, at the age of 86 following a fall in his home.[1]


Heifetz owned the 1714 Dolphin Stradivarius, the 1731 "Piel" Stradivarius, the 1736 Carlo Tononi, and the 1742 ex David Guarneri del Gesù, the last of which he preferred and kept until his death. The Dolphin Strad is currently owned by the Nippon Music Foundation and is on loan to Ray Chen. The Heifetz Tononi violin, used at his 1917 Carnegie Hall debut, was left in his will to Sherry Kloss, his Master-Teaching Assistant, with "one of my four good bows". Violinist Kloss wrote Jascha Heifetz Through My Eyes, and is a co-founder of the Jascha Heifetz Society.[37]

The famed Guarneri is now in the San Francisco Legion of Honor Museum, as instructed by Heifetz in his will, and may only be taken out and played "on special occasions" by deserving players. The instrument has recently been on loan to San Francisco Symphony's concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, who featured it in 2006 with Andrei Gorbatenko and the San Francisco Academy Orchestra.[38] In 1989, Heifetz received a posthumous Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.


Heifetz's first child, Josefa, is a lexicographer, the author of the Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure and Preposterous Words. Her married name is Josefa Heifetz Byrne.[39]

Heifetz's second child, Robert, picked up a love of sailing from his father. He taught urban planning at several colleges and universities. He was a peace activist who protested US military intervention around the world, and encouraged peace talks between Israel and Palestine. He died of cancer in 2001.[40]

Heifetz's third child, known as Jay, is a professional photographer. He was head of marketing for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl, and the chief financial officer of Paramount Pictures' Worldwide Video Division. He lives and works in Fremantle, Western Australia.

Heifetz's grandson is musician Daniel Mark "Danny" Heifetz, born in 1964, who served as a long-time drummer for several bands, best known for his decade with Mr. Bungle during 1988–1999.[41]


Heifetz played a featured role in the movie They Shall Have Music (1939), directed by Archie Mayo and written by John Howard Lawson and Irmgard von Cube.[42] He played himself, stepping in to save a music school for poor children from foreclosure. He later appeared in the film, Carnegie Hall (1947), performing an abridged version of the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, with the orchestra led by Fritz Reiner. In 1951, he appeared in the film Of Men and Music. In 1962, he appeared in a televised series of his master classes, and, in 1971, Heifetz on Television aired, an hour-long color special in which he performed a series of short works: the Scottish Fantasy by Max Bruch, and the Chaconne from the Partita No. 2 by J. S. Bach. Heifetz conducted the orchestra, as the surviving video recording documents.[citation needed]

Notable instruments[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Jascha Heifetz Is Dead at 86; A Virtuoso Since Childhood". The New York Times. December 12, 1987. Retrieved October 25, 2014.
  2. ^ Nikolaus de Palezieux, Jascha Heifetz – The Supreme (2000 RCA Victor compilation)
  3. ^ a b Timnick, Lois (December 12, 1987). "Jascha Heifetz, 86, Hailed as Greatest Violinist, Dies". The Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles. p. 1. Retrieved May 21, 2020 – via Newspapers.com. continued on page 38 or (web)
  4. ^ "The Heifetz War Years". Jascha Heifetz – the official web site. Retrieved February 4, 2024.
  5. ^ Kennedy, Michael and Joyce Bourne. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, Oxford University Press, 2004. p. 331.
  6. ^ "The Best Violinists", time.com, February 2, 1962.
  7. ^ Wallechinsky, David and Amy Wallace. The New Book of Lists. Canongate, 2005. p. 94.
  8. ^ The record confirming his birth on January 20, 1901 (full archival citation – LVIA/728/4/77) is held at the Lithuanian State Historical Archives (LVIA). A copy of the record is held on microfilm by the family history archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City (No 2205068, image number – 795). The record states the family was registered in Polotsk.
  9. ^ Kahn, Roger (October 31, 1969), "Fiddler on the Shelf", Life, vol. 67, no. 18, pp. 59–67, retrieved March 19, 2013
  10. ^ Auer 1923, p. 157
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h "Biography". jaschaheifetz.com. December 21, 2010. Retrieved November 8, 2015.
  12. ^ Nikolaus de Palezieux, Jascha Heifetz – The Supreme (2000 RCA Victor compilation)
  13. ^ Kahn (1969), p.66
  14. ^ a b Agus, Ayke (2001). Heifetz As I Knew Him. Amadeus Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-1-57467-062-2.
  15. ^ MCA Classics liner notes, 1988
  16. ^ Axelrod, Herbert; Axelrod, Todd (1990). Heifetz. Paganiniana Publications. pp. 145, 420, 700. ISBN 978-0-86622-490-1. Retrieved March 22, 2017.
  17. ^ I. S. Konev: Čtyřicátý pátý, Praha 1985, p. 242
  18. ^ Heifetz As I Knew Him, by Dr. Ayke Agus
  19. ^ "Obituary: Brooks Smith", International Piano Quarterly (2000), vols 4–5, p. 8
  20. ^ Kahn (1969), p.68
  21. ^ Harold Schonberg (December 28, 1987). "Critic's Notebook; Repertory of Legends Immortalizes Jascha Heifetz". The New York Times. Retrieved December 10, 2014.
  22. ^ Itzhak Perlman (April 19, 2001). "The Fiddler King". The Guardian. Retrieved December 10, 2014.
  23. ^ The Art of Violin (c) 2000 Ideale Audience / IMG Artists / LA Sept-Arte
  24. ^ "Gamut Music Inc, Tricolore Strings Return". Gamut Music Inc.
  25. ^ Agus, Ayke (2001). Heifetz as I knew him. Portland, Oregon: Amadeus Press. ISBN 978-1-57467-062-2.
  26. ^ Devine, David (June 8, 2015). Tucson: A History of the Old Pueblo from the 1854 Gadsden Purchase. McFarland. ISBN 978-1-4766-1460-1 – via Google Books.
  27. ^ Jascha Heifetz: The Decca Masters digitally remastered by MCA Classics in 1988, RCA Victor liner notes
  28. ^ "Heifetz Gets Silent Rebuke". New York Times. April 11, 1953. p. 15. ProQuest 112846026.
  29. ^ Pedahzur, Ami; Perliger, Arie (2009). Jewish Terrorism in Israel. Columbia University Press. p. 176. ISBN 978-0-231-15446-8.
  30. ^ Sprinzak, Ehud (1999). Brother Against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israeli Politics from Altalena to the Rabin Assassination. Simon & Schuster. p. 68. ISBN 0-684-85344-2.
  31. ^ "Jascha Heifetz, Famous Jewish Violinist, Marries out of Fold". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. August 29, 1928. Retrieved February 4, 2024.
  32. ^ "Violinist Charges the Former Florence Vidor With Cruelty". The New York Times. December 28, 1945. Retrieved February 4, 2024.
  33. ^ "Jascha Heifetz Weds; Violinist Marries Mrs. Frances Spiegelberg in Beverly Hills". The New York Times. January 10, 1947. Retrieved February 4, 2024.
  34. ^ "Jascha Heifetz Says Wife Broke Into Home". Los Angeles Times. January 11, 1963. p. 24.
  35. ^ "Jascha Heifetz Divorced". The New York Times. December 24, 1963. Retrieved February 4, 2024.
  36. ^ "The Official Website of American Violinist Jascha Heifetz". jaschaheifetz.com.
  37. ^ "Jascha Heifetz Society". jaschaheifetzsociety.org. July 31, 2020. Archived from the original on March 2, 2001.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  38. ^ "San Francisco Academy Orchestra Pressroom" (Press release). The San Francisco Academy Orchestra. October 23, 2006. Retrieved April 2, 2007.
  39. ^ Byrne, Josefa Heifetz; Byrne, Robert (1984). Mrs. Byrne's dictionary of unusual, obscure, and preposterous words gathered from numerous and diverse authoritative sources. Edited, with an introduction by Mr Robert Byrne (1st Pocket Books printing ed.). New York: Pocket Books. p. [2]. ISBN 0-671-49782-0. Retrieved July 27, 2023 – via Internet Archive. Originally published in 1974 by University Books, without Jascha Heifetz being mentioned.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: postscript (link)
  40. ^ "Robert Heifetz; Educator, Peace Activist". Los Angeles Times. April 19, 2001.
  41. ^ "Danny Heifetz". The Metal Archives. Retrieved February 4, 2024.
  42. ^ "Jascha Heifetz, World's Greatest Violinist, Makes his Picture Debut in "They Shall Have Music"". The Jackson Sun. Jackson, Tennessee. October 22, 1939. p. 23. Retrieved May 21, 2020 – via Newspapers.com.


External links[edit]

External audio
audio icon You may hear Jascha Heifetz performing Johannes Brahms' Violin Concerto in D Major Opus 77 with Serge Koussevitzky conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1939 Here on archive.org