Music: Fiddlers in Russia
TIME, Monday, May. 21, 1934
Food rations were down to a quarter of a pound per person and machine guns were spattering the St. Petersburg streets with dead when a family of five Russian Jews who lived in one small room across from the central police station scrambled a few belongings together and hastily escaped from Russia. There were 16 refugees crowded into the third-class compartment which carried them across Siberia. And when they reached San Francisco via Japan and Honolulu nothing seemed so strange as the way U. S. residents spread themselves out, unless it was the way they ate soup for the first part of their dinner instead of the last. Last week Jascha Heifetz arrived in New York on the fashionable Conte di Savoia carrying, besides his $45,000 Guarnerius, a $5 quarter-size violin on which he, aged 3, had learned to play. He had been in Russia for the first time since 1917 when he fled with his parents and sisters from their one-room home during the Revolution. The Russians had queer ideas of their countryman who was coming back to play for them. He would arrive with two Ethiopian bodyguards. His violin would be in a bright silver case. His wife would be either a Miss Ford or a Miss Rockefeller instead of Cinemactress Florence Vidor. Even so, there were Russians who took five-day journeys to hear Heifetz fiddle in Leningrad and Moscow, Russians who paid as high as 24 rubles ($19.20) to squeeze into his concerts, Russians who stayed long after the lights went down to hear his Schubert's Ave Maria. Heifetz's earnings for his twelve Russian performances amounted to $10,000 in rubles, none of which could he take out of the country. He earned half that much playing half an hour over the radio last Sunday night to advertise such Lehn & Fink products as Lysol, Pebeco toothpaste, Hinds' Honey & Almond Cream.
The Russian reception and the souvenirs in which he invested his earnings made the trip a high point in Heifetz's career. He had bought a rare 17th Century tapestry and twelve richly-bound volumes on numismatics which had belonged to Alexander III. And his Uncle Naum had met him with the little violin en cased in the shabby home-made box on which his mother had sewn a Russian H. The bow and bridge were gone but two strings remained, along with the little tape handle by which it used to hang on the wall. Heifetz's father, a violinist in the orchestra at Vilna, bought the instrument when his young son showed enough musical sense to tug rebelliously at his coattails when he sounded a wrong note. The little fiddle had finished its service by the time Heifetz was 9 and the youngest pupil of the late great Leopold Auer at the Imperial Conservatory. Another great Russian violinist played in Russia last week, for the first time in 23 years. Like Heifetz he was an Auer pupil. Like Heifetz he was born of poor Jewish parents. But Efrem Zimbalist's tour will take him beyond the two big Russian cities. Among other places he will go to Rostov-on-Don, the Cossack town where he was born. There his father used to conduct the local orchestra and at 9, because the players demanded it, young Efrem became first violinist. To leave Rostov for St. Petersburg, Zimbalist's parents had to bribe the town of ficials. The boy and his mother arrived in the capital late at night when lodgings were closed, walked the streets until morning to keep from freezing. In 1914 Zimbalist married Soprano Alma Gluck, then in her heyday at the Metropolitan Opera House. Mrs. Zimbalist, in Moscow for the recent May Day celebration, became so excited that she jumped down from the grandstand, danced in the Red Square with the workers. Until he went to St. Paul's School to prepare for Yale, young Efrem Zimbalist Jr. took violin lessons from Jascha Heifetz's father, who still follows the old Russian custom of eating his soup at the end of his dinner.