the heights of his Olympian artistic solitude, Heifetz privately watched the
musical scene with some interest, much like any other artist. This is to
say that he watched the artistic 'commotion' with a bird's-eye view
from his vantage top position. He was astutely aware of his unchallenged
position, and in his concertizing days his recording and concert fees
certainly reflected his status
as the supreme violinist of his era (if they didn't, he made sure they
were modified to do so). To enhance his position and protect it, Heifetz had at one point a clause in his RCA contract that
prohibited any other
violinist on the company's roster to record the same work he himself did, for several
years. Thus, his was the only available RCA version of a particular work on the market for a
considerable time. No doubt this ensured handsome selling and returns.
Throughout his life Heifetz was extremely careful to abstain from praising or criticizing any of his peers or younger colleagues. Equally, he dismissed and disqualified himself and other professional violinists from being able to adjudicate his/their peers in competitions ("Who are the judges, what are their credentials?" he would retort in opposition to competitions). Privately he may have of course expressed preferences and indeed there were quite a few violinists he did admire. An exception to the 'privacy' rule however, was Fritz Kreisler for whom Heifetz had openly expressed admiration. But then again, who could not like Kreisler...
The other exception was a younger violinist, the appreciation for whom revealed itself almost inadvertently (although with Heifetz the word 'inadvertently' rarely applied since he seldom revealed anything unwittingly). Early in his teaching career, Heifetz once informed a group of his students: "I have tickets to see a 'real' violinist. Michael Rabin".
Michael Rabin allowed
to watch his idol from close range as Heifetz plays
(As a sideline: it is interesting to note how many people go to concerts to "see" a player. The expression no doubt found its way from the theatre, which historically preceded any 'concert' event. Even Heifetz expressed himself as going "to see" Rabin. Indeed, how important is the element of seeing the artists, versus listening to them. For some, no doubt, more than for others.)
Well, it takes one to know one. As a historical note, it may be recalled that the incident must have occurred around 1960 at the earliest (since Heifetz didn't teach before), and perhaps even later during the mid-sixties. Alas, by then Rabin was not playing as well as he did in his teens. The earlier promising career seemed to have reached some sort of impasse (see Songs Efemeral). Rabin was not well, he used medication, and it took him a number of years to try to re-establish himself. Some recordings of his early thirties were somewhat inferior to his wonderful teen years. Tragically, Rabin died at thirty-five, leaving a stunned music world to mourn his departure.
Perhaps Heifetz still remembered the miraculous young Rabin. Like Mischa Elman perhaps, who adored Rabin's playing and allowed his piano accompanist, Joseph Seiger, to play with the then young star whenever he could.
The footnote to the story was that Heifetz spoke to Rabin after this (but possibly another) concert. While complimenting the young virtuoso, Rabin complained to him about his violin (the Kubelik Guarnerius) set-up not being quite right. Heifetz being Heifetz responded, "Are you sure its the fiddle?"
IF HEIFETZ was publicly mindful not to mention names (he knew only too well that doing so would amount to a 'Heifetz endorsement'), privately he did express his likes and dislikes - sometimes of the one and the same fiddler. So who were those? Young Yehudi Menuhin was one of them and Heifetz was genuinely in awe of the huge talent displayed by the young, pre-war Menuhin.
He also respected David Oistrakh's artistry. When the latter had suddenly died in 1974 following a heart attack, Heifetz wrote a short courtesy note of condolence to Tamara, Oistrakh's widow.
In a sign of honor and respect for the Russian artist, he also asked his class to stand up in a minute of silence when the news of Oistrakh's death had reached him. Seemingly, other Russian fiddlers were less successful in gaining Heifetz's approval.
Did I mention Michael Rabin? Well, so was the other Galamian-DeLay stellar pupil, Itzhak Perlman, appreciated by Heifetz; Perlman's enormous talent did not fail to impress him. Perhaps a visit to Beverly Hills by the Perlmans did not, socially, prove to be the most successful, but the (mutual, needless to say) admiration between the two artists remained undiminished. Of the older generation, Ruggiero Ricci was still another artist Heifetz appreciated. "Look after her", Heifetz once advised him, referring to Ricci's Guarnerius, "and she'll look after you". Ivry Gitlis and Ida Haendel were also visitors to the Malibu beach house or Beverly Hills residence. Heifetz called Haendel's playing "wonderful" and appreciated Gitlis free spirit, peregrine readings even if those did not fit his exacting views on music.
But admiring somebody did not mean automatic, ever-lasting approval. Heifetz could deplore some violinists who failed to keep up high standards of playing and he could be heard lamenting about "what a waste of a talent" if someone's playing fell below par. And these included world-class violinists whom he had previously appraised highly. Indeed, nobody escaped his strict artistic criteria.
DURING his teaching career (between 1959-1984) perhaps forty to fifty students had passed through Heifetz's masterclass. Some remained with him for a short period, some for longer, others were 'dismissed' by him for various reasons and a few became his assistants. Furthermore, a number of 'auditors' attended his classes, more senior violinists who were allowed to listen. Occasionally an auditor would play for Heifetz.
The late Erick Friedman was, in my opinion, Heifetz's most talented student, possibly together with Yuval Yaron. Pierre Amoyal was another. Christiaan Bor undeniably also possessed magnificent ability, as did the late Varujan Kojian. Bor, Kojian and Friedman were class mates. Yaron belonged to a later period and Amoyal to a still later one.
In spite of his talent, Friedman turned to be a special case in term of the long-term relationship with Heifetz. A superstitious man as Heifetz was, the 'k' addition to Friedman's first name came at his suggestion. This, in order to make the number of letters add to 13, as does his own name and that of Fritz Kreisler (with whom Heifetz also shared birthdates). Thirteen was a favorite Heifetz number and regarded as a lucky one.
Friedman arrived to Heifetz after an auspicious start of his career under the management of Arthur Judson and against the latter's advice. The veteran agent warned - not without some foundation - that a career stopped is difficult to restart. After about a year of studies with Heifetz, he was informed that he's been chosen to record the Bach double concerto with the master. Great honor, one would assume, to be chosen - by Heifetz - to partner Heifetz. The recording took place in London, 1960. Heifetz had already recorded the work previously but the resulting effort won mixed praise. Taking rather too strictly Bach's instructions that the two violinists resemble each other as much as possible, and perhaps being reluctant to share the stage with another, Heifetz initial disc featured a dubbed version of himself playing both solo parts - a musical self-cloning perhaps. It was recorded before the stereo age, possibly another factor which detracted from its appeal, as the two fiddles could not be separated wirhin the aural image space.
Perhaps choosing a student rather than another colleague 'equal' to him in status, came easier to Heifetz. But not any student would do. Friedman's tone was much in the Heifetz mold (something that had been mentioned by more than one commentator). The affinity of sound together with some other ornamental features inherited or otherwise borrowed from Heifetz came to be regarded, rightly or wrongly, as detracting rather than enriching factors in Friedman's playing.
Friedman recalled in a later interview that during the recording of the Bach Double he made an error. He was petrified and in the control room he was ready to apologize to Heifetz. Magnanimously, Heifetz assured Friedman that: "I made that mistake, not you". To prove it, he asked the technician to play the passage and when (Friedman) fiddle's squawk came up Heifetz said: "You see, it was me". On their way to the airport heading back to the US, Friedman escorted Mrs. Heifetz to the car and, apologizing again for his mistake. told her that if Mr. Heifetz decided not to approve the record, he would understand. Mrs. Heifetz replied: "Mr. Heifetz is very happy with the recording. He says it was like playing with himself".
By the time the Bach recording came out, Friedman's public appearance - while studying with Heifetz - were curtailed. Generally speaking, Heifetz discouraged his students to concertise "before they were ready". In an attempt to regain the impetus of his career, he approached impresario Solomon Hurok who conditioned his contract on Friedman's severing all ties with CAMI. After doing so, Hurok retracted his offer. By the mid-60s Friedman decided to enter the Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow (in which, incidentally, the cellist Laurence Lesser won the top cello prize and who later played with Heifetz in chamber music in Los Angeles). Heifetz (who opposed competitions, the Tchaikovsky in particular) warned Friedman in no uncertain terms to stay away from the Soviet Union - "you'll see what will happen there". Oistrakh, on the other hand, enticed the young virtuoso to participate, assuring him that he knew his playing and that he had nothing to worry about.
It was a bad move at a bad time. The Cold War was at one of its peaks. Compounding the situation were remarks made earlier by Friedman during the Brussels violin competition, criticizing the Soviets for block-voting for their candidates. Oistrakh was now the chairman of the Tchaikovsky jury. Eventually Friedman had reached no higher than a tie for 6th place, while other Russian violinists of student-level caliber, came in front. Joseph Szigeti who served on the jury was appalled. (He later assured Heifetz that Friedman scored top marks in every round on his cards). And so was the public, who voted with their (stamping) feet. But it was all in vain and the scores stood. Heifetz's prediction proved right. Friedman was devastated and for a period he believed that his career was over.
Back in the USA an outraged media, from Time magazine to most major newspapers besieged Friedman for interviews to explain what happened. Friedman declined all media exposure. He felt crushed. Many years later he lamented on the feeling of "double-crossing" that he had experienced from Oistrakh, who enticed him to come to Moscow. He tried to explain his failure in the Tchaikovsky by reasoning that somehow the Russians wished to take revenge on Heifetz by failing his stellar student. According to Friedman, both Heifetz and Auer were still regarded as 'defectors' to the West, if not downright traitors. There might have been a grain of truth in his claims.
Yet Heifetz had already returned to his native country for what in retrospect proved to be his one and only comeback. In 1934, 17 years after his 'defection' Heifetz toured and Russia, giving sold out concerts in both Moscow and St. Petersburg. The 'traitor' was allowed by the authorities to return (if forbidden to travel back home with any cash remuneration from those concerts; Heifetz had to spent it in Russia). Furthermore, his sisters also traveled with him to the Soviet Union and they were all able to revisit their natal town of Vilna.
It would be stretching the point somewhat to believe that in 1966, over fifty years after his 'defection', and after having allowed Heifetz to return to the Soviet Union, the Russians still begrudged Heifetz enough to wish to publicly snub him through the 'failure' of his student. It is true that throughout the years Heifetz revealed his deep mistrust of the Soviet Union and was no supporter of the prevailing regime; he much preferred, praised and treasured the American freedom instead. Furthermore, apart from Heifetz, there were other 'defectors' of equal fame, such as Nathan Milstein, Tosca Seidel, Vladimir Horowitz and Gregor Piatigorsly, who had fled Russia only a few years after Heifetz, never to return (Horowitz eventually did once, 60 years later).
Whatever the true reasons were, Heifetz's star in Russia remained undiminished among music lovers. He was and still is regarded as the paragon of the violin, a nonpareil and a legend.
PLAYING the violin is not a natural posture. According to a jocular Milstein it is hardly a normal business altogether . "I must be crazy to have played the violin all my life. Who in his right mind would do that? I must be mad (pointing a finger to his head)". Ruggiero Ricci further advises that it may even be easier to play it if we prop it chest-height, rather than on the shoulder.
The mechanics of playing the violin dictate that in order to draw the bow on the G-string or to cross strings in an easier manner, most players incline the violin body on its long axis - some do so up to forty-five degrees - with the E-string lowest. When playing on the G-string in such a position, the bow is at some angle to the ground (as a flat reference), but Heifetz's bow on the G-string was almost exclusively parallel to the ground, which means that he inclined the fiddle less, forcing his bow arm to be held in a higher position. Additionally, it appears that he held and pointed the fiddle further to the left than most. Some maintain that people with shorter necks tend to incline the fiddle less. Heifetz had neither a particularly short nor long neck, his individual manner of holding the violin seemed to be instinctive rather than induced by anatomical dictates.
Such a posture, multiplied by many years of practice and playing, has a price - at least it taxed one from him. Heifetz kept an X-ray showing his spine to have acquired a mild S shape. An "occupational hazard" he called it.
His father advised him to stop playing in public at fifty. Twenty-odd years past that age, Heifetz lamented not having listened to him. Then there was the problem with that high-held bow arm. His right shoulder started to bother him sometime during his fifties. Initially, Heifetz paid no attention to it. But with the passing of the years the pain increased until it reached the point when it hindered his playing. During the sixties the 'miracle' drug cortisone became popular - while little was known as yet of its side effects. According to a source in the music business there came a time when Heifetz couldn't play the violin without severe pain in his bow arm and he started receiving cortisone shots twice yearly.
In 1974, as he was preparing to play in a students recital, a muscle ruptured and dislocated from a tendon in his right shoulder. He had to undergo surgery which proved only partially successful. Thereafter he played the violin with some difficulty, bow arm held much lower. "That's not the way to play the violin" he remarked sardonically, but staunchly continued to play it like no other to the end of his life.
IT IS perhaps surprising how many violinists secretly or otherwise admire, sometime even envy, pianists. A world-renowned violinist told me she spends more time playing the piano at home then she should, rather than practicing the violin, as she should. Many violinists played the piano remarkably well, especially if they also happened to compose. Fritz Kreisler was one of those. So was Heifetz. In fact, on more than one occasion Heifetz confided that, as a child, his real desire was to become a pianist.
It is unlikely that his parents could afford a piano at home - the fiddle was cheaper and thus always the first option. Besides, as father Rubin played the fiddle, that was the only free tuition initially available to the child. By the time his sisters Pauline and Elza were old enough to learn an instrument Jascha was already earning money ("I have supported my family since the age of seven and I am proud of it", he once commented). The two girls studied the piano and Heifetz recalled how he envied the abundance of repertoire they enjoyed for the piano compared to what was available for the violin. It was one of the motivating factors which drew him later on to transcribe many of those pieces for his instrument. The fact that he knew the piano rather well came in handy. Most of his arrangements reveal intricate, sometime complicated, always imaginative piano accompaniment. On the downside, his intimate knowledge of piano playing and its repertoire was bad news for his various piano accompanists - none of them could get away with any errors...
His instinctive predisposition for the piano revealed itself very early. His first professional violin teacher Ilya (Elias) Davidovich Malkin recalled being astounded by the little Heifetz's talent at the keyboard. At the age of five or six, he was able to play by ear, note for note, a Bach piece that Malkin's wife had just finished playing on the piano. In fact, as in infant he used to sneak and climb at the piano whenever the chair was vacated by Mrs. Malkin. He became so prolific at the instrument that later in life he could play jazz freely, but that's another gift, another story.
EDMUND Fuller, editor of the Thesaurus of Anecdotes (New York, Crown Publishers, 1942) tells the story of an evening, when early in his career Heifetz dinned out together with Mischa Elman in a New York restaurant. (Taken with a grain of salt: the story was told about several other violinists as well). At one point the waiter approached and presented them with an envelope which read: "Addressed to the World Greatest Violinist".
Out of respect for each other, neither violinist wished or dared to assume that the letter was addressed to him. Heifetz asked Elman to open it, but the latter bowed and deferred to the former. He then insisted that the letter was no doubt addressed to his companion. Heifetz likewise demurred in favor of his senior colleague.
The letter went to and fro for quite some time, each violinist inviting the other to open it. Eventually Elman's persistence won the day, when the 'executive order' came from the senior violinist for Heifetz to open it. Reluctantly, Heifetz desisted and opened the letter. The salutation read: