years I was fascinated by the parallels I found - alone, I erroneously
thought - between the background, upbringing and the families of
two great violinists, Jascha Heifetz and Yehudi Menuhin. It wasn't only because I revered both
artists or because, together with David Oistrakh's, they were household
names in my own family.
My captivation with the parallels between the two violinists began with quotidian biographical details. Both were first-born boys and both had two younger sisters, so both households therefore numbered five people. As I looked closer, it became apparent that the age differences between the three children in each family was almost identical. Further, the background of each family was pretty similar: both pairs of parents were born in Russia, though in the case of the Menuhins each one made his/her own way to the United States before they married. This included a short, independent interlude of both Marutha and Moshe Menuhin in Palestine before reaching the US. The Heifetzes arrived in the US as an integral family just prior to the Russian Revolution. Both fathers were teachers of sort, Rubin teaching the violin, Moshe teaching Hebrew in Jewish schools in New York and San Francisco.
The deeper I delved into the families, further meaningful parallels revealed themselves, less obvious than the initial, superficial similarities already mentioned. Both families were blessed - or otherwise - with two outstanding musical talents whose genius manifested itself from an unusually early age. Both Jascha and Yehudi started learning the violin at similar ages, around three-four. Once their genius was discovered and recognized, it became their respective parents' priority to protect and nourish it through hard practice, discipline and excellent tuition. Interestingly, both sisters in each family studied the piano to varying degrees and levels and in both cases it was the elder sister who became, questionably, more proficient on the instrument. (Opinions vary and some believe that given the opportunity Yaltah, the youngest Menuhin sister, might have well developed into an outstanding pianist, having possibly possessed an even greater talent for the keyboard than Hephtzibah). Indeed, in Hephzibah's case, she had attained an individual level of excellence which later enabled her to play and record with her brother within a consummate artistic understanding. While Hephzibah and Yehudi enjoyed a level of closeness and understanding not shared by Yaltah, Jascha was a law all to himself and kept himself rather more detached from his two siblings. Pauline had eventually evolved into a fine pianist and even tried her hand at composing.
The trouble, and similarities, between the two families become more accentuated when around the age of seven or eight the two prodigies started concertizing. From that moment on both boys became the linchpin as well as the almost exclusive bread winners of their respective families ("I have supported my family since the age of seven and I am proud of it", Heifetz once commented). The mentality, culture and (at the time) financial status of both families was pretty similar. The boys became the hub and the focus of the family and the target of parental dedication to their progress and success, way beyond what is encountered in normal families. In some respects they became what some in the Pale of Settlement would describe as the 'golden eggs laying chickens' who were to be protected at all cost. Regardless of whether or not the boys were aware of their premature roles of bread winners in their respective families, it is almost impossible for them to have failed to sense the special - and powerful - position they commanded within their family system. Both boys had to live with and endure what appeared to be two overbearing mothers who ruled their families with an "iron rod". Both fathers on their part, gave up work and dedicated themselves to further their respective son's career. Both families benefited enormously from the financial wealth their sons would generate from high concerts fees. The Heifetzes bought a handsome house for themselves on the East Coast while the Menuhins did the same, some 20 years later, on the West Coast. All concert fees and remuneration from concerts and records were handled by the parents - until each virtuoso had reached the magic age of twenty-one and gradually started looking after their own affairs.
Well, for better or for worse, an unusual upbringing such as this must tax a price in terms of normal human development. Before I delve into that, I would point out further similarities that seem to have dogged their lives. Both violinists were married twice and, in Heifetz's case, divorced twice. Both had two children from their first marriage, while Menuhin went one better and produced a further pair from his second marriage (Heifetz had only one). Both "first set" of children were a son and a daughter - in Heifetz's case the other way around - and both the "second sets" were boys.
The human price taxed of both geniuses was, by normal standard, incalculable. Their relationships with their respective wives deteriorated and so did that with their children. Neither appeared to be close to their offspring, neither seem to have encouraged them or showed interest in their upbringing - at least that was the general subjective feeling of their children. Neither enjoyed a warm and close relationship with them when they grew up and became adults. Perhaps in both cases the first divorce and the ensuing detachment from their offspring was in part the reason for this. In old age both expressed some regret, in particular Menuhin, for this state of affairs and both retrospectively wished they'd done things differently. And yet - ironically - both eventually excused their shortcomings as parents on being tied up in the whirl and tempest of the concertizing business which left them little time for family life. ("What could I do - I was away on concert tours earning a living", Heifetz used to say in old age).
This is how Heifetz's son Jay, recalled some of his growing years. It seems that these two extraordinary musicians' families were perhaps ill-omened from the beginning. Both became duty bound and entirely devoted to their art and to music, to an extent that seemingly left little room for normal interaction with other human beings or family members.
While Heifetz largely restricted himself to ever improving as a musician and as a violinist, Menuhin progressively diversified his interests and outlook. These eventually came to embrace a wide range of issues such as political, literary, educational and ambassadorial roles, conducting, and more. I don't know to what extent this was a natural manifestation of his own self-growth and development or a partial consequence of his progressive bow arm problems which he started encountering in the 50s. Artistically and humanly, it was certainly painful to watch and listen to him in the 70s and 80s struggling with a less than a secure bow arm.
Both Heifetz and Menuhin offspring had a checkered relationship with their respective fathers. Krov, Menuhin eldest son, lost contact with his father for a good number of years when his mother Nola and Yehudi had divorced. While praising him and showing to be proud of his son, in his autobiography Unfinished Journey Menuhin waxes lyrical - but really glosses over - a far more troubled relationship than he deemed fit for print. Zamira, his second-born child, did enjoy closer ties with her father and for a while she moved in to live with him after the divorce. Both sons from the second marriage to Diana have some qualms about their father. The relationship of the Heifetz children with their father seem to mirror and share to some degree a similar pattern. Josepha, his first born, distanced herself from her father after his divorce from her mother Florence, while Robert kept in touch with his father to the extent that Heifetz permitted it. Jay, his third child from Heifetz's marriage to Frances, had also experienced his ups and downs with his father.
Rather then describing or speculating further about the quality - or lack thereof - of the human and parental relationship that both these artists could offer, perhaps we should listen to another next of kin who grew up into one of these two families. Jeremy Menuhin describes the prevailing emotional deprivation that his family had suffered, a description that I believe applies in a large measure to both families.
Well into his eighties Heifetz himself pensively reflected that perhaps he should have never married nor have children. Perhaps Jeremy Menuhin is correct in that the peripatetic life of a concert virtuoso just cannot coexist nor accommodate a normal family life.
THE MENDELSSOHN violin concerto is probably the vehicle which seemingly presented Heifetz with the most occasions to clash with conductors (incidentally, also one of the works he demanded to hear from students auditioning for him). Of course there were other works that Heifetz did not see eye to eye with various conductors and occasionally quite a bit of rehearsal time was spent settling differences. If musical encounters with conductors were fleeting affairs, being friends and collaborators with the violinist did not necessarily guarantee a better interpretative understanding. Gregor Piatigorsky is a good example where the two artists and friends often differed on interpretative readings, though Heifetz usually prevailed.
Heifetz used to rate the quality of compositions, especially violin concertos, by means of a 'star' system. The stars spanned the range of 1 to 3, with the Tchaikovsky being the exception since in Heifetz's opinion it was superior and ranked above all markings. Apart from being high on his scoring system, the Mendelssohn violin concerto also happened to be his 'maiden' concerto and possibly the piece he had played most frequently during his career. It was the concerto he had played in his maiden public appearance at the age of seven in Kovno (shortly after having previously played its first movement at the Vilna Imperial Music School). It was the work he played, in its piano reduction, with Fritz Kreisler's accompaniment at the keyboard in Berlin in 1912. It was indeed a piece of youth - his concerto. This is not to undermine the status of other concertos which Heifetz regarded as 'his own', such as the Sibelius for instance. Yet the Mendelssohn held particular significance to him, having been the vehicle of his début, his first public exposure, at a very tender age,
Pinchas Zukerman goes further, assigning this concerto attributes outside musical confines. He half jokingly calls it a "Jewish" concerto. It is the vehicle which symbolized for many talented Jewish children and their families in the ghetto the struggle for survival and the way to freedom. To start with, he explains, it was composed by a (kind of) Jewish composer, who came out of a well-to-do, respected family (if ultimately they were made to convert and renounce their religion). So every Jewish child seems to have learned this "Jewish" concerto first. "My father had survived", says Zukerman, "because he played the Mendelssohn concerto getting out of Warsaw after the War on to Berlin on his way to Israel. The Mendelssohn concert was not a violin concerto anymore, it was life, it was blood, it was everything". It might have well signified the same for the Heifetzes.
Opinions about interpretation of this or any other work, differ. Kreisler advised playing the first movement on the faster side and the third in a moderate tempo. In fact the tempo of the third is marked as Allegretto non troppo for the introduction and Allegro molto vivace for the main movement. These markings are of course no metronome reference and one artist's allegro may be dissimilar to another's, although a broad convention may exist. Perhaps because of his exuberance of youth and/or because of his dexterity and ever technical readiness, Heifetz always played the last movement at blistering speed. This often displeased conductors but Heifetz was not one to easily succumb and relinquish his musical beliefs to aqnyone, including those 'baton-wielding' men. Alas, on occasions in which common ground could not be found, the two protagonists went on to play in their own way - with audibly mixed results.
In his autobiography The Music Goes Round and Round, Basil Tschaikov recalls the sessions in which Heifetz had recorded the Mendelssohn violin concerto with Sir Thomas Beecham and the RPO in 1949. The two musicians had already collaborated some years previously and were certainly no strangers to each other. The Sibelius which they recorded in 1935 went smoothly. The Mendelssohn, less so.
Listening to that recording however, reveals little reason for worry. Apart from one or two spots in the last movement, the ensemble playing is exemplary. But in his cover notes to the EMI Masters issue, included in the Heifetz Collection, Robert Cowan cites the opinion which greeted the Mendelssohn concerto with Beecham as one of "an extremely accomplished player... going over ground that has been so long over-familiar to him that the beauties of the wayside are passed by with scarcely a thought". Some suggested that having absorbed the riches of the composition at such a tender age with the limited ears, mind and imagination of a young albeit precocious child, Heifetz was later unable to deepen his reading into a mature interpretation. I would leave such preposterous opinions alone.
The fact that Heifetz's playing had undergone a transformation just previous and around the period of the WWII has been identified and reported by many observers and sources. His status as the world's most prominent fiddler became unassailable during this period and more so after the War, when it truly became undisputed. Generally speaking, whereas the pre-War period was one of a career building journey, the post-War years were those of cementing that position, possibly above and beyond anybody's reach. While before the War he might have been dependent on conductors for concerts and recordings, the post years were ones in which he could more or less pick and choose his accompanists. There is evidence to the unshakable position which Heifetz commanded within the post-War music business and Schuyler Chapin reminds us of an example. He recalled that in the fifties, when he served as Heifetz's tour manager for three years, all the orchestra managers knew Heifetz's rule that when they engaged him for a concerto, he was to appear last on the evening's program. Occasionally a conductor "might balk at this provision" but the local manager would point out that the first half left room for a variety of orchestral repertoire and highlighted the box office sense of this arrangement. Other evidence point to the stereo era during which Heifetz had re-recorded a substantial portion of his repertoire accompanied by 'lesser' conductors and orchestras, who possibly were more pliant to his musical demands. (That said, for the 'heavy' vehicles of the literature such as the Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius and Prokofiev concertos, etc., Heifetz picked established ensembles and great conductors such as, Reiner, Munch and Sargent.)
'Picked' is perhaps the operative word. Pinchas Zukerman refer to that golden generation of violinists - and to Heifetz in particular - as
Nevertheless the Mendelssohn still dogged him and when infelicitous circumstances contrived to pair him with a musically equally unyielding conductor, sparks could fly but the results were less than sparkling. A live performance of the Mendelssohn concerto with the NYPO and its guest conductor Guido Cantelli was captured live on disc. The meeting between the conducting rising star and Heifetz started inauspiciously when, before the rehearsal, Cantelli passed by Heifetz without even acknowledging the violinist's presence, almost brushing him aside on his way. Heifetz didn't like that attitude, to say the least. During the rehearsal the two musicians would not compromise on the tempo of the third movement, neither yielding to the other. Heifetz played fast, Cantelli moderato. Cometh the evening performance, Cantelli stepped on the podium, seemingly confident that Heifetz would fall in line. But Heifetz had his own mind and possibly even an account to settle with whom he might have considered a brash young conductor (much admired, incidentally, by Toscanini and others). When the third movement commenced, Cantelli started in his own tempo while Heifetz immediately rushed off in his own. A terrified Cantelli glanced at Heifetz and the longer they played the more panicking those looks became. Heifetz kept cranking up the pace, tossing off passage after passage at an ever increasing speed. The players struggled to keep up with him and not surprisingly orchestra and soloist finished the concerto in their own separate time. A livid and profusely perspiring Cantelli vanished off the podium as quickly as he could.
Backstage, there was Heifetz grinning in the green room. "I really showed that rascal who knows the Mendelssohn better" were his approximate words. But his enjoyment was short-lived as an old gentleman in the room started berating his performance and admonishing his puerile attitude. It was his father Rubin who, together with Jascha's sister Elza, had attended the concert. Father and son spoke in Russian with Rubin occasionally interjecting his tirade with Yiddish words. Heifetz was visibly shaken and on the defensive - in itself quite a rare occurrence - trying to justify himself.
Within a year, both Cantelli and pére Heifetz would be dead. The young conductor would perish in a plane crash in France in November 1956, Rubin in good age in 1957. The ubiquitous Mendelssohn proved to be the first concert father had ever attended fifty years earlier at his son public debut, and quite possibly the last. The Mendelssohn concerto was certainly 'embedded' in the Heifetz family's DNA.
MOST biographical notes on Heifetz rarely fail to quote the famous Carnegie Hall incident, which had long became a classic in the annals of musical witticism. It took place in October 1917 during Heifetz's resounding American debut in the horse-shoe shaped hall in New York. Just before the début, the Godowskys - Frida and Leopold - had taken, in true gallant fashion, the young Heifetz under their wing and had welcome him to their home. That friendship lasted until Godowsky's death in 1938.
At 2:30 on that Saturday afternoon, Carnegie was packed with a plethora of famous musicians. In seemed as if all the top string players and artists of New York had gathered to hear the sixteen-year old new violin sensation from Russia. Godowsky, together with his daughter Dagmar and violinists Frederic Fradkin and Mischa Elman were seated in their box. Elman, like Heifetz, had been a child prodigy nurtured by Leopold Auer and had made his début in New York in 1908 at the age of seventeen to enthusiastic, but perhaps not uncritical, acclaim. Accompanied by Frank Sealy on the organ, Heifetz opened his recital with Vitali's Chaconne, followed by Wieniawski's Concerto in D minor, Schubert's Ave Maria, some Mozart, Wilhelmj and Auer transcriptions, followed by encore pieces with Andre Benoist at the piano. The critical acclaim which followed that afternoon seemed to compete with each other for superlatives. "The most breathtaking, the most crushing, the supremest [sic] genius of the violin that has confronted us in the past decade or perchance even more," wrote one critic. "The force and fervency of the general delight...were of the sort that make an event historic." And another: "There can be no question, even though one's judgment is based necessarily on only one recital, that Jascha Heifetz takes a place among the leading violinists of the world. Despite his extraordinary youth he already has acquired a mastery of his instrument that probably is not surpassed by any other living virtuoso."
During the recital's interval, Godowsky and his guests went to stretch their legs out in the corridors behind the box. The atmosphere was stuffy and hot. As Elman mopped his brow he happened to mumble "Phew, isn't it awful hot in there". "Not for pianists," Godowsky rejoined.
In an interview in 1952 Heifetz was asked if the story was true or whether it had been the invention of some shrewd press agent.
Godowsky's caustic remark wasn't his first nor his last. The pianist was indeed renowned for his sharp tongue and witty replies. Elman should have probably remembered that, before letting the stuffy heat of Carnegie Hall take the better of him, for he had already experienced Godowsky's sharp tongue once before. Not long before the Heifetz incident an excited Elman, following a particular successful tour, called Godowsky and asked him: "Guess how much money I had earned on it?" "Half", calmly replied Godowsky, "Just half". Nor were fellow pianists exempt from his linguistic arrows. Pianist Paul Hambourg once displayed several lapses of memory during a recital, following which attending colleagues commiserated on the pianist's misfortune. "Wasn't it frightful that he forgot", exclaimed one. Godowsky: "It wasn't what he forgot that was so frightful," retorted Godowsky. "But what he remembered!"
Heifetz was right about the Elman story in Carnegie Hall having dogged his footsteps, but this might have been only part of the story. Under the surface there circulated more serious undercurrents of an artistic nature. Although Elman's début in the US was successful and his career was established, Heifetz's had eclipsed all and everything else that preceded him (and, to date, all thereafter). It is a hardly disputed fact that, with Heifetz's emergence, many top violinists found themselves relegated to the second row and some struggled to preserve their public and artistic appeal. Kreisler was an exception perhaps, since he belonged to an earlier generation and enjoyed long-standing, devoted and adoring followers. Some believe that Elman became quite haunted by the Heifetz phenomenon and never ceased improvising ways to re-invent himself to combat the Heifetz influence. Jack Pfeiffer, at one point both Elman's and Heifetz's recording engineer at RCA, recalled how Elman once accused him of using an exclusive, secret microphone, specifically reserved to capture Heifetz's vibrant E-string. He demanded that Pfeiffer uses the same device when he records. "Elman was half-joking of course" concluded Pfeiffer, "and half not...".
Throughout the sixties Heifetz recorded chamber music with colleagues and guest artists. In 1968 he recorded, among other works, Spohr's Double Quartet in D minor with a line of colleagues and students, including Israel Baker, Pierre Amoyal, Milton Thomas, Gregor Piatigorsky, Laurence Lesser, etc. Heifetz was at his usual best working everybody long hours, up to his uncompromising standards. The atmosphere was cordial but formal and when the ensemble broke for a light lunch there was polite small talk, but otherwise throttled silence. Eventually Israel Baker broke the tension and asked all present: "Do you know the only time when Mischa Elman liked Jascha Heifetz's playing?", with an obvious reference to the famous Carnegie Hall incident half a century previously. There was an immediate hush. Heifetz's face froze, with only a tensed but suppressed smile flushing in the corner of his mouth. "Well", Baker continued, "it was at Leopold Auer's funeral where all his violin students gathered. Heifetz was selected to play the Ave Maria and there was no applause".
At this, Heifetz burst into the most contagious laughter.