Roots and ethos of the Heifetz muse

Klezmorin and Hazannut

Although Heifetz’s style is universally regarded as being modern and in its time revolutionary, a closer look at its ethos in which it was rooted reveals it to be seminally planted in the 19th century tradition. These roots are predominantly embedded in the Jewish tradition rather than in the gentile European or Russian folklore and even if not immediately recognizable, they seem to have constituted, consciously or otherwise, the corner stone of his artistic muse all through his career.

Notwithstanding other traits of his art that can perhaps be scholastically attributed to specific traditions of violin playing, the most individual and distinctive traits of the Heifetz style can be traced back to an ancestry deeply anchored in his Jewish background. It is primarily a style embedded in, and directly evolving from, what is generally termed the Cantorial singing style as, in my opinion, Yuri Beliavsky correctly identified it. As such, this is not a peculiar Heifetz phenomenon, but one distinguishing a whole group of violinists, congregated as they were in a particular region and sharing a mutual heritage. In order to understand its roots and the way in which that specific Jewish singing style evolved, it may be helpful to recall some historical background.

During the Tzarist regime in Russia the vast majority of Jews lived in specifically designated areas (gettos), in and around the main towns of what collectively came to be known as the Pale of Settlement. The Pale was in essence a vast, imaginary area, stretching from near St. Petersburg in the North, down to Odessa on the shores of the Black Sea in the South, with ‘islands’ of Jewish habitation peppered throughout. Migration from one town or village to another was difficult as well as legally restricted and the major cities were downright out of limit for Jews, unless granted special government permits. Provincial Jews could travel, perhaps weekly, to larger town markets and trading hubs, but most would normally return at dark back to their homes. Relatively short distances were covered by cart and horse, longer ones by train. This concentration of Jews to specific areas, restricted as it were to their habitat, naturally contributed to theirs becoming closed, and closely-knit, communities, bound as they were by a common religion, language (Yiddish) and traditions.

As if daily life wasn't difficult enough, endemic waves of anti-Semitism which periodically burst out into violent pogroms, made it worse: villages were rampaged, Jewish shops and homes were set on fire and whole families, women and children, were murdered in a frenzy of carnage. Still, Jews had nowhere to go, there was no escaping the terror. A handful of the richer were perhaps able to buy their way to freedom, emigrating to Europe or the USA while others, mostly after the 1880s, armed only with idealism of the nascent Zionist movement, immigrated to then Palestine.

Within this atmosphere of hardship and terror, the Jews of the shtetl (Yiddish for village) and towns in the Pale of Settlement congregated around the synagogues, the symbol of their unity as a community and as a people. New movements were born in the central towns of the Pale of Settlement, such as Vilna (Vilnius) and Kovno (Kaunas), like the Mizrahi and - possibly the most prominent and influential of them all - the Hassidic movement. One of the most important Jewish scholar, the Gaon Elijahu, was born in Vilnius; Rabbis courts began to propagate and the synagogues held prime place in the daily lives of the Jews. They served not only as places of worship but also as social, cultural and educational hubs. Jewish children were educated by Jewish scholars in the synagogues, the only place were Jewish culture and traditions could be passed on and acquired; artists and artisans, the klezmers and the cantors, found a place to perform; and general Jewish culture could be maintained and even flourish. The education of infants began at the Heder (literally - room), and continued through Yeshivot (Yeshivas), for the adolescent youth. The klezmers, those Jewish troubadours, performed in front of the congregation at functions and ceremonies such as weddings, bar-mitzvas, etc. The cantors would perform in synagogues, at burial service (intonating the Kaddish). By supplying almost all of daily cultural and religious needs and services, from cradle to death as it were, the synagogue and the Rabbinical headship fulfilled the leading, guiding role in the community.

Vilna, Heifetz's birthplace, with its large Jewish congregation, held a prominent position and assumed a leading role amongst the Jewish communities in the Pale of Settlement. Near the end of the 19th century, its Jewish inhabitants counted close to half of the town’s population. It became the birth place of many Jewish luminaries, be it Rabbinical or political leaders, writers, poets, musicians, etc. A native of Vilnius, Isaac Bashevitz Singer used to say that in Vilna even waiters read literature. For a time Jewish culture prospered to the point of the town acquiring the awesome nickname as the “Jerusalem of Litta (Lithuania)”. Jascha Heifetz’s own grandfather was communally regarded as a Rabbi and Heifetz recalled that as an infant he was often taken (reluctantly, he added) by his father Rubin to the synagogue (the Heder) to learn the Hebrew scripts. This, it seems, pleased his grandfather no end, since as a Rabbi he considered it a duty of all Jews to study the Torah and be able to read it in the original. In fact, the grandfather's wish was for little Jascha to follow in his footstep and became in due course a Rabbi himself. From about the age of three-four, and for several years more, this was Heifetz’s curriculum and the only institution he had ever attended that resembled anything like an organized school. Years later he recalled that he learned the Hebrew alphabet and that he could actually read the Torah. No, he didn't like to go to the schul (Yiddish for synagogue, but also for school), yet he remembered for the rest of his life the singing and the cantors whom he'd heard in the schul. The tradition was thus passed on, from one generation to another. Regardless of how it later manifested itself in his public life, privately Heifetz kept with his tradition in his own way. The New Year (Rosh Hashanah) and Yom Kippur were two dates which he privately and unfailingly observed every year – particularly later in life - with family or close friends.

The other trade that proliferated throughout the Pale was that of the klezmer, or the Jewish secular ‘musikant’. In practically all cases the trade was passed down from generation to generation, whether by fathers or band leaders, who taught their sons the rudiments of the instrument they happened to play. The musical profession could be financially rewarding, if modestly so, as musicians were in demand in almost all communal festivities. So prevalent was the tradition of passing on the craft, any craft, from the elders to the young, that many acquired nicknames denoting their trade which, in time, became established as their surnames. This, especially after an imperial decree in 1787 in Galicia, later duplicated in Russia, where town mayors were to choose names for the Jews: Diamant, Barber, Tehilimzagger (Psalm reciter), Perlman, Goldschmidt, Rubinstein, Schneider (tailor), Kushner, Kirzner (furriers) Shusterman, Sapoznik (shoemakers), etc. Men of letters and spiritual leaders assumed surnames such as Melamed (teacher, tutor), Sofer (writer), Rabin, Rabinovitch (Rabbi), Shoihet, Shohat (ritual butcher), etc. Musicians were no exception: Hazan (cantor), Zimbalist (cymbal player), Fiddler, Geiger (violinist), Zinger, Zingman (singer), Fleitman (flutist), etc1).

The cantorial chant on the other hand, was mostly relegated to the synagogue and to the sacred service. Almost each shtetl sported one and people were proud of its cantor. In fact one such cantor lived in the same building where little Jascha lived, and with whose son of similar age the future violinist became fast friends; Jascha was thus exposed to cantorial singing even at home. The competition among cantors and their respective fame, focused around the great voice (usually the tenor or baritone-tenor), the dramatic presentation of the chant, the great ability of expressive singing-sobbing and - much like in the opera - the vocal technique in the coloratura passages. As Beliavsky says, "the sound of the cantorial chant was like mother's milk to the Jewish children from the Pale of Settlement who had been listening to these chants from the earliest age. The cantorial chant was second nature to the musical soul of these Jewish children". In many cases, it may be added, it was the first and only nature.

It was in this environment, by attending the Heder, that the infant Heifetz first came into contact and first heard music performed publicly. Heifetz mentioned that he made his first public appearance at five in Vilna, after studying with his father for some two years. Although the first Heifetz ‘public concert’ is officially documented as having taken place at the Vilna Imperial School of Music when he was five, the possibility exists that the synagogue was also a venue in which he had played short violin pieces publicly – after all, quite a natural place for a proud Rubin to expose his little wunderkind. Whatever the case, it was the cantorial music he was exposed to ab initio, which inevitably embedded itself in his ear forever. Well into his old age Heifetz would recall those cantors, either Vilna locals or visiting singers who would give concerts in the synagogue. These were special days and Jews would gather from great distance and crowd the
schul to listen to the visiting cantor. "There were cantors and there were cantors", Heifetz used to say. It can thus be quite safely assumed that some of what later became fundamental Heifetzian modes of expression and stylistic ornaments, their employment and mode of production, have their provenance in those primordial impressions embedded in the young, musically sensitive ear.


1)  Origins of Jewish Last Names in Turov by Leonid Smilovitsky, Ph.D. - Diaspora Research Institute of Tel Aviv University.