Roots and ethos of the Heifetz muse

Makeup of a unique musical language

Lest it be thought that Heifetz held the monopoly on this approach, a short interview with his former teacher, Leopold Auer, may underline the point. By the time the old professor had arrived to the USA, Heifetz's name was already established, along of course with his detractors who were seemingly unable to respond to his music-making. It had been pointed out to Auer that brilliant as Heifetz's playing was, the violinist himself seemed emotionally uninvolved while playing, looking detached, remote, statuesque. Auer calmly replied:

"Did you like his playing?"
"Yes", came the reply.
"Were you captivated by it?"
"Did you think of nothing else while he played?"
"Well then", Auer concluded, "he did everything he was supposed to do. No more, no less".  

Most of Auer's other renowned Jewish students also project a certain type of cantorial quality, albeit in different guises. Each adopts and displays different qualities according to their own individuality. Auer first heard Mischa Elman in Odessa when the boy was eleven years old and had invited him to study in St. Petersburg, obtaining in the process the indispensable permit for the boy to reside in the city. But Elman only spend sixteen months with Auer before he made his debut in Berlin, embarking thereafter on a brilliant career. With all due respect to Auer, it is rather inconceivable that the Elman sound and manner of playing was acquired during that relative short period, though the boy undoubtedly did benefit from Auer's tuition in many other ways. Elman style of playing was not pure cantorial, as was Heifetz's, but rather more reminiscent of the "Jewish lullaby", often heard in the cradle as the calming, soothing chants of a mother to her baby. It had to do among other things with his inimitable velvet, rounded, caressing sound that is one dominant characteristic of the Jewish berceuse. Efrem Zimbalist, who had graduated slightly earlier, emphasized the continuity of line aided by an unusually smooth and linear bowing mechanism. Toscha Seidel, a Heifetz classmate, who spent almost as many years with Auer as did Heifetz, exhibited an individual cantilena quality second to none (and an almost Heifetzian technique to boot). By 1916, when Nathan Milstein had arrived to Auer, he could only spend less than a year with the master before the latter left Russia for good. These vocalistic qualities could have hardly been acquired from Auer, who was a somewhat "dry-tone" violinist in the Joachim tradition. Besides, the younger Leonid Kogan and David Oistrakh and not least Yehudi Menuhin, perhaps the purest cantorial fiddler of them all, carried the 'Jewish chant' in their heart and in their playing without ever having studied with Auer. However, Auer's insistence that his pupils "sing" on the violin compelled those pupils as it were to search within themselves the way to a "singing voice", and the voice they found was by and large the only one they grew on and knew - the Jewish cantilena voice.

My own observation is that while all the above violinists employed 'cantorial' elements in their playing, their instinctive choice centered around the soothing ingredients of the secular genre, which may induce listeners to perceive it - rightly or wrongly - as expressing the emotional state of the performer. Unlike them, Heifetz emphasized the tensional elements instead, more typical to the classical religious-cantorial style: where soothing is invoked - he accelerated the tempo; where repose is expected - he dashed off in a flourish. "Take a chance, don't play safe" was his motto (besides, "if you miss it, it will only hurt once", he sometimes sardonically added). Building towards a climax was a singular specialty of his: the more electric and charged the buildup, the greater the effect of the ensuing 'catharsis', much like the congregational cantor at his best.

But advising to keep cool on stage, letting the listener emote instead, is perhaps easier said than done. We will look at some examples to see how he might have had achieved this, but none of this means that Heifetz could not, or was not, profoundly moved by music. He certainly was - "music is the only thing that can make me cry", he used to say. He certainly was moved by music, but that process was confined to the privacy of his studio. When on-stage however, his emotional and intellectual response to the music was suspended, bracketed, for the duration of the delivery and replaced by the expressive, interpretative powers he chose to employ in order to project and convey the emotional/spiritual content to the audience. It is clear therefore that the attraction he held for the majority of listeners - and the condemnation earned from his detractors - was based in part precisely on this tenet, namely, that Heifetz had managed to cause the listener to emote without appearing to emote himself.

So far however, we addressed only one part of the equation, that of the performer. The second, those upon whom he exercises - or otherwise  - his magic, are the listeners. The response to Heifetz's playing had seemingly always been divided into two camps, and the twain would hardly meet, except when they have to, on objectively undisputed grounds. Heifetz's technical prowess and supremacy was never in question. Intonation, agility, accuracy, can all be measured objectively. Interpretation, that elusive term that seems to harbor more opinions than it might actually stand for, is hotly disputed by the camps. (Of course there are a myriad of shades scattered along the continuum between the two extreme camps; we will concentrate here on the clear cut, diametrically-opposed opinions in order to sharpen the point.).

Commonly, one camp of listeners appears to be able to emote independently, moved by the signals and musical cues it receives from the performer. The other apparently finds it easier to emote through a medium with whom they can identify. For the latter camp, a medium seems therefore to be required to initiate the process and channel those emotions which the audience later seems to share. (For this camp, the fact that without being verbally informed we cannot actually know with any certainty if, and what kind of, emotions another human experiences, seems beside the point). In their case, the giveaway is non-verbal communication, the body language and other cues that are commonly perceived as indicators of emotion (these signals can, and do, differ among cultures; here I refer to the western culture). These signals may be equally misleading - we can only assume what others' emotions may be, but we cannot say that we know! An example would be someone crying which is usually an assumed indicator of distress - but that individual may also be crying with happiness. How would we tell? Unless we know the context or are told which is which, we're liable to interpret the symptom/signal according that our own experience - which may also turn out to be a wrong reading. Interestingly, we all too easily become interpreters of others' emotions, and heavens forbid if anyone tells us that we are wrong.

The performer on stage is very much a medium, he plays the music. When this is accompanied by other visual cues, it is perceived by one camp as indicators of the performer's emotional state and tends to add 'weight and depth' to the overall interpretation. 'Emotive' signals such as fidgets, grimaces, swings, bends, facial expressions and contortions, are often misinterpreted as signals of the artist's emotions. As Roger Kahn put it: "Grappling with a difficult work, some violinists toss heads, grimace, break into a sweat and fill the stage with desperate gesture. Heifetz played the most terrifying passages without a change in expression beyond the arching of his left eyebrow". Similarly, a jocular advice attributed, as far as I know, to Itzhak Perlman, has the great violinist recommend that "When the going gets tough, make faces".  Seemingly, the more histrionics displayed, the more 'emotionally profound' the interpretation seems to be considered by some audiences1).

Unlike the theatre where the spoken word is unavoidably accompanied by a myriad of non-verbal gestures - collectively called acting - music is entirely non-verbal. I venture to say (also for the sake of controversy), that for those who expect an emoting musician on stage in order to assess the profundity of interpretation and therefore be musically moved, it may mean that they require a medium as an object through which they can emote themselves. For them, the performer on stage is that medium. For them, when the artist's 'emoting signals' (read: the contortions) are perceived, the process of identification commences. I would also venture to say that if such is the requirement, then there is also a process of diminished responsibility, or a question mark over one's own independent emotive capacity. It is as if the emotive locus resides outside the listener, i.e. in the performer. Perhaps it is a process of emoting by proxy. Of course such a conclusion would be rejected out of hand by that particular camp, and understandably so; few would readily admit to being dependent on another in order to emote.

It is interesting to note in this context the manner in which some people express themselves when going to a recital or a concert. "I'm going to see John Dow play the Tchaikovsky". See him, not listen to him. Daniel Barenboim once divided people into "eye" and "ear" people. Musicians tend to be by nature "ear" people, where the auditory sense is perhaps more dominant than the other senses, while painters are possibly more "eye" people. One camp of our divided audience may therefore be, unsuspectingly perhaps, "eye" listeners, and some of them may even use binoculars to better see the artist. The others may be more "ear" listeners, sometime closing their eyes and listen to the music instead. And some can be both of course. For better or for worse, I personally belong to the "ear" camp and sometimes find the sight of the performer to interfere with the aural experience.

Brook Smith:

You have to remember that he [Heifetz] is a man of great dignity and he thinks that fawning over the public making a show out of your own personality, he thinks that's for the birds. He thinks that the music ought to speak for itself. His idea always was that he is there representing the composer, performing that music, and presenting it as honestly as he can. The business of moving around and swooping all of over the place as so many violinists do - you know, there is a movement connected with violin playing - but he stood there so quietly and so poised, he was famous for that, looking so... almost statuesque. He did the minimum of movements, but what came out of that...".

In his interview to Samuel Applebaum Erick Friedman recalled his first lesson with Heifetz.

At the time I was already concertizing and under management to Columbia, so I wasn't exactly a rank amateur. I was playing the Glazunov concerto. He stopped me at the end of the first movement. "What are you doing?", he said. I tried to be diplomatic. "I suppose just about everything is wrong" I answered. "No", Heifetz replied, "It wasn't that bad". I regarded this as sort of back-handed compliment. Then he remarked, "There is something that you are doing and I wonder if you realize it. Did you ever take a look in the mirror at your face when you play? Do you know that you constantly have an expression of being emotionally moved? If you are moved, that's fine, but if you look like you are being moved all the time, you will look like a phony. No one can be moved all the time. It is not humanly possible".

This was my first real lesson in the profound contrast in musical performance. I've never forgotten it.

Samuel Applebaum The Way They Play, Vol.5

The great leveler of course is listening to a recorded performance, where vision cannot interfere with the experience. What do our divided critics have to say in this instance? Well, the objective and measurable criteria of Heifetz's playing are still unassailable of course. So it must be something else to dislike. The most immediate element which comes under attack is his tempo. Measurable - yes, but objectionable. Interestingly, I have never heard of a listener coming out of a Heifetz concert disenchanted with his tempi, no matter which camp she or he belonged to. Rather, if they took exception of something, it was always his stage demeanor and sphinx-like presence. Alas, one cannot complain of that when listening to a recording where visual clues are unavailable, so here comes the tempo to the rescue.

Relaxed tempi generally appear to be regarded by some as more expressive and conducive of emotions. Conversely, brisker tempi are described as less ingratiating, even anxious and tension-inducing. In one of his masterclasses, Heifetz remarked that the Chausson Poeme can be played in twelve or fourteen minutes and that "I once heard it played in eighteen minutes, allowing the audience to take a nap". Heifetz's predisposition for faster tempi is well documented and Carl Flesch was undoubtedly right when he partly attributed it to his "technical readiness". For Heifetz however, faster tempi were an integral, intra-musical mean to create excitement. When commenting on this, he would laconically and rather dismissingly refer for example to the peasant's theme in the third movement of the Tchaikovsky violin concert: "the music is already over charged with emotion, why exaggerate it. Just play it as written, it will come out".

Another example may shed a bit more light. Heifetz's rendition of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas was criticized by some as being generally played too fast. Yet if one listens to Rachmaninov's rendition of the Prelude from the 3rd Partita, he'll find, perhaps surprisingly, an identical tempo employed by the composer/pianist. I must have missed the objection because I have never heard any criticism leveled at Rachmaninov's pace. Why then is it acceptable to play that piece at that tempo on the piano, but not on the violin? Is it because the piano is a percussive instrument?

Still another example may be the Bach Double Violin concerto which he recorded with Erick Friedman. His previous effort some years earlier was met with some criticism mainly because he recorded both parts himself. Both renditions were criticized for fast tempi. Yet a pioneering recording made almost half a century earlier by none other than Fritz Kreisler and Efrem Zimbalist - neither violinist renowned for brisk tempi - is faster still, and neither violinist was ever reproached for that! Another example is the Arensky Piano Trio no.1 Op.32 which Heifetz recorded with Piatigorsky and Leonard Pennario in 1963. A recent issue of a cylinder recording with Arensky himself at the piano (playing the Scherzo) came to light, recorded around the turn of the 20th century. Tempo? Identical to Heifetz's. It seems that some may have some figuring to do.

I think that Heifetz understood the process of emotional projection better than most. He consistently refused to assume or enact the role of the emotional impersonator as perhaps some listeners expect a performer to do. He would help the audience emote no doubt, but he would not do the work for them. "For those of you who liked it, thanks, for those who didn't, perhaps we'll catch you the next time", he once remarked on stage (his last ever public recital). Instead of conveying the emotional content of the music through the tried and trusted agency of facial expressions, contortions, body gyration, etc., he would rather convey it solely by means of intra-musical means. In a way, much like the adage of Bach having written music for the God and Handel for the congregation, Heifetz perhaps played music for the god, allowing the congregation to eavesdrop as he did so. It was perhaps akin to a sacred process where no extra-musical gimmickry was allowed to contaminate the delivery. The intra-musical elements employed by Heifetz in his musical narrative were to a large extend traditional cantorial means.


1)  This of course is not to be confused with some typical motions associated with playing an instrument - in this case the violin - which aim at augmenting and reinforcing the visual impression of dash and virtuosity. Sarasate was famous for those, as was Ysaỹe, and Heifetz himself owned a similar arsenal: a calculated piece ending with a dashing up-bow, followed by a wide arm swing and a momentary suspension of the bow in mid air, an "aggressive" down bow attack, pre-empted by an appropriate, preparatory bow arm motion. etc. In fact, Heifetz spent quite some time in his teaching advising students on such gestures, choosing when to start, play or end a phrase on an up- or down-bow, for a "natural' visual effects. Not to be confused with the myriad of facial grimaces and body contortions during performance, which Heifetz denounced.