Roots and ethos of the Heifetz muse

Anti-cantorial - Contrast and Reaction

Anyone familiar with Heifetz’s full recorded output, 1917-1972, cannot fail to be aware of the gradual transformation in his playing through the years. The result of that steady change became more pronounced in post-war years. Not only the improvement in electronic sound reproduction bear witness to that, but it was also discerned in his live concerts. Throughout his career Heifetz did experiment with string and moved from exclusive gut to certain metal wound (E) strings. All this was done in an attempt to achieve greater sonority and aural projection (or "carrying power") in the large concert halls, as well as aiding his violin during loud tutti passages.

Recordings of the same concertos he made in the thirties, later replicated in the fifties and sixties, reveal a shift in his sound production and expressive playing. His pre-war playing generally seems mellower, more rounded, more expansive. The tone is on the whole more velvet. Post war tempi became, on the whole, brisker, faster. Just compare two recordings - the Brahms violin concerto - of pre-war Boston-Koussevitzky with the post-war Chicago-Reiner: the latter is almost a full four minutes shorter than the former. Progressively, the post-war sound becomes - in places - somewhat harsher, the attack fiercer, digging as it were deeper and with more aplomb into the string. The following short clip shows the ‘ferocity’ of Heifetz’s dig into the string and the resulting complex motions imparted to both string and bow1) - which are of course all revealed in the sound. (Clip is 1/8 the actual speed of Heifetz playing Wieniawski's Scherzo Tarantelle in 1950.)

Another factor which might have contributed to the shift in his playing is the right shoulder pain that he had started experiencing in his mid-fifties. It progressed and became a poignant and perhaps prophetic reminder of his father's advice, many years previously, that he should stop playing in public by the age of fifty. Not long ago I have learned that from the sixties onward Heifetz availed himself twice yearly of cortisone injections into his shoulder to allow his right arm free movement. By 1973 his condition came to a head when muscles dislocated from his collar bone and the injury necessitated an operation. (Advised that the best surgeon of this type is elsewhere in the US, Heifetz insisted that someone in Los Angeles could be found to perform the task equally well. The operation in 1974 was only a partial success and thereafter he would play the violin with some difficulty and with a markedly lowered right arm.)

While most of the cantorial elements of his playing remain, Heifetz appears later in life to progressively contrast - perhaps even counteract - and interject them with larger dozes of restlessness and underlying sense of urgency, which went some way to counteract the soothing, emotive nature of the cantorial narrative (although none of this actually turned him into a non-cantorial player). A few “tricks” were engaged in achieving this hardening of expression. First, he employed a higher tuning pitch than most. This is particularly notable in chamber music (but also in orchestral works). Granted, his violin would have soared above the rest (if by nothing else than by his sheer singing ability and purity of intonation), nevertheless tuning it slightly higher (Heifetz preferred the A=444 as opposed to 440) certainly gave it an extra edge. Perhaps this was one of the reasons that Heifetz’s ensemble playing was condemned in some circles as being individualistic and lacking integration with his colleagues. His later chamber music recordings give some credit to this criticism; even in larger formations such as the Mendelssohn Octet his violin is aurally insuppressible. (At one point in the recording session Heifetz tried to play a few tricks by moving a mike closer to his violin before realizing that the studio technician could rebalance the sound on the console's input, thus negating his mike 'manipulations'. Still, the other musicians were amused...).

Another mean of expression which he progressively adopted has to do with the amplitude of the sound in certain bow strokes. Usually (mostly on some expressive notes) most violinists end a stroke with a short, minute diminuendo which gives the impression of a rounder, mellower sound. In such instances, and when music didn’t dictate otherwise, Heifetz maintained the amplitude to the end of the stroke with no diminuendo; this tended to impart a somewhat 'colder' shade of sound.

"Digging" deeper into the string and increasing bow pressure was another element adopted by him. Sometimes the pressure increase bordered on scratching and there are indeed a few, particularly closely miked recordings, which reveal the 'heavy' bow stroke. Yet Heifetz also knew that in the concert halls this type of scratch is inaudible but the violin sound carries further. He advised his students to also increase pressure to the verge of scratching in order to carry the sound well to the back of large auditoriums.

Volume of sound was also achieved by means of the sheer speed of the bow. Keeping uniform pressure, Heifetz was able to move his bow faster over the strings, thus producing an increased amplitude (this used to be called the "Russian" bowing 'travel'), A mixture of bow speed and bow pressure astutely employed, gave the general aural volume of Heifetz's violin. Omitted here is, of course, the last element which is taken for granted, that of intonation. Almost all violins will resonate much louder and cleaner (fiddlers say it will 'explode') when the true note is hit right in the middle.

What he had instinctively or advisedly achieved with these and other means, is to increase the dramatic element and to infuse excitements into his music-making. Speed, accuracy, 'percussively' sharp attacks combined with emotive elements of the cantorial genre all led to a dramatic style of violin playing. It appears that whereas pianists are concerned with ways of making a percussive instrument sing, Heifetz attempted to make an essentially singing instrument percussive at time (reminiscent of his frustrated wishes of youth of becoming a pianist rather than a violinist perhaps?). Later in life he openly admitted that he deliberately aimed to excite and to thrill and to dramatize his performances to “have his audiences on the edge of their seats”. He often prodded his students to seek the same in their playing.

One can only ponder about the reasons which have increasingly led him to seek such effects in his playing. I certainly have some ideas, though they belong to an entirely different narrative. Suffice to say here that my conclusions may lead one to believe that the gradual transformations in Heifetz’s playing appears to mirror a parallel – and ultimately paradoxical - process of a wider musical struggle. It was akin to a deliberate attempt to liberate himself from the ‘straightjacket’ of the cantorial roots, those primordial elements in his life that shaped him and formed the corner stone of his art. It is paradoxical in the sense that hard as he might have tried, he was unable to shed the very vestiges containing the fundamental voice of his soul. The mightier he tried, the more canonic and entrenched those primeval elements remained. (Psychologists have long recognized the paradox namely, that what one resists - persists.)

Not to be confused with a rejection of Judaism as his root, it rather seems that Heifetz rebelled against his own personal shtetl roots and its mentality (large as Vilna was, it was still of small, provincial proportions compared to the cosmopolitan St. Petersburg and later New York, Los Angeles), embodied - as Heifetz probably perceived it - by his immediate ancestors. To him cantorial chant and the shul may well have symbolized the constraining, fettering vestiges of a world fast disappearing and one which he had long left - or wished to have left - behind. The result of that struggle is, to my ears, clearly audible in his playing. I think that the echoes and ramification of this paradoxical process, ever devoid of victors or victories, did carry beyond the realm of his art, manifesting itself in his personal life as well.

Or even the other way around perhaps.


1)  An excellent instructive clip that shows the complex motions and pressures generated by bow onto string - I guess every violinist may want to study it. While most are aware that the string vibrates sideways (or horizontally) due to bow friction, the clip shows that the strings also pulsates up and down (vertically, albeit much slower than in the horizontal plane - which is the sound's main generator) under the weight of the stroke. The resulting total vibration of the string is thus more complex than perhaps previously envisaged. In addition, the clip reveals the bow’s spring action as it lands with some force/weight on the string. The flexing of the hair occurs to varying degrees in all type of strokes, be they smooth, slow or rapid, except that it is then imperceptible. This clip exaggerates this motion due to the 'furious’ Heifetz dig. However, the more important side-effect of this phenomenon is the perceived fluctuations in sound amplitude. Once the bow has landed on the string and the stroke had began, there’s little control the violinist can further have on this fluctuation. Erick Friedman once referred to it (erroneously) as the “right hand vibrato”. The rapid, minute change in amplitude is indeed a variation, but unlike the left hand vibrato which is a variation in pitch (frequency), in this case the variations are in sound volume (amplitude). This can be easily checked on an open string bow: pitch remains constant, amplitude can vary by means of bow stroke speed/pressure variation.