New York Times December 12, 1987


Jascha Heifetz, the violinist whose name for more than half a century was synonymous with perfection of technique and musicianship, died late Thursday evening at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 86 years old and lived in Beverly Hills.

Mr. Heifetz had entered the hospital on Oct. 16 to be treated for complications resulting from a fall and had recently undergone neurosurgery. United States Debut in 1917.

When Mr. Heifetz made his United States debut at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 27, 1917, two of the listeners were Leopold Godowsky, the pianist, and Mischa Elman. As the 16-year-old Mr. Heifetz played, the other violinist mopped his brow and remarked to Mr. Godowsky: ''It's rather warm in here.''

''Not for pianists,'' Mr. Godowsky responded.

In the decades that passed after that ''warm'' night, Mr. Heifetz justified his rival's discomfort by winning recognition as perhaps the greatest violinist of his time. His playing was notable for many things: its silken tone, its technical perfection and its careful regard for the composers' slightest markings. It was always aristocratic in spirit; its lyricism, even if sometimes reserved, was intense, and the elegance and purity of phrasing were always remarkable.

'A Surpassing Talent'

Most of these characteristics were already evident at Mr. Heifetz's New York debut, for the concert was described by a critic as ''the disclosure of a surpassing talent, well-nigh complete mastery of all the problems of violin playing, a sensitive, dignified and unassuming musician of such youth that much may still be expected in his development.''

The violinist Itzhak Perlman said of Mr. Heifetz yesterday, ''The first violin sound I remember was his. Nobody played like him - the strength and the force. His playing had the quality that sizzled and he had such color, He revolutionized violin playing to where it wishes to go today. None of us mortals are going to be able to reach his standard.''

Upon learning of Mr. Heifetz's death, the conductor Erich Leinsdorf observed: ''Jascha Heifetz was and will remain No. 1 of violin players. There is no other branch of music in which one person is as clearly recognized as being nonpareil.''

Always Remained Dignified

Mr. Heifetz always remained dignified, and he avoided showmanship -partly, some say, because he lacked the flair for it, but more particularly because he thought it was in bad taste. The critic James Gibbon Huneker defined the Heifetz approach as advocacy of ''the Grecian ideal of art.''

There is evidence to support Mr. Huneker's theory. Twelve years after Mr. Heifetz's debut, and with three immensely successful worldwide tours behind him, the violinist replied in response to a question about what he could do now that he had reached the top:

'There is no top. There are always farther heights to reach. If one thought himself at the pinnacle, he would slide back toward mediocrity by that very belief in his success.''

During World War II, Mr. Heifetz toured Army camps, and in 1942 he heard that a throng of soldiers gathered to hear him had appeared under duress. Before beginning his concert, he told the soldiers that he would not be slighted if any of them left. Some took advantage of the offer, but the vast majority remained and applauded thunderously.

Condemned Polite Applause

On another occasion, Mr. Heifetz condemned the custom of polite applause. Applause, he believed, should be reserved only for meritorious performances. He advocated the hissing of poor musicians. His scorn of artists who resorted to showy tricks to win listeners was expressed as follows:

''It's not enough to be an honest-to-God artist. A man has to be an acrobat.''

Mr. Heifetz was unable to strike poses even when paid to do so. This became apparent in the first motion picture in which he appeared, ''They Shall Have Music.'' His acting was described by one critic as ''woefully deficient.'' In other filmed appearances, Mr. Heifetz did not even try to act. He just played.

It may have been a coincidence, but in ''They Shall Have Music,'' which was shown in 1939, Mr. Heifetz played part of the Mendelssohn Concerto, the work with which he made his debut in his hometown of Vilna in Russia at the age of 6.

It was in Vilna, where the violinist was born on Feb. 2, 1901, that he learned to play the violin at the age of 3. His father, Ruvin, a violinist, was his teacher. At 5, Jascha entered the Royal School of Music there and three years later he was graduated from the conservatory.

Most Astonishing Genius

His was a poor family, and when his father tried to persuade the great violin teacher, Leopold Auer, to listen to the prodigy, there were many refusals. The family had already moved to St. Petersburg to be near Auer. But when Auer finally granted young Heifetz a hearing, he made up for his previous reluctance by announcing that the boy was the most astonishing genius in his experience.

The boy was one of those in a group of young Jewish violinists who later startled the world. The others would include Mischa Elman, Tosha Seidel, Efrem Zimbalist and Nathan Milstein.

After two years with Auer, young Heifetz gave a recital in St. Petersburg that drew attention throughout Russia. In 1911, at the age of 10, he played in Berlin with the Berlin Philharmonic. Thereafter, the prodigy toured other countries on the Continent.

At the age of 12, young Heifetz was already one of the most discussed violinists in Europe. After one of his Berlin concerts, he was invited to a dinner at the home of a music critic, Arthur Abell. Many distinguished violinists were present.

The boy was asked to play. He said that he had brought his violin along, but that he lacked an accompanist. One of the guests, who introduced himself as Fritz Kreisler, volunteered to play the piano part for the Mendelssohn Concerto. When young Heifetz finished his performance, Mr. Kreisler - at that time the most popular and beloved violinist in the world - looked at his colleagues and said, 'Well, gentlemen, shall we all now break our violins across our knees.''

It was not until several years later, after young Heifetz became a success in the United States, that he went to England. A news story about his visit said: ''The London musical world is just at present sitting in ecstasy at the feet of Jascha Heifetz.''

In 1922, his appeal reached new heights when he gave four Carnegie Hall concerts. At the fourth concert, the crowd pushed into the already sold-out house and the police had to be called to restore order and to eject admirers who lacked tickets.

Islands in the Pacific

Thereafter, wherever he went he set attendance records. And few places that were accessible were not visited by Mr. Heifetz. He toured islands in the Pacific, where a violin had never been heard. It is said that he traveled more than two million miles on concert tours.

In this, he was motivated by an active mind that made travel a passion. Wherever he went, he inquired into ways of life. This knowledge was supplemented by his fondness for reading. As he prospered, he became a collector of first editions.

Not the least of his acquisitions was his Stradivarius violin, which had once belonged to Ferdinand David, the 19th-century violin expert.

Mr. Heifetz was considered a matchless interpreter of Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn. But he also composed a song called ''When You Make Love to Me - Don't Make Believe.'' His Tin Pan Alley alias was Jim Hoyle. But he drifted away from popular composing in the late 1940's, preferring to play chamber music with his friends Arthur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz.

'I Agree With Liszt'

It amused him that people expressed surprise that he still needed to practice after 50 years of work. ''I agree with Liszt,'' he said. ''If I don't practice one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.''

Cheap publicity rubbed the violinist the wrong way, just as posturing on the concert stage did. Thus he denied reports that he had insured his hands for a tremendous sum, declaring that to do so would make him self-conscious. But despite his shunning of publicity, he was often in the news.

When the American Federation of Radio Artists was formed in 1937, with Eddie Cantor at its head, Mr. Heifetz served as vice president with Helen Hayes and Lawrence Tibbett. As an officer in the American Guild of Musical Artists, he fought bitterly against James C. Petrillo, then president of the American Federation of Musicians, who had instituted a ban against making recordings.

With like intensity, he tried to prevent Yehudi Menuhin from performing with the Los Angeles Symphony because Mr. Menuhin had refused to join the guild.

Played Charity Concerts

Mr. Heifetz often played for charity and used his talents to raise funds for causes he deemed worthy. Thus, in 1938, he gave a concert without fee at a Connecticut school. The funds were to be used to fight attempts to dam the Saugatuck River, which was near his home at the time. The project had aroused his neighbors.

Mr. Heifetz commissioned a number of concertos for his instrument, most notably the one by Sir William Walton. Louis Gruenberg and Erich Wolfgang Korngold were other composers whose concertos the violinist introduced. His sympathies, however, did not lie with modern music. When he returned from a visit to Israel in 1950, he remarked that the music of most contemporary Israeli composers shared ''the tendency of modern music not to sound too much like music.''

Back in Israel in 1953, the violinist introduced a Concertino by Menahem Avidon. And on this same visit, he raised a storm by defying Israel's unofficial ban on music by German composers. Mr. Heifetz played Richard Strauss's Violin Sonata in Haifa and Jerusalem. After the Jerusalem performance, the violinist's right hand was slightly injured by a man who attacked him in front of his hotel.

In an earlier controversy, Mr. Heifetz declined to appear with the Chicago Symphony if Wilhelm Furtwangler became a guest conductor. He took the position that Furtwangler had had ample opportunity to leave Germany before and even during World War II, and that he chose to remain, thereby serving the cause of Nazism.

Judge of Youth Contest

The violinist performed on radio programs, although he felt that they ''played down'' to listeners. And in 1952, he was the main performer in a television series on his master classes. He also became a member of a panel that auditioned high school musicians in the New York area on the series, ''Musical Talent in Our Schools,'' sponsored jointly by The New York Times and radio station WQXR.

The violinist's versatility extended to decorative design. Lamps he designed were distributed through the Heifetz Company. (Error: Correction - It was Yasha Heifetz, not the violinist, who designed lamps; the two men were unrelated).

As Mr. Heifetz grew older, he became less willing to make long tours. And the man of medium height with the long, sensitive face and the high-domed forehead was seen less on concert stages. He took many sabbaticals in the late 1950's. But he gave a concert at Hunter College on Feb. 18, 1956, and on Dec. 9, 1959, he returned to New York to play at the United Nations, a cause in which he believed.

Mr. Heifetz spent much time in California, where he sailed his yawl, Serenade, in a race to Honolulu. In 1958, he conducted a master class for five advanced students at the University of California at Los Angeles, where he was named Regents Professor of Music and artist in residence.

Taught Master Classes

In October 1961, he joined with Gregor Piatigorsky, the cellist, and William Primrose, the violist, to teach master classes in a new division of the University of Southern California School of Music.

The concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic, Glenn Dicterow, a participant in one of those master classes, said yesterday: ''We've lost that connection with a great era of fiddle playing. To me, he was the most human of all violin players. We're all children compared to him. He never had any competition but himself.''

During the remaining years of his life, Mr. Heifetz withdrew more and more from concert performances, saying, in effect, that he had done enough performing and no longer felt the need. Aside from occasional concerts, which ceased entirely in 1972, he confined his activities to recording - which also more or less ceased after a shoulder operation in 1975 - and to teaching at the University of Southern California. He also made occasional television appearances, including a lengthy program for French television that displayed a typical Heifetz program - including his favorite ''Scottish Fantasy'' by Max Bruch - and the expected Heifetz perfection of violin-playing.

Among his many distinctions, he was one of the very few musicians whose recorded life-work was available. In 1975, RCA Records released - all at one time - almost every recording he made for the label between 1917 and 1965, a total of 24 disks. Two years later, the company released six more records of Mr. Heifetz playing chamber music; a few minor recordings made during World War II for Decca were also released.

The conductor Zubin Mehta, music director of the New York Philharmonic, said yesterday: ''Not since Nicolo Paganini has an artist evolved as completely as Heifetz. I know that he only wants to be remembered by his music. Thank God we have his entire recorded repertory, so that he will never leave us.''

To the end of his life, he remained aloof - his detractors called him arrogant and contemptuous - and uninterested in publicity. In a 1980 interview with John Rockwell, a New York Times music critic, he said that he did not want to be put on a pedestal, but did want to go on practicing, teaching and playing. Referring to an operation on his shoulder, he said: ''The operation doesn't make it any easier, but I still practice and play, and it doesn't stop me from demonstrating things to students.'' He added: ''I can still be of service. I still have some time.''

In recent years, Mr. Heifetz was not able to play because he suffered with arthritis.

In 1929, Mr. Heifetz married Florence Vidor, a star of silent films. They had two children, Josepha and Robert. The marriage ended in divorce in 1945. In 1947, Mr. Heifetz married Frances Spiegelberg. They had a son, Joseph, and were divorced in 1963.

Mr. Heifetz's mother, Anna, died in 1947 and his father in 1957. He had two sisters, Pauline, who married Samuel Chotzinoff, the musical director of the National Broadcasting Company, and Elza, who married the playwright S. N. Behrman.

Surviving are Mrs. Behrman, two sons, Robert and Joseph, also known as Jay, and a daughter, Josepha.


From his years as a teen-age virtuoso in Europe until near the time of his retirement from the concert stage, Jascha Heifetz remained exceptionally active in the recording studio. Beginning in 1917, at the age of 16, with a recording of Schubert's ''Ave Maria,'' Mr. Heifetz built an enormous catalog of works on disk, concluding in 1968 when the violinist recorded chamber pieces by Brahms and Tchaikovsky.

Mr. Heifetz was perhaps best known for his interpretations of the standard violin concerto repertory, some of which has been re-released on compact disk by RCA during recent months. Among them are Mr. Heifetz's recorded classics: versions of the Beethoven and Brahms concertos (RCD1-5402); Sibelius, Glazunov and Prokofiev concertos (RCD1-7019); Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn concertos (5922-2-RC), and Bruch's ''Scottish Fantasy'' (6214-2-RC).

Six volumes of Heifetz recordings are available today on compact disc with seven more scheduled for release in March. Much of the remainder of Heifetz's recordings are still available on LP, many of them reissued in 1975 by RCA as part of an extensive retrospective of the violinist's work.

Despite his reputation as a standard bearer of the mainstream violin repertory, Mr. Heifetz actually devoted considerable time to the performance of 20th-century pieces, commissioning concertos from Walton and Korngold, among others, which he subsequently recorded.

These performances include the Korngold Concerto in D with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (RCA AGM1-4902m); Louis Gruenberg's concerto, with the San Francisco Symphony (RCA AGM1-4942m) and, on one album, Walton's concerto with the Philadelphia Orchestra paired with the concerto Heifetz commissioned from Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, in a performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (RCA LM2740m)