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Jascha Heifetz Biography

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Jascha Heifetz (February 2, 1901 – December 10, 1987) was a violinist. He is widely regarded as the greatest violinist of the 20th Century.

Heifetz was born into a Jewish family in Vilna in Lithuania, then a part of the Russian Empire. There is controversy over his birth year, which is sometimes put a year or two earlier (1899 or 1900). His father Reuven Heifetz was a local violin teacher and served as the concertmaster of the Vilna Theatre Orchestra for one season before the theatre closed down. Jascha took up the violin when three years old and his father was his first teacher. At five he started lessons with Ilya D. Malkin, a former pupil of Leopold Auer. He was a child prodigy, making his public debut at seven, in Kovno (now Kaunas, Lithuania) playing the Violin Concerto by Mendelssohn. In 1910 he entered the St Petersburg conservatory to study under Leopold Auer. He played in Germany and Scandinavia at the age of 12, meeting Fritz Kreisler for the first time in a Berlin private house together with other noted violinists in attendance (this is when Kreisler, after accompanying at the piano the 12-year-old Heifetz in a performance of the Mendelssohn Concerto, said to all present, "Now we can all break our fiddles across our knees."). Heifetz visited much of Europe while still in his teens.

On October 27, 1917, Heifetz played for the first time in the United States; that evening's recital at Carnegie Hall became the stuff of legend. Fellow violinist Mischa Elman in the audience complained "Phew, it’s hot in here", whereupon Leopold Godowsky, in the next seat, imperturbably replied: "Not for pianists." Heifetz remained in the country and became an American citizen in 1925. When he told Groucho Marx (a great admirer) that he had been earning his living as a musician since the age of seven, Groucho answered: "And I suppose before that you were just a bum."

Heifetz made his first commercial recording on November 7, 1917. Throughout his career, he continued to record, almost always for RCA Victor. He had an immaculate technique and expressive vibrato. From time to time, his near-perfect technique and conservative stage demeanor caused some to accuse him of being overly mechanical, even cold. Even so, most critics agree he infused his playing with feeling and reverence for the wishes of the composers. His style of playing was highly influential in defining the way modern violinists approach the instrument. His use of portamento in particular, sliding from one note to another to heighten emotional impact, was highly distinctive. The violinist Itzhak Perlman, once described Heifetz's tone as like "molten lava" because of its emotional intensity.

Heifetz often enjoyed playing chamber music. Various critics have blamed his limited success in chamber ensembles to the fact that his artistic personality tended to overwhelm his colleagues. Some notable collaborations include his 1940 recordings of trios by Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms with cellist Emanuel Feuermann and pianist Arthur Rubinstein as well as a later collaboration with Rubinstein and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, with whom he recorded trios by Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Mendelssohn.

Heifetz commissioned a number of pieces, perhaps most notably the Violin Concerto by Sir William Walton. He also arranged a number of pieces, such as Hora Staccato by Grigora? Dinicu, a Romanian gypsy whom Heifetz is rumoured to have called the greatest violinist he had ever heard. He wrote a hit song, "When you make love to me, don't make believe", under the alias Jim Hoyl. Heifetz was also an accomplished pianist, even performing mess hall jazz for soldiers at Allied camps across Europe during the Second World War.

On his third tour to Israel in 1953, Heifetz included in his recitals the Violin Sonata by Richard Strauss. At the time, Strauss was considered by many to be a Nazi composer (see Strauss and the Nazis), and his works were unofficially banned in Israel along with those of Richard Wagner. Despite the fact that the Holocaust had occurred less than 10 years earlier and a last-minute plea from the Israeli Minister of Education, the defiant Heifetz argued that "The music is above these factors ... I will not change my program. I have the right to decide on my repertoire." Throughout his tour the performance of the Strauss sonata was followed by dead silence.

Heifetz was attacked after his recital in Jerusalem outside his hotel by a man who struck blows to his right arm with an iron bar. As the attacker started to flee, Heifetz alerted his companions, who were armed, "Shoot that man, he tried to kill me." The assailant escaped and was never found. The incident made headlines in the press and Heifetz defiantly announced that he would not stop playing the Strauss. Threats continued to come, however, and he omitted the Strauss from his next recital without explanation. His last concert was cancelled after his right arm began to hurt. He left Israel and did not return until 1970.

After only a partially successful operation on his right shoulder in 1972 he ceased giving concerts and making records. Although his prowess as a performer remained intact and he continued to play privately until the end, his bow arm was affected and he could never again hold the bow as high as before.

Heifetz taught the violin extensively, first at UCLA then at the University of Southern California with his friend Gregor Piatigorsky. For a few years in the eighties he also held classes in his private studio at home in Beverly Hills. (His teaching studio can be seen today in the main building of the Colburn school, where it is now used for masterclasses & stands as an inspiration to the students there). During his teaching career Heifetz taught, among others, Erick Friedman, Yuval Yaron, Elizabeth Matesky, Claire Hodgkins, Yukiko Kamei, Varujan Kojan, Sherry Kloss, Eugene Fodor, and Ayke Agus. He died at the Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after a brain surgery as a result of a fall and loss of consciousness at home.

He owned both the 1714 "Dolphin" Stradivarius and the 1740 "ex David" Guarneri del Gesù, the latter of which he preferred and kept until his death. The Guarneri is now in the San Francisco Legion of Honor museum, in accordance with Heifetz's will. His will dictates that the violin may be taken out and played "on special occasions" by deserving players.

Heifetz was married twice, in 1928 to the silent motion picture actress Florence Vidor (ex-wife of King Vidor) whose seven year old daughter Suzanne Heifetz adopted. The couple had two more children, Josefa (1930) and Robert (1932-2004) before divorcing in 1945. In 1947 Heifetz took a sabbatical during which he married Frances Spigelberg with whom he had another son, Joseph (Jay). The second marriage ended in divorce in 1962.

Heifitz's son Jay is a photographer, and as of 2006 is living in Australia. Heifetz's daughter, Josefa Heifetz Byrne, is a lexicographer ("Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure and Preposterous Words" ISBN 0-246-11151-8).

Heifitz's grandson Danny Heifetz has played drums and percussion with Mr. Bungle, Dieselhed, and Link Wray.

Heifetz is obliquely referenced in The Muppet Movie when Rowlf the Dog, after being praised by Kermit the Frog for playing an impressive piece of music on the piano, shrugged modestly and replied, "I'm no Heifetz, but I get by."
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