The Heifetz Centennial

By Bruce Duffie

Friday, February 2 marks the 100th birthday-anniversary of Jascha Heifetz, who, during his remarkable career, came to represent the very highest standard of violin playing.

One conductor is said to have remarked that Heifetz was like a machine - never made a mistake!  But it was much more than just accuracy.  His subtlety of phrasing and beauty of tone combined with flawless intonation to produce performances and recordings that stand today as the pinnacle of this art.

Jascha Heifetz was born in Vilnius, Lithuania, and at age 3 started lessons with his father who was a professional violinist.  By age 6, he was able to perform the Mendelssohn concerto, and in 1910 was admitted to the St. Petersburg conservatory, where he became a pupil of Leopold Auer.  In April of 1911, he played a concert there, and a year later he was in Berlin, where another legendary musician, the conductor Artur Nikisch invited him to perform the Tchaikovsky Concerto that fall.

Heifetz stayed with Auer until 1917, when a tour meant he would come to the US.  Via Siberia and Japan, he and his family landed in California.  The Golden State would remain dear to Heifetz.  He loved Hollywood, and his sound inspired an entire generation of studio violinists who can be heard in the MGM musicals of the late 40's, 50's and 60's.

Heifetz loved experimenting with the violin, and had a number of pieces written for him by composers who knew film scores as well as the concert platform.  Franz Waxman, Miklos Rozsa, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Sir William Walton all created works specifically for this most famous of violinists.  Heifetz himself also made a few transcriptions that highlighted his brilliance and virtuosity.

Most performers also teach, and Heifetz did so reluctantly.  He had to be persuaded, and even then there were just a few private students and a handful of master-classes.  One of those students in the California Master-Classes of 1962 was Elizabeth Matesky, who has lived in Chicago for many years.  She played briefly with the Chicago Symphony under Solti, and has been teaching violin and coaching others in the ways of playing her instrument.

Matesky's family was in music, so she had no choice but to play.  Her grandfather was a violinist in the San Francisco Symphony, and had known Heifetz in Russia. He had even been with Jascha at his first wedding!  Her father was a conductor, and taught her violin from an early age.  She played the Khachaturian concerto with the USC Symphony, conducted, incidentally, by Walter Ducloux, who befriended Solti when they were in Switzerland during WWII.  Unbeknownst to the young Ms. Matesky, Heifetz and Piatagorsky were in the audience for the concerto, and that's how she came to be invited to become part of that famous group for the Master Classes.  Just seven students, all at the personal request of the master.

Matesky's first meeting with Heifetz was on an auspicious occasion - just as Fritz Kreisler had passed away.  USC had built a studio to Heifetz's specifications, so that he would be both pleased and comfortable about the whole process.  The Classes were filmed naturally, with no re-takes, and have been presented on PBS.  They are now available on video, so future generations can observe and learn, or simply marvel at the nuts-and-bolts of crafting a musician.  Each class lasted four to five-and-a-half hours, and met twice a week!  On the docket was solo repertoire, plus chamber music with Heifetz's pals Gregor Piatigorsky (the cellist) and William Primrose (the violist).

So what was he ‘really' like?  Matesky says he had both personality and power in his playing.  She debunks the idea that he was cold.  "How could anyone," she asks, "make sounds with such passion, warmth, vibrance and be a cold fish?  It was steel with a tender heart."  For his classes, however, she says, "we had to be extraordinarily  prepared."  She also notes that Heifetz was "Actually nervous about teaching, despite being the reigning God of violin playing of all time."

In those tapes of the Master Classes, you can see Matesky improve as they go along.  "He shows me things that are of great benefit later," she says.  "Heifetz didn't interfere with the individual personality of each pupil.  That was a major plus."  She also spent 3 years with Nathan Milstein, who taught very differently. The two giants of the violin respected each other and were great friends.  "Milstein," she says, "was more verbal and approachable.  Heifetz, in his teaching, didn't go into details, but rather taught by example."  Matesky remembers him picking up a fiddle and playing through a six-page Bach fugue, and expecting the students to understand.  Little by little, that understanding did emerge, so the effort paid off.

Matesky eventually learned the Sibelius Concerto, which Heifetz had said was his alone.  Matesky comments that it was a great marriage of music and performer.  "He brings it up in technicolor.  Heifetz the actor portraying Sibelius' score seems as a blueprint for anyone else who studies this work."  She must have been infused with this spirit, for the Sibelius family invited her to play it at the opening of their museum at his house near Helsinki on the 100th anniversary of the composer's birth in December of 1965.  His five daughters, as well as his brother and widow were all in attendance.  She has since returned to the Sibelius Academy to give her own master classes.  "You have to be a flour-sifter," she says, "and know what to do and what not to imitate.  That was the challenge."

Heifetz made many recordings of solo works, chamber pieces and concertos. Some documents were recorded twice, including the Sibelius - one conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, and the other with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Walter Hendl.  There was also the so-called ‘Million Dollar Trio' that featured Heifetz, Piatagorsky, and pianist Artur Rubinstein.  Much of this material is still available on RCA CDs.

Matesky continued to see Heifetz for many years.  Now, when thinking about this centenary, she says, "I have enormous melancholy in my heart"  She seem stunned in a way by, "What he brought to the world - not just the world of music, but to the entire world in his presentation of the great works of music."

 - - - - -

CityTalk Magazine, February 2, 2001