Jascha Heifetz was a violinist and composer widely regarded as the greatest violin virtuoso since Nicolo Paganini.
Heifetz was a magnetic performer who set the standard for technical excellence, recorded extensively and continued to teach promising violinists after a shoulder injury in 1975 ended his concert career. Throughout his life, he shunned publicity — and refused, literally, to play in a spotlight.
Heifetz's international career began in the Lithuanian town of Vilna, a part of czarist Russia in the Jewish Pale of Settlement. It was a career that spanned three-quarters of a century before Heifetz withdrew — both musically and socially — into seclusion at his contemporary hilltop home in Coldwater Canyon.
Heifetz was born Feb. 2, 1901, in Wilno, Poland — then a part of the Russian Empire and now known as Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
Heifetz was only 3 when his father, himself a violinist and music teacher, presented him with his first instrument — a quarter-sized violin. By 8 he had graduated from the school of music in his hometown and moved with his family to St. Petersburg, where he studied with the famed Leopold Auer at the St. Petersburg Conservatory.
The child prodigy was an instant success throughout Europe, performing in Berlin, Austria and Scandinavia.
When the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, the Heifetz family emigrated to the United States, where the then-16-year-old made a triumphant debut at Carnegie Hall.
That was the famous afternoon when Mischa Elman, then already a famous violinist, was sitting in the same box with pianist Leopold Godowsky. As the recital progressed, the story goes, a visibly uneasy Elman whispered to Godowsky: "Terribly hot in here, isn't it?" "Not," the latter replied dryly, "for pianists."
Heifetz's mastery of his instrument remains unmatched, musicians and music critics alike agree — using adjectives such as "perfect" and "subtle" to describe his playing, and "burnished" to describe his tone — although some have criticized his interpretation as lacking in profundity.
By training and temperament, he played with crisp and unemotional precision and crystalline brilliance, at a tempo faster than most, never allowing himself to wallow in the sentimentality so tempting to some violinists or to show any facial expression or body movement.
Said colleague Isaac Stern: "He belongs to all time. . . . There has been no player of the violin or any stringed instrument in the last 50 or 60 years who hasn't in some way been affected by the way he played."
Itzhak Perlman added simply, "I consider him the king of violinists.
"He is the first violinist whose playing I was able to recognize immediately," Perlman recalled. "The reasons for that are quite simple: his individual style, his incredible technique, his distinctive sound and his enormous palette of colors."
In his quest for perfection, Heifetz was demanding — both of himself and those who played with him. A full six months before a scheduled performance, Heifetz would practice alone all morning, five days a week, in the studio adjacent to his home, then practice all afternoon with his accompanist.
He never appeared to suffer from stage fright, once reportedly explaining that an artist must have "the nerves of a bullfighter, the vitality of a nightclub hostess and the concentration of a Buddhist monk."
Besides a rigorous, decades-long schedule of concert performances around the world — including a return visit to his native Russia in 1934 — Heifetz recorded extensively, seemingly the work of every composer from Joseph Achron to Henryk Wieniawski who wrote for the violin or could be transcribed for that instrument. He recorded not only the classics but also Gypsy melodies, Stephen Foster and George Gershwin, and not only solo pieces but also chamber music.
He had settled permanently in Los Angeles in the 1930s and hosted and attended chamber music soirees, frequently with his close friend Gregor Piatigorsky, the cellist who died in 1976.
He made several visits to Israel, including a 1953 concert tour during which the Jewish-born Heifetz was attacked with an iron bar (which injured his bow arm) in Jerusalem after refusing to delete the violin sonata of long-banned German composer Richard Strauss from his program.
During World War II, he proved a popular USO performer before thousands of GIs, having barely escaped entrapment by Hitler's forces advancing on Austria, where he was playing during a 1938 European concert tour. He had become an American citizen in 1925 and was passionately patriotic.
And for more than 20 years he taught — mostly at his home studio but also at USC and, briefly, at UCLA. As late as 1986, the year before his death, the violinist continued to teach a few chosen pupils at his private studio.
Music occupied most, but not all, of Heifetz's time. A tireless player of Ping-Pong, tennis and word games, he also sailed and was noted for his traditional Fourth of July parties at his Malibu beach house, a magnet for European intelligentsia transplanted to Southern California.
But his ease with the violin did not extend into his personal relationships.
Two long marriages ultimately failed, and his relations with his children were often strained. After 17 years of marriage to silent movie starlet Florence Arto Vidor, former wife of fabled film director King Vidor, the couple were divorced in 1945. He then married Frances Sears Spiegelberg. Again the match ended 17 years later in a 1963 divorce after the birth of a son.
The violinist's public career wound down without fanfare.
After a stellar performance in Paris in 1970, Heifetz received a standing ovation, as expected, and returned to the stage for five curtain calls — but no encores.
Then, with something like a smile, he spoke to the French audience, in English. "For those of you who liked it, thanks. For those who didn't, perhaps we'll catch you next time."
There were not many who did not like it, and there were not many next times.
In 1972, he gave what was to be his final recital, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. At the end, he offered a single encore and confessed, "I am pooped."
He died at age 86 on Dec. 10, 1987, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, several weeks after undergoing brain surgery after a fall at his Beverly Hills home. He had checked into Cedars-Sinai under the name Jim Hoyl, the alias he sometimes used as a composer of popular songs.