'Like Electricity': Jascha Heifetz Made His American Debut 100 Years Ago

Oct 24, 2017
Originally published on October 24, 2017 8:34 am

It was 100 years ago this week that Russian violinist Jascha Heifetz made his American debut at New York's Carnegie Hall in 1917. Considered by many to be one of the greatest violinists in history, he was just 16 years old at the time. NPR's Rachel Martin spoke with commentator Miles Hoffman about that appearance and the career that followed.

"The technique was stupendous," Hoffman says about Heifetz's appeal. "Nobody had heard about a technique like [his.] And he set a completely new standard for the violin for technical excellence. But he always used this technique with an amazing musical imagination. He had a warmth and a beauty to the sound, a passionate intensity, this unique quality that was like electricity. I was talking the other day that with a former student of Heifetz's and he reminded me of a great quotation by Schopenhauer, the German philosopher. Schopenhauer once said, 'Talent is like the marksman who hits a target that others cannot reach. Genius is like the marksman who hits a target that others cannot even see.' And that was Heifetz on the violin."

Hear the rest of their conversation at the audio link above.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And we are listening to music from one of the greatest violin players in history.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASCHA HEIFETZ PERFORMANCE OF BRUCH'S "VIOLIN CONCERTO NO. 1")

MARTIN: This is a performance by the Russian violinist Jascha Heifetz. It was 100 years ago this week that Heifetz made his American debut at New York's Carnegie Hall. He was just 16 years old at the time. Here to talk about what made that Heifetz performance so remarkable and the career that followed is MORNING EDITION's classical music commentator Miles Hoffman. Hi, Miles.

MILES HOFFMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: Set the stage for us, so to speak, Miles. What was the historic backdrop this one night in Carnegie Hall?

HOFFMAN: Well, the historic background, we're talking late October of 1917. The United States had just entered World War I a little over six months before. And in Russia the Tsar had already abdicated, but there was lots of unrest, and it was about a week away from the Bolshevik revolution. So it was a fairly eventful...

MARTIN: There's things going on, yeah.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. Fairly eventful period. But meanwhile back in New York, every famous musician in the city and everybody else who could get a ticket was on their way to Carnegie Hall to hear a 16-year-old violinist named Jascha Heifetz, this kid.

MARTIN: How is it that a kid, as you call him, 16 years old only, how was he already famous and packing people into Carnegie Hall?

HOFFMAN: He was already - he'd been famous for five or six years before that. He'd been playing in public since at least the age of, I don't know, 8? He'd made spectacular debuts in Berlin, in Warsaw, in Prague at the age of 11. Nobody had ever heard anybody like him. But it was the Carnegie Hall concert that made his career really take off. It was like a rocket. Amazing reviews, and basically the critics were flabbergasted. And two weeks after the Carnegie Hall debut, he made his first recordings, and everything got started. That was for the Victor Talking Machine Company, as a matter of fact.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASCHA HEIFETZ PERFORMANCE OF WIENIAWKSI'S "SCHERZO-TARANTELLE")

MARTIN: So cool to hear that old recording.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. That's from a 78, of course, and that's a portion of the "Scherzo-Tarantelle" by Henryk Wieniawski. It's from a recording Heifetz made two weeks after his Carnegie Hall debut. He also recorded the Schubert "Ave Maria." Beautiful arrangement. Gorgeous, gorgeous playing.

MARTIN: So you said, Miles, nobody had ever heard anybody play like Heifetz. Why? I mean, what was it in his playing that nobody had heard before? Was it just the awe of his skill, or was it some combination because he was just so dang young?

HOFFMAN: Well, he was precocious, but it was way, way beyond precocity. I mean, people - the word God came up a lot when people were talking about Heifetz. Let me read you, just to give you an idea, a portion of a review that a well-known musician wrote. This was in Berlin after hearing Heifetz in 1913. (Reading) When you see the highest technical and spiritual maturity, and when you see the highest beauty and controlled artistic intensity of the 12-year-old child's creative powers, one must speak not of a phenomenon but of a miracle. Without hesitation, I name Heifetz the greatest artist of our time, and maybe also of all times and all peoples. He's talking about a 12-year-old.

MARTIN: Wow. Of all time? Of all peoples? That's a fairly bold claim.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. It's hyperbole, Rachel, but you can't necessarily say it's wrong. Basically Heifetz, the technique was stupendous. Nobody had heard a technique like this, and he set a completely new standard for excellence on the violin, for technical excellence. But he always used this technique with an amazing musical imagination. He had a warmth and a beauty to the sound and a passionate intensity, this unique quality that was like an electricity. I was talking the other day with a former student of Heifetz's, and he reminded me of a great quotation from Schopenhauer, the German philosopher. Schopenhauer once said talent is like a marksman who hits a target that others cannot reach. Genius is like the marksman who hits a target that others cannot even see. And that was Heifetz on the violin.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASCHA HEIFETZ PERFORMANCE OF BRAHMS' "VIOLIN CONCERTO, MOVEMENT 1")

MARTIN: The purity of those notes.

HOFFMAN: That was Heifetz playing a brief section from the first movement of the Brahms "Violin Concerto," Rachel. And it's instantly recognizable. Nobody sounds like Heifetz. Nobody's ever sounded like Heifetz.

MARTIN: So you've met a lot of famous people...

HOFFMAN: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...In a long career. Did you ever get to meet him?

HOFFMAN: No, I never met Heifetz, Rachel, but I grew up with him. I had started taking violin lessons as a little boy of 6, and I guess starting when I was about 7, I used to go to sleep every night to a recording of Heifetz playing the Mendelssohn "Violin Concerto."

MARTIN: Did you really?

HOFFMAN: I did, indeed. And it was Heifetz's playing that formed my ideal, really, of musical beauty, and it's remained my ideal. But that just makes me like hundreds of thousands of other musicians, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASCHA HEIFETZ PERFORMANCE OF MENDELSSOHN'S "VIOLIN CONCERTO")

HOFFMAN: That's the opening of the Mendelssohn "Violin Concerto," with Jascha Heifetz playing the violin.

MARTIN: Amazing. And that recording was your childhood inspiration so clearly your parents thought that there was something that was going to be transmitted to you through osmosis.

HOFFMAN: (Laughter). I guess they did, and there certainly was. I mean, I can't tell you how many times I listened to that record. I never listened to the other side of the record (laughter), but - no, I grew up with that, and you can still hear his recordings. All of them are still in print. You know, to have listened to Heifetz, Rachel, for me it's just to experience one of the great marvels of the world. Makes you happy to be on the planet.

MARTIN: And to witness that kind of creative beauty. Miles Hoffman celebrating with us the 100th anniversary of the American debut of the great violinist Jascha Heifetz, many believe the greatest violinist of all time. Miles, thanks so much.

HOFFMAN: Thank you, Rachel.

MARTIN: Miles Hoffman is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players and a distinguished visiting professor of chamber music at the Schwob School of Music in Columbus, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF JASCHA HEIFETZ PERFORMANCE OF MENDELSSOHN'S "VIOLIN CONCERTO, MOVEMENT 3") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.