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Jascha Heifetz; Early Years in Russia

Galina Kopytova

Translated and edited Dario Sarlo and Alexandra Sarlo

Indiana University Press. 504pp., 77 b&w illustrations.

ISBN 978-0-253-01076-6 Hardback, £29.99

Jascha Heifetz; Early Years in Russia

Jascha Heifetz himself defined the markers of his life succinctly: "Born in Russia, first lessons at three, debut in Russia at seven, debut in Carnegie Hall at 17".  This translation of a Russian edition of 2004, published as Jascha Heifetz in Russia, places much flesh on that bare summary.

When Kitty Valter, a friend of the Heifetz family, noticed ten-year-old Jascha's preoccupation with her daughter's Kodak camera, she asked: "What would you prefer to be, a violinist or a photographer?" Jascha unhesitatingly replied: "a photographer". Fortunately for the world of violin playing, the boy became a violinist. Indeed, Jascha Heifetz became one of the greatest, an exceptional performer who profoundly influenced the art of violin playing.

Born in 1901, Jascha Heifetz grew up in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, then one of the three major Jewish centres of the Russian Empire, the others being Odessa and Warsaw. Before the Great War the city of Vilnius was half-Jewish.

From the start, Heifetz showed an unusual affinity for music. He sang recognisable melodies at the age of one and a half; at two he sang lullabies alongside his mother; at three his father, Ruvin, a shoemaker, bought his son his first violin, and Jascha began his first lessons taught by his father. As an adult, Heifetz recalled that he was able to play in all seven positions within the first year of study.

At first the boy spoke Yiddish; he did not know a word of Russian. Life in Heifetz's pre-war Lithuania was tough. Plumbing was not installed in Vilnius until 1912. The family apartment in Vilnius had no running water, no electricity.  At five years old, Jascha undertook 'several hours' of practice each day. By 1910, Russia boasted only two conservatories, one in St Petersburg (then the capital) and one in Moscow. In 1905 the conservatory director at St Petersburg was Alexander Glazunov, a great composer with an alcohol addiction - and a kindly disposition; no-one knew that half of the conservatory's cafeteria defecit was covered by Glazunov's personal resources.

In January 1910, nine-year-old Jascha Heifetz became a student at St Petersburg. On Jascha's 1910 exam paper, director Glazunov wrote: "Pitch is amazing (perfect)."  Within the Pale of Settlement (a region of Imperial Russia in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed) Jews could only make up ten percent of newly admitted students. Moreover, many institutions of higher education were completely closed to Jews. Jascha's father could only remain with him in St Petersburg because Heifetz père had enrolled as a student!

At first Heifetz was assigned to Ioannes Nalbandian, an assistant professor and Leopold Auer's former student and assistant. By 1911 Heifetz was in the class of the great violinist Auer, who expected all of his students to have polished shoes, called dull playing unterkleid (underwear), and required that all his violin students also played the viola.

The young Heifetz was fascinated by collecting butterflies, then a widespread and fashionable hobby. The boy was also fascinated by the achievements of the Wright brothers, aviation pioneers. The violinist's first concert visit to Berlin entailed a 1,000 mile rail trip from St Petersburg, took approximately thirty hours, and included time for changing wheels when the rail gauge shifted upon leaving Russia for Europe!

A fascinating account, giving a vivid view into a half-forgotten world.

John Robert Brown

Published in Classical Music, Rhinegold, May 2014. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.

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