Jascha Heifetz, 86, Hailed as Greatest Violinist, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Jascha Heifetz, regarded as the greatest violin virtuoso since Paganini, died Thursday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, several weeks after undergoing brain surgery after a fall at his Beverly Hills home. He was 86.

The intensely private musician had been hospitalized since Oct. 16 under the name Jim Hoyl, an alias he used as a composer of popular songs. A Cedars spokesman said the family had requested that no details of his illness be released. Other sources said he died of complications arising from two separate falls and subsequent neurosurgery to remove two blood clots.

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.

“I don’t want to write my own obituary” he told one would-be interviewer a few years ago.


“I wish you would keep it short,” Heifetz told another persistent reporter. “Just make it ‘born in Russia, first lesson at 3, debut at 7, debut in America in 1917.’ That’s all there is really, about two lines.”

But to lovers of music everywhere there was much more to the international career that began in the Lithuanian town of Vilna, a part of Tsarist 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.

‘The Greatest’

“You realize he is the greatest,” violinist Nathan Milstein once told Heifetz’s longtime accompanist, Brooks Smith, after a Heifetz concert in Switzerland. “But you have to be a violinist yourself,” Milstein told pianist Smith, “to know how good he is.”


Last year, in celebration of Heifetz’s 85th birthday, the British music magazine The Strad devoted an entire issue to “the most important violinistic influence this century,” in which a host of international artists paid tribute to him as inspiration and idol.

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.”


Began at Age 3

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 triumphal 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.”

‘Perfect, Subtle’

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.


Of one work, he said, “The concerto is already so overloaded with sentimentalism as it is, that all you have to do is play the notes--it will come out anyway.”

“His dignified bearing and lack of bodily motion put people off,” Smith explained when asked about Heifetz’s apparent detachment and aloofness on stage. “But if you listened, you would hear he was very much involved” in the music.

Quest for Perfection

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 night-club 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 Achron to 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 Gershwin, and not only solo pieces but also chamber music.

Famous Recordings

Among his most famous recordings: Bruch’s “Scottish Fantasy,” the concertos of Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Mendelssohn and Beethoven, and Saint-Saens’ “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso.” Violinists also often cite his recordings of the Sibelius and Vieuxtemps concertos as among their favorites.


Under the pseudonym he used in the hospital, Jim Hoyl, Heifetz published several popular songs, including “When You Make Love to Me” and “So Much in Love.” He also appeared in the 1938 Goldwyn film, “They Shall Have Music,” in which he spoke only one line--"Yes, that’s the violin.”

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.

Attacked in Jerusalem

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. In 1973, to wish “luck” to a new music building under construction at USC, he dropped the bridge, a tuning peg and a string from his prized Guarnerius violin into the freshly poured concrete of its foundation. As late as last year, the violinist continued to teach a few chosen pupils at his private studio.

Other Pursuits

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 July 4 parties at his Malibu beach house, a magnet for European intelligentsia transplanted to Southern California.


He also supported various ecological causes, including the development of a battery-powered car to reduce smog, and he campaigned for implementation of the 911 emergency telephone number system here.

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. They had a son, Robert, and a daughter, Josepha. He then married Frances Sears Spiegelberg. Again the match ended 17 years later in a 1963 divorce after the birth of a son, Jay. His children survive him.

‘Man of Few Words


Jay Heifetz once said that what he remembers best about his father is “his wonderful dry sense of humor. . . . He is also a man of few words, I am convinced, because so much of what he had to say he said with a violin under his chin. So an economy of time and emotion in his playing is perfectly consistent with the other elements of his character.”

Pianist Smith, who accompanied Heifetz for 20 years and saw him daily during that time, said he and the violinist never became close. “He got right down to business. . . . He was introverted and found it difficult to meet people. I think what was seen as a cold aloofness was a facade he showed the world; with old and trusted friends he could be warm and cordial.”

The violinist’s public career wound down without fanfare.

Spoke to Audience


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.


He joined Piatigorsky for some chamber music at a USC benefit in early 1972, and late that same year, 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.”

Final Performances

In 1974, he played briefly at two USC concerts--including a final encore with Piatigorsky, the Handel-Halvorsen Chaconne. And that was it, the shoulder surgery in 1975 ending any thought of further performances.


But his unparalleled music remains--through his broad discography of nearly 500 recordings.

Times music critic Martin Bernheimer offered this assessment of the legendary violinist: “All--repeat, all--experts agree that Heifetz, in his prime, was one of the greatest violinists of the century, perhaps even one of the greatest in history. Some experts regard him unequivocally as the greatest.

“Other violinists play, or have played with greater warmth, with loftier taste, with more concern for musicological purity or expressive profundity. Few, if any, play or have played, with comparable perfection.

“Heifetz commanded his instrument totally. He could do anything, and do it with diabolical ease and even with a semblance of cool disdain. He never let his listeners know that the violin could be prone to pitch problems. His tone always was a model of purity, his phrasing a model of suavity.”


At Heifetz’s request, there will be no funeral services. His son, Jay, said any instructions his father may have left regarding music scholarships or charities will be made public later.