For 83 of his 87 years, Jascha Heifetz (1900-87) played the violin, and for over 60 of them in front of audiences the length and breadth of the world. Since his first public concert in St. Petersburg on April 30, 1911, he exposed his art to the world through more than 2,000,000 miles of travel (much of it in front of World War II troops), a prodigious recording program, countless appearances on radio, in several films, an hour-long television special and, for a dozen years, a vigorous teaching schedule.
He started to play on a quarter-sized violin given to him by his father in his native city of Vilna, Russia, and at age seven made his public debut in Dovno. He entered Leopold Auer's famous class in St. Petersburg at age nine and in three years was acclaimed a child prodigy of unexampled gifts.
"You know," Heifetz said, "child prodigism - if I may coin a word - is a disease which is generally fatal. I was among the few to have the good fortune to survive. But I had the advantage of a great teacher in Professor Auer and a family that instinctively had a high regard for music, very good taste and a horror of mediocrity."
In the years following his St. Petersburg debut, he concertized in Germany, Austria and Scandinavia, and when the Russian Revolution broke out, the family, after many difficulties, traveled to America. Heifetz made his debut in Carnegie Hall on October 27, 1917. The noted critic Samuel Chotzinoff reported: "The 16-year-old violinist seemed the most unconcerned of all the people in the hall as he walked out on the stage and proceeded to give an exhibition of such extraordinary virtuosity and musicianship as had not previously been heard in that historic auditorium." Overnight, Heifetz became the musical idol of America, and during that first year he made 30 appearances in New York alone.
He soon adopted the United States, became an American citizen in 1925 and amply sampled the "American way." In the '40s he settled into a comfortable house atop one of the Beverly Hills in California, where he lived until his death.
When Heifetz reached his 60s, after half a century of concertizing, he began to curtail his appearances gradually and gave his last public recital in 1972. He devoted his later life to teaching. Handling his students with steel-rod control tempered with humor, Heifetz instilled in them respect for discipline ("It's something you have to do, so you might as well do it and get it over with") and the ways and means for making music with the violin. Certainly no one knew them better.
Throughout his life, Heifetz was known for his flawless technical style. He was even accused of sounding formal and mechanical, which also reflected his austere personality. But the fierce virtuoso never faltered, even into his 70s, and ended up recording more than 80 albums in his lifetime. He even wrote a pop song under the pseudonym Jim Hoyl called "When You Make Love To Me (Don't Make Believe)," sung by Margaret Whiting.
Heifetz received many honors in his lifetime for his hard work and talent. He was even made an officer of the French Legion, an award stemming from the many charity recitals he performed in France. Heifetz also received countless Grammy Awards, including the elusive Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989, and was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.