Heifetz As I Knew Him

Heifetz As I Knew Him

by Ayke Agus

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For the last 15 years of Jascha Heifetz's life, Ayke Agus was his closest companion. She came to him as a violin student in his master class at the University of Southern California, but he singled her out when he heard her play the piano. She became his private accompanist and ultimately his assistant and confidante. A sensitive and astute observer, Agus takes up


For the last 15 years of Jascha Heifetz's life, Ayke Agus was his closest companion. She came to him as a violin student in his master class at the University of Southern California, but he singled her out when he heard her play the piano. She became his private accompanist and ultimately his assistant and confidante. A sensitive and astute observer, Agus takes up where previous biographers left off; her book is a loving yet unblinking portrait of an aging master by his disciple.

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Heifetz as I Knew Him

By Ayke Agus

Amadeus Press

Copyright © 2005 Ayke Agus
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9781574671216

Chapter One


Magicians of music leave a lasting mark not only on the history of performance but on the collective memory of humankind as well. In the past the magic of Niccolò Paganini and Franz Liszt left such lasting marks for us—Paganini died before his powers had diminished, and Liszt retired from the stage as a pianist in time to leave his record untarnished. Of those who may claim a similar universal fame in the twentieth century, none was closer to the mark than Jascha Heifetz, who also retired from the stage before his powers ebbed. Like his two famous predecesors, Heifetz, too, raised performance standards to heights that before him were not even considered possible.

    Following the time-honored tradition of past masters, in the last twenty-five years of his life Heifetz concentrated his energies on teaching the art of violin playing. By his own admission he felt obliged to pass on a special kind of violin playing as he had received it from his famous master, Leopold Auer. In the Jascha Heifetz master class, selected talented students could observe and learn how to make magic. Few, if any could absorb it all—Heifetz was infinitely more than justa magician full of tricks. His students found that just learning some of his technical secrets didn't add up to comprehending his art.

    I had hardly passed the age of twenty when I first met Jascha Heifetz At that time he was already seventy. I first became his violin student in the master class, then the pianist for the class, and eventually his private accompanist and musical collaborator for his transcriptions. By that time I was already fulfilling the duties of hostess of his house, and he felt that a title was necessary to justify my being around so much. He didn't like the sound of "house manager," and so we left it as unofficial private accompanist, a euphemism for indispensable factotum. Coming at the age of eighteen from Indonesia or, as he preferred to say, "from the jungles of Java," I had to learn quickly how to cope with a complicated person whose problems were aggravated by his basic, simple view of the world. He looked at things as black or white, and people were either for him or against him. Things had to be done immediately if not sooner, and there were no excuses for failure. Heifetz prided himself on being difficult even at relatively normal times, and "Skin are bloody no good" came easily from him when I thought I had done something quite well. When the dark demons took over his mind, I learned to resort to Thousand and One Nights devices by telling him stories from my life in mysterious Indonesia. My stories were always followed by a short silence, then by a half-believing "You are lying." Nevertheless, they opened the floodgates of his memory, and my role was to be a good listener who asked no questions. To him questions meant that I was prying.

    Yet one day I learned that his stories were not just idly told. After a long one he made the surprising remark, "Now, you make sure that you do not forget to put all this in the book you are going to write after I am dead and gone." From the careful emphasis on the "do not" instead of the colloquial "don't," I was to understand that Heifetz meant what he said.

    He let me know that he did not want to write his memoirs because he was loath to join the crowd of every "has-been" who had used a last chance to cash in on vanishing fame. Furthermore, his principles also got in the way. He quite often sternly admonished, "Don't write anything down because once it's written, it could be held against you." He justified his limitations on conversational topics with his friends and guests with the principle "Don't tell your friends anything that you don't want your enemies to know." I can only explain his desire to have a book written about him by comparing it to everyone's desire to be better known and to see whatever good could come of the effort. Nevertheless, he could not bring himself to sit down with a ghost writer and publish under his name another person's version of his life, containing some truth, some half truths, and a great deal of bending of the truth.

    The question "What's in a name?" had special significance for Jascha Heifetz. He gave people permission, explicitly or implicitly, to use a certain version of his name. The name "Heifetz" was used strictly in the business of music, in his relationships with managers, publicists, and critics. He expected his students and the personnel in his house to call him Mr. Heifetz; a step further, "Mr. H." was used by people with whom he preferred to be on a more intimate level. The "Mr. H." level was close enough to make him feel flee to expect more services from its users than he expected from others, yet distant enough to safeguard him from familiarity's breeding contempt. Using '"Jascha" was discouraged, and only old and very close friends dared to use it to his face. Friends whom he saw socially on a regular basis were permitted to call him Jim, which came from the pseudonym Jim Hoyl, under which name he had written popular songs in his younger years. To top off the list, his real name was Joseph Heifetz, which nobody used and few knew about. Furthermore. some bumpkin visitors from his Russian homeland called him Geifetz; the H does not exist in Russian so that this version, which he immensely disliked, appeared in the Russian literature. In this book I will use "Heifetz" for simplicity's sake, but on occasion I will allow myself to call him Jim as I often did in his lifetime when the situation demanded it. Heifetz also used a logo with the letters J and H fused, which was also his musical signature on every transcription, whether published or in manuscript. He had this logo embroidered on most of his garments, and it was even printed on paper napkins.

    Finding a way to portray this complex yet simple person ("simply complex," as he would have played with the words) felt enormously difficult at first, but eventually I found inspiration in his last testament. He left two objects for me, the significance of which eluded me for years. One was a Steuben glass prism, the other a solid gold scabbard with his initials engraved on its casing, containing both a letter opener with a magnifying glass at its end and a pair of scissors. Heifetz must have attributed great importance to these objects; he mentioned few specific items in his will and left no clear provisions for most of his multimillion-dollar estate, yet these two gifts were singled out. I interpreted the prism as a hint about how to write my book. A Steuben prism is a work of art: its surface has irregular angles and planes, each of which shows the same object differently to the person who looks through the glass. Some views are magnified while others are distorted and recede from the "real" view. Viewing Heifetz through such a prism could help us comprehend his "simply complex" personality. He always claimed that there was more than one side to a story or to music, so each chapter in this book considers a different side of Heifetz in turn, the prismatic magnification leaving his other characteristics at a distance, sometimes at the unavoidable expense of somewhat distorting these other views.

    At the head of each chapter are a few lines from the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling, chosen to suit each chapter and therefore out of their original order. The poem held great significance for Heifetz; it became his shield and buckler when he was about twenty-one, a basis for his moral code and self comport. He always carried his handwritten copy of this poem in his pocket and thought of it as a sort of talisman that had saved his life in a crisis that he considered life threatening. I considered myself lucky that he showed me this poem early enough in our relationship and told me its story, because it helped me to understand what made him tick, which in turn guided me at times of baffling disasters.

    Following his customary advice I have omitted names as much as possible—mentioning names, he often said, "will only get you in trouble." He dreaded being misquoted and would rather drop conversations altogether if he felt that he was being trapped into gossiping: he didn't want to give anyone the chance to say something that began with "Heifetz said." He knew the value of his opinion and the weight his name carried. Since this book contains only my personal experiences with him during the last fifteen years of his life and is neither a history, a collection of gossip, nor his hagiography, the reader should be able to forgive me for such omissions.

    To recapitulate the basic facts of his life, Jascha Heifetz was born on 2 February 1901 in Vilna, in Russian Lithuania. He was given the name Joseph at birth. His mother, Annie, probably was responsible for the later change to Jascha, which seems to be a Yiddish version of Yashup, the Hebrew for Joseph. He took his first lessons from his father, Ruben (Ruven or Reuven), at the age of three and soon was enrolled in the local music academy. From my own experience I know that parents don't make very good music teachers, regardless of their own playing standards.

    At the age of six he played Felix Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, to a large audience in Kovno, with great success; he claimed to have made his debut at age seven. His childhood was that of a prodigy, and his studies in St. Petersburg under the celebrated violin teacher Leopold Auer were often interrupted by concert engagements in Russia and Europe, starting perhaps at an early age. The tours were primarily to support his parents and his two younger sisters, Pauline and Elsa. He made his phenomenally successful debut in Carnegie Hall on 27 October 1917 in the presence of the most famous violinists of the time. He made four world tours in his life and played in practically every, major city on the globe. Heifetz left behind a large number of recordings, most of them reissued posthumously on compact disc, and enriched the violin repertory with some 150 transcriptions. In the mid 1950s he practically gave up concertizing and in 1962 took up teaching a master class in Los Angeles which he continued almost to the end of his life.

    Since I knew him well only for the last fifteen years of his life, I have tried to exclude everything that happened before 1972 except stories that Heifetz narrated for me or references that are essential to the flow of events. Though I met him late in 1971, sixteen years before he died. I have spoken of our time together as fifteen years, which is the time during which I was close to him. Sometimes I felt that I had to repeat well-known stories about him because the way he told them to me differed from their generally known versions; other times the reader's ability to understand my story, would suffer had I not reached into the past. In these cases sometimes I had to rely on secondary sources. All in all, the story is about Heifetz as I saw him and does not reflect others' thoughts of him. I interviewed no one. I'm sure that more scholarly and perhaps more "factual" biographies will come some day from competent historians.

    An account of my Indonesian-Chinese background seems necessary to explain my high tolerance of Heifetz's often irrational behavior. My upbringing, based on an unquestioning respect of my elders, played a considerable role in my ability to stick it out with him when others were unable to do so. Despite our coming together from distant corners of the world, Heifetz and I had a great deal in common in education, family background, and appreciation of values in life. As I recount in some detail in chapters 5 and 6, we were both primitives in the sense that he never attended schools except for short studies in the St. Petersburg Music Academy. His interest was in the violin, its history and makeup, and he read artists' biographies avidly. Otherwise he read Reader's Digest faithfully and some classical Russian novels, which suited me fine. In spite of my college degrees, I did not consider myself an intellectual, which also worked in my favor. Heifetz was my mother's violinist hero, and she did everything in her power to instill his way of violin playing in me from the time I was a babe.

    Perhaps the chapter titles need some explanation. All have musical significance, some more obviously than others, although their sequence is determined by the chapters' content rather than by musical meaning "Recitativo Accompagnato" (accompanied recitative) is a baroque operatic term evoked in chapter 3, as Heifetz, in need of an accompanist for his master class, artfully changes me from a violin student into a pianist. "Intermezzo" is a rather vague term describing lighter musical entertainment performed between acts of classical dramas. "Passagework" as a musical expression describes transitional material between important sections of a musical form.

    For the better part of this century the name Jascha Heifetz was synonymous with perfection. "Musica Disciplina," chapter 9, borrows a Renaissance musical term used to describe strict counterpoint. This chapter deals with Heifetz's tremendous self-discipline in musical matters and his conflicts with the ordinary ways of life. Perfection is a jealous mistress and comes at a high price, which Heifetz paid in more than one way. The rare moments of serenity and domesticity in his life are described in chapter 10, "Sinfonia Domestica," which is the title of Richard Strauss's only symphony. Richard Strauss was among Heifetz's favorite composers. "Dies Irae,' the name of a Sequence or hymn from the Latin Requiem Mass, means literally Day of Wrath or, by implication, Judgment Day. Chapter 12 presents the dark side of Heifetz's personality and my struggles to stay sane facing it. The Greek title of the penultimate chapter, "Threnody," means lament. Professional mourners in ancient villages still recite the merits and the life of a worthy person during wakes in this loose form; the chapter contains the story of the accident that took his life, including his last days and a reflection on the influence he exercised over me as a musician and as a person. "Postludium," Chapter 14, refers to the exit music in church after the service. Here it serves as my own personal closure.

    An appendix of works by Heifetz lists his published and unpublished transcriptions for violin and piano and the works from which they were taken, as well as his original transcriptions and compositions.

If I had to live again through any of my fifteen years with Jascha Heifetz, I would choose the last five. During these years he had finally come to terms with himself—with his persistent self-doubt and with the people who really loved him. And most importantly, Heifetz had learned to trust me and therefore to trust himself.

    Heifetz had built an impenetrable barrier around himself as protection for his innermost uncertainties about his worth as a human being. Because of that, he was the target of personal and impersonal criticisms, often deeply rooted in jealousy. His personality was so complex that it obscured understanding of his motives, his actions and reactions, and even his art.


Excerpted from Heifetz as I Knew Him by Ayke Agus Copyright © 2005 by Ayke Agus. Excerpted by permission.
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