Sunday 21 January 2018

The child genius who became the greatest ever violinist

There cannot be many who merit the title of "nonpareil", but the violinist Jascha Heifetz was most certainly one.

Heifetz, who lived from 1901 to 1987, was by all accounts smoothness and perfection personified.

He was born in Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire, was on the concert stage in Vilnius playing Mendelssohn's violin concerto by the age of six, was taken on by the conservatory in St Petersburg when he was just nine, and was performing with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra just a year later.

He played the Mendelssohn for an audience of professional musicians at a private party in Berlin, with Fritz Kreisler, the top violinist of the time, on the piano.

"We might as well all break our fiddles over our knees now," Kreisler said, for the boy was so good.

In London, George Bernard Shaw -- then a cranky music critic -- was in the audience. He found the experience so moving, he couldn't sleep that night.

He wrote Heifetz a rather bizarre letter. "Your recital has filled me and my wife with anxiety. If you provoke a jealous God by playing with such superhuman perfection, you will die young. I earnestly advise you to play something badly every night before going to bed, instead of saying your prayers. No mortal should presume to play so faultlessly."

Heifetz fled Russia at the time of the Revolution, and settled in the US. He became very much a part of the musical life there. During the Depression, he wrote for the mass audience under the pen-name of Jim Hoyle. He visited US troops during World War Two.

His recording career took off, and when he retired in the 1970s his label, RCA, paid him the particular honour of releasing his complete back catalogue.

The musical journey of Heifetz was the pursuit of perfection. Asked what was left for him to achieve now he'd reach the top, he replied: "There is no top, there are always further heights to reach."

On stage he never displayed emotion, preferring to let his violin get the message across. The composer Arnold Schönberg called him the great stone face.

Heifetz paid a price for all of this in his private life. He married and divorced twice. But he's still revered as the man who took violin playing on to a higher plane, where he still reigns supreme as the greatest of all.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning

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