Three Jewish Violinists and California
September 8, 2005
The notion is tantalizing. It is a truth universally acknowledged that three men, all Jews of eastern European descent, all violinists of a unique calibre, all of them connected with California in one way or another, must have something in common. The answer is, very little.
I am referring to Jascha Heifetz, 1901-1987, Yehudi Menuhin, 1916-1999, and Isaac Stern 1920-2001.
Perhaps all they had in common was the sacrifice of many of life’s most important rewards for the impersonal monster of great art.
With their childhood gone, their adult lives were almost pre-ordained. Great virtuosi have to travel most of the time to play in new cities and satisfy new audiences. That led to marital stress and some loss of their children’s affections.
Isaac Stern was very open about this in his memoir. He even tried to do something about it for a time but external forces were too great for him to resist. Each man married more than once.
When they aged and looked for the meaning in their lives, they were all sustained by the music itself but in widely different ways. Menuhin’s horizons broadened beyond performance. He became a teacher and conductor, and also threw himself into social and political causes.
Some of the latter were very controversial and led to his being excoriated by the Jewish community. Playing in Berlin with Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1945 was one of them.
Ironically, his most lasting legacy was a residential school in England for children like himself, showing extraordinary promise on the violin. The school offered a broad general curriculum to counter the narrowness of the focus, but the children were isolated and removed from their families for long periods of time.
Isaac Stern also served many good causes. The most important one may have been the preservation of Carnegie Hall. He prevented it from being demolished to make way for an office tower. More than the other two, Stern introduced remarkable new young violinists to carry on the tradition. He travelled very often to Israel. He toured China and listened to gifted children wherever he went.
Heifetz turned to the music as a source of solace. Although his career was confined to a single instrument, he had perhaps the broadest range of knowledge of music as a whole. His teacher in St Petersburg, Leopold Auer, had instilled respect for the piano and orchestra, and had insisted his students learn all aspects of musical theory.
Heifetz’s accompanist and de facto assistant for the last fifteen years of his life, Ayke Agus, has recorded her awe of his facility with the piano, his excellent knowledge of harmony and how to write for the piano. Through the years Heifetz had composed some original pieces. He also knew the craft of composing, and could correct the manuscript invisibly if there were any errors.
All of this was in addition to an encyclopaedic knowledge of the violin repertoire, methods of playing and the instruments themselves. Immersing himself in these activities could not replace human contact but made its absence a little more bearable.
It is not for me, an outsider, to say whether they enjoyed their lives or thought the price was too high, but society still has not solved the problem of what to do about precociously gifted children.
The three men in question overlapped in time, starting with Jascha Heifetz born either in 1899 or 1901 according to which source you prefer, Yehudi Menuhin in 1916 and Isaac Stern in 1920. Heifetz and Stern were both born in Eastern Europe. As Stern put it so wittily in his memoir, My First Seventy Nine Years, the time of his birth coincided with the two week period that his town, Kreminiecz, was Polish. A week later it would have been Russia again.
Heifetz was born in Vilna (Vilnius), in Lithuania, a noted centre of Jewish culture and learning. The name Jascha was used by his mother as a Yiddish diminutive of his actual name, Joseph, but it stuck with him long after he grew up. (He named his daughter Josepha and one of his sons Joseph, known as Jay). When the Russian Revolution made life in Russia too dangerous, the Heifetz family fled across Siberia in 1917 and entered the United States through the port of San Francisco.
Only Menuhin was born in the United States, at the old Mount Lebanon Hospital in the Bronx. His parents had come from Russia by way of then Palestine.
In all of these men the amazing gifts were manifested very early, while they were still children. Isaac Stern went to school for a couple of years and played with children of his own age. That ended when he showed serious promise on the violin. Heifetz never went to school at all. Menuhin was totally uninterested in school and left after a short time in the first grade.
Their families were all victims of anti-Semitism to one degree or another and that, with poverty, was the force which drove them to emigrate. Poverty did not mean an absence of culture. Both Mr and Mrs Menuhin were teachers. Isaac Stern’s father was an artist and Heifetz’s father was concertmaster of the Vilna Symphonic Orchestra.
One is reminded of the French writer Georges Duhamel’s remark about his family:
“Nous étions pauvres main nous n’étions pas des pauvres.” [“We were poor but not of the poor”].
Mr Stern had to settle for working as a house painter in San Francisco, to make a living, but they always managed to go and hear important musicians who came to town. He and his wife spoke Russian at home, not Yiddish. Isaac used the Russian to great effect when playing with Serge Kussevitsky.
All these children had general lessons at home and probably learned as much as any child in a busy class with a harassed teacher. The Menuhin family stressed languages, with Hebrew, French and German in constant use. There was even a smattering of Russian which served Menhuin well during World War II.
Hebrew was Yehudi’s first language. He and his sisters called their father “Aba” and their mother “Imma.” Their New York neighbour Willa Cather was concerned that the Menuhin children were “linguistically rootless” and spent time reading Shakespeare with them.
It will be illuminating to delve into some of the myths surrounding Jewish prodigies and the violin before taking a look at the lives that the three most prominent Jewish violinists of the twentieth century led in California and their response to being Jewish in a non-Jewish society.
The Jews “Own” the Violin
It is hardly surprising that the appearance of one Jewish child-wizard after another should make the public think that this talent was inherent to the Jewish people, inborn or genetically determined. Dozens of hapless Jewish youths had their childhood ruined by ambitious parents who assumed that this was true, in spite of obvious evidence to the contrary.
After Yehudi Menuhin first played in public at the age of theoretically five but actually six, every second-hand violin in San Francisco was sold within a two week period. Six months later they were all back in the pawnbrokers’ shops. Isaac Stern was still little more than an infant and not affected by this craze.
The distribution of exceptional musical talent has been studied in various ways, and the premise turns out to be a fallacy. Early skill and facility with the violin are not restricted to Jews, nor are Jews automatically better than any other ethnic group.
In San Francisco itself, Ruggiero Ricci followed very closely on Menuhin’s heels. Son of a poor Italian immigrant, Ricci was born in 1918. He has had a most distinguished career, beginning in 1928, aged ten.
What explains the tenacity of this myth? The Jews themselves like to believe it and non-Jews obediently follow suit. The romantic view is that it is a manifestation of centuries of learning and the mystical spirit which has sparked Hasidic life since its earliest days.
Lionel Menuhin Rolfe, one of Yehudi’s nephews, has written a memoir of his family in which he suggests this as a source of the genius. He satisfied himself that the Menuhins were descended from generations of great Hasidic rabbis, many of who showed precocious skill with their studies. Hasidim used music and dancing to express their love of God.
My personal impression is that the myth has a lot to do with shrewd marketing and the onerous oppression suffered by so many Jews in the twentieth century. A gifted child was a golden ticket out of misery. A family had to survive as best it could. With emancipation and prosperity, the need to extract every ounce of value from a child’s talent ceases to exist.
The corollary of such prosperity is that the incentives for a Jewish child to devote months and years to an uncomfortable and isolating activity for remote future gratification are enormously reduced. A child can be a child, pure and simple, not a miniature adult. Wonderful material goods are showered on him with little or no effort on his part, simply because his parents or relatives can afford them. Jascha Heifetz would have been a ferocious competitor at computer games.
Precarious economic circumstances still lead to the exploitation of children but the specifics have changed. Advertising is one way. It is essentially passive. The child only has to stay still briefly and is not expected to do anything difficult. The parents of infants, toddlers and very young children receive handsome fees for photographs promoting clothes or toys.
Sport is the other time-honoured way for escaping poverty. Richard Williams is said to have asked his wife to conceive an additional child so they could rear a tennis champion, Venus. Even if this is an apocryphal story, it is a commentary on modern life.
At one time it was axiomatic that a child would succeed commercially if he entered the adult world of high culture. The ability to perform the works of the great composers was recognized as a good thing. Astute Jewish parents read these signals very clearly. Youth culture and popular culture had not yet driven fine music off the compass.
This assumption is no longer true. Classical music is fading and the audience is not renewing itself too well. Grey hair prevails at most concerts. A very wise and experienced music teacher in the public schools told me that many children want to play instruments very well, and are willing to work very hard but none of them has the faintest interest in going to a concert. If the audience collapses for whom will they play?
The old musical public supported the succeeding generation of great Jewish violinists, such as Yitzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zuckerman and even the one after that, Gil Shaham for example.
It has similarly nurtured the many non- Jewish, frequently Asian, violinists who are their contemporaries. In fact the pendulum has swung toward Asia and young girls and away from Jewish males. Midori and Sarah Chang typify today’s violin prodigy. The singleminded pursuit of music as a career for their children is now much more in the hands of Asian parents. Their family structure still has the firmness needed to shut out all distractions and expect the child to cooperate without question. Sarah Chang has commented on her experience growing up like this.
The public feeds on the sensational and a small child’s mastery of a fiendishly difficult instrument still commands attention. It is not clear what will happen in the future. Once the prodigies grow up it gets much harder than it was in earlier epochs. They often have to package themselves as variants of pop artists when they mature.
Nigel Kennedy, one of the original pupils at the Menuhin School of Music in Surrey, England, now wishes to be known simply as “Kennedy” and frequently plays jazz on his violin. Beautiful young women violinists wear provocative clothing, drawing attention to their sexuality in order to ensure an audience for Beethoven or Bach. At a recent concert by a well known quartet of youngish women players, the artists were dressed in scarlet “teddies’. There are exceptions to this but some see it as necessary to survive in a hostile environment. Who is to say they are wrong?
If a person is destined to have a unique career as a soloist, it seems fairly obvious that the talent has to emerge very early. Childhood is the perfect time to lay down complex physical skills. There have been very few great performers who first took up music in their teens. Claudio Arrau is one of the few who comes to mind. He started piano lessons comparatively late.
The thrust of these comments lies in the treatment of gifted children by the parents and outside world, the degree to which they are exploited. Playing the violin is not an inborn skill. It has to be learned and reinforced by very long hours of practice. The instrument is unwieldy and awkward; creating the tones is hard because there are no signposts, and bowing is an unnatural movement. The born prodigy is distinguished from the ordinary child because producing the music gives him a pleasure and gratification no other activity matches. This makes up for all the drudgery.
Is There a Physical Basis for Musical Gifts?
It is possible that an aptitude for music has an anatomical basis in the brain. Time and again, an exceptional child has appeared who demonstrated precocious ability with the Western diatonic system. I have not looked into the equivalent history in Eastern music or other non-western systems. Children in Asia who have come to attention in recent years all absorbed Western music.
The evidence for this assertion is indirect and circumstantial. The most obvious anatomical and physiological prerequisite is coordination. Its substrate is inborn but it can be developed and perfected by proper training. There are no reliable signs in the shape of the hand or other physical attribute. David Oistrakh had huge workmen’s hands, other men had smaller hands. The key is in the invisible connections between the peripheral neuro-muscular system and the central nervous system.
Perfect, or absolute, pitch is the ability to name and/or sing the notes of the diatonic scale in the absence of any clues, and without instruction. This cannot be learned. There are presumably cerebral connections between the inner ear and the aural cortex which are quite unknown. By itself this gift is not a harbinger of other musical skills, though many great musicians had it, e.g. Sibelius and Menuhin.
The gifted child can correctly reproduce music heard previously, either vocally or on an instrument. Mozart was renowned for this skill. The first important American woman composer, Amy Beach, manifested similar talents at the age of two. Again, this facility also does not promise that the child will automatically be a great musician, but it is suggestive.
Such children constantly demand new musical and technical challenges out of proportion to their chronological age, overtaking even quite gifted peers who are making normal progress. The cellist Jacqueline DuPré is an example who comes to mind. Her elder sister Hilary was a very talented young flautist but once the eight year old Jacqueline got going, Hilary was relegated to the sidelines. Menuhin insisted on learning the Beethoven violin concerto long before his teacher thought he was ready.
Mental readiness seems to be translated into physical execution in ways that are not immediately apparent. Here is another sub-myth. A few tips from the teacher are said to be all that is required for the child to synthesise the performance. Prominent teachers of these children have all said that they concentrate on the interpretation and the music’s meaning rather than technique.
If it all sounds too good to be true, then it probably is too good to be true. These stories have an apocryphal ring, post hoc ergo propter hoc. Hour upon hour of dull and boring repetition of scales, arpeggios and études have been conveniently forgotten in the flush of success.
When this essential preparation is missing, the foundation is very shaky. Heifetz taught a few gifted violinists in his master classes at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. They were all the best and the brightest in their communities, brilliant, with Tartini’s Devil’s Trill and the Tchaikovsky concerto at their command but he could reduce them to jelly by asking them to play a few scales.
Isaac Stern regretted that he had not been required to learn all the intricacies of scales. One of his teachers was Louis Persinger, the concertmaster of the San Francicso Symphony. Stern felt he was too soft, a charming, good natured man with a profound sense of the music but not a disciplinarian.
Menuhin too had to go back to basics after playing in public for seven or eight years. Enesco conveyed deep musicality but he paid almost no attention to mechanics. Yehudi was taken to Adolph Busch in Switzerland for two summers in a row. Busch stood for no nonsense. You played your scales or else. It was dull and dry but it was essential.
No one is as important as the first teacher. The basic skills, whether imparted skilfully or clumsily, set the stage for all that follows. Reuven Heifetz taught little Jascha. The Menuhins wanted Louis Persinger to teach their child at four, but had to turn to a man widely considered to be a hack, Sigmund Anker, when Persinger obstinately refused. Anker was maligned as incompetent and ineffectual, but he made a very dignified rebuttal.
A year or two after Yehudi became a local sensation, Anker was criticized roundly. He pointed out that if he had been as terrible a teacher as the critics claimed, the child would not have played the way he did.
Isaac Stern wrote that he asked for violin lessons because his best friend at the time was learning to play the violin. It was his way of keeping up the friendship, of being companionable. The two boys had the same teacher for a time. He does not mention the “Menuhin effect” as the reason the friend was started on this path. It was not a conscious factor in Stern’s own memories.
Significantly, Stern did remember the point at which all the teaching coalesced. He realized he was making beautiful sounds and that if he moved his bow in a slightly different way, there was a new effect. He was now in control of the process and all its possibilities were open to him. From that time on no one ever had to tell him to practice again.
When Lynn Harrell, the internationally renowned cellist, and now well into his middle years, plays in San Francisco, he proudly tells the audience that his first teacher is there, listening. That is how important the first teacher can be.
It is quite clear even from this brief analysis that none of these qualities is restricted to the Jews but one additional point has to be made: all the Jewish children in this category were boys.
Jewish Girls and Music
Very few girls, Jewish or non-Jewish, played the violin, and certainly not in public. This was in keeping with social mores at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Girls played the piano and occasionally the harp. Paula Gillett has chronicled this period and its attitudes with great skill.
Sometimes the girls played the piano very well indeed, but bourgeois Jewish families resembled mainstream bourgeois families in abhorring careers for their daughters. Marutha Menuhin prided herself on her radical and modern approach to life but this did not apply to her daughters Hephzibah and Yaltah. She was no more radical or modernistic than Frau Abraham Mendelssohn had been with Fanny.
Clara Wieck Schumann was a lone exception. Her father recognized her great talent and trained her to become a concert pianist. He had no time for the impecunious Robert Schumann and resented his taking his daughter away. Clara was lucky that she had this career. Robert Schumann died very young at the age of 46 and left her with eight children to support. (The Schumann’s youngest child lived until 1936, well into the modern era).
Marutha Menuhin allowed Hephzibah and later Yaltah to play in public very grudgingly accompanying their brother. The juvenile violin and piano duo of brother and sister was of course an immense hit. Not since Mozart and his sister Nannerl had played for royalty had there been such a sensation.
Mrs Menuhin did want the girls to have the best teachers, in keeping with her philosophy of excellence. When they were in Paris Hephzibah took lessons with Marcel Ciampi, Georges Enesco’s accompanist. She was seven. Ciampi was reluctant at best and wanted nothing to do with the five year old Yaltah. Once he let her play for him he was overwhelmed and remarked, “Mais le ventre de Madame Menuhin est un véritable conservatoire.” [“Mrs Menuhin’s womb is a veritable conservatory”]
Heifetz was envious of the music his sister played on the piano. The violin has a limited range of expression. It usually plays only one note at a time and does not have the same rich harmony of the piano. This is a window into his soul. His sister Pauline was a lesser mortal but she could do something musically he could not do.
Virtuosi, Not Composers
I have not said it specifically but have implied that the same gifts are present in musical children who become either virtuosi or composers. This is only true at the outset. The two métiers diverge later in life.
The three men in my series were all virtuosi. None of them claimed to be a composer though Heifetz wrote some relatively minor works and was very adept at transcribing other composers’ music for the violin.
The creative genius of the Jews has been manifested in numerous ways but apart from the well-known exceptions of Mendelssohn, Mahler, Castelnuevo-Tedesco, Ernest Bloch and Darius Milhaud, classical composition is not one of them. This subject has been sadly contentious for more than a hundred years and I do not intend to cover it again.
Jewish Attitudes to Musical Skill
There is considerable irony in the fact that orthodox Jews have traditionally had a very low opinion of musicians. Deeply religious scholars considered playing music to be profane as long as the Jewish people were still in exile. No one should enjoy themselves in such a frivolous manner.
In the elite families of rabbis and wealthy merchants, playing an instrument was beneath contempt, not a fit profession for their sons. Gypsies were musicians, not well brought up Jewish boys. Fiddlers and other musicians were fine for weddings and simchas. No one took them seriously.
The names Fiedler, Geiger and Musikant confirmed the occupations of popular musicians.
One Unexpected Result of Great Individual Success
Jascha Heifetz was loved or he was hated but his playing led to a seismic change in standards. After he established himself as the leading violin virtuoso in the world, not only did some other fine musicians’ careers collapse but suddenly anyone who wished to be taken seriously in the violin world had to improve to his level. He displayed a technical polish outside anyone’s experience, coupled with an uncanny penetration to the depths of the music not heard before.
There is a story about Mischa Elman and the pianist Leopold Godowsky at Heifetz’s first concert in Carnegie Hall. Elman is reported to have said, “Don’t you find it a little warm in this hall,” and Godowsky is supposed to have replied, “Not if you are a pianist.”
Very few speak about Mischa Elman or Efrem Zimbalist today, except as historical figures. (Note the name “Zimbalist.” One of his ancestors had played the cymbals in a band.) One has to go all the way back to Paganini to find an equivalent source of excitement and legend to Heifetz.
The need to sharpen one’s skills came as a shock, as much for the ordinary orchestral player as for the aspiring soloist. If Heifetz can do it, why can’t you? The threshold was raised. Conductors improved their orchestras by demanding that the string players all tighten their techniques by several notches. Just being good enough was not good enough any more.
Curiously, similar changes took place in ballet at about the same time. When Olga Preobrajenska found the secret to doing thirty two fouetés without collapsing from dizziness, suddenly everyone had to be able to do it.
The new generation of fledgling violinists started from this level, not having known anything else. Violin teachers improved, sending out better prepared graduates to compete ever more fiercely with other musicians who had also been trained in the same manner. It became harder and harder to succeed.
The odd thing was that Leopold Auer, the revered kingmaker among violin teachers, did not change his methods when teaching Heifetz. Whatever was happening was inside the pupil before Auer began teaching him. Auer had shaped Elman and Zimbalist. This was why Reuven Heifetz insisted that Auer teach Jascha despite all the obstacles put in his way. No one yet knew that this child was outside whatever norms there are among geniuses.
Auer himself came from a long and respected line of violin pedagogues, with at least one celebrated Jew in it, Joseph Joachim. It was Joachim who took Brahms in hand as a very young man and remained his friend and mentor for many years. He supplied the nuts and bolts of a musical career after all Robert Schumann’s excited fireworks were over. In spite of being Jewish, Joachim moved in high society. He was the permanent conductor of the blind Elector of Hanover’s private orchestra.
There were other lines of Continental violin masters beside Auer’s. Menuhin’s second teacher, Louis Persinger, had studied with the Belgian star Eugene Ysayë. His musical lineage included Ludwig Spohr, a composer and virtuoso who wrote a method of violin playing.
Persinger wanted Yehudi to study with Ysayë when the child insisted on going to Paris for further education. Out of respect for Persinger, he had an audition with Ysayë, but was not impressed by the elderly man’s decaying health and lack of energy. Yehudi preferred Georges Enesco and that was who they got.
How Does California Fit into This?
California and its Jewish community are very proud to claim these three men as their own. Both Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern were taken to California as very young children and grew up in San Francisco. Jascha Heifetz moved to Los Angeles in middle life and never left.
Yehudi Menuhin’s career owed a great deal to the generosity of San Francisco’s Jewish community. His father Moshe was in charge of Hebrew education for Temple Emanu-El. Although he was a very hardworking man he could never have afforded the teachers, valuable instruments and costs of travel inherent in creating a virtuoso violinist.
A wealthy and respected member of the synagogue, Sidney Ehrman, singlehandedly supported the entire Menuhin family until Yehudi started to earn substantial fees. With Ehrman’s money freeing him from worry, Moshe gave up teaching and dedicated the rest of his life to his son’s career. Mr Ehrman had been an amateur violinist as a young man, and so was sympathetic when the cantor, Reuben Rinder, told him about the child in their midst.
The Stern family moved to San Francisco in 1921. They travelled across Russia and sailed to San Francisco from Siberia. One of Mrs Stern’s brothers was there. Isaac showed great promise by about ten years of age. It was during the depths of the Depression and the family was painfully poor but the Jewish community came through for him too. Fortunately some families had been able to hold on to their wealth.
Cantor Reuben Rinder at Temple Emanu-El had interceded with the wealthy members of the community for Yehudi Menuhin. He had heard the two-year-old boy sing himself to sleep with a Hebrew melody perfectly in tune.
A few years later Isaac Stern appeared. The cantor first persuaded Mrs Jenny Baruch Zellerbach to sponsor Isaac, but she gave up when he seemed to be wasting his time. Isaac Stern came closer than any of the three to having a normal youth.
Rinder did not lose faith in Isaac. He turned to Lutie Goldstein. Miss Goldstein became Isaac’s fairy godmother. When he was invited to play in New York in his teens, Miss Goldstein understood that he had to excel. She paid for a wonderful violin, and of course all the cost of travel and proper clothes.
Two years after lining up Mr Ehrman, the cantor persuaded his friend Louis Persinger to teach Yehudi. A few years after that, Persinger also taught Isaac Stern.
Reuben Rinder wanted Jewish liturgical music for the synagogue, composed by Jewish composers if possible. He arranged for Ernest Bloch to move to San Francisco in 1924 to be the director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Bloch stayed for five years. The Menuhin children got to know him and found his personality annoying.
Rinders’ faith in Bloch was vindicated when the latter finally wrote Avodath Hakodesh, a Sacred Service. The manuscript has been on display at the new Jean Hargrove Library of Music at the University of California at Berkeley.
Darius Milhaud was another famous Jewish composer whom Rinder espoused. Milhaud taught at Mills College in Oakland, in 1948. This friendship was rewarded when Milhaud also composed a Sacred Service for the synagogue.
In the mid-1930s, when Jewish musicians were persecuted in Germany, Rinder saw what was needed and took action. He rescued Bronislaw Huberman, a very fine Polish violinist, and smoothed his path in a strange country. Cantor Rinder deserves a very honorable place in history. His geese were really swans.
Both former prodigies returned to San Franciso to honour the cantor in 1950. Menuhin always held Mr Ehrman in the highest esteem and looked on him as a member of his family. Cantor Rinder died in 1966, after more than fifty years of service to the congregation.
California did not play a role in Heifetz’s development. At that all took place elsewhere. He began his violin lessons in Vilna at the age of three and by seven had made his professional debut, receiving a fee. His American debut was at Carnegie Hall in 1917. During his active career Heifetz made several decisions which were significant for his later life.
Twenty years after his first appearance in New York Heifetz built a house in Beverly Hills, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son Lloyd Wright. He gradually shifted his home to California. At that time Los Angeles was very far removed from the centres of musical life. When he decided to retire in the 1970s, he moved into the Beverly Hills house for good. No doubt he had had his fill of sophisticated cities and the international music world. A cul-de-sac in Beverly Hills offered serenity and quiet, as did the beach house at Malibu.
The other amazing decision Heifetz made was to become a violin teacher. He stopped giving concerts while still at the peak of his powers, a wise decision, but his choice of pedagogy has puzzled me a good deal. The ostensible reason was that Leopold Auer had told him he should do it when he retired and had given him his own special cane, truly passing the baton.
Heifetz treasured that cane. When the silver head fell apart, he insisted on his assistant Ayke Agus finding a silversmith who could re-create the original in spite of the expense. Auer had also told him that he would be a very good teacher. Loyalty to his master persisted over forty years of giving concerts and led him to an irrevocable decision, taking him out of circulation completely.
The reason I am puzzled is that Jascha Heifetz was no master of human relations. It is widely known that he enjoyed his reputation for being “difficult,” a glee which masked loneliness and inability to connect with or trust other people who should have been his intimate allies. Eventually everyone was driven away.
Why would such a misanthropic person turn to teaching? One explanation may be that the teacher has power over the pupil, in a very uneven and one-sided relationship. Unlike teachers who recognized that they could learn from their pupils, Heifetz started with the knowledge of his unassailable superiority which nothing could shake. No matter how well a student would play, Heifetz could always do it better. Age and injuries did not affect his preternatural coordination.
Agus commented on his ability to command the bow in the most difficult manoeuvres, such as staccato in either the up-bow or down-bow directions. Staccato is a rapid bouncing movement of the bow, producing a light dancing effect. It is hard for anyone to do, and most violinists can only do it well as they move the bow “up”, ie from nut to tip. He could do it perfectly in both directions, well into his eighties.
The teaching was done under very special circumstances. The president of the University of Southern California and the director of the arts department realized that here was a unique opportunity. They had two of the world’s greatest virtuosi in their midst, Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky, the cellist. The response was to organize master classes, for specially gifted students who would go on to illustrious careers. There were only about ten or fifteen students in the class at any one time.
Heifetz received a stipend from the university, and expenses for an assistant and class accompanist. The administrative details of auditions and selection were all handled for him but he had ultimate authority over who was accepted. The assistant was indispensable. She corrected technical faults in the students’ playing, she found comfortable housing for them, she advised them how to dress and Heifetz left it to her to handle many of their other problems as well.
The history and careers of these men offer paradox after paradox to even the most superficial observer. Those who knew them closely could probably point to many others.
A very fundamental one was how they and their families reacted to being Jewish. They all grew up in households which ignored the usual Jewish rules but the outside world recognized no degrees of being Jewish. Families were forced to flee and emigrate just because they were part of the hated “race.”
Here is a clear paradox. They had suffered for being part of a persecuted minority but rejected its tenets. In spite of that, when they needed assistance on a grand scale, they found it in the Jewish community.
Moshe Menuhin worked for a Jewish organization, teaching Hebrew to several generations of children. He and his wife separated the world of work from home in a very modern fashion: no religious mumbo-jumbo in their house, no chauvinism about the Jewish people. Such social and political freedom was almost unique to the United States.
Once Yehudi’s genius was recognized, that Jewish world came to their rescue, providing capital for the new business of Yehudi Menuhin Inc. Moshe had always worked in education but once he took over Yehudi’s stage career he demonstrated demon skill in public relations and a business acumen worthy of Sol Hurok. Nothing of the kind could have been anticipated from his previous history. His forebears were scholars. He had not seen his family conduct business in Russia or in Palestine where he spent his teen years.
Moshe started by never quite specifying how old the child was. I doubt he lied intentionally but when the press thought the little boy was only five and not the six he actually was, Moshe made no strenuous efforts to correct their impression. The subtraction of this year persisted throughout Yehudi’s childhood and adolescence.
Mrs Menuhin contributed her share to this image. At first dressing him in short trousers and a white silk blouse was quite appropriate. When he reached his early teens and grew quite husky, it was no longer appropriate but she insisted on continuing to do it. They wanted the public to believe that their son was younger than he really was.
The ten commandments do not actually contain a prohibition against lying. The closest they come is a prohibition against bearing false witness. One commandment which was observed to the fullest in all these families was “Honour thy father and thy mother that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God has given thee.” Anyone who came into contact with the Menuhin children and with the young Jascha Heifetz noticed their dutiful obedience and acquiescence in all the strictures laid on them.
Menuhin himself never even crossed the street alone until he was 18. He wore the outmoded clothes without complaint. Aba told him to jump and he would ask “how high.”
Heifetz’ parents never praised him, always leaving him feeling very insecure. It was their way of preventing him from becoming complacent and above himself. His father accompanied him on all his engagements and tore every performance to shreds in the dressing room afterwards. Other people who heard this were amazed that Heifetz never turned on his father but always submitted to the scoldings patiently. This was long after it was clear that there was no one in the world who could match his musical skills. It was also long after the boy became the sole breadwinner for the family.
The stories abound. He told his assistant Ayke Agus proudly that he had been supporting his family since he was seven years old. In spite of the iron discipline Reuven maintained, Jascha threw his weight around and got much of what he wanted by tantrums and bad behaviour. Since he had become indispensible to the family budget they often yielded to him out of desperation. If he threatened not to show up at a concert, that could mean thousands of dollars down the drain and the loss of future engagements. He got whatever it was he wanted.
Eventually Heifetz rebelled, but even in rebellion, he was punctilious. Because of the heavy handed rule of his parents he had to resort to subterfuge, but precisely on his 21st birthday, the official date of adulthood, he informed them he was moving out into his own apartment and they would not have the key.
Isaac Stern seems to have navigated his teenage period fairly well. He practiced a great deal, but also had friends. They could go and buy an ice cream soda or a milk shake without the house falling down around his ears. Adolescence as we know it had not been invented yet. The father was king. Children were possessions just as their mothers were chattels. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s father ran his son’s life down to the smallest detail.
Beethoven’s father also did but the result was more of a nightmarish caricature. Six year old Ludwig would be dragged out of bed in the middle of the night to play to Papa Beethoven’s boon companions, all more or less drunk. Because Beethoven was such a great composer it is often forgotten that he too was a remarkable prodigy on the piano.
To show that such control was not confined to the Jews or musical prodigies, a contemporary of our three violinists was the great French tennis champion Suzanne Lenglen. She could not sneeze without her father’s permission.
Another source of paradox was in the marriages they contracted. The Menuhin family believed so strongly in ecumenism that when Yehudi showed interest in a nice Jewish girl from an observant home, his mother was alarmed. This was not for her son. He married non- Jewish women both times. His second marriage to Diana Gould lasted more than fifty years until his death.
The other strange feature of all the Menuhin children’s initial marriages was the speed with which they took place and the lack of any consideration of whether their selections were appropriate. As long as they did not marry the type of “safe” young woman mentioned above, the parents seem positively to urge them on in their impulsive choices.
Mrs Menuhin was impressed by her prospective daughter-in-law Nola’s beauty and vigour, and also by the fact that she came from a wealthy family. Such a young woman could not be a gold digger.
Moshe organized his son’s concert career with extreme care, down to the smallest detail, yet in these matters all his caution and prudence were neutralized by the mother’s driving enthusiasm. This too is very hard to understand. Hephzibah married the brother of Yehudi’s bride, Lindsay Nicholas, and not to be outdone, Yaltah, only sixteen at that time, also got married. What can the parents have been thinking?
Looking at it from the girls’ point of view, one hears escape loud and clear. Nola and Lindsay were the children of a very rich Australian chemist who had invented a wartime substitute for aspirin, “Aspro.” Here was the complete antithesis to their usual lives. Hephzibah moved to Australia and lived on her husband’s sheep ranch for some time. She subsequently divorced Lindsay and married Richard Hauser. She intermittently came out of retirement and gave concerts with her brother. Hephzibah died in 1981. At the first concert that Menuhin gave in New York a year after her death, the look of anguish and loss on his face was harrowing.
Yaltah’s first marriage only lasted for a few months. She ultimately married three times. The third time she found the right man for her. Yaltah died in 2001.
Heifetz married twice. Florence Arto Vidor was a beautiful young actress in Hollywood when he married her in 1928. They divorced in 1945. Their children were Josepha and Robert. In 1946, he married Frances Sears Speigelberg, a very different type of woman, but this marriage too came to an end after seventeen years. Joseph (Jay) was their only child.
Stern married three times. The first time was in 1948, to Nora Kaye, a ballet dancer in New York. They divorced quite amicably in 1950. She was a Jewish woman. In 1951 he married Vera Lindenblit. They had met in Israel, and remained married for many years. After he and Vera were divorced he married Linda Roberts in 1996.
And Meanwhile, What of the Music?
So far I have focused on all the externals, the restricted childhood, the controlling parents and the sordid business of money but have not really touched on the central theme, the inner force which drove such young children to accept their warped existences, the music itself.
When six-year-old Yehudi Menuhin first played for Louis Persinger, the master stopped him in the middle of the piece because it was so obvious that the child was already a marvellous musician. Instead of Yehudi being relieved that he did not have to continue, Persinger observed that the boy was furious. He not only wanted to play to the end, he was driven to play to the end, to express the meaning of that particular piece.
Georges Enesco taught Yehudi at his home in Paris and also at his summer estate in Romania. Moshe and his son travelled back and forth at the master’s behest. One day in the country, with a violent summer storm howling around the house, Enesco asked the boy to play Bach’s Chaconne for unaccompanied violin. This is a great test of a violinist, full of immense technical and musical difficulties.
Yehudi played the Chaconne. Enesco made no comment but asked him to play it again. Later he said he could not believe what he was hearing. Yehudi played the piece again and once again Enesco said nothing. He asked him to play it a third time. Yehudi produced another flawless performance, deeply moving and overwhelming to Enesco. He told this story to Robert Magidoff, one of Menhuin’s biographers.
Enesco later summed up the young Menuhin very presciently. He compared him to a gentle vineyard, quiet on the surface, thriving in the warm sun but sited on the slopes of Vesuivius. The seemingly placid and obedient child was only part of the equation. The source of the artistry was the “volcano” underneath.
Enesco turned to the metaphor of the volcano. Lionel Rolfe and Jacqueline Dupré’s biographers have used other metaphors to describe what can happen to relatives of such children. Anyone who gets in their way, even inadvertently, is either blown off course by the “hurricane” or singed badly by the “forest fire” . The force field they generate is outside their conscious control but is overwhelming and dangerous regardless.
At some point an artist reaches the point at which he questions the meaning of what he is doing. Repetition is the hidden rock on which performers founder. How many times can one play Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto? That point came relatively early for Menuhin. Heifetz seems never to have reached it. Agus said that Heifetz always found something new in even the most hackneyed “warhorses”, keeping her constantly on her toes. Stern turned to chamber music, pacing himself with a different genre.
Heifetz also enjoyed chamber music. If your cronies are Piatigorsky and Alfred Cortot or Artur Rubinstein, chamber music can be played at the same level of perfection as a solo performance, though Heifetz was not too good at the necessary give and take required. He would disagree with the tempo preferred by the others and sometimes the mood was tense and stormy. Ayke Agus says that in the end he gave way and accepted the will of the majority, to preserve the music.
In contrast the incomparable cellist Yoyo Ma often plays music far beneath his level just to relieve his boredom. Other remarkable soloists have turned themselves into conductors, among them Mstislav Rostropovich, Daniel Barenboim, Pinchas Zuckerman and Vladimir Ashkenazy.
In fact these musicians have made it seem that there is something old-fashioned and timid about continuing to play the audience’s favourite pieces in one concert hall after another. Menuhin said as much about Leonid Kogan, referring pointedly to “artists who travel from one city to another with their little violin case tucked under their arms year after year.”
If he had thought about it little more he would have sympathised with Kogan’s plight, a Jew living in the USSR, totally dependent on on the goodwill of the Communist government for his survival. He did not have the luxury of changing course or of travelling abroad when he wished. Not being as courageous as Rostropovich does not mean that the man was less of a mensch.
Malicious critics laced into Yehudi Menuhin as he changed from child to adolescent to adult. They said he had become self-conscious and that his performances fell off as a result. Listening to his recordings fails to reveal any loss of skill until many years later when he began to burn out and also to lose his hearing.
If one is to sum up and pass judgment, it seems that Heifetz was the consummate musician as well as consummate performer until the end of his very long life, remaining steadfast to his first principles long after the others got tired. This may come as a surprise to those who only think of him as a flashy publicity-hungry virtuoso. From seven almost to eighty seven is a very long time. Which of us can claim as much?
This article published in Western States Jewish History 38 62 -86 2005
If there seems to be a greater emphasis on Yehudi Menuhin than the other two men in these pages, it is an artefact of the better sources available. He wrote an autobiography in two volumes. There are also several biographies, by Robert Magidoff, (Yehudi Menuhin) Lionel Rolfe (The Menuhins: a family odyssey) and Humphrey Burton, (Yehudi Menuhin) as well as considerable material in magazines and journals.
Heifetz refused to let anyone write about him and would not talk about his personal life or much about his early years.There is one biography (unauthorized) by Artur Weschler-Vered, Jascha Heifetz, and a compilation of “Heifetziana” by a fan who was obsessed by Heifetz, Dr Herbert Axelrod. This book, Heifetz: An Unauthorized Pictorial Biography of the Professional Life of the Greatest Violinist That Ever Lived, ran to three editions.
A truly illuminating memoir is that of Ayke Agus, Heifetz as I Knew Him, but she intentionally closed off certain aspects of his life from her review. She did not decide to write the book until many years after his death.
Leopold Auer left a small treatise, Violin Playing As I Teach It, in which there are transient references to Heifetz’ early career.
We are indebted to Isaac Stern for the charming autobiography which he constructed with Chaim Potok, My First Seventy Nine Years. There are also articles about him, scattered through various publications.
Paula Gillet, Musical Women in England, 1870 – 1914 New York, St. Martin’s Press, 2000.