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Jascha Heifetz, 86, Hailed as Greatest Violinist, Dies

December 12, 1987|LOIS TIMNICK | 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."

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