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Jascha Heifetz: Early Years in Russia

Jascha Heifetz: Early Years in Russia


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Notoriously reticent about his early years, violinist Jascha Heifetz famously reduced the story of his childhood to "Born in Russia. First lessons at 3. Debut in Russia at 7. Debut in Carnegie Hall at 17. That's all there is to say." Tracing his little-known upbringing, Jascha Heifetz: Early Years in Russia uncovers the events and experiences that shaped one of the modern era's most unique talents and enigmatic personalities. Using previously unstudied archival materials and interviews with family and friends, this biography explores Heifetz's meteoric rise in the Russian music world—from his first violin lessons with his father, to his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with the well-known pedagogue Leopold Auer, to his tours throughout Russia and Europe. Spotlighting Auer's close-knit circle of musicians, Galina Kopytova underscores the lives of artists in Russia's "Silver Age"—an explosion of artistic activity amid the rapid social and political changes of the early 20th century.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253010766
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 11/13/2013
Series: Russian Music Studies
Pages: 464
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Galina Kopytova is a scholar and archivist specializing in the history of Russian musical culture. She heads the Office of Manuscripts of the Russian Institute for the History of the Arts in Saint Petersburg and is author of The Society for Jewish Folk Music in St. Petersburg-Petrograd (in Russian) and coauthor of From the History of Jewish Music in Russia (in Russian).

Translator Alexandra Sarlo has studied and conducted research in Russia, Slovakia, Serbia, and Ukraine.

Translator Dario Sarlo worked as a researcher on the documentary Jascha Heifetz: God's Fiddler by Peter Rosen Productions. He is a musicologist, violinist, and writer for The Strad.

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Jascha Heifetz

Early Years in Russia

By Galina Kopytova, Dario Sarlo, Alexandra Sarlo

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2014 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01076-6


Early Roots of the Heifetz Family

THE HEIFETZ FAMILY TREE includes over one hundred people across five generations and family members who now reside in the United States, Australia, Israel, Latvia, and Russia. The oldest Heifetz name preserved in family memory is that of Ilya (or Elye), Jascha's paternal grandfather, who was born around 1830. Two photographs of Ilya survive in the personal records of his descendants; one is an individual portrait, and the other a group photograph featuring Ilya, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. With one photograph now located in Russia and the other in the United States, these two unique, symbolic documents unite the Heifetz clan across the world.

According to family legend, Ilya Heifetz worked as a teacher (melamed) in a Jewish boys' school (cheder) and lived with his large family in Polotsk, a provincial city in the western Russian province (guberniya) of Vitebsk, which is now part of Belarus. The surviving family group photograph dates from the late 1890s, when Ilya was well over sixty and his wife, Feyga, was no longer alive. An earlier photograph from the 1870s shows Jascha's father, Ruvin, as a child, with his mother and grandmother, and is stamped, "Novo-Alexandria (Poulavy)." Novo-Alexandria was the name of a settlement in the Lublin province located on the bank of the Vistula (Wisla) River, seventy-five miles from Warsaw. Formerly known as Pulawy, the city was renamed Novo-Alexandria in 1846 after a visit by Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, wife of Tsar Nicholas I. It functioned as an important trade center between Russia, Austria, and the Baltic region, and reverted to its former name, Pulawy, in 1918. By the end of the nineteenth century, Novo-Alexandria had experienced a large influx of Jewish settlers; about 2,500 of its 3,500 residents were Jewish.

Ruvin Heifetz was born on March 22 (NS April 3), 1872, in either Novo-Alexandria or Polotsk. His parents, Ilya and Feyga Heifetz, raised five additional children: a daughter, Mary (Malka-Chaya), and four sons, Morduch-Dov, Aron, Samuil (Shmuyla), and Natan (Nison). At least two of Ruvin's brothers—Samuil and Natan—were born in Polotsk, one older and one younger, suggesting Ruvin was also born there. Ilya's six children were registered as belonging to the Polotsk meshchanstvo—the name for the lower middle, urban classes in Russia (a member of this class was called a meshchanin, female meshchanka, or plural meshchane).

According to the recollections of descendants living in Riga, Ruvin's oldest brother, Morduch-Dov, worked as a teacher and lived in Polotsk with his children and wife, Tsirele. His mail correspondence until the 1910s bore the address, "Polotsk. Morduch Heifetz, beyond the Dvina." During one of his visits to Polotsk with his parents, five-year-old Jascha played his tiny violin at the wedding of Morduch's daughter Feyga.

Ilya's second son Aron Heifetz (1863–1926) also lived and taught in the Polotsk region; one of the earliest surviving Heifetz family documents relates his birth:

Certificate no. 483. It is hereby certified by the Polotsk Community Rabbi that to the Polotsk meshchane, lawful spouses Elye Itskov and Feyga Heifetz, in the month of September 1863 in the city of Polotsk, was born a son, who is given the name Aron.

According to Aron Heifetz's employment documents, he completed six years of secondary study in Daugavpils (then Dvinsk), about ninety miles from Polotsk. He taught at a Jewish school in the village of Kreuzberg before returning to Polotsk in 1904, where during the Soviet years he became the director of School number 6. Aron and his wife, Malka or Maria (1875–1948), had five daughters and one son.

Samuil was the only son of Ilya Heifetz not connected with the teaching profession. A certificate from the Imperial Warsaw University held in family papers declares: "Shmuila Elyevich Heifetz is by the medical department of this university found worthy by examination of the title of dentist and confirmed in this title 19 November 1904."

The youngest son, Nison Heifetz (1883–1950), more frequently called Natan or sometimes Naum, pursued musical studies at the Warsaw Institute of Music from 1896 to 1903. He later taught at schools in Warsaw and Yekaterinoslav (now Dnipropetrovsk), and after 1920 worked in Moscow at the Jewish Chamber Theater, the University of the Peoples of the West, and the Gnesin School of Music. He married his niece Fanny (1894–1977), the daughter of his brother Aron. During the Soviet years Fanny became a historian, defended her doctoral dissertation, wrote books on the history ofthe French workers' movement, and worked with historian and academic Yevgeny Tarle. In 1945, Fanny became a victim of political repression under the Soviets. Natan and Fanny figured prominently in Jascha's childhood.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the city of Polotsk, where Ilya Heifetz and his family lived, was a district center with a population of twenty thousand, 62 percent of which were Jews. The thousand-year history of the city witnessed several tragic episodes, including the Livonian war in the second half of the sixteenth century and Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia. For the Jewish population, the most traumatic event occurred in 1563, when Ivan the Terrible ordered the drowning of the entire Polotsk Jewish population in the Daugava (Dvina) River. Locals commemorated the day ofthe tragedy each year with a procession to a hill on the riverbank, the supposed burial place of the drowned victims.

Few Jews lived in Russia proper during the second half of the eighteenth century, but with the partitioning of Poland toward the end of the century, Russia acquired Belarusian, Lithuanian, and Polish territories, each with a long history of Jewish settlement. Almost immediately Russian authorities classed the Jews as a foreign element and subjected them to restrictive laws. As the more democratic western countries began to remove such limitations, however, Russia hardened its relationship to the Jews throughout the nineteenth century, a development strongly supported by the state's official ideology declared under Tsar Nicholas I, referred to as "Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality." Russian Jews faced increasing restrictions, but conversion to Christianity could free them from such laws as those forbidding them from living in or acquiring property in rural areas and closing off certain trades and crafts from them. Furthermore, a series of laws sought to remove Jews from a thirty-mile belt stretching through the western provinces. In essence, state policies strove feverishly to reduce the number of Jews in Russia, either by assimilating them or by encouraging them to settle beyond the borders of the empire, after which any return became impossible.

Laws permitting Jewish settlement only in Russia's western regions, called the Pale of Settlement, led to the relative isolation of more than five million people. The Pale encompassed Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland, as well as portions ofwestern Russia proper. Furthermore, the structure of traditional Jewish life itself encouraged the separation of Jews from the rest of the population; Jewish upbringing, family relationships, and education all bore a religious character, creating a strong internal bond within the Jewish communities.

Given the traditional organization of Jewish society in the nineteenth century, Ilya Heifetz most likely worked as a teacher and taught in a Jewish boys' school with instruction in reading, writing, basic arithmetic, and prayers. For most of the nineteenth century, such boys' schools and the Talmud Torah (a boys' school for the poor) were the only available sources of religious education, giving even the poorest Jews a chance to study and learn about their heritage. The idea of a Jewish boys' school has traditionally evoked images of a crowded, cold, dimly lit space, where boys of varying ages studied up to twelve hours a day. Instruction was in Yiddish, textbooks and other study aids were a rarity, and teaching methods usually focused on rote learning. Most teachers tended to be elderly men from a variety of backgrounds, including former merchants, craftsmen, brokers, haulers, and synagogue servants. Generally, a teacher's own education was limited to the same type of school, and most lived meager lives with few luxuries.

From the 1840s onward, Russian authorities battled to raise the teaching standards in these schools. They began by instituting compulsory teaching exams for instructors and introduced requirements for those graduating from rabbinical schools; both approaches failed and were subsequently canceled. In the 1890s, following an unsuccessful fifty-year struggle, the authorities declared that anyone wishing to teach Jewish children religion and the Hebrew language would require a certificate from the director of a Jewish school. A certificate lasted for one year and cost three rubles; since no professional exam was required, the certificate functioned as little more than a confirmation of trustworthiness. Teachers received very small salaries, and although some began teaching out of necessity alone, others were truly dedicated to imparting knowledge and wisdom to the younger generation.

Teaching is not the only profession attributed to Ilya Heifetz. After some of Jascha's earliest concerts, the Jewish press showed a heightened interest in the boy's background, reporting that his grandfathers "were Jews who led prayers and sang Sabbath hymns [at home] and in general were fond of singing." Another newspaper added that "his grandfathers were cantors and singers." More information about Ilya appears on a document dated 1943 that belonged to his son Natan, which reads: "Father: worker (tailor), mother: homemaker." During the Soviet years, few would admit on a work-related document to having a father who did religious work. Natan's document comes from the employment records at the Gnesin School of Music, and it is possible that he listed his father as a tailor to hide the fact that Ilya was a teacher or cantor. Natan's intention was not, most likely, to distort the truth but simply to omit it. Fulfilling duties as a cantor and teacher did not necessarily prevent a Jewish meshchanin from working as a tailor, and so it is also possible that Ilya worked as a tailor as well as a teacher and cantor.

Judging by the photograph of Ilya Heifetz from the early 1890s when he was about sixty, he was a solidly built man with a round face and high forehead. By the time of the family group photograph in 1898, he looked significantly older, but his appearance is deceiving, since during this same period he remarried, and in 1902 his new wife gave birth to their daughter, Feyga-Vikhne, from whom originated the Leningrad branch of the Heifetz family. The name of Ilya's second wife is not recorded, but it is known that she died from injuries sustained during the Russian Civil War (1917–1922). Since Ilya had already died by then, sixteen-year-old Feyga was taken in by Aron's family, and she lived with them in Polotsk and then in Moscow, where all of Aron's six children eventually moved to pursue higher education.

Ruvin left home at the age of twenty-six, in 1898, the same year his father Ilya remarried. He was of average height, slender, and like all his brothers, he began balding early. He cultivated a mustache curled at the ends, and his right cheek carried a faint but noticeable birthmark. In Russia, and in the Russian language, Ruvin's name traditionally appears as the variant "Ruvim," which is the spelling used in the canonical translation of the Old Testament. As a result, Russian publications often refer to Jascha Heifetz with the patronymic "Ruvimovich," but his father called himself Ruvin throughout his life, and the name Ruvin (not Rubin or Reuven) appears in the majority of official documents associated with him, both in Russia and the United States.

The extent of Ruvin's early education is unknown, but he was reasonably educated. The family spoke Yiddish (by the end of the nineteenth century, 95 percent of Jews in the region considered it their native language), and it was in Yiddish that Ruvin wrote lengthy and animated letters to his family. Although Ruvin's letters in Russian contain no major spelling errors, they are full of stylistic and grammatical errors. For example, after Ruvin moved to the United States, he continued to communicate with his brother Natan in Yiddish, but after Natan's death in 1950, Ruvin wrote a letter in Russian (dated December 8) to the children of his deceased brother, since they did not know Yiddish. The letter is full of mistakes and shows how profoundly his Russian had deteriorated.

Ruvin received no higher or conservatory education. Having become a proficient violinist early on, he began working in the small local orchestras which were plentiful in Polotsk and throughout the Pale. According to Lev Raaben, the author of the first Russian study on Jascha Heifetz, all those acquainted with Ruvin claimed that he had great musical talent, and that "only hopeless poverty in his youth, and the absolute impossibility of receiving a musical education interfered with the development of his talent." Life was difficult for Ilya Heifetz's large family surviving on his teacher's wage, but the term "hopeless poverty" seems too extreme; many people lived in far worse circumstances. Ruvin knocked on doors in search of work; he performed in klezmer orchestras at weddings along with his brother Natan, who had received a conservatory education and played the violin. Natan explained in his personal memoirs that the first steps in his own musical development began at home: "From five years old, my mother, who had excellent musical talent and a wonderful voice, began to teach me piano." It seems the family owned a piano, further contradicting the image of "hopeless poverty," and it is probable that like Natan, Ruvin also received his earliest musical training at home.

The development of Jewish folk instrumental music, known as klezmer, spans several centuries. Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, klezmer musicians worked in closed, mens' groups, passing skills from father to son. Gradually, as the demand for folk orchestras increased, youths from outside the tradition joined the groups, and according to scholar of Jewish musical folklore Moisei Beregovsky, more than three thousand professional Jewish musicians worked in Russia by the end of the nineteenth century. A klezmer ensemble usually employed between three and five instrumentalists, but sometimes as many as nine or ten. A large ensemble might include a first and second violin, a viola (more frequently an extra violin), a cello or bass, a clarinet, a brass instrument (either cornet or trombone), and drums. The training process was simple. Young musicians were given a demonstration of several elementary methods of playing and then trained in the usual repertoire: dances played at Jewish wedding celebrations (freylekhs, sher, beygele, broyges tants, khosidl) and pieces accompanying the wedding ceremony proper that were played upon meeting the guests, at the seating of the bride, and at the time of the feast. The repertoire included additional popular dances as well as adaptations of music of other nationalities. For generations, this rich musical material was passed on by ear, but by the end of the nineteenth century, klezmer musicians notated their music.

There is no conclusive evidence as to how Ruvin learned to play the violin, but reviews of Jascha Heifetz's early concerts mention that Ruvin started the violin at the age of four. At such a young age, a family member probably acted as Ruvin's first violin teacher, possibly his older brother Aron, who also played the violin.

The autobiography of Avraam-Yehoshua Makonovetsky, mentioned in a publication by Beregovsky, contains a revealing example of the life of a klezmer musician; Ruvin may have followed a similar path. A native of the Kiev (Kyiv) province and practically the same age as Ruvin, Makonovetsky began playing the violin at the age of seven and soon after began two years of training with the experienced violinist Sirotovich. "I earned money for him," wrote Makonovetsky. "He taught me to play dances and I was his second violinist. He didn't use printed music or method books to train me." After leaving Sirotovich the young violinist joined a choral group in Radomysl. "There they exploited me terribly and gave me no training," he later recalled, "but I taught myself how to play all the instruments." Unsatisfied with the education he received from the klezmer musicians, Makonovetsky taught himselfthe "three parts of Beriot as well as Niedzielski's Polish school, bought the printed concertos, duets, various good and difficult etudes."


Excerpted from Jascha Heifetz by Galina Kopytova, Dario Sarlo, Alexandra Sarlo. Copyright © 2014 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Author's Preface
Editors' Introduction
Foreign Words List
List of Abbreviations
1. Early Roots of the Heifetz Family
2. 1901-1906: Vilnius
3. 1906-1909: Music School
4. 1910: St. Petersburg Conservatory and Nalbandian
5. First Performances in St. Petersburg
6. Summer 1911: Concerts in Pavlovsk and Odessa
7. Fall 1911: In the Class of Professor Auer
8. The Beginning of 1912
9. 1912: First Trip to Germany
10. 1912: A German Tour
11. The Beginning of 1913
12. Summer-Fall 1913: Loschwitz
13. Winter 1913-1914: Bar Mitzvah
14. Spring 1914
15. Summer-Fall 1914: War
16. January-September 1915
17. The End of 1915
18. The First Half of 1916
19. The Second Half of 1916: Norway and Denmark
20. The First Half of 1917: February Revolution
21. Summer 1917: Departure for America
Appendix 1: Reviews of Jascha Heifetz's Debut at Carnegie Hall, October 27, 1917
Appendix 2: Jascha Heifetz's Repertoire in Russia
Selected Bibliography

What People are Saying About This

founding member and pianist for the Beaux Arts Trio and Distinguished Professor, Jacobs School of Mu - Menahem Pressler

"One of my lifetime heroes, Jascha Heifetz was a performer of unique perfection and beauty. This biography will be a happy discovery for the professional, the music lover, and students everywhere."

Emmy-award winning violinist - Joshua Bell

"As a young student of the violin, my hero was Jascha Heifetz. His tone quality, virtuosity, technical perfection, and his unmatched energy were enormously inspiring. I own numerous books, biographies, and articles on the life and times of Jascha Heifetz, but none focus in depth on his fascinating early years in Russia to the extent that this book does. I am so pleased to add this to my collection."

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