Lithuanians everywhere can be proud that one of the world’s greatest musicians came from Vilnius. The violinist Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) spent the first decade of his life in Vilnius, known for its rich intellectual and artistic culture. At the age of just five Heifetz started his violin studies at the city’s music school, the location for his earliest public performances. Today, Vilnius hosts the Jascha Heifetz International Violin Competition, and a commemorative plaque adorns the wall of the old music school. For violinists and music lovers everywhere, the city has a special charm. As Lithuanians are excited to point out: Paganini was born in Genoa, Heifetz in Vilnius.
Heifetz and his family eventually moved to St. Petersburg, where the young boy became the star student of Professor Leopold Auer at the conservatory. Heifetz toured Europe, playing his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1912. By 1917, with political and social turmoil engulfing Russia, the Heifetzes escaped, journeying via Siberia, Japan, and San Francisco on their way to New York. Heifetz’s Carnegie Hall debut in October 1917 stunned the American critics, propelling him on an international career lasting over five decades.
Heifetz rose immediately to the heights of the music world and completed numerous world tours, covering an estimated two million miles. He played and recorded with the greatest musicians of the time, including Toscanini, Bernstein, Rubinstein, Casals, and Piatigorsky, and during the Second World War he performed for the Allied troops in Europe. The Heifetz name became closely associated with violin perfection, and many prominent musicians of today still count Heifetz as perhaps history’s greatest violinist.
In later years when asked about his background, Heifetz gave a characteristically brief response: “Born in Russia, first lessons at 3, debut in Russia at 7, debut in America in 1917.” Until very recently, those earliest formative years remained something of a mystery to biographers and the public alike. In the early 1990s the Russian author and scholar Galina Kopytova began to write a book about the violinist’s childhood. Over the next decade she discovered countless rare documents, and interviewed many people with stories to tell. She also interviewed Heifetz descendents from around the world. With the enthusiastic support of the violinist’s eldest son, Robert Heifetz, and his wife Albina Starkova, the book began to take shape.
Kopytova’s definitive 600-page book, Jascha Heifetz in Russia, was published in Russian in 2004. It provided the first comprehensive insight into the origins of one of the great musicians of the twentieth century. I came across the book in 2007 while on a fellowship at the Library of Congress. Along with Alexandra Sarlo, a translator of Russian and regional expert, I worked with Kopytova to produce an English edition of the book. This book, Jascha Heifetz: Early Years in Russia, was published by Indiana University Press on November 7, 2013.
The book contains more than 70 illustrations, including an extensive family tree, numerous photographs, and maps of Vilnius and St. Petersburg highlighting where the Heifetzes lived. In essence, the book is the ultimate tale of triumph over adversity; a boy from the Jewish quarter in Vilnius who, with his spectacular talent, rose to the heights of the international music world. The book describes the violinist’s early family life and his impressive circle of musical friends and colleagues. We learn of the enormous difficulties the Heifetzes faced as they fled the Russian Revolution, on their way to the New World.
Some of the most touching parts of the story are the observations of teachers, critics, and musicians who heard the young Heifetz perform. After an examination at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the director and famous composer Alexander Glazunov gave Heifetz the highest grade possible, describing him as “Beyond competition.” Another teacher, Professor Nalbandian, wrote simply, “Talent by the grace of God...I refuse to give a grade.” Heifetz’s concert audiences could number over 10,000, and many were profoundly moved. The response of one awestruck critic captures the magic:
"I likely will never forget the remarkable impression made by Heifetz’s playing. The crowd thronged the space before the stage, the spaces under the awning, the additional seats continuing endlessly, and the chairs. Everyone froze; the spirit of the genius captivated the crowd, which had just a minute before been bustling and indifferent. All that is painful, that we sometimes cannot part with, all that often troubles, frightens us, that persistently torments us—vanished somewhere. Such serene impressions as given by this little boy are possible only in the blissful dreams of childhood."