Text of a book given to Shirley by Jascha Heifetz for her part in
"They Shall Have Music"...
Jascha Heifetz Biographical notes, with a reference to "Music School", his first motion picture for Samuel Goldwyn by Deems Taylor
UNITED ARTISTS CORPORATION 729 Seventh Avenue New York City
|Jascha Heifetz Years ago, when portable typewriters were more of a
novelty than they are now, I carried one with me to France. On the way
over, I showed it one day to the ship’s purser, who had never before
seen one. He examined it admiringly, exclaimed over its lightness and
compactness, and finally relinquished it with a sigh, remarking
regretfully, "But, of course, Monsieur, such a machine would be of
little use to me. I never go anywhere!"
I thought of that incident when Heifetz and I were discussing this sketch.
“What about the biographical part of it?" I asked. "I wish you’d keep it short," he answered. "Just make it: Born in Russia, first lessons at three, debut in Russia at seven, debut in America in 1917. That’s all there is to say, really. About two lines."
And so, obediently, I give you Jascha Heifetz’s autobiography, exactly as dictated. In a way, he is right. That is about all there is to say. A man can run away to sea at an early age, work as a cook in a lumber camp, serve with the Foreign Legion, boss a railroad construction gang, and finally emerge as a first-rate novelist. Most assuredly he will never end up as a great violinist.
No concert artist can afford the sort of personal life that makes melodramatic reading for the layman. Heifetz, who, like so many musicians, is fond of figuring, will tell you that up to now he has spent upwards of 66,000 hours-about two-fifths of his waking life in playing the violin. In the course of spending them he has been around the world four times and has played in almost every country on the face of the globe; at thirty eight, he has already traveled a distance equivalent to two round trips to the moon, and is well on the first leg of a third. Nevertheless, his career, stripped to its essentials, has inevitably been one of: practice-travel-sleep, repeated, with slight variations, year after year, for thirty-one years. The important things about him are not "where has he been and how did he get there?" so much as "what has he done and who is he?"
You know the short and simple answer to the first question. He has played the fiddle; played it in a manner that few men, living or dead, have ever equaled. Ranking artists is a silly business, and "the greatest in the world" is nothing more, in the last analysis, than the expression of somebody’s opinion. But as far back as that fabulous twenty-seventh of October in nineteen seventeen, when a slender, seventeen-year-old Russian boy first stepped on the stage of New York’s Carnegie Hall, we all knew that the ranks of the living masters of the violin had received another recruit.
The most obvious aspect of his playing was, and still is, his incredible technical mastery, a mastery so complete that the lay listener becomes unconscious of it. It takes another violinist, I think, fully to appreciate Heifetz’s technique, just as it takes an engineer to appreciate the silent perfection of a smoothly running piece of machinery. He is one of the comparatively few musical artists, even among the great ones, who can be described, somewhat inadequately, as "safe," the master craftsmen upon whom you can rely to accomplish, completely, whatever they set out to do. Once in a while you run across a singer to whom you can listen without wondering whether or not he is going to manage that tricky chromatic passage or whether she is going to hit that high B-flat; a pianist upon whom you can count not to muff that run in thirds; a horn player who, you know, isn’t going to blow a bubble at the end of Siegfried’s fanfare.
Heifetz is one of those. You may differ with his interpretation of a given piece of music, but so far as concerns his ability to play it, you can settle back in your seat without misgivings. You can count on the crystal purity of his intonation, the perfection of his harmonics, the evenness of his tone, and the dazzling surety of his bowing. He will never let you down.
Not that this technique of his affects everyone alike. There is a story connected with his New York debut. Since it is a true story, I shall suppress the names of the principals, relating merely that sitting in a box at that debut recital were a world-famous pianist and an equally famous violinist. As the program progressed the violinist began to show signs of distress. The longer Heifetz played the more uncomfortable his listener became. Finally, running his handkerchief around his collar, he turned and whispered: "It’s awfully hot in here, isn’t it?"
Upon which his companion remarked, simply, "Not for pianists."
I thought of that story as I sat in a projection room on the Goldwyn lot in Hollywood, one afternoon last May, watching and hearing a sequence from his picture, "Music School." It shows Heifetz, on the platform of a concert hall, playing Saint-Saens’s "Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso" (a magnificent job of sound recording, by the way), and, in accordance with motion picture technique, shows the player, not merely as one would see him from a seat in the auditorium, but from many angles and at varying distances-long shots, medium long shots, close-ups, and what one might call close-close-ups, views of the bow and the wonderfully controlled arm that propels it, glimpses of the flashing fingers of that miraculous left hand. I thought then, with what despairing admiration a violinist must watch those fingers; but I thought, too, how I would haunt this picture, if I were a violinist, if only for the sake of seeing, as no one has ever seen before, how Heifetz does it.
But sheer mechanical perfection would never have brought Heifetz to the place he occupies in the world of music. There are other great technicians. It is the use to which he puts his technique that entitles him to the adjective "great." The versatility of his style, the breadth and nobility of his interpretations, are traditional. The only serious criticism that I have ever heard leveled against his playing (generally by people who had heard him very little) is that it lacks warmth. He is too Olympian, too detached, they say; he touches your head too much, and your heart not enough.
I am pretty sure that, in part at least, that opinion has a subconscious physical basis. People are childishly dependent upon visual impressions, and, watching Heifetz, they might easily confuse the sound of the playing with the appearance of the player. And Heifetz is the least demonstrative of any concert artist I know. Even among his friends, although he laughs readily, curiously enough he seldom smiles. On the platform, almost never. His attitude to his listeners is one of perfect, unsmiling courtesy, and when he plays he does so with such complete absorption in the music that, looking at his remote, almost mask-like face, one might make the mistake of thinking, "here is a cold man."
It is not coldness. What it is-but let me come to that later. Whether or not his playing touches your heart is a matter of what you mean by "heart." Did you ever hear of "schmalz"? It is a German word, meaning, literally, "grease," which has long been in the vocabulary of musicians. (Brahms is said to have used it in voicing his opinion of Mendelssohn’s music.) They use it to describe singing or playing that insists upon buttering sentiment with sentimentality. The wailing of self-pity of a radio crooner "interpreting" the latest torch song; the greasily voluptuous tone of a self-styled "gypsy" restaurant violinist - those are "schmalz."
Now if there is one predominant element in Heifetz’s playing it is a complete absence of schmalz. He never tries to drag out of a given piece of music more drama or emotion than there is in it. When the music demands it, he can give you a singing tone that is thrillingly beautiful; or, on the other hand, icily brilliant. But never dry, mind you. He has an amazing variety of tone color at his command, and it is his subtle application of this color to the musical canvas, so to speak, that gives his playing its never-flagging variety and eloquence.
One of the most familiar Heifetz anecdotes relates that after his first recital in London George Bernard Shaw visited him in his dressing-room, and warned him against playing too perfectly. "Nothing may be perfect in this world," he said, "or the gods become jealous and destroy it. So would you mind playing one wrong note every night before you go to bed?" I have often thought of the appropriateness of Shaw’s visit. For the styles of the two men, in their respective fields, are curiously alike. Shaw, to me, possesses the most nearly perfect literary style in the world, in that it approaches a complete absence of "style." He knows so wholly what he wants to say, and says it with such clarity and simplicity, that his writing is like a sheet of flawless glass that allows the reader to look straight through the words to the ideas that they convey.
Heifetz’s playing is like that. At his best, he plays with such a complete grasp of the meaning of the music, such effortless mastery of his instrument, that you tend to forget him. You are no longer hearing violin playing; you are hearing the music, hearing it as the composer meant you to hear it, unconscious of any instrumental barrier between you. It is given to only a few artists in any generation to achieve this selfless perfection of communication; and Heifetz is one of those elect few.
To give an idea of the man himself is not so easy, chiefly because he has so few eccentricities that would make picturesque reading. Two trivial memories of him may give you a vague picture of him. One is of a late party at Neysa McMein’s studio, back in ‘23, I think it was, when Jascha, about four in the morning, played as I have seldom heard him or anyone else play in concert. I told him so, and he explained. "I was using the Strad tonight, and she’s never played so well as since I bought the Guarnerius. You know, she’s jealous!."- and half believed it. The other is a recollection of Jascha, backstage at an absurd revue a crowd of us were putting on for charity-Jascha, with his music stand propped up in the wings, jostled by stage hands, tripped up by electric cables, nervous but determined, playing unaccompanied offstage music for a burlesque melodrama with the devotion and earnestness that he would have given to a command performance before royalty.
There, exemplified, are what to me are his two most striking characteristics: a simplicity and directness that are almost childlike, and a complete seriousness about his art. He gets along wonderfully with children. Not that he is a head-patter. For all I know, he may not even care much about them. But he meets them on an equal footing, and they accept him as an equal. A children‘s orchestra figures prominently in the story of "Music School" (an amazing aggregation, by the way, recruited and trained in Hollywood by a devoted Russian musician named Peter Meremblum). When Heifetz first saw and heard them on the screen he refused to believe that they were doing the actual playing, and had to be taken to hear them in person before he could be convinced. The studio heads had hoped to induce him to appear with them on the screen, and spent anxious hours debating the most diplomatic way of asking him to do so. When he had heard the youngsters, he asked to be allowed to play with them.
I was on the Goldwyn lot the morning that he finished his part of the picture. Just before he left he asked to have the orchestra assembled so that he could say goodbye. He made no speech, spoke no word of praise. Instead, he called every child over and gave him or her-a picture of himself, autographed to that child; a gift from one artist to another.
Just now I mentioned the seriousness of his approach to music. I have never known a musician with more complete artistic integrity. He will rehearse for hours to prepare for a benefit concert whose audience would be satisfied if he came out and played "Pop Goes the Weasel." During the shooting of "Music School" he wore out even the fatigue-proof studio crews with his patient and tireless "Let’s shoot that again." Nor have I ever known a musician with less of the show-off element in his make-up, or less conceit. He knows he is good. Why shouldn’t he? But he has reached the point, I think, that every great artist, creative or interpretative, must reach; the point where he has achieved such mastery of his craft that he knows he will never completely master it. He plays the violin so well that he knows what a lesser artist will never know: how good violin playing might be. And so, as he nears his forties, he is still learning to play. He has only one rival, one violinist whom he is trying to Beat.
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