God’s fiddler : Jascha Heifetz
A film by Peter Rosen
Co-produced and written by Sara Lukinson
Produced and directed by Peter Rosen
Produced 2011
Picture: NTSC/16:9
Sound: PCM stereo
Subtitles: English/German/French/Chinese
Region: 0 (worldwide)
EUROARTS DVD 2058538 [88:00]
“It is very lonely at the top. In order to get there, you have to sacrifice an awful lot.” (Jascha Heifetz to violin maker Hans Benning)
“He was a very private man who, to the world, seemed remote and hard to know. And, I think, maybe he didn’t know who he was either - except when he was holding his violin.” (Ayke Agus, Heifetz’s former student and accompanist)
“Sometimes people go on stage and maybe they hide what they feel through their art. Their art is the way they communicate. Maybe their art is the way that helps them, rather than a normal social way of communicating.” (Itzhak Perlman)

“Born in Russia. First lessons at 3. Debut in Russia at 7. Debut in America at 17. That’s all there is to say.” (Heifetz, describing his career)
The last of Peter Rosen’s films that I reviewed, If I were a rich man: the life of Jan Peerce (see here), was essentially a piece of hagiography. Peerce was, by all accounts - or, at least, all the ones that were cited in the documentary - a warm, good-natured man of whom no-one had a bad word to say.
However, the subject of this new film, Jascha Heifetz, professionally hyped and still widely accepted as The Violinist of the (twentieth) Century, was a much more complex and interesting personality whose profile on film - from which the above quotations and others below are taken - leaves us with a great many issues to ponder, not all of them specifically about music.
Put simply, Heifetz seems to have been the product of an upbringing that was so starved of family affection and so solely directed, from the earliest age, towards fulfilling his father’s ambition for him, that he was left with deep psychological scars. These had a huge impact on the way he lived his personal life thereafter.
He seems, indeed, to have been rendered virtually incapable of sustaining normal human relationships. His two marriages ended in divorce and it appears that he never developed warm, loving relationships with any of his children, all three of whom were ultimately excluded from his will. Plenty of witnesses appear on film to offer testimony that shows him behaving in distinctly asocial ways - whether refusing to speak normally on the telephone, summoning his staff by honking a bicycle horn in their general direction or dropping in on his acquaintances unannounced and expecting to be fed, watered and humoured. The person he seems to have been closest to in his final years, his ex-student Ayke Agus, speaks extensively on camera and provides some interesting anecdotal material. Even she, it seems, can offer few real insights into the way in which his mind worked.
Heifetz’s notorious personal froideur, his impeccably groomed stage presence and his physical and apparently emotional impassivity during performance led many commentators to go on to describe his music-making as cold and unemotional too. The man himself was clearly bemused by that assessment, observing that “The way my violin sounds is the way I feel inside. It is a very personal feeling. Most of the time my emotions are turbulent underneath.” This film does great revisionist service, in fact, by the emphasis it places on the sheer passion of Heifetz’s playing. We hear from such expert judges as Itzhak Perlman, who describes him as a “very hot player”, and Ida Haendel (“It was fire! Absolute fire!”).
Perhaps it was simply a mistake for Heifetz to allow himself to be filmed so often. He loved cameras - his home movies provide Mr Rosen with rich pickings. He also enjoyed appearing in such Hollywood productions as They shall have music (aka Melody of youth) in 1939 and Carnegie Hall eight years later. It is arguable that, to make a fair assessment of his playing, one should divorce it from those accompanying - and musically misleading - visual images of that Buster Keaton-like poker-face.
This fascinating documentary film is full of unexpected material. We are so used to the stern image that the later Heifetz projected for promotional purposes. The early, informal photographs and cine-film showing him having fun (driving fast cars, playing tennis, shooting home movies, throwing parties and getting to know girls) come as something of a surprise. He later offered the explanation that “I had to wait until I was a young man before I could act like a child.” We are also usefully reminded of the glamorous pose, complete with Clark Gable moustache, that Heifetz cultivated in the 1930s. Then again there are his ventures into popular music in the following decade, whether accompanying Bing Crosby or penning songs of his own under the pen name Jim Hoyl - it appears thus on a piece of sheet music we’re shown, but the end credits prefer “Hoyle”.
It’s also fair to point out that Heifetz could, when he chose, be rather nice. His students, by all accounts, found him completely intimidating in class (one refers to it as having been a “scary place”). On the other hand he also contributed anonymously to their medical bills and invited them to his home for end-of-term parties. Perhaps the period of Heifetz’s life that showed him in the best light was World War II. He toured extensively for three years while entertaining troops in the field. A particularly vivid vignette is of the time when a violent tropical rainstorm meant that only one soldier turned up and took a seat far off in the back row. Heifetz insisted on going ahead and playing the recital just for that lone soldier and said later that it had been his best performance ever.
Learning the truth about Jascha Heifetz’s life is, overall, a rather depressing experience. On screen, his personal lawyer ruminates “Was he lonely or unhappy? I can’t call him unhappy … I can’t call him happy … He was perfectly stoic at almost all times.” Meanwhile, cellist Nathaniel Rosen offers an even more downbeat verdict: “I don’t know if he really had friends. There were people that called themselves his friends and behaved as if they were his friends, but there was an atmosphere of fear around him quite often.”
Unless, as seems highly unlikely, Heifetz ever consulted an analyst and the reports ever come to light, it’s probable that this film will offer as good an assessment of the man that we are ever likely to have. God’s fiddler doesn’t, it is true, tell us very much about Heifetz’s music-making that we couldn’t discover equally well from listening to his rich recorded legacy. Film-maker Peter Rosen clearly had another aim in mind entirely and has succeeded in his purpose very well indeed.
Rob Maynar d
Film-maker Peter Rosen has succeeded in his purpose very well indeed.