Jascha Heifetz docu-bio details career of major violin superstar

‘God’s Fiddler: Jascha Heifetz’

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

“Riveting and complex” best describes “Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler,” a compelling documentary by filmmaker Peter Rosen which details the remarkable career of its title character, one of the 20th-century’s first international musical superstar.

To describe Jascha Heifetz as a prodigy and virtuoso is a vast understatement.  The description “God’s Fiddler” was inspired by Itzhak Perlman, who says in the film, “When I spoke with (Jascha Heifetz) I thought, ‘I can’t believe it.  I’m talking with God . . . Not since Paganini had there been such a magician of the violin.”


Heifetz was born in Vilnius (Vilna), Lithuania on Feb. 2, 1901.  At the age of three he began to take violin lessons from his father, a professional violinist who played in a local orchestra.  When Heifetz was four, his father, astonished by his son’s rapid progress, took him to study with the noted teacher Elias Malkin at the Royal School of Music in Vilnius.  By the time he was five, Heifetz had already become one of the best students in the school, and by six he could play Mendelssohn’s difficult Violin Concerto.

Using vintage still and motion pictures, Rosen’s film chronicles Heifetz’s rapid rise, including his acceptance in 1910, at the age of nine, at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he studied with the famous Leopold Auer.  The Conservatory had a rigid quota on admission of Jews who lived outside of St. Petersburg so the school admitted Heifetz’s father as a student to circumvent the rule.

Darryl Lyman, in his essay on Heifetz in his book “Great Jews in Music” writes, “By his early years, Heifetz had already attained a technical mastery so complete, that he could devote his energy to developing interpretative skills almost unbelievable in one so young.  He was widely hailed as the greatest violinist of his time.”

Indeed he was.  From the film we learn that in 1911 Heifetz made his official concert debut in St. Petersburg, followed by a spectacularly successful first appearance in Berlin at the Academy of Music in 1912.  A year later, he was invited to play Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto” with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra by the well-known conductor Arthur Nikisch.

Heifetz’s life is depicted against the backdrop of the unfolding historic dramas of the early to mid-20th century. On Oct. 27, 1917, at the height of the Russian Communist Revolution, he made his United States debut with an appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York City. An early and unexpected setback to Heifetz’s beginning successes was a negative review by W. J. Henderson in 1921 in the New York Sun, which accused the young violinist of being “content to stand still” and rest on the laurels of his early acclaim.  Heifetz experienced what he called “dark days,” and even contemplated suicide after the review.  He later realized that Henderson was making a good point, and began to practice his basic chords and technique daily for the rest of his career.

Eventually, Heifetz settled in the U.S. permanently, becoming a proud and very patriotic citizen in 1925. Soon the still very young Heifetz became a worldwide superstar, many decades ahead of Elvis Presley and the Beatles, performing sold-out and critically acclaimed concerts worldwide. When he learned of a devastating earthquake in Japan, he gave one of the world’s first benefit concerts, and donated the proceeds to the rebuilding of the ravaged nation.

The film shows how Heifetz embraced not only classical music, but popular pieces as well.  He enjoyed performing “Summertime” from George and Ira Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” and tried to bridge the gap between the two musical worlds.  

The film also makes clear that Heifetz did not fare as well as in personal life as he did in his professional career. His two marriages ended in divorce. His relationships with two children by his first marriage and one child by his second were traumatic and distant. After the failure of his second marriage, Heifetz made fewer appearances and became reclusive.  But as the film explains, his admirers never forgot his genius as evidenced when on Feb. 2, 1981, then young violinist Perlman, playing at Alice Tully Hall in New York City, announced to the audience that it was Jascha Heifetz’s 80th birthday and referred to the older master as “the greatest violinist that ever lived.”  

No question that when he died six years later, Heifetz left a legacy that inspired Perlman and filmmaker Rosen to call him “God’s Fiddler.”