Jascha Heifetz in South Africa - Insights from 1932
by Michael Brittan
Published July 2021
This recent publication from the Pendragon Press documents for the first time Jascha Heifetz’s one-and-only tour of South Africa in 1932. The country was the last stop on his fourth international tour, lasting over ten months, in which he visited twenty-two countries in all. It would be the violinist’s last global circumnavigation; he was thirty-one years old. He had visited Australia and New Zealand between May and August in 1921 and this marked the start of several world tours. In 1923, Isidor Achron became his accompanist for a trip to Japan and China. The position was initially only agreed for one year, but Achron remained in post for ten. In 1925/26 the pair toured Europe, and in 1927 they ventured further afield, calling at China and the Philippines. This was all a prelude to the world tour of 1931/2. The tour of twenty-two countries began in California and ended in South Africa, taking in such exotic locations on the way as Java, Sumatra, India and Egypt.
Heifetz had studied with Leopold Auer, and was the first Russian violinist to make such a far-reaching impact in the 20th Century. There’s much discussion around Heifetz’s performance style. His October 1917 debut at Carnegie Hall was a watershed moment, elevating his name to new heights and kick-starting a career that would last half a century. During this time and beyond, he was the undisputed king against whom all other violinists would measure themselves. He set a new standard for technical excellence. He was later lauded as “A Virtuoso of Frightening Perfection”. There’s discussion of the famous unsmiling, deadpan “Poker Face”. His lack of physical mannerisms and his tempered emotional restraint led many to regard him and his playing as cold.
Touring South Africa with family members was commonplace in the 1930s for musical artists, who were drawn by the country’s exotic, cultural and ethnic diversity. The wildlife and scenery would also be an alluring factor. Brittan mentions several, including Ignaz Friedman, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Yehudi Menuhin, Mischa Elman and Joseph Szigeti. Heifetz’s glamorous wife Florence Vidor accompanied him on his world tour, but only as far as Egypt, due to a pregnancy.
There’s a fascinating chapter titled “Concert Repertoire and Reviews”. Heifetz remarked to a journalist that he tailored his programmes to suit the artistic taste of each country he visits. The question is posed as to whether he was prepared for the audience diversity in South Africa. There were eight separate generic programmes printed, and the works played, both substantial ones and short pieces are conveniently laid out in a colour-coded table. Occasionally there were extra concerts given, with ticket prices reduced, and more popular repertoire substituted, such as the Kreutzer Sonata and Paganini First Concerto (Wilhelmj single movement version).
Brittan also focuses on his relationship with the audiences in South Africa, and his personality on and off stage. The reaction of the press, more especially music critics, is discussed at length. All of this is set against a backdrop of a Depression-era South Africa.
At the end of the book, the artist’s later life is considered. From middle age on, Heifetz gradually retreated into himself. He became a virtual recluse, seeing hardly anyone and being suspicious of all who tried to contact him. “Many of Heifetz’s colleagues, acquaintances and students would find themselves on the receiving end of his acerbic tongue”. Perlman found him “businesslike, not touchy-feely – that wasn’t him”. Yet, during the war, Brittan emphasizes Heifetz’s good works, generosity and beneficence.
This is a beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated book, packed tight with photographs and facsimiles, written in an illuminating, accessible and fluently readable style. Although some of the photographs were familiar, there are many I’ve never seen before. The author Michael Brittan originally hailed from South Africa and is a violinist himself. He had the good fortune to hear the artist live in concert. His many years research has been a labour of love, and the resulting book fills a conspicuous lacuna in the artist’s career. It certainly makes for rewarding reading for those enamoured of the artistry of this remarkable musician.