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Bach, Heifetz and fugues

February 23, 2007 at 1:16 AM

One of my strongest memories of Music College is of walking through South Kensington in the rain and seeing a little sign in the local music shop. Jascha Heifetz had died. It felt like something really important and terrible had just taken place and I recall walking around in daze for about an hour. When I went back to college that day people asked me what was up. The general reaction from most of the student violinists was along the lines of `Oh, so what?` Or even `Who is he?` ;) It seemed a lot of young players at that time had all the latest Mutter and Perlman recordings but were not all that familiar with the Heifetz generation of players. Cut to the present day and I was once again really saddened by the extremely good quality book by Ayk describing her last years basically looking after Heifetz.
The funny thing is though, there is just one very significant passage in that book which seems utterly erroneous to me and verifiable as such. I don’t have my copy now, but it reads something like `The Heifetz Master class tapes do not represent what went on because the best students were chosen and the disparity between Heifetz and their level is not that clear.` On the contrary, when viewing those tapes, the striking thing is the way even a great (but not yet matured) player of the pedigree of Erik Friedman plays for example, an excellent Franck or Bach. Then Heifetz stands up says exactly the right thing and plays a thousand times better even in this time of life when his technique was diminished and he had some physical problems. The disparity is so huge at times its stunning.
As far as the Bach is concerned, I believe the Heifetz versions are awesome achievements. They are not my choice of listening but what is seen so clearly in the master class is to me, that even within the romantic primarily violinistic milieu that Heifetz occupied, the man understood line, beauty and rhythm like nobodies business. B he knew what mad e Bach flow and sing.
Which sort of brings me to an interesting question I have ha din mind for years. Why did someone who elevated the notion of violin technique so high cite the Bach sonatas and Partitas as the violinists bible, as opposed to the Paginini caprices or some other great and highly demanding repertoire? I know that Auer , in his little book noted that the violinist who can play Bach well need not fear the big concertos but that really doesn’t provide that much in the way of specifics.
One of the things I have found in my own practice is that a really efficient way to stay in shape and drag technique upwards is to practice the fugues. It is this work in particular that has clarified for me a very important maxim of private practice that often holds players back if ignored- breaking down phrases into smaller units to work on them is considerably less efficient if the chunk is not in itself musically viable. It might only be the difference between practicing note B and C together as opposed to A and B, but it often makes the difference between success and failure. How this relates to the fugues is that I find a strong tendency to look at a work and think `Well, this particular chord or sequence of chords is not so good so let’s break it down.` This may well improve things but somehow it doesn’t seem right. So I look back at the preceding phrase and it often turns out to be the case that a finger kept down from there is the foundation on which technical security in the phrase currently being practiced is based. Practicing the `difficult passage` without reference to the whole has not only been inefficient but counter productive because it may have instilled use of the fingers which does not connect up with the whole during performance. By observing this point I have found that there are actually –very- few difficult chords in for example, the g minor fugue. What one thinks of in isolation as a chord has simply been two fingers already prepared previously and placing a third down which is easy. Or it may be just one finger already in place from a while back so a double stop is simply superimposed. There really aren’t so many three part chords in Bach, at least in the technical sense!
And I think this idea was central to Heifetz` technique in many ways: a distinct lack of activity in the hands. Doing only what I necessary is virtuoso technique and there is no better place to work on that than the Bach, the violinist’s bible.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on February 23, 2007 at 5:43 AM
One night, I woke up at about 3 AM and couldn't get back to sleep. I couldn't tell what the problem was -- no headache, no stomachache, no worries about the next day. At about 6 AM, I accepted that I was awake, so I turned the radio on, and I heard that Heifetz had died during the night.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on February 23, 2007 at 6:00 AM
doesn`t surprise me. Human connections are vast,
From Anne Horvath
Posted on February 23, 2007 at 2:49 PM
I have been revisiting the C Major fugue for a few months now, and I had one of those "Aha, Double KFD!" moments at measures 157-8, which helped facilitate that nasty double fingered-octave chord.

Also, sometimes I just play through the whole thing at a leisurely pace, and that is when many of those "Ahas" happen. I just need more "Ahas" now.

Also, I remember when Heifetz passed, and few nights later I went to hear Emmanuel Ax play Beethoven's Fourth Concerto, with the Louisville Orchestra. I just sat there with tears in my eyes, and felt such a sense of loss. And now, Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto and Jascha Heifetz are inextricably linked in my heart.

Very nice column, and Thank You.

From Hope Paolotto
Posted on February 23, 2007 at 7:08 PM
I was a small child when Heifitz died.

I do, however, remember when Issac Stern passed. We all should, it was not too long ago. I remember feeling a great loss to the violinist community. I can only imagine what it would have been like for me when Heifitz passed.

From Alan Wittert
Posted on February 23, 2007 at 9:38 PM
Bravo, Brivati. Your comments will be VERY helpful to me in breaking down the loure in the E-major partita...a piece that I have loved and worked up the guts to try (I'm am amateur with limited training). Just before I read your piece I was edge-of-my-seat listening to Heifetz's Scottish Fantasy (with Sargent; my god, the man made it sound like a GREAT piece of music. Your article reminded me of the first time I heard a Friedman recording (on the radio. My dad said, "Can you tell me who that is?" I said, "It's Heifetz, but something very bad has happened to him."
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on February 23, 2007 at 9:35 PM
Very true. Heifetz was thought of just like last decade's model, like Christie Brinkley. Everything was Perlman. When I read this website I was surprised how popular Heifetz was on it. At the same time though, I hadn't followed that kind of thing for years.
From Nate Robinson
Posted on February 24, 2007 at 5:19 AM
Mr. Friedman did not sound like "something very bad has happened to" Heifetz. Interestingly, two major artists (who are mentioned here all the time) I talked to about Mr. Friedman, had quite a contrary take on him to your comment Alan. Just some food for thought.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on February 24, 2007 at 5:47 AM
There's about a thousand times more thought in Barton's 'Scottish Fantasy' and it's just as in tune.
From Nate Robinson
Posted on February 24, 2007 at 6:33 AM
1000X more thought than who's recording? Barton is very good I agree.
From Emily Grossman
Posted on February 24, 2007 at 8:58 AM
I agree about the vast difference between Friedman and Heifetz; whoever wrote otherwise was daft. My impression of the master class videos was that I watched them expecting someone of student caliber to perform for Heifetz. Instead, I was completely overwhelmed when I saw this amazing student running through the Bach and being tutored as though he were a novice. I had no idea at the time who Friedman was. Though his playing sat in a different category than that of Heifetz, it still was remarkable and altogether humbling to watch.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on February 24, 2007 at 12:53 PM
Nate, maybe 1000x more than anybody's. Barton did a lot of research to uncover and use the real Scottish elements in it. I doubt anybody else ever did that.
From Nicholas DiEugenio
Posted on February 24, 2007 at 7:13 PM
Discussions are a great thing, but I find it amazing that such a thoughtful article as Buri's most recent one could spawn this somewhat inconsequential thread. Thanks, Buri, for your writing and your thoughts and observations. I take them to heart in practicing.

As for artists and their popularity from one generation to the next...these things are about the masses rather than the artist, and do not really reflect much about the artist as much as they shed light on the current generational tastes, values, aesthetics. Is it even fair to compare an exotic fruit from the southern hemisphere, harvested and preserved from 1949, with a distantly related fruit of a similar region harvested 20 years later? We would comment more about environmental changes and external factors if any bizarre differences were noted. Yet, there would be inherent differences anyway, since the fruits were not of the exact same ilk to begin with.

And now that this thread has degenerated into complete irrelevance and is of no consequence at all...!!!

From Man Wong
Posted on February 24, 2007 at 6:51 PM
Hi, Buri.

Thanks for another interesting article.

Admittedly, I have never been a fan of Heifetz, but then again, I never took up the violin until this past year either. :-) I should probably give more of his recordings a try though what little I've heard in the past did not move me too much.

But for this newbie amateur who's been working on the Bach Minuets in Suzuki Book 1 of late, I actually found your last bits about technique quite illuminating(!). I have no training in music theory (yet), but it sounds like what you describe applies very well to certain parts of those Minuets. For instance, in Minuet 1, there are a few places w/ string crossings that can be a bit difficult/awkward to play cleanly for those of us new to the violin. In a couple places, there's this chord(?) sequence of G-E-C w/ 4th finger for the quarter note E sandwiched between 1/8 note sequences of C-B-A-G. My teacher did not actually explain what you did (probably because I don't have the theory background yet), but suggested that I should try practicing the G-E-C sequence w/ my 2nd, 3rd and 4th fingers in place on both A and D strings and only lifting the 4th finger when necessary to play the C note. She told me this should help me play more smoothly and cleanly rather than having my fingers/hand flying needless around the fingerbooard. :-) And interestingly, yeah, this sounds like one such chord sequence in Bach pieces (even as simple as this tiny minuet) that you might be talking about. And my teacher even pointed out the similarity to the highly recognizeable NBC TV channel theme/tone to help me hear it. Did NBC rip off Bach there? :-)

Anyhoo, I will probably ask my teacher a little more about this. And thanks again for yet another interesting article!

Best regards,


From Jim W. Miller
Posted on February 24, 2007 at 7:29 PM
There's no such thing as the G minor fugue. It's the G Dorian fugue. Look at the key signature.
Now we're back on track.
From Nate Robinson
Posted on February 25, 2007 at 3:24 AM
I can tell you I haven't heard the Prokofiev D-Major played any better than Friedman's rendition with the Boston Symphony on RCA. Many of you are forming your opinions on this man's playing from a masterclass video not even having heard his recordings. His great recordings from the 1960's really rank up there with some of the top class recordings.
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on February 25, 2007 at 10:35 PM
Jim, the trouble is when I try to write G dorian fugue it comes out as `Durian fruit,` whhic is not good if you are sititng on the front few rows,
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on February 25, 2007 at 11:08 PM
Nate I could be wrong but one thing I did think from the video was that Friedman wa s handicapped to some extent by a less than stellar instrument at taht time. Soemone will now proabbly tell me it was a beautiful Del Gesu...
From Nate Robinson
Posted on February 26, 2007 at 8:06 AM
Buri, the violin he used was a Stradivarius in the video masterclass. He used that violin throughout the 1960's. I like the sound of it in his recording from that time, Friedman told me that Heifetz however did tell him that he should've gotten a Guarneri instead.

Friedman later switched to two Del Gesus in the 1970's and then sold them both after his car accident in Dallas. He thought he wouldn't be able to make a recovery to play. After his break from playing for a years recovering from his injury, he had Joseph Curtin make him an instrument, which I played on. Very nice fiddle.

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