Ayke Agus on Documenting the Life of Jascha Heifetz

April 14, 2011, 3:30 PM ·

While an awe-struck public believed that the 19th-century violinist Nicolo Paganini was in league with the devil, the prevailing sentiment about the phenomenal violinist Jascha Heifetz seemed to be that he was appointed by God.


Heifetz' life (1901-1987) spanned nearly the entire 20th century, starting at the dawn of the age of recording technology -- when most people still traveled by horse and buggy -- and ending as the world was accelerating into the digital age. Heifetz started playing at the age of 3, gave his public debut at age 7, and devoted his entire life to the violin. He studied with Leopold Auer, recorded for RCA Victor and Decca, traveled the world (by boat), played for troops during World War II, played numerous benefits, championed new works and raised the bar very high, for the art of violin-playing.

How does one document such a person's life?

Filmmaker Peter Rosen has endeavored to do so, with a feature-length documentary called Jascha Heifetz: God's Fiddler. The film includes interviews with former students, Heifetz biographers, and musicians such as Itzhak Perlman and Ivry Gitlis. 

As with all celebrities (and Heifetz was certainly a celebrity), Heifetz had a public life and a private one. Violinist Ayke Agus spoke with me over the phone last week in Los Angeles about the documentary, which makes use of Ayke's many contacts, including former students and colleagues of Heifetz.

In her 2001 book Heifetz As I Knew Him, Ayke Agus writes, "Jascha Heifetz didn't seem to be as proud of his artistic achievements as of the fact that he was a difficult person. The ultimate paradox was that this person who could not live without company eventually did everything in his power to get rid of people."

He never did get rid of Ayke, his student, then piano accompanist, and then creative collaborator, who was closest to him during the last 15 years of his life. She certainly witnessed the full range of his complicated, unpredictable nature; in fact, the more salient question might be, why she didn't get rid of him?

"Probably because of the music," Ayke said. "Every time, when things would get very difficult and challenging, and when I was just about to quit, I would always look at him and say to myself, 'Who am I? He has sacrificed so much to make millions and millions of people happy.' This was a very small price to pay, compared to the happiness, the joy, the incredible artistry, the music…The contribution he made to this world is humongous compared to whatever little horrible thing that he was telling me. As I said to Mr. Heifetz, quitting was not one of my options."

Ayke Agus

"We played through the whole violin literature, composers from A to Z," Ayke at the piano, she said. "We would go through sonatas, then through concertos, and then through small pieces. Then we'd go through his transcriptions. That's the routine that we went through every day…Practicing on a daily basis for all those years, it stays with you. What I'm so happy about is I am able to pass it down."

Though people still compare violinists to Heifetz, "I feel sad that the world of violin has sort of stopped being interested in listening a little more closely and more seriously to what it is about this music that made it so extraordinary, so exceptional and so …ultimate," Ayke said. Heifetz took violin music to a level that people never thought was possible to achieve -- that is, before Heifetz came along and did it. "As teachers and violinists, we should study the music, look at the score a little bit more."

For example, "appreciating what it is that made his little showpieces," Ayke said. "None of us really does that any more; we don't play the small, short pieces. It would be really great -- and less boring for the audience -- if we would keep to the tradition where the second half of a recital program would include these little short pieces – kind of dessert."

Heifetz arranged everything from Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair to Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

"Basically I think people sort of stay away from (these pieces) because they know that they cannot make them speak and they cannot make sense out of them because they don't know how to do it," Ayke said. "That's probably where I learned the most, about how to make things work in small pieces, short little encore pieces."

Starting while he was living and then continuing after Heifetz died, Ayke worked to finish and assemble his many transcriptions, which were published recently by Carl Fischer as The Heifetz Collection, in three volumes. The collection includes Arrangements & Transcriptions, Transcriptions and Cadenzas, and Heifetz plays Gershwin.

"Before I was asked to complete the transcriptions...he never said, 'Oh yeah, since you can play the piano, you can play the violin, sure you can help me with the transcriptions,' it wasn't that easy. He had to double-check, triple-check, be sure I could write music," Ayke said. After having her make her own transcription, to prove that she could do so, Heifetz discovered that her musical manuscript handwriting matched his own "to the point that he thought I was from another planet."

"I made a four-hand transcription from a Rachmaninov Suite for Two Pianos, so that my daughter and I could play together. When he saw the finished product, he said, 'Okay, play it.' We played it, and he was impressed, he said, 'Very nice, very nice.' But then he looked at the music -- he was looking at it and looking at it. He said, 'Did you write this?' It was all by hand, not computer. And so I said, 'Yes, I did it, by hand.' He said, 'Are you sure, nobody helped you?' I said, 'No, nobody helped.' To be sure, he turned the same page around and made me write something, so he could witness it himself."

"When I was a little child, I had no access to any music, so my mother used to borrow music from people, from Germany, from Holland, when they came over. My job was to copy them all by hand. It was horrible! It was how I spent my leisurely time when I had nothing to do. So I was very good at it. I did not need the ruler, I did not need anything, my stems were all straight up, and all the flags, all 16th notes all 8th notes," Ayke said. "I was fast, so when I did that in front of Heifetz, he could not believe his eyes. Then, when he showed me his own handwriting, I realized, it does look the same. Funny, isn't it?"


April 15, 2011 at 03:58 AM ·

Ayke, to turn around what you said, "Thank you for sacrificing so much so that millions and millions of people could have a better understanding of this unparalleled artist."

April 15, 2011 at 01:36 PM ·

There seems to be a mystery about interpretation in violin music.It centres around nebulous things like portamento and rubato.I have started rattling the cage in that direction. I may not have any answers but if we all think very hard and ask ourselves lots of questions , something will come.  Ayke is so right about the shorter pieces. It scares me the way concertos are becoming the bread and butter diet these days.

April 16, 2011 at 04:26 AM ·

Thanks a lot for sharing the great violin master's life!

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