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Pauline Lerner

Heifetz as Ayke Agus knew him

July 23, 2006 at 7:33 AM

I’m reading Heifetz As I Knew Him by Ayke Agus, which I learned about from Evil Linda’s blog. I’m about halfway through, and my reaction is morbid fascination. Heifetz was not a nice guy.

My reaction to Isaac Stern’s autobiography [link] was totally different. Stern was a well rounded man with many interests and relationships with diverse people, including his wives and children, heads of state, and other musicians. He wrote warmly about many musicians, especially David Oistrakh, for whom he had great respect and affection. Stern and Oistrakh became good friends through long hours of conversation even though they knew that the KGB was eavesdropping on them all the time. Regarding Heifetz, Stern said only that he was the greatest violinist of the twentieth century but he did not relate well to other people. Stern was diplomatic.

The enlightened approach to Heifetz’s personality is to recognize that it derives from his difficult childhood as a prodigy. Heifetz’s parents pushed him relentlessly and frequently told him that he was not playing well enough. Their motivation was partly financial; Heifetz supported his family from early childhood on. As a child, he became petulant and spoiled by his success and his power over his parents.

Ayke Agus, an Indonesian woman of Chinese descent, felt a commonality with Heifetz because she was pushed relentlessly by her mother to be a star performer as a child. She was allowed to play violin (most important) and piano and was given responsibility for taking care of her younger brothers and sisters. She was not allowed a personal life. She came to the United States to study violin in college and attended a Heifetz master class. Her description of Heifetz’s master class and his treatment of his students curdled my blood. I wondered why Agus and the other students put up with Heifetz’s c… I know that Heifetz was Heifetz, but why be so masochistic? Agus and Heifetz had an unusual compatibility, and she became Heifetz’s accompanist, confidante, and whipping post (her description) for the last fifteen years of his life.

Agus wrote in great detail, with utter bitterness and disdain, about her childhood, her family, and the culture she was brought up in. In fact, she didn’t get around to writing about Heifetz until almost halfway through the book. I’m at that point in the book, and I ask myself why I continue reading it. In part, it’s because of the morbid fascination. Also, I bought the book because I wanted to learn about Heifetz, and I’m still waiting. I know that I’ll learn some interesting things later in the book. For the next book I read, I’ll choose something with warmth and levity.

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