I vividly remember that grey spring day of 1950 as I walked

down Arbat Street in Moscow on the way from my violin lesson. A

woman, probably in her 30′s, suddenly approached me.

“I see you are a violinist,” she said. (Of course, I was

carrying my violin case.) “Maybe you would be interested in buying

some old violin records. My father recently died and left a few

boxes of records, and I really don’t know what to do with them. If

someone would buy them, I want, well, maybe, half of what they would

be in the store, and if you are interested, I live nearby, just a

couple minutes walking distance.”

No doubt, it was my lucky day. Just a few years before, my closest

friend Ilya Dvorkin and I had begun to collect

violin records. We were especially interested in antique records.

The names of Joachim, Sarasate, Ysaye, Kreisler, Huberman, Kubelik,

Elman, and Heifetz were legendary–a magic spell surrounded them.

Just consider the fact that Joachim was born in 1831, when Paganini

was at the height of his career. That was the year of the most

famous recital in music history. Paganini had played in Paris in

the presence of Liszt, Mendelssohn, Rossini, Donizetti, Heine,

Sand, Delacroix, Balzac, and many other giants of music, literature

and painting. And if Paganini’s playing was impossible for us to

hear, maybe we could get an idea, indirectly, of his playing

through comparison. Indeed, Liszt, who was stunned by Paganini’s

playing later in his life, played recitals with Joachim…and

Mendelssohn had played a chamber music concert with Paganini, and

then, only ten years after that, had conducted an orchestra with the

13 year old Joachim playing the Beethoven Concerto. And so,

listening to the recordings of Joachim (remember that he was one of

the greatest and the most distinguished violinists from the pinnacle

of the Romantic epoch), we sense the spirit of the time of Paganini,

Liszt, Chopin, Schumann, Mendelssohn…truly, it is like having a

time machine.

Of course, acquiring the records of non-Russian artists was

not an easy matter, given the circumstances in which we lived then.

It was the darkest time in the Soviet Empire. The campaign against

everything foreign, which was called “cosmopolitanism,” was at its height.

All but Russian names were banned. The radio played records only

by non-emigrated Russian artists. After 1948, there was not even

one broadcast of Heifetz, Kreisler, Elman or Huberman. For us who

lived behind the Iron Curtain, these were almost alien species from

another planet.

As is customary among collectors, private exchange is the only

way to obtain rare, antique records. My friend, Ilya Dvorkin, who then worked in

the theater, was on tour in the town of Ryazan about 60 miles from

Moscow. There he found in the gramophone store a record of Yehudi

Menuhin playing the Capriccio No. 24 by Paganini. Most likely, the

record had been in stock for years. Nobody in this town knew who

Menuhin was and nobody had bought it. So, we bought the seven records

that made-up the entire stock. Later, we traded them for something else.

It was still the time of 78 rpm records, and we played them using

wooden needles. Once we had fun tricking a man by splitting the

end of the needle so that when the needle was placed on the record,

you would hear two violins, sounding like a canon. We told this

innocent man that the great violinist-virtuoso of the last century,

Sauret, who wrote famous cadenzas for Paganini’s concertos, was

playing his version of Paganini’s Capriccio No. 24. The fellow was

absolutely amazed. The next day he told all his friends about the

fantastic performance, and soon after, one of my colleagues told

me, to my great amusement, that he had heard a recording of

Paganini himself playing the Capriccio in the most unusual and

impossible way!

But now, back to Arbat Street. The woman and I walked to an

old wooden house which had a distinctive smell of wet clothing,

cooking food, cats living under the stairways, and something else

beyond description.

“There are the boxes,” she said, pointing to two boxes on the

floor. “Look through them.” Indeed, they were truly records from

the beginning of the century. Among them was one of Varia Panina,

a very famous gypsy singer of the second part of the 19th century.

There were Schaliapin records and those of the violinists Kubelik,

Thibaud, and Franz Von Vecsey on a Fonotipia label. Among them,

there was a label reading: “A ten year old violin virtuoso, Jascha Heifetz.”

It was recorded, as could be seen in the photograph of the label,

for the Russian Gramophone Society. The date was 1911. Hurriedly,

I paid a few rubles to the woman, feeling fortunate to have been

carrying some money, and left the place.

I brought the Heifetz record to the U.S. without the slightest

idea that it was an unknown disc. In 1978, I saw a Heifetz

discography and noticed that his first recording was attributed to

the year 1917 when he was already in the U.S. My first reaction

was to call Mr. Pfieffer, who was the producer of the Heifetz albums,

to tell him about my record. He told me that the project was

already finished and that nothing could be added. Also, he said he

had heard rumors of the Heifetz Russian recording, but Mr.

Heifetz himself did not remember doing any recordings before coming

to the U.S. Only in 1985, when The Strad Magazine was in preparation

for Heifetz’s 85th birthday issue, did I receive a call

from editor Eric Wen inquiring about this record. Someone had told

him about the existence of such a rarity, and he asked me if I

would be willing to produce a recording of the record in order to

create a flexible disc for the special Strad issue. And that is

the story of how the recording became known to the music world.

Meanwhile, I had an idea for a radio program dedicated to

Heifetz. In the beginning, I planned one thirty-minute program.

But in the working process, the program expanded to a three-hour,

six-part program. This program, as well as others totaling a series

of 32 thirty-minute programs, were broadcast on the classical music

station WFMR in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

My general aim had been to show Heifetz’s career

chronologically from his first recording in 1911 until his last in

1972. But I thought it would be especially interesting to analyze

the Heifetz style of playing and the roots of his art, which in my

opinion evolved directly from cantorial singing. This is a very

important point. As in my other programs on Auer and his violin

school, I show that during the main part of Auer’s teaching career

in Russia from 1868 to 1900, he did not produce any significant or

important artist. Looking through the list of Auer’s students of

this period, we see almost nothing but Russian names. But

something happened around the turn of the century. Jews in Czarist

Russia lived in areas known as Pales of Settlement. In the

Ukraine, Byelorussia and Lithuania, in small towns and villages,

lived the poor Jewish population, oppressed and stripped of all

civil rights, who from time to time were devastated by terrible

pogroms. It was life in a closed circle. Where was there to go? To live in

large cities was strictly prohibited by the Tsarist government.

Only a few were able to get special permission to live in St.

Petersburg, Moscow, or Kiev. Confined within the close circle of

the shtetl, Jews concentrated around the synagogue, which was the

center of their spiritual life. The Hassidic movement was the main

stream of Jewish life there, and music was an integral part of

Hassidism. “Fiddler on the Roof” became the musical symbol of the

Jew from the shtetl. There the cantorial art of singing was highly

respected and each and every Jewish community took great pride in its

own cantor. The great voice, the most dramatic presentation of the

chant, the best ability for sobbing-singing, the most perfect technique of the

coloratura passages were all competitive factors between cantors.

And the sound of the cantorial chant was like mother’s milk to the

Jewish children from the Pale of Settlement who had been listening to

these chants from the earliest age. The cantorial chant was second

nature to the musical soul of these Jewish children.

Mischa Elman, the first of Auer’s superstars, was of this

breed.. Auer heard him in Odessa when Elman was 11 years old, took

him under his supervision, and obtained permission for him and his

father to live in St. Petersburg. After only one year and four

months with Auer, Elman played a sensational debut in Berlin.

Henry Roth was absolutely right in saying that it is hard to

believe that Auer could change Elman’ s playing during one year,

especially considering that Auer himself was an old-fashioned

violinist in the tradition of the Spohr-Joachim school with its

minimal usage of vibrato (resulting in a dry sound), limited

emotional projection, and little stress on technical perfection. So

it was Elman himself, who through his playing was teaching Auer a

new concept of violin playing.

After Elman, an army of Jewish children with fiddles under

their arms and cantorial chants in their hearts, began their exodus

from the Pale of Settlement. Looking at the list of Auer’s

students from this period, we see almost exclusively Jewish names.

Auer’s class flourished with the names of Efrem Zimbalist, Miron Poliakin,

Richard Burgin, Mischa Elman, Joseph Achron, Toscha Seidel, Jascha Heifetz…and

all of them in some way or another recreated cantorial singing on

their violins. The Jewish soul was literally crying out, lamenting

and weeping in their playing. And Auer was responsible for

obtaining permits for all his Jewish students to live in St.


After the program on Heifetz, I produced a program on Yehudi

Menuhin. Menuhin was born in the U.S. of Russian Jewish parents

who, before coming to America, spent a good number of years in

Palestine. Menuhin’s playing (I concentrated mainly on his Golden

Era of the 1930s and 40s) was probably even more Jewish in character

than that of the Auer school.

The name of Wieniawski is easily associated with Paganini’s

epoch. He was born in 1835 and had close connections with such

notable Paganini contemporaries as Ernst and Vieuxtemps. And

Paganini’s playing was, of course, fresh during the years of these

great violinists. Wieniawski’s teacher was J. Massart (1811-1892).

Massart was a professor of the Paris Conservatory and a very

prominent violinist himself who, as a matter of fact, played

recitals with Liszt. Wieniawski studied with Massart between 1844

and 1848. After Paganini, he is without a doubt the most important

figure in violin art of the 19th Century. Quite intriguing is the

fact that Fritz Kreisler, who was born in 1875 and became one of

the most important violinists of the 20th Century, studied with

this same man, J. Massart, between 1885 and 1887. In his letter to

Kreisler’s father, Massart wrote: “I have been the teacher of

Wieniawski and many others, but little Fritz will be the greatest

of them all.” To all those imagining just how Wieniawski played

the violin, it might be interesting to read what Kreisler himself

said: “I believe Massart liked me because I played in the style of

Wieniawski. You will recall that Wieniawski intensified the

vibrato and brought it to heights never before achieved, so that it

became known as the ‘French Vibrato’. Vieuxtemps also took it up,

and after him Eugene Ysaye, who became its greatest exponent, and

I. Joseph Joachim, for instance, disdained it.”

Giving lectures on “An Historical Perspective on the Art of

Violin Playing since the Beginning of the Recording Era” in

Chicago, Milwaukee, Moscow ( Russia), and at an international workshop in Eisenstadt,

Austria, I was astonished at how little is known presently about the

violin playing of the past, its technical level, its style, and its

sound quality. Many professional musicians in the field of violin

have very little idea that violin playing was not always the same,

but has changed significantly in the last 150 years. Listening to the

recordings of the great personalities of the violin from the

previous era must, I believe, be extremely important now that

standardization of playing takes more and more precedence over

personalization of performance. We are losing the most important

aspect of any art, which is the personality of the creative artist. And

hearing the playing of Kreisler, Heifetz, Elman, and Menuhin could

inspire and enlighten today’s playing immensely. Heifetz

established the modern, extremely high level of perfection in

violin playing. Violin art benefitted immeasurably from the

Heifetz phenomenon, but, through the years, the personal approach

to interpretations of musical works has diminished in direct

proportion to these steadily rising levels of perfection. If the

renditions of the great masters’ pieces could combine the technical

perfection of today with the great personalization of the past,

the next step in violin art will be achieved.


Yuri Beliavsky

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