I was left with a feeling of great sadness after watching Jascha Heifetz: God's Fiddler in the PBS series American Masters the other night. No doubt at all that Heifetz was one of the greatest artists of the 20th century. The music that was featured in the program was a reminder of his prodigious skill with the instrument he was able to play already at the age of three. It brought wonder and joy into the loves of millions of his fellow human beings. No doubt at all. The sadness had to do with his isolation as a man, the absence of intimate relationships in his life, the alienation from his children...
Two things about the program stood out for me. One of these was his response to his first negative review. He had been performing to rapt, worshipful audiences since the age of five. He arrived in America in his late teens for what was initially intended to be a brief concert tour, but the Russian revolution intervened, and this country became his new home. Once here he was seduced, it seems, by his first taste of freedom from the strictures of his musical education and the social mores of his country of birth, and flirted with the fame and fortune that opened up the possibility of a whole new life for him. He began to skimp on the discipline of practice, and to coast along on the strength of his natural skills. Until that negative, frankly scolding review, which he could have dismissed with the arrogance of youth--but chose, instead, to listen. He later described it as the turning point in his life as a serious artist. He became that phenomenon, Heifetz.
But at what a cost. This was the second thing that stood out. He had three children, by two marriages. He had no interest in them, established no relationship with them, virtually disowned them. Both marriages failed--the program did not discuss the reasons for their failure, but it is easy enough to suppose that it was partly because of his exclusive dedication to his art, partly because he was unable to allow anyone to get really close to him. The backstory: once it became clear that, as a child, he had enormous talent, far beyond the capacity of local teachers to nurture, he was sent, at his father's insistence, to the conservatory in St. Petersburg, to study under Leopold Auer, the greatest teacher in Russia at the time. He was nine or ten when he left home. His father accompanied him, but needed to return to the family from time to time; and, when he did, instructed his son to remain alone in their St. Petersburg apartment for days on end, and to hide away in a closet whenever he heard approaching footsteps or a knock at the door.
A terrifying experience, then, for a ten year old. Along with the disciplinary demands of his education as an instrumentalist, this surely left him powerfully fortified against the external world. Those many who knew him--colleagues, students, acquaintances--describe him universally as a man to be feared more than loved, remote, unapproachable, cold, unreceptive to the warmth of human contact. To judge by the ample footage of film that followed his career, his international travels, his home life (he himself was an avid photographer and amateur film-maker), he rarely allowed himself a smile or a touch. As Itzhak Perlman noted in an interview--one of the many performers who learned from him and worshipped his example--he channeled every last ounce of his passion into his performance. Virtually none of it was allowed to spill over into his life.
The Heifetz I saw in this documentary, then, was a damaged man--a truly great musician, but a man who, for whatever reason, sacrificed a great deal of his humanity to his art. It's a not-unfamilar story. There remains that great, persistent, unanswerable question: to be the great artist, must one surrender everything else in life? Must those who love you suffer from your neglect as you pursue your vision? I suppose the answer is always going to be different for different individuals. But in this case, as I say, I was left feeling sad. Sad for Heifetz. Sad, too, honestly, for myself, for having shared for so many years some part of that remoteness, that unapproachability, that armor that protects the heart from the threat of human contact. And for having surrendered what I judge to be too much, and yet never quite enough to become the "great writer"--if that was what was needed. For not ever knowing quite whether I had that greatness in me, and for lacking the courage, the conviction, the discipline, the peristence--sometimes I think the selfishness--to find out. Over "art", I have always chosen life.
So there it is--a rather profound and eventually response to an excellent documentary. I end up unsure whether to praise the man, or pity him. What's left is the music. Is that in itself, I wonder, enough? It's only art.