9781574670622 / 157467062X

Heifetz As I Knew Him


Publisher:Amadeus Press



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About the book:

As often happens with biographies written from a personal point of view, this book tells us more about the author than the subject. Ayke Agus was born in strife-torn Indonesia, the oldest child in a large, authoritarian, repressive family. Musically very gifted, she studied both violin and piano and was exhibited from an early age as her country's most promising violin prodigy. Her mother was a great admirer of Jascha Heifetz; little Ayke grew up listening to his records and made him her musical and personal idol. She escaped her restrictive life by going to America to study, and eventually entered Heifetz's master class at the University of Southern California. He quickly pressed her into service as class pianist; soon, she became his personal accompanist and increasingly indispensable companion. This is the story of their symbiotic love-hate relationship, which lasted until his death 15 years later. During that time, she found out that her idol had feet of clay and never forgave him for it.

There is a certain fascination in discovering the weaknesses and foibles of famous people. Yet this portrait of the great Jascha Heifetz is not really a "warts and all" account, but rather one that's "all warts." It depicts him as demanding, controlling, manipulative, tyrannical, sadistic, inflexible, narrow-minded, suspicious, reclusive, and, as his health declined, increasingly erratic, unpredictable, and irrational. When Agus met him, he had already retired from the stage, but still played chamber music privately with friends and students, and he did not stop playing for himself until almost the end. He poured a lot of energy into his master class. According to Agus's sometimes enlightening, sometimes primitive description, Heifetz's manner of teaching--he had no method--was intensely concentrated, but unremittingly, often unrealistically, demanding and despotic, pedagogically and personally.

But it's his relationship with the author herself that naturally takes center stage. Heifetz very soon added musical and domestic duties to her services until Agus spent virtually all her time at his beck and call, finally doing everything for him, even after she got married and became a mother, from running his household to administering his eye drops. She claims it was entirely due to her coaxing and assistance that he resumed work on his unfinished transcriptions. In return, he taught her a lot about making, performing, and arranging music. They exchanged stories about their lives, and she felt a bond in their both having grown up as prodigies (to whom he developed a lifelong aversion). Agus concludes that, like her, Heifetz was exploited by his parents, but unlike her, he was spoiled as well, and she speculates that this made him "a superannuated, insecure, and immature child," unable to form lasting relationships, craving but alienating friends. She discreetly avoids discussing his marital and family life. Not surprisingly, the sections about herself are written with the most natural immediacy; elsewhere, her style is often clumsy, with forced American colloquialisms, shallow pseudo-philosophical reflections, and pseudo-psychological analyses. There is a note of condescension, almost of contempt, in the way she portrays her tarnished idol, while underlining her own self-sacrificing loyalty, which she calls "putting up with him."

As he got older, Heifetz became profoundly depressive. He underwent a serious shoulder operation and suffered many increasingly dangerous falls. An intensely private person, he lived alone even when his health was failing, and Ayke Agus apparently took it upon herself to cope with all his problems. The reader wonders: should she not have informed his children of his condition before the final crisis? And why did she stay with him when his demands became ever more unreasonable, his behavior more abusive? She says she was held captive by her early, incurable hero-worship of the man and the artist, and by the music they made together. Yet her account reads like an act of catharsis, if not revenge. --Edith Eisler

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