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Heifetz, rhythm, and "playing straight"


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I thought given the various ongoing debates about "playing straight", following the printed score, playing the printed rhythm, and the like, the following bit about Heifetz might prove to be interesting:

Quite a few performers and conductors can keep a steady tempo and rhythm, but few have the daring flexibility -- the sense of freedom -- to counterbalance the monotony that inevitably ensues.

Heifetz had an ironclad sense of rhythm and could keep a steady tempo going forever, yet he endowed it with tiny, hardly noticeable changes within the measures, and even throughout whole phrases, to give the music a "lift", especially if the same rhythmical pattern continued for a long time.

Such subtleties cannot be put into notation or dressed up in hard and fast rules; they are buried in the depths even of uninspiring scores for the performer to recognize and bring to life.

"I feel nothing," Heifetz would say after a stiff, mannered performance, even one that was technically perfect, if it followed the printed score exactly. Nothing is more deadly than a "straight" readign of Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Schubert, or any music whose effect depends on not being metronomic.

Only when the performer could rise above technical problems, to think and feel the music without showing the seams of technical preparation, would Heifetz grant him the distinction that he or she was ready.

(Just found this in "Heifetz As I Knew Him", the new book by Ayke Agus, his accompanist. Definitely interesting reading.)

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This is a pretty stupid argument, really, since, technically, no one worth hearing plays anything "straight". Rhythmic flucuations are happening all the time. They may not be recognizable to the ear, but they are real and quantifiable (maybe milliseconds of delay). This is what gives the music "feel". Even a rock-solid drummer playing to a click track will fudge time. Each bar, for instance, will have the snare hits dead on beats 2 and 4 but the kick drum will be lagging. This gives the music that ability to sound in time yet still be extremely expressive. If this were not so, I could put all of you violinists out of work by using a synthesizer rigged to give just temperment and a sequencer quantized to give perfect time to generate the ultimate performance of any piece (at least within the drastic limitations of the printed score). The sucessful meshing of 40 or so individuals each playing a little bit off in different directions is what gives an orchestra its grandeur, not simply the amount of space they take up on the platform.

I think it's silly to degrade a musician because he/she "can't play the rhythm on the score". Beyond a certain intermediate level of player, the ability to play in straight time is a given. What they do with thier interpretations is the spice of life. You can not like what they do with the rhythm (too much, too little) but it's a never ending discussion, like trying to decide who's the best baseball player of all time.

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Frankly, (and I know I'll catch **** for this), but I don't see the big deal about Heifetz. Sure, I admit he's great technically, but it's nothing that Gil Shaham, or Perlman, or Hillary Hahn, or Frank Peter Zimmerman can't do. I've listened to many many Heifetz recordings, and I find them terribly dry. I'm always wanting something more. His playing is just so incredibly boring. It's even boring to watch his stiff body play through everything. I feel no musical sensitivity from his recordings at all. OH well, just my thoughts. Adieu.



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Listen to the YOUNG Heifetz -- I thought that Heifetz was cold, too, 'til I heard his earlier performances. (I don't know what Heifetz was like in the studio -- those one-take 78s seem to capture the drama of his performances better.)

You must hear his EMI Glazunov - Sibelius - Tchaikovsky CD, for starters. It will change the way you think about Heifetz.

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I like the quotation.

But, for the record: haven't the other threads about technique been concerned with intonation and actually hitting all the notes? Not with strict vs. "free" tempo, or embellishments, or performance subtleties not in the score?

Here's another quotation (I posted in a different thread, thought it might go here as well) from Galamian regarding mastery and technique:

"Technique is the ability to direct mentally and to execute physically all of the necessary playing movements of left and right hands, arms, and fingers. A complete technique means the development of all the elements of the violinistic skill to the highest level. In short, it is the complete mastery over all the potentialities of the instrument. It implies the ability to do justice, with unfailing reliability and control, to each and every demand of the most refined musical imagination. It enables the player, when he has formed an ideal concept of how any work should sound, to live up to this concept in actual performance. A technique which fulfills these ultimate requirements can be called an accomplished interpretive technique. It is the fundamental goal for which one must strive, because it, and it alone, opens the way to the highest artistic accomplishment."

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Check out the board's archives. We've had a lot of arguments in the past about these issues. Certain members of the board advocate "playing straight", not deviating from or distorting the printed rhythm, and so forth. Some of those members believe that performers distort rhythms due to lack of technical proficiency.

I've never agreed with these assertions. I think the passage I quoted above is interesting food for thought, given that Heifetz apparently came down quite heavily upon the side of NOT playing straight and cheerfully altering printed rhythms if he felt it appropriate.

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Okay, then this ongoing debate is not descended from the intonation/missed notes threads of recent days, but from earlier posts. Sorry for my confusion.


Originally posted by lwl:

Heifetz apparently came down quite heavily upon the side of NOT playing straight and cheerfully altering printed rhythms if he felt it appropriate.

Perhaps I'm picking a semantic nit here, but it seems to me saying "quite heavily..." and "cheerfully altering printed rhythms" implies much more aggressive and deviant alterations than those implied by:

"...yet he endowed it with tiny, hardly noticeable changes within the measures, and even throughout whole phrases..."

I particularly like the phrase "hardly noticeable." Perhaps there's a key there. If a normal mortal (like most here, I'd humbly suggest) can hear the deviation then it's pretty likely it isn't as subtle as the changes which Heifetz applauds.

Perhaps what we should strive for are alterations that work subliminally, alterations that all but a very few would not be able to specify; but that all would "hear" on some deeper, musical level.

To me, the kind of control that deviates so slightly and individually that is is barely noticeable, yet has profound effect on the music, is precisely the kind of interpretive technique Galamian proposes. It would make sense that to embellish within the confines of the music one should be able to play it straight.


[This message has been edited by Guy Gallo (edited 05-10-2001).]

[This message has been edited by Guy Gallo (edited 05-10-2001).]

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There is much to be said for having a good sense of when to use vibrato, but without the internal metronome, it doesn't really work. The key is to make subtle changes within the phrases, as Heifetz did... I quote now from Heifetz's teacher:

"The average young violin student does not take to heart as he should the great importance of shading, of nuance, in music. He is inclined to believe that if he plays correctly, rhythmically, and, perhaps with termperament, he is doing all a player can be asked to do... Monotony is the death of music. Nuance is the antidote for monotony... Tempo is... to be considered under the geeneral conception of nuance... A violinist with no sense of rhythm is no violinist... Rhythm is a principle underlying all life... Individuality in nuance, however, should never degenerate into bizarre affectation... The slightest additional emphasis, the least extension of a ritardando, the tinest exaggeration of a rubata, will often produce the most grotesque results... Phrasing, as regards execution--that is from a technical standpoint--is principally a matter of correct bowing and fingering--always supported, however, by artistic feeling. Phrasing is always something essentially personal. It has no fixed laws--though various conflicting systems of phrasing exist--and depends wholly on the musical and the poetical sense of the performer."

Hopefully this provides a glimpse of what Heifetz himself was taught. I'll provide more elaboration upon request. This chapter in Auer's book (Violin Playing As I Teach It) on phrasing is excellent (as is the rest of the book)... Hope this provides some guidance.

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I agree with Guy, "hardly noticable" is the key.

To really understand rhythm one needs to listen to old delta blues music, guys like Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, and John Lee Hooker. These guys know what rhythm and soul are about. I read that Heifetz book too, and was disappointed (not about this particular quote but other things). But what should I expect from an aristocratic author?

[This message has been edited by LongHair (edited 05-10-2001).]

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