Jascha Heifetz: Early Years in Russia

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Notoriously reticent about his early years, violinist Jascha Heifetz famously reduced the story of his childhood to "Born in Russia. First lessons at 3. Debut in Russia at 7. Debut in Carnegie Hall at 17. That's all there is to say." Tracing his little-known upbringing, Jascha Heifetz: Early Years in Russia uncovers the events and experiences that shaped one of the modern era's most unique talents and enigmatic personalities. Using previously unstudied archival materials and interviews with family and friends, this biography explores Heifetz's meteoric rise in the Russian music world-from his first violin lessons with his father, to his studies at the St. Petersburg Conservatory with the well-known pedagogue Leopold Auer, to his tours throughout Russia and Europe. Spotlighting Auer's close-knit circle of musicians, Galina Kopytova underscores the lives of artists in Russia's "Silver Age"-an explosion of artistic activity amid the rapid social and political changes of the early 20th century.

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1 Early Roots of the Heifetz Family

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THE HEIFETZ FAMILY TREE includes over one hundred people across five generations and family members who now reside in the United States, Australia, Israel, Latvia, and Russia. The oldest Heifetz name preserved in family memory is that of Ilya (or Elye), Jascha’s paternal grandfather, who was born around 1830. Two photographs of Ilya survive in the personal records of his descendants; one is an individual portrait, and the other a group photograph featuring Ilya, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. With one photograph now located in Russia and the other in the United States, these two unique, symbolic documents unite the Heifetz clan across the world.

According to family legend, Ilya Heifetz worked as a teacher (melamed) in a Jewish boys’ school (cheder) and lived with his large family in Polotsk, a provincial city in the western Russian province (guberniya) of Vitebsk, which is now part of Belarus. The surviving family group photograph dates from the late 1890s, when Ilya was well over sixty and his wife, Feyga, was no longer alive. An earlier photograph from the 1870s shows Jascha’s father, Ruvin, as a child, with his mother and grandmother, and is stamped, “Novo-Alexandria (Poulavy).”1 Novo-Alexandria was the name of a settlement in the Lublin province located on the bank of the Vistula (Wisła) River, seventy-five miles from Warsaw. Formerly known as Puławy, the city was renamed Novo-Alexandria in 1846 after a visit by Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna, wife of Tsar Nicholas I. It functioned as an important trade center between Russia, Austria, and the Baltic region, and reverted to its former name, Puławy, in 1918. By the end of the nineteenth century, Novo-Alexandria had experienced a large influx of Jewish settlers; about 2,500 of its 3,500 residents were Jewish.

 

2 1901–1906: Vilnius

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FOLLOWING THE THIRD PARTITION of Poland in 1795, the city ofVilnius (Vilna)—once the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania—was annexed by the Russian Empire. By the end of the nineteenth century, Vilnius was a large provincial capital in the Russian Empire and played an active role in Russian life as a center for trade, industry, and culture. By the early twentieth century, remnants ofthe city’s history included the magnificent palace of Kazimierz Sapieha, which was later turned into a military hospital; Gediminas Castle and the ruined towers on the Castle mount; the cathedral bell tower; and the Lithuanian crest above the city gates. Vilnius resembled most other Russian cities of this period, even though only one-seventh of its population was ethnically Russian. As a result of nineteenth-century russification, storefront signs and advertisements were converted to Russian, and authorities assigned standard Russian names to city streets.

Half ofVilnius’s 150,000 inhabitants were Jewish, and in many respects the city functioned as the unofficial capital of the Pale of Settlement. There were fewer Jews in Vilnius than in the two other major Jewish centers of the Russian Empire—Odessa and Warsaw—but Vilnius’s centuries-old role as a cultural and religious center gave it a prominent position for Jews in Russia’s northwest region. From 1573 onward, the Great Synagogue in Vilnius became the focal point for an expanding Jewish population, and the Jewish ghetto expanded further under Władysław IV’s 1633 regulations allotting Jews certain trade and craft rights. Even with these new regulations, Jews were allowed to settle only in the area near the synagogue on Zhidovskaya Street (later Yevreiskaya Street).1 Several streets were closed to accommodate the ghetto’s expansion within the borders of the historical center. Some areas within these boundaries continued to remain off limits to Jewish settlement, including Ostrobramskaya Street with its Christian church that often held processions.

 

3 1906–1909: Music School

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UNDER THE AUSPICES OF THE Russian Music Society (RMO), music schools opened throughout major cities in Russia during the second half of the nineteenth century, providing the primary source of professional musical training. The RMO was founded in 1859 following the efforts of the pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein; patronage from the Tsar’s family in 1869 led to its elevation as the Imperial Russian Music Society (IRMO). Both St. Petersburg and Moscow IRMO schools quickly gained conservatory status and became the chief centers of higher musical education. By the start of the twentieth century, music classes and schools under the IRMO across Russia had advanced significantly, and they became the main suppliers of teaching staff for the conservatories in larger cities and in the provinces.

The Vilnius division of the society opened in December 1873, but closed just a few years later. It reopened in 1898, albeit on a small scale, and by the 1906–1907 season it counted only four actual members.1 Short resources placed concerts and educational work on hold until the 1906 arrival of two respected women—Baroness Alisa von Wolf, the wife of the trustee of the Scholarly Circle of Vilnius, and Lyudmila Lyubimova, the wife of the governor of Vilnius and a trustee of orphanages. Following the efforts of these two women, the number of society members grew initially to thirty-six, then to 130 by the next season, enabling the Vilnius division to stage an entire series of public concerts.

 

4 1910: St. Petersburg Conservatory and Nalbandian

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BY 1910, RUSSIA BOASTED TWO conservatories, one in St. Petersburg, then the capital, and one in Moscow. The St. Petersburg Conservatory was founded in 1862 by Anton Rubinstein and was the first and oldest Russian center of academic musical education. Notable graduates included Tchaikovsky, Lyadov, Fyodor Stravinsky (the composer Igor’s father), Ivan Yershov, Vasily Safonov, and Anna Yesipova. A number of significant pedagogical schools developed at the conservatory, including the violin school of Leopold Auer, Anna Yesipova’s piano school, and Aleksandr Verzhbilovich’s cello school. In June 1908, a year and a halfbefore the Heifetzes arrived in St. Petersburg, the conservatory’s influential head of composition, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, passed away. The memory of the composer lived on at the institution, however, and it is said that Rimsky-Korsakov’s coat hook remained vacant for many years.

From December 1905 onward, the post of conservatory director was occupied by a former student of Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Glazunov (1865–1936). The conservatory generally kept a distance from social and political issues, but the 1905 Russian Revolution led to a struggle for autonomy from the main board of the IRMO. This new autonomy crystallized in the unanimous vote for Glazunov; earlier, directors had been appointed by the leadership of the IRMO. In 1909, the conservatory’s artistic council voted to give Glazunov a second term and conferred upon him the title of Distinguished Professor. Glazunov’s reign at the conservatory lasted more than twenty years.

 

5 First Performances in St. Petersburg

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JUDGING BY THE ABSENCE of a certificate of leave, without which conservatory students were unable to leave the capital, Ruvin and Jascha must have remained in St. Petersburg for the rest of December and into 1911. The cost of a return trip to Vilnius was likely prohibitive; thus, for the first time, Jascha spent the New Year’s holiday far from his family and friends, but they did not forget about him. Marusya Malkina wrote, “Dear darling Jaschenka! I congratulate you on the New Year and wish you all the best.”1 Each new semester, however, brought another round of bureaucratic hurdles. On January 2, for instance, Jascha and Ruvin received their residency permit from the conservatory for the period up to June 1, 1911, and had to present their documents at the police station in order to receive a stamp for their apartment on Bolshaya Masterskaya Street.2 On January 20, Jascha turned ten, and for the second time in his young life, spent his birthday away from home and extended family.

 

6 Summer 1911: Concerts in Pavlovsk and Odessa

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THE HEIFETZES SPENT THEIR SUMMER vacation at a dacha in Antakalnis, one of the twenty-six suburbs of Vilnius and a popular area during the summer. A local guidebook from the period described it as follows: “Heading along the bank of the Viliya to the Church of St. Peter and Paul, one can stop in the suburb of Antokol which stretches along the Viliya for almost three versts. Scattered hills to the right of the church are covered with beautiful green pine forests. Not far from there is the Sapezhinsky Garden and Palace . . .”1 The Heifetz family stayed at 9 Petropavlovsk Lane, in a house belonging to a man named Pyotr Guryanov.

The Heifetzes were joined by their young cousin Anyuta Sharfstein-Koch during their summer retreat. Some eight decades later in a phone conversation, Sharfstein-Kochremembered fondly her time with the Heifetz siblings in the hills outside Vilnius. Elza showed her the chickens laying eggs and Pauline took her up to Jascha’s room in the house: “He was busy at the table with all these dead butterflies. . . . I said to him, ‘Where did you get all those butterflies?’ And he said he’ll show me. And he went out and he was running with the net after the butterflies. Can you visualize it? Running after butterflies with a net!” Butterfly catching became a widespread and fashionable hobby during the beginning of the century, and one could often find children and adults alike running through the countryside with nets chasing the colorful insects.

 

7 Fall 1911: In the Class of Professor Auer

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PROFESSOR LEOPOLD AUER, born on June 7, 1845 (NS), was already sixty-six years old when Jascha entered his class in 1911. His father was a painter from the small Hungarian town of Veszprém near Lake Balaton. In his 1923 biography, My Long Life in Music, published in New York, Auer wrote about his journey from difficult beginnings in the backwaters of the Austrian Empire to a successful musical career in the upper circles of the Russian Empire. The only major Russian work on Auer’s life is a 1962 monograph by Lev Raaben.1 Owing to the absence of documents pertaining to Auer’s career in the archives of the conservatory and the Russian Music Society (RMO), Raaben relied on personal correspondence, conservatory reports, and other indirect sources. There was a reason for the absence of documents: the files of professors still in Russia after the 1917 revolutions were kept, but those belonging to Auer and others who departed, such as Nikolai Malko and Vladimir Drozdov, were discarded.

 

8 The Beginning of 1912

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THE NEW YEAR BROUGHT VARIOUS interruptions to Jascha’s violin lessons. In January, Auer left St. Petersburg to visit Kiev and Odessa to assist in the conversion of the two Imperial Russian Music Society schools into conservatories. Journalists in Odessa interviewed Auer a number of times, questioning him about the music schools, and also asking incessantly about his student Jascha Heifetz, whose past summer concerts in the city had so astonished the local public. Auer spoke passionately of Jascha’s potential:

He is a most genius boy out of whom I do not doubt will come a great artist of world fame. You ask, will his performances onstage negatively affect his talent? It seems to me that Heifetz’s talent is so great that his public performances barely affect his abilities. On the contrary, sporadic performances will only be of good use for him Clearly, constant travel could harm the boy’s future, but at the present time the boy, who performs fairly rarely onstage, is doing very well in his general studies, and is quite successful.1

 

9 1912: First Trip to Germany

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PRIOR TO THE OUTBREAK of World War I, Berlin was one of the most important cities in the world, politically, industrially, and in terms of its standard of living. The city underwent significant development after it became the capital of the German Empire in 1871, and further growth continued from 1888 with the ascension of Wilhelm II to the throne. As industry increased, the city grew, and by the start of the 1910s, the population of Berlin and its suburbs reached over three-and-a-half million, making it Europe’s third largest city.

Led by its universities and institutions such as the Royal Academy of Sciences, Berlin also became one of the premier academic centers of Western Europe. The city gained a reputation for its culture, which was showcased in its numerous museums, galleries, and educational and entertainment establishments. Aside from those run by the state, Berlin boasted twenty-five private theaters, including the Deutsches Theater headed by the world-famous director Max Reinhardt. Berlin musical life thrived, and institutions such as the Stern Conservatory had an international reputation for providing a high level of music education. In addition to its fondness for lighter genres, the Berlin public was passionate about serious music. Among the several concert halls and orchestras in Berlin, attention focused on the Royal Capella and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, which offered evening concerts twice a week, often with the participation of international stars. The high-profile concerts of the Berlin Philharmonic usually took place in the Philharmonic Hall and were conducted, at this time, by Arthur Nikisch, who also led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. In addition to the Berlin Philharmonic performances, symphonic and chamber music events took place in many other concert venues throughout Berlin, including the Beethoven-Saal, the Bechstein-Saal, the Hall of the Vocal Academy, and two halls in the Königliche Hochschule für Musik.

 

10 1912: A German Tour

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UPON THEIR RETURN from the Latvian coast, the Heifetz family moved from their apartment on Voznesensky Prospekt to building 8-10 Bolshaya Masterskaya Street, a tall corner building facing Torgovaya Street. This was a familiar place for Jascha since it was just across the street from where he had lived with his father two years earlier. The building was new, and some final work on the inside continued for almost a year after the Heifetzes arrived. In one direction the building looked onto the dome of the synagogue, and in the other, beyond the Kryukov Canal, one could see the back of the Mariinsky Theater and also the conservatory, which was just a five-minute stroll along Torgovaya Street. That year, an amusement park with roller coasters, a Ferris wheel, swings, and other attractions opened in the nearby Demidov Gardens on Ofitserskaya Street, but Jascha had little free time for the many temptations. Leading up to important performances, Auer paid special attention to his students and made every effort to help them perfect their concert programs.

 

11 The Beginning of 1913

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A NUMBER OF EXCITING musical experiences for the residents of St. Petersburg ushered in the New Year, starting on January 7 with a performance by the violinist Jan Kubelík at the Hall of the Assembly of the Nobility. Despite the audience’s enthusiastic response, the critics reacted with restraint to Kubelík’s playing, noting a lack of inspiration only partially masked by his confidence and impressive technique. For Jascha, Kubelík’s performance presented the chance to hear the Ernst Concerto pathétique in F-sharp Minor, a piece he had begun to study with Auer in preparation for a spring performance. Later in January, the violinist Henri Marteau arrived from Berlin to perform the Beethoven Concerto, a piece Jascha had yet to learn, but one that would become integral to his adult repertoire. On January 23, Fritz Kreisler performed the Elgar Concerto at the Hall of the Assembly of the Nobility under the direction of Serge Koussevitzky. Although Jascha performed Elgar’s miniature piece La Capricieuse in Russia, he did not perform the composer’s beautiful and demanding concerto until after he left for the United States. Following the symphony concert with Koussevitzky, Kreisler gave three successful recitals in the same venue on January 29, February 5, and February 7, all accompanied by Rudolph Merwolf, who in the near future would also accompany Jascha.

 

12 Summer-Fall 1913: Loschwitz

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JASCHA HEIFETZ SPENT THE SUMMER of 1913 with Leopold Auer in Germany, for what was the first in a series of summer vacations spent with his professor. For many years, Auer had spent his summers in England, but in 1912 he began to vacation in Loschwitz, a charming suburb of Dresden. Auer wrote warmly of these vacations: “Loschwitz was a delightful village flanked by a green hill on the bank of the Elbe. On one side we had a view of Dresden, on the other we could look out toward the green mountains ofthe Saxon Alps.”1 Spread along both banks ofthe Elbe, Dresden was known as the “German Florence”; its world-famous gallery housed a collection of paintings by great Flemish and Italian artists. Tourists traveled great distances to visit the city. Other attractions included Zwinger Palace, Dresden Castle, and several museums. Located just two miles from Dresden, Loschwitz was one of many resorts located in the valley and was surrounded by deep picturesque gorges, green forests, and mountain streams.

 

13 Winter 1913–1914: Bar Mitzvah

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DURING JASCHA’S PERIOD OF STUDY at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, he returned often to Vilnius to visit, but two years had passed since he last performed in his hometown. The previous appearance was in December 1911 at a charity concert, during which he performed only Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen. The music-loving residents of Vilnius were in luck when toward the end of November 1913, local newspapers published the following announcements: “Vilnius Symphony Orchestra. City Hall. 4 December 1913. Symphony Concert with the participation of world-famous violinist Jascha Heifetz. Conductor A. Wylezinski.”1

The Heifetzes arrived in Vilnius on December 3 and that same day Jascha participated in a rehearsal with the Vilnius Symphony Orchestra. For the first time, the young boy was to perform the Beethoven Concerto, one of the greatest and most challenging works in the violin repertoire. This concerto featured prominently in Heifetz’s career, and in his old age he remarked that “there is so much beautiful music. But the Mozart and Beethoven Concerti are special. They are the most difficult, too.”2 Coincidentally, just prior to Jascha’s arrival in Vilnius, his conservatory classmate Cecilia Hansen had also performed the Beethoven Concerto there.

 

14 Spring 1914

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JASCHA AND HIS PARENTS returned to St. Petersburg during the second half of February (OS). After a short time at home, Jascha traveled to Moscow, where on March 1 he appeared with Isidor Achron at a benefit concert for the Society for the Spread of Enlightenment among Jews in Russia, a charity for which Jascha had performed almost exactly a year earlier. Both performances for this charity were organized by David Shor, a well-known figure in Moscow who had founded the Moscow Trio two decades earlier. Shor ran a private music school and organized many large-scale educational projects. In Moscow and in other Russian cities he gave lectures dedicated to the work of Beethoven, and as the chairman for the Moscow division of the Society for Jewish Folk Music he maintained close ties with his St. Petersburg counterparts. Shor came to know the Heifetzes through his friendship with Zinovy Kiselgof.

For his second concert in Bolshoi Hall at the Moscow Conservatory, Jascha performed the Tchaikovsky Concerto, Handel Sonata in E, Beethoven Romance in G, Mozart Minuet, and Wieniawski’s Faust Fantasy. In the words of the newspaper Golos Moskvy, “the young artist was remarkably successful.”1 The reviewer for the Russkaya muzykalnaya gazeta contrasted the young Jascha’s achievements with those of twenty-nine-year-old Moscow violinist Mikhail Erdenko, favoring the younger violinist:

 

15 Summer-Fall 1914: War

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AUER’S SUMMER TEACHING SEASON in Loschwitz began early that year and students flocked there from all over Russia. The Heifetzes arrived in May and sent a postcard to Kiselgof. On Sunday, June 1 (NS June 14) he answered them from St. Petersburg:

I received your letter and was very, very glad. But I’m still in stuffy and dusty Piter and I’m not getting out of here until Wednesday. How horrible! But I’m glad for you, my friends, that you are already there, in a cultured, clean country, and are enjoying the beautiful nature and pleasant surroundings. I was in Pavlovsk again, but did not ride my bike—I was too lazy. I saw Achronchik [Isidor Achron] and passed along your greetings. He very much regrets that he did not see you at the station. Now I will wait from Vitebsk for your letter (Generalnaya, d. 3). From there I will write in more detail. Let me know your permanent address.1

Kiselgof sent the postcard to the home of Dorothea Grosse in Dresden since she knew how to contact the Heifetzes that summer. Conveniently, Jascha and his family stayed at the same residence as the previous year: Kurhaus “Neue Rochwitz,” 8 Hauptstrasse, Bergschlösschen. Having already spent a summer in Loschwitz, the Heifetzes quickly settled into the routine of lessons, forest walks, tennis matches, and trips to the Russian library in Dresden. Meanwhile, Jascha was never separated from his beloved Leica camera.

 

l6 January-September 1915

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THE ARRIVAL OF A NEW YEAR brought no relief to the conflict: Germany had intended to finish the war by autumn, and Russia had planned to fight only on foreign territory and was now dealing with a front line moving toward its own borders. In the words of Rech, a popular newspaper in Russian intellectual circles, “to say whether or not the war ends in the coming year, of course, is impossible. Nevertheless, however long the war continues, however much effort it requires, we have enough physical and spiritual strength.”1 Among the artistic elite, some tried to find in the cataclysms of war an opportunity for evolutionary and artistic progress. For example, the composer Alexander Scriabin wrote, “How deeply mistaken are those who see in wars only evil and the results of accidentally formed discord between peoples.”2

Meanwhile, the Heifetzes began the year in a new home—a rented apartment on Yekateringofsky Prospekt, renamed Rimsky-Korsakov Prospekt in the 1920s. The street starts in a residential area and then stretches southwest through a square that is home to the enormous white and blue St. Nicholas Cathedral; from there both the conservatory and the Mariinsky Theater are visible. The street then continues alongside the Yekaterininsky Canal before it ends around Kalinkinskaya Square. The Heifetzes settled at this end ofYekateringofsky Prospekt in building 115. This would become the Heifetz family’s final address in the city. They lived in this apartment for two-and-a-half years up to their departure for the United States. The walk to the conservatory from this new apartment took twenty minutes, which was longer than before, but a tram stopped outside their building. The neighborhood where they settled was not particularly upscale; it joined the quarter between the Fontanka River and the Yekaterininsky Canal, or the “ditch,” as the latter was then unflatteringly called. Apartments in this area were packed together tightly, but unlike the more central streets, the new location was at least quiet and peaceful.

 

17 The End of 1915

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JASCHA HAD NOT SPENT AN AUTUMN in Petrograd for three years: in 1912 he toured Germany; in 1913, after a summer in Loschwitz, he played concerts in Berlin, Dresden, and Warsaw; and in 1914 the Heifetzes were detained in Germany until December. With its changeable weather and abundance of rainy days, September was nevertheless mild in the city. The beautiful yellow color of falling leaves resembled the gilded cupolas of the St. Nicholas Cathedral, which sparkled under the autumn sun, but within a few weeks this pleasant weather turned quickly into winter, bringing with it a mix of rain and snow.

Jascha and Pauline returned to the conservatory in the middle of September, and Ruvin received the customary residency certificate from the police station permitting him and his family to remain in the city until January 15, 1916.1 After many years of service, Stanislav Gabel had recently resigned as conservatory inspector and was replaced by Professor Nikolai Lavrov, who now gave Ruvin the necessary papers for dealing with the police authorities. It was Lavrov who had examined Pauline back in January 1912 when she entered the conservatory, and he continued to be supportive of the Heifetz family. As director, Glazunov continued to approve Ruvin’s enrollment in the conservatory, which allowed the Heifetzes to stay in the city. A significant readjustment, however, is apparent in Ruvin’s residency certificates from September 1915 on. Ruvin had previously been registered as a “student of the conservatory,” but was now listed as “capital.” This change indicated that although he still resided in the city as a student, he was now supporting himself financially. Clearly, Jascha’s concerts must have provided the family with enough to live on.

 

18 The First Half of 1916

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THE ARRIVAL OF A NEW YEAR brought with it another conservatory exam period. On January 20—Jascha’s fifteenth birthday—he successfully passed the mandatory viola class, and he received a 5 for both his written work and oral exam in the first level of required harmony.1 The commission for the harmony exam included the experienced theorist Vasily Kalafati and two younger pedagogues, Semyon Bogatyrev and Aleksandr Zhitomirsky, the latter an active member of the Society for Jewish Folk Music.

For Jascha, the exam period culminated on January 27 with a concert in the Maly Hall, his second of the 1915–1916 season. Also in the Maly Hall shortly before Jascha’s concert, Nalbandian had performed a benefit concert for Armenian refugees, with the piano accompaniment of Emanuel Bay and the organ accompaniment of Jacques Handschin. A Siloti subscription concert held at the Mariinsky Theater around this time caused quite a stir in presenting the premiere of conservatory student Sergei Prokofiev’s Suite from Ala i Lolli. The performance ofthis new work divided audience opinion, and as newspapers reported, Glazunov “pointedly walked out and returned to the hall only after the end of the piece.”2 Whether or not fifteen-year-old Jascha fully understood the significance ofthese events is unknown, but Prokofiev’s music expanded musical boundaries, flouting the established academic rules of harmony and counterpoint.

 

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