Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler - Filmmaker Statement: Three Key Assets for the Documentary

Emmy- and Peabody-winning filmmaker Peter Rosen (American Masters — Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes, The Cliburn: Playing on the Edge) uncovers the story of legendary musician Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987), the first truly modern violin virtuoso, for American Masters.

Rosen cites three key assets that helped him decide to make the documentary Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler: the home movies by Heifetz that Rosen discovered; Heifetz’s reconstructed music studio; and the person of musician Ayke Agus, Heifetz’s student, accompanist and companion, who provided an intimate account of Heifetz’ last 15 years.

Filmmaker Statement

When I was approached to make a documentary on Jascha Heifetz several years ago, I had some reservations but at the same time was challenged. The enigmatic Heifetz was a very private person, expressing his feelings only through his music, not his words and there was very little about him “on the record.” In fact, even 25 years after his death, there had never been a documentary made on his life anywhere in the world.

Secondly, it was a common belief, perpetuated by Heifetz , that ‘the world’s greatest violinist’ had a story that was fully formed when he was about 17 years old, already famous throughout Russia, Europe and the United States.

“Born in Russia,” he’d quip, “First lesson at three. Debut in Russia at seven. Debut in Carnegie Hall at 17. That’s all there is say.”

Then one day on a visit to the Colburn School in LA, we discovered that the institution had re-built Heifetz’s studio, designed by Lloyd Wright (son of Frank Lloyd Wright) within the walls of their new building as a Violin Master Class studio. Amazingly, it was put together piece by piece to the original architect’s specifications, exactly as it was—his inner-sanctum for 40 years—high on a hilltop overlooking Beverly Hills. We had our “set” for the filming!

Although a near perfect replica, I began to notice that the rebuilt studio was empty of Heifetz’s personal items: ashtrays, records, scores, paintings, date books, desk set, family photos, souvenirs from his tours around the world. The staff at the school mentioned there were a few things from the original studio stored in the basement of the school. And that’s where I discovered 10 rusted film cans of 16mm home movies, all filmed by Heifetz himself, a lifetime’s worth of material, from the time he was 17 years old and had just arrived in America, to close to the time he died in 1987. A treasure trove!

Luckily for a filmmaker in 2010, Heifetz was a camera fiend as far back as 1913, having taken thousands of rare and valuable photos of his family, music colleagues, and friends, wherever he traveled throughout the world during 60 years of performing.

The one-hour documentary American Masters — Jascha Heifetz: God’s Fiddler premieres nationwide Thursday, April 16 at 8 p.m. and Friday, April 17 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings).

Major market premieres include Thursday, April 16 at 8 pm on WTTW11 in Chicago and WHYY-TV in Philadelphia and 10:30 pm on THIRTEEN in New York, and Friday, April 17 at 8 pm on KERA in Dallas, 8:30 pm on WETA TV 26 in Washington, D.C., and 9 pm on PBS SoCal in Los Angeles, on KQED in San Francisco, on WGBH 2 in Boston and on Houston Public Media.