One of the things I really love about the Library of Congress Flickr stream’s collection of images from the early 20th C. (News in the 1910s) is that it provides a vivid reminder (as if one needed it) of the context in which certain people and objects in one’s experience actually operated. Recorded music, for example, can have the illusory effect of making a performance seem timelessly present.
Jascha Heifetz died in 1987, and this performance from later in his career (perhaps the late 60s) is, in its way “peak Heifetz” — racing, effortlessly light without sacrificing powerful tone and expression, and above all a demonstration of his excellent control and mastery of the instrument. Note that this isn’t a thoroughly cleaned-up recording — it’s still got all of the crunch and slip and noise that violins make even in the best hands, things that in some contemporary recordings (*coughAutoTune*cough*) are carefully hidden or corrected. That is, I think, what makes something like this performance feel so present to me — even Heifetz makes these sounds in this way, live and immediate and irrevocable.
I am used to thinking (because I was a child learning to play the violin when he was old and mostly dedicated to teaching rather than performing) of the image of Heifetz in this video — a gray man with a lively violin and a sort of understated, playful wink waiting to happen on his face. That’s why I was especially delighted to find him young again through the good graces of the Library of Congress, when the old man was a young prodigy:
This undated photo from the Bain News Service was taken sometime between 1915 and 1920, probably around 1917; Heifetz would have been in his teens, having come with his family to the United States in ’17 to make his debut at Carnegie Hall. I love the picture not just for the window it provides into his youth, but also for its gritty printed-on-glass black-and-white details: the rosin near the bridge and f-holes of the violin, close to his face and body as the main focus of the shot; the blurring of his fingering hand; the attention of both Heifetz and the viewer of the photo drawn to the note played by his bow hand on the piano. It’s a lovely shot, thoughtful and full of the promise of music to come, and it’s just messy enough to feel immediate and present.*
It’s easy enough to put the old man and the young man beside each other in a digital environment, their images and sounds recorded and preserved long after the life of the man himself ended. Putting the old man and the young man together becomes possible in a way that life does not permit. So: an illusion of timelessness, created by the eternal “present” of recording media.
*It’s amusing to note that the digital image here (produced from glass negative) is actually flipped — it makes it look as if his right hand is holding up the violin while the bow is in his left, which is obviously not how he played. How can you tell? Look at the chin rest on the violin — if he had merely been persuaded to hold a normal violin incorrectly to set up the shot, the chin rest would be on the other side of the tailpiece. Yet it is difficult for me to imagine this image having quite the same impact facing the “correct” way; perhaps this feeling of mine is an artifact of living in a culture where so much of what we do is oriented left-to-right.