Interview by Tim Janof
Honored by Janos Starker as La Grande Dame du Violoncelle for her lifetime contributions to cello and cello teaching, Eva Heinitz is also known throughout the world for her pioneering work with the viola da gamba. She has performed in solo and chamber music concerts throughout Europe and North and South America, appearing as soloist with the Chicago, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and Vancouver Symphonies. She is Professor Emeritus of Cello at the University of Washington.
Eva Heinitz is the most powerful presence I have ever met, ever. At 91 years old, she has more fire in her soul than most 20 year olds. Her opinions are strong and passionate, and she states them with a disarming confidence.
Born in Berlin in 1907, she grew up in one of the greatest musical centers of our century, prior to the Nazi takeover. “Erich Kleiber, Furtwangler, Klemperer, Bruno Walter, and George Szell all conducted either the Berlin Philharmonic or the State Opera when I was a child. Berlin had three opera houses too. Isn’t that remarkable? All in one city! I’m very spoiled.”
Chamber music was a huge part of her life from the beginning. “Every Saturday evening we had chamber music in our home, a fantastically beautiful and elegant 12-room apartment with a large German Steinway grand piano. My father, a successful lawyer and an amateur pianist, hired the first violinist and the cellist. The violist, a medical doctor and friend of the family, played terribly, which I knew even as a child. I secretly hoped he would have a nervous breakdown and stop playing. But he never did.”
She had a sense of destiny with music. “I never had any doubt that I would become a musician. From my earliest years, I knew that I would become a musician, and that I would be a cellist. When I was seven years old, my father asked me if I would like to switch to the violin. I burst into tears, crying that I would never give up the cello.
“There were times when I regretted my choice later, since cello was not known as a major solo instrument at the time. I had to play lots of continuo and bass lines, innumerable Bach cantatas, and early Haydn Quartets. And there were hardly any cello recitals, maybe one per year, if that. Fortunately, times have changed. We live in a very different world from my childhood.”
At 15 years old, she was admitted to the Berlin State Academy of Music, a very precocious accomplishment at the time. “The strange thing is that I auditioned with a piece originally written for the viola da gamba, by August Kuhnel. Of all the wonderful cello literature in existence, my teacher had me play a gamba piece! I didn’t even know what a viola da gamba was at the time.”
She studied with Hugo Becker at the Berlin Academy, one of the most famous cello teachers in Europe. At times this was a very trying experience for her, since she already had a strong sense of how music should be played. “He played the literature with the old fashioned rubato. I have never forgotten how he wanted us to play in the beginning of the Haydn D Major Concerto. He would not allow us to play the little ascending D major scale in a straight rhythm. I hated it, but I had to do it. I don’t mean it should be played like a metronome, but why make such a big deal of it?”
Becker also had aggravating technical ideas. “It was the most painful thing in my life. I had to learn to bend and stretch the fingers of my bow hand, because every string crossing could only be made with finger movement, using no arm movement whatsoever. I still can’t do it, and I don’t believe in it. I believe in finger flexibility, but his technique was not flexible, it was very unnatural.”
While in Berlin, she had the opportunity to play chamber music with Albert Einstein, the legendary physicist. “A pianist asked me if I would like to play a Mozart trio with the famous Einstein. Who would say no? So we went to Einstein’s apartment and played the Mozart B-flat Major Piano Trio. Einstein played the violin with a very soft tone, even when the music required more. His playing was perfectly correct, but totally uninteresting. But what a fantastic face! The face of the famous Albert Einstein is something bI could never forget. It was like a landscape, not quite human, unforgettable, the face of one of the greatest minds in history.”
She taught herself the viola da gamba, becoming one of the first professional gambists in modern times, earning her a place in history as the ‘Wanda Landowska of the Viola da Gamba.’ “I started on the gamba because I was and still am a very curious person, like a hunting dog. I’ve never had a single gamba lesson. I didn’t know with whom I would study, since the gamba players at that time were mostly feeble elderly ladies or very dull players. I realized that I had to find my own way.”
Being a pioneer in the early music field, she had to research even the fundamentals, like how to hold the bow. She tried holding the bow both overhand, like a cellist, and underhand. After reading many books on the gamba, she went to England to visit Arnold Dolmetsch, an important music historian and harpsichordist. He was very sick at the time, so she discussed the gamba with his daughter, who showed her the underhanded bow hold.
Much to the chagrin of today’s Authentic players, she had an endpin placed in her gamba. “You would never guess who was partly responsible for this – the composer, Paul Hindemith. I was lamenting the fact that I performed in a silky concert gown and that the instrument kept slipping. He said ‘Just never mind, get an endpin and enjoy playing.'”
She quickly built a strong reputation as a cellist and gambist, becoming the only musician to tour with both instruments. She played the Bach Passions as solo gambist with both Wilhelm Furtwangler and Otto Klemperer. “I’ll never forget sitting there at the edge of the stage [with Klemperer], gripping my viola da gamba, waiting for the moment to come in during the St. John Passion, while the whole air vibrated with the tension of this fantastic performance. The moment came and Klemperer said to me very quietly, ‘Heinitz, just go.’ What a wonderful experience!”
And then, in 1933, Hitler came to power and her world was shattered. Because she is half-Jewish, “51%” she says defiantly, she left Berlin and became a refugee in Paris. There she studied with Diran Alexanian, a protégé of Casals. “When I first met Alexanian, I played parts of the Dvorak Concerto for him. After I finished, he shared his many ideas on the Dvorak, giving several suggestions. When he was through, I looked at him and said, feeling absolutely crushed, ‘You must have suffered terribly listening to me.’ With the kindest eyes, he looked at me, and said, ‘No, not listening to somebody as musical as you.’ Needless to say, I could have floated out the door after that high compliment.”
She attended one of Casals’ master classes in Zermatt. Like most, she revered Casals, though she disagreed with his approach in the master class. “He didn’t attend to the pianist at all. The pianist was sitting quite a distance away from the cello, which I don’t agree with. The piano part is just as important as the cello part, especially in the Beethoven Sonatas.”
She still ponders Casals and his place in music today. “I am very puzzled about quite a few things, one of them being Casals. There’s no doubt that he was a great man, in his way. But I don’t think that his way of playing agrees with me anymore. Casals was a god for everybody back then, including me. But musical taste has changed, and that’s fine with me.”
While living in Paris, she also played with the pioneering harpsichordist, Wanda Landowska. “She lived in a villa outside Paris, in St. Leu-la-Forêt. There she had two secretaries, one French and one American. One of the secretaries called me and said that ‘Madame’ would see me. They brought me into her small private concert hall, which had a little stage and side wings. They politely asked me, or shall I say ordered me, to come in and put my instrument on the stage — ‘Not there, here.’ I thought I was back in Prussia! Then they told me what would happen next, that ‘Madame’ would come out and we would all rise, making sure that they always gasped before they said ‘Madame.’ By this time, I was nervously repeating everything they said, like a parakeet. ‘And then Madame will ask me to come up on stage and I will take my instrument out of its case.’
“Finally Madame came in, and I was taken aback by what I saw. The secretaries should have attended to Madame’s attire instead of my manners. She came out in what looked like a burlap potato sack, with her slip hanging out! This was the famous Wanda Landowska. She walked up on stage, and, like a queen, silently nodded at me to join her. Of course I wanted to jump up on stage, but that wasn’t done in Madame’s house. I had to daintily go up step by step, even though there were only three steps up to the stage. Unfortunately, I remember these details more than our playing.”
Having heard Eva Heinitz in Berlin years before, Artur Schnabel, the great pianist, invited her to play in the 1939 “New Friends of Music” series at Town Hall in New York. So she moved to the United States and five years later became a naturalized citizen.
She joined the Pittsburgh Symphony under Fritz Reiner as a section cellist. “He and I became good friends. I was lucky because he was a very difficult man. To get out of his bad moods, he would sing to me from the second act of Wagner’s ‘Die Meistersinger.’ The heroine’s name is Eva, which is who I’m named after. We used to walk down the street together singing duets from the opera.
“I understood him, musically speaking, better than anybody in the orchestra. I knew when he stopped the rehearsal that he would go three pages back to letter D, for instance, which always shocked him. He was a great musician.” Unfortunately, despite Reiner’s affection for her, he held her back because of her gender. “I was the second cellist on the first stand, but he would never allow me to be the principal cellist, since I was a woman, which he told me quite clearly. We had a huge fight about this and I decided to leave the orchestra. He literally begged me to stay, but I wouldn’t. I’ve lost at least four positions in my career because I was a woman.”
While in the orchestra, she, and not the principal cellist, was picked by Reiner to play chamber music with visiting soloists, such as Heifetz, Menuhin, Milstein, Szigeti, and Stern. “The young Heifetz was a dreadful chamber player. He was a tremendous fiddler, of course, but he knew nothing of chamber music, though he did improve over the years.”
A few years ago, Eva Heinitz released a CD of gamba and cello music, called ‘Authentic Baroque Music Performed in a Non-Authentic Manner.’ “I don’t believe in authenticity for the very simple reason that nobody really knows how people played 200 years ago. Bach had 35 or so people in his chorus and a small group of instrumentalists, probably very mediocre players. None of us would accept this today, even though it would be ‘authentic.’ Fortunately, I think the militant faction of the authentic movement has simmered down.”
She is considered to be an authority on Bach by many professional musicians, much to her dismay. “Who can be an authority on Bach? I think I know something about Bach, but not anything that a reasonably intelligent and hard-working musician couldn’t figure out. Maybe my Bach performances with Klemperer, the greatest music making I have ever experienced, have given me a certain insight. Were these performances right or wrong? Who knows? Maybe Bach would have fainted upon hearing the big choir and the Wagnerian alto. These times are past now, thank god, but, unfortunately, the depth of artistry may have passed too.”
1) Melinda Bargreen. “Music Sustained Heinitz through 90 years” (Seattle Times, February 2, 1997) p. L6.