Playing the “unplayable”: Schoenberg, Heifetz, and the Violin Concerto, Op. 36

Kawabata, M. (2015) Playing the “unplayable”: Schoenberg, Heifetz, and the Violin Concerto, Op. 36. Journal of Musicological Research, 34 (1) pp. 31-50. ISSN 0141-1896 (print) 1547-7304 (online)


The legend of the difficulty of Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto (1936) originates in Jascha Heifetz’s supposed declaration of it as “unplayable.” Since then, the question of what was so formidable about this work has not been adequately addressed. How various technical difficulties of the work have been surmounted by other violinists can be documented by analyzing specific “impossibilities” in the violin part and examining recordings made between 1954 and 2008. The true reasons for Heifetz’s refusal to play this concerto lie in the fundamental incompatibility between the modernist ideology of performance as “objective” interpretation and the romantic virtuoso tradition epitomized by Heifetz. The lack of acceptance for Schoenberg’s work, when considered alongside contemporary violin concertos (Bartok, Stravinsky, etc.), can be seen to stem from the composer’s rejection of idiomatic writing for violin as a consequence of rejecting tonality and the conspicuous absence of a soloist muse.

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