Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) was one of the most celebrated violinists of the twentieth century. From his debut at the age of 8 until his death at 82, he was renowned for his talent as a violinist and conductor.
Menuhin was born April 22, 1916 to Moshe and Maratha Menuhin, Jewish immigrants from Russia, who had met in Palestine. Mehuhin was born in New York, but moved to San Francisco when he was nine months old. Moshe Menuhin supported his family by teaching Hebrew. Maratha Menuhin was an overbearing mother who was very protective of her son. She and her husband taught Menuhin and his two younger sisters, Hephzibah and Yaltah, at home.
A Child Prodigy
Menuhin first demonstrated his interest in music at the age of two, when he accompanied his parents to a San Francisco Symphony Orchestra concert. The toddler listened intently to the music without making a sound. When he was five, he began taking violin lessons from Sigmund Anker, a teacher who specialized in teaching young children. Six months later, he made his first public appearance at Anker's studio. In 1923, Menuhin began studying with Louis Persinger, concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. He gave a solo performance with the symphony at the age of eight. When Persinger moved to New York in 1925, Menuhin followed him, making his debut at the Manhattan Opera House the following year.
A wealthy San Francisco attorney, Sidney Behrman, became Menuhin's patron. He underwrote the family's expenses for a trip to Europe so that Menuhin could pursue his musical career. Menuhin was soon recognized throughout Europe as a virtuoso performer. He made his debut in Paris and Brussels in 1927 and in Berlin and London in 1929. After a 1929 concert in Berlin, Albert Einstein went backstage, kissed the 13-year-old prodigy and said, "Today Yehudi, you have once again proved to me that there is a God in heaven," the New York Times reported.
Menuhin began recording his music in 1928. His recordings were often made with his sister, Hephzibah, who would continue to accompany Menuhin on the piano for 40 years. When she died in 1981, Menuhin told the New York Times," We needed few words. We played almost automatically, as if we were one person."
Menuhin's performances were applauded for their maturity. Following a solo performance of a Beethoven violin concerto with the New York Symphony Society at the age of 11, a Herald Tribune critic hailed his "ripeness and dignity of style." It continued: "What you hear takes away your breath and leaves you groping helplessly among the mysteries of the human spirit."
In 1934, Menuhin went on his first world tour, visiting 63 cities in 13 countries and performing at 110 engagements. Following the tour, his family moved back to California, where they built a compound in Los Gatos. Menuhin went through a two-year hiatus in which he made no public appearances. He spent the time in study and self-examination. Biographers have suggested that this first crisis of confidence followed a realization that his early musical education lacked sufficient technical training. It has been suggested that his overprotective mother contributed to Menuhin's withdrawl.
When Menuhin returned to the concert stage in 1937, he was praised as one of the foremost violinists of the century. He often used original texts, rather than relying on the edited versions preferred by other violinists. Menuhin performed rarely featured works and popularized neglected pieces such as Elgar's Violin Concerto, a "lost" violin concerto of Schumann, and little known music of Bartok, Enesco, Ernest Bloch, William Walton and other twentieth century composers.
On May 26, 1938, Menuhin married Nola Ruby Nicholas, the daughter of an Australian industrialist. The couple had a daughter Zamira and a son Krov. They divorced in 1947.
The 1940s was a stressful decade for Menuhin, who had to cope with a failing marriage and the dangers of war. He gave more than 500 concerts for American and Allied troops, often in combat zones. After the war, Menuhin performed in displaced person camps and visited concentration camps soon after their liberation. He held concerts in the recently liberated cities of Brussels, Bucharest and Budapest.
In 1947, Menuhin married Diana Rosamon Gould, a British actress and ballerina who had worked with the noted choreographer, George Balanchine. They had two sons, Jeremy and Gerard. Gould was a positive influence in the musician's life and helped him recover from depression.
It was during this time that Menuhin's political beliefs first drew attention. Jewish groups did not approve of his performance with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Wilhelm Furtwangler soon after the Second World War. Much criticism was leveled at Furtwangler, who had remained in Germany and prospered during the war. Menuhin countered that Furtwangler had never joined the Nazi Party and had helped Jewish musicians. In 1949, Furtwangler was being considered for the position of music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Many musicians said they would never play with the orchestra if Furtwangler got the position. Menuhin continued to support his friend. In 1950, when he made his first tour of Israel, many Jews denounced him for his 1947 Berlin appearance.
Menuhin drew further criticism in 1967, when he played benefit concerts for Israeli organizations as well as Arab refugees following the Six-Day War in the Middle East. Although Menuhin was recognized as a gifted musician in Israel, his reputation remained clouded.
Menuhin considered himself to be an internationalist. In the 1950s, he told interviewers that peace could only be achieved under a single benign world government. Through Menuhin's influence, the United States and the Soviet Union participated in a cultural exchange in 1955.
Menuhin was an American by birth, but lived in Europe most of his life. He became a British subject in 1985 (while retaining his American citizenship). Menuhin was given an honorary knighthood in 1966 and was made a life peer in 1993 with the title Lord Menuhin of Stoke d'Abernon. In addition to his home in Britain, Menuhin also kept his family's Los Gatos, California home and maintained homes in Switzerland and the Greek island of Mykonos.
Greater Attention to Conducting
During the 1950s and 1960s, Menuhin became involved with the inauguration of music festivals at Gstaad, Switzerland in 1956 and Bath, England in 1959. Although he had made his debut as a conductor in Dallas in 1942, it was at Gstaad and Bath that he began conducting regularly.
By the late 1960s, Menuhin had led most of the world's great orchestras and had recorded with many. He took a sabbatical in 1976 and played less and less often during his last two decades. Critics noted many technical flaws in his performances during these years.
Menuhin made his first tour solely as a conductor with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in the United States in 1985. He told U.S. News and World Report in 1987 that conducting was "the most complete form of exercise. It combines the work of the body with that of the mind, the heart, the emotions, the memory and intellect." By the 1990s, partial deafness forced him to stop playing violin in public, but he continued to conduct.
Responsibility to Young Musicians
Menuhin was dedicated to teaching young musicians. His gentle approach toward teaching children contrasted with his mother's overbearing attitude. Menuhin told the BBC that he felt a "'special responsibility' to help young people enrich and fulfill themselves." In an interview with U.S. News and World Report, Menuhin said, "I try to make them feel that they are members of a great human community with contact through music to all parts of the world and to all human beings."
Menuhin established the Yehudi Menuhin School for Music in Stoke d'Abernon, England in 1963. The school specializes in music and academic subjects for students from the ages of 8 to 14. Menuhin himself taught classes at the school. He was named president of the Trinity College of Music in London in 1971 and founded the Menuhin Academy at Gstaad, Switzerland in 1977.
Broad Range of Interests
Menuhin's interests outside music were broad. He was known as an environmentalist and practitioner of yoga. He was introduced to yoga in the 1950s and studied with B.K.S. Iyengar, a noted guru. Menuhin's daily regimen included 15 to 20 minutes of standing on his head. He also used yoga to relax before concerts. Menuhin advocated a vegetarian diet and warned of the dangers of eating white rice, white bread, and refined sugar.
Menuhin's diverse musical interests were demonstrated in his work. He recorded jazz albums with Stephane Grappelli and Eastern music with the noted Indian sitarist, Ravi Shankar. Menuhin admired the Beatles. In 1979, Menuhin and Curtis W. Davis wrote The Music of Man, an international study of music, from ancient times to punk rock.
Menuhin continued to conduct until his death from heart failure on March 12, 1999 in Berlin. He is remembered as a child prodigy whose musical talent spanned some 70 years. As a humanitarian, Menuhin supported hundreds of cultural and charitable organizations. Throughout his life, he maintained a vision of a utopian future.
Further Reading on Yehudi Menuhin
Musicians Since 1900: Performers in Concert and Opera, edited by David Ewen, Wilson, 1978.
New York Times, March 13, 1999.
U.S. News and World Report, April 13, 1987.
"Music World Mourns Death of Violinist Yehudi Menuhin," http://cnn.com(October 26, 1999).
"Lord Yehudi's Legacy," http://news.bbc.co.uk(October 26, 1999.