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Violinist and Visionary Yehudi Menuhin Dies at 82

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Violinist Yehudi Menuhin, one of the century’s great musicians and a visionary who promoted world peace through international cultural cooperation, died Friday. He was 82.

Concert promoter Jutta Adler said Menuhin had been scheduled to conduct the Warsaw Symphony Orchestra in Berlin on Tuesday but fell ill. He died of heart failure in a Berlin hospital.

Menuhin was an instant sensation when he made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra as a 7-year-old prodigy and went on to become one of the most influential and admired violinists in the world.

Although he seemed almost the embodiment of the classical musician who was lost in the spiritual intensity of his art, Menuhin, in fact, devoted his 75-year career to a remarkably wide range of musical, humanitarian and even political activities--building cultural bridges that ranged from defying the political climate during the Cold War to a groundbreaking collaboration with Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar in the 1960s.

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“The world has lost a great soul, whose passion was music and humanity,” Shankar said Friday.

Menuhin said in 1982 that as high as he put the priority of his performances, he placed the concerns of his fellow men even higher.

Consequently, he founded schools for gifted young instrumentalists in Stoke d’Abernon, England, and Gstaad, Switzerland, where he often conducted master classes and regularly used his own celebrity to promote his prodigies. The popular violinist Nigel Kennedy is a product of the Stoke d’Abernon school.

Menuhin worked to raise money for UNESCO and lobbied for racial equality in South Africa. He spoke out against narrow political nationalism in any form, including music. Not only did he create a rage for Indian raga music when he released his “East Meets West” recording with Shankar, he chipped away at the barriers between classical music and jazz by improvising with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli.

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During the last two decades of his life, as age diminished his violin technique, Menuhin also became increasingly known as a conductor.

“Yehudi Menuhin was a major figure in this century--an extraordinary musician and a great humanitarian,” violinist Isaac Stern said after learning of his colleague’s death.

“His style of playing, particularly in his early years, was a stunning patrician elegance with a very natural musical line, which fitted the style of whatever composition” he was playing.

And those compositions covered a broad spectrum. Menuhin helped make Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin well known with his stunning recordings in the mid-1930s, and he remained associated with Bach’s music throughout his life. As a teenager he recorded Elgar’s violin concerto with the composer conducting, and Bartok wrote his second violin concerto, one of the masterpieces for the instrument, for Menuhin. The violinist was also well known for his performances of Beethoven and Brahms.

‘A Genetic, Jewish Missionary Need’

Menuhin felt a close kinship with Stern, who also was born of Russian immigrants. “He and I both have what you could call a genetic, Jewish missionary need,” Menuhin said. “It’s a need to establish moral justification for one’s existence and to pursue what’s close at hand.”

Although in 1985 he decided to become a British citizen, the U.S.-born Menuhin was noted for his service to America. During World War II, he was a stirring cultural embodiment of the Allied war effort. He played more than 500 concerts during the war, often for the entertainment of Allied troops, and he followed the U.S. Army into Paris, Brussels and Antwerp, Belgium.

In 1947, Menuhin became the first major American artist to play in Germany after the war when he performed with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Wilhelm Furtwangler. Although Menuhin said he did this to further tolerance and “the brotherhood of man,” the Israeli music critic Honoch Ron said Friday that “this was very hard for the Jewish people to forgive.”

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Still, Israel did forgive him and awarded him the Wolf Prize. Menuhin again entered the political arena in 1955. As the world powers glowered at one another over the Cold War divide, Menuhin helped to melt the ice culturally, bringing Soviet violinist David Oistrakh and Soviet pianist Emil Gillels to play in America, then going to Moscow to perform.

Menuhin was “America’s best ambassador,” said a State Department official, and the musician was awarded a Kennedy Center honor by President Ronald Reagan in 1986.

Despite the adulation that followed him wherever he went, Menuhin’s playing began to lose some of its technical brilliance in the 1950s and entered a slow decline. But Menuhin, who often appeared transfixed when he performed, readily made up for what a Times critic described as “thick-toned, raspy playing” with an increased spiritual intensity in his interpretation.

Moreover, he continued to tour well into his 70s, causing Canadian critic Jacob Siskind to dub him “a Teflon-coated violinist.”

Menuhin, in his typically imperturbable way, remarked to a Times writer in 1987 that “wearing the violinist’s hat is still the most important thing I do.”

Nor did he ever lose his spirit of adventure. He cheerfully donned flowing Indian robes and smiled beatifically when playing with sitarist Shankar and leaped into improvisations based on “Sweet Georgia Brown” or “Bye, Bye Blackbird” with Grappelli.

Menuhin was born April 22, 1916, in New York City, the oldest child of Russian immigrants. When Yehudi was still a baby, the family moved to San Francisco, which the violinist considered his hometown. His parents introduced their son to classical music early, taking him as an infant to concerts in San Francisco.

He began playing the violin at 3, taking lessons from several prominent San Francisco violinists, and studying other subjects at home. His parents, finding American schools undemanding, took command of the education of Yehudi and his younger sisters, Hephzibah and Yaltah, creating their own family school.

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The atmosphere was one of “enclosedness,” the violinist once said. His parents, both linguists with broad cultural interests, “acted in lieu of the guardian monks of Tibet who rear the Dalai Lama,” he said.

But there was a strong element of impractical idealism to the arrangement. Yaltah Menuhin said her brother was so detached from mundane reality in his youth that he had never even crossed a street by himself until he was 18.

A wealthy San Francisco lawyer underwrote 8-year-old Yehudi’s first trip to Europe, where he failed to impress the great Belgian violinist and composer Eugene Ysaye, but became the student of Romanian violinist and composer Georges Enesco. Menuhin returned to the United States in 1927 and gave a triumphant performance, at age 11, of Beethoven’s violin concerto in Carnegie Hall.

Writing of his performance in the New York Herald Tribune, Lawrence Gilman said: “What you hear takes your breath away and leaves you groping helplessly in the mysteries of the human spirit.”

It was also around that time that Albert Einstein, hearing Menuhin play, told him: “Today, Yehudi, you have once again proved to me that there is a God in heaven.”

There followed a series of American and European tours. Yehudi, playing in the flowing white blouse and velvet knickers of the prodigy with Hephzibah accompanying him on the piano, became an international sensation.

Brother and sister were linked professionally off and on for the next 50 years, until Hephzibah died in 1981, a few months before they were to appear together at Carnegie Hall. Menuhin spoke of her as his “Siamese soul.” Their first marriages were to a brother and sister from an Australian family.

Menuhin dropped out of the concert circuit at 19, taking two years off to study violin technique at the family estate in Los Gatos. A prodigy who seemed able to play without effort, he had never concentrated on the essential mechanics of proper fingering and bowing, and he suddenly found it difficult to progress beyond his youthful approach to playing. “Even at the risk of losing all the golden eggs of the future, I had to find out what made the goose lay those golden eggs,” he said.

He returned an even stronger player, appearing as a major soloist in the prewar years, performing with such internationally renowned conductors as Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, Thomas Beecham and Dimitri Mitropoulos.

Played for Survivors of Nazi Death Camp

After the war, Menuhin traveled to Poland with composer/conductor Benjamin Britten to play for the survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The violinist described the experience as traumatic, and some observers sought to connect it with the postwar decline of his performing talents.

In 1947, after nine years of marriage, he divorced Nola Nicholas, the daughter of an Australian industrialist, to marry Diana Gould, a British ballerina and actress. From his first marriage he had a son, Krov, and a daughter, Zamira; from his second, two sons, Gerard and Jeremy, a pianist.

Menuhin was always ready with pithy observations about music and life, some of which got him into trouble with various political groups. He angered feminists in 1980 when he said at a symposium that “man is driven to strike out, to build roads,” while woman is “compelled to plow and till over and over again the same plot of earth, from time to time attracting a male to ensure its fertility.”

For much of his adult life, Menuhin practiced yoga, and he was photographed standing on his head, which he did 15 or 20 minutes a day. He was also a dedicated vegetarian.

Increasingly his spiritual ideas filtered into his music making. Particularly as a conductor in his later years, his performances got slower and slower as he seemed to become almost entranced with individual notes.

Still, he never lost his sense of musical line or proportion, and he criticized those players who he felt did. “They’re either geishas or samurais,” he said of some of the current crop of young violinists in a New York Times interview in 1991. “They either tear the Brahms concerto apart, without any sense of proportions or limits, or they just play the notes.”

That was also the year that British filmmaker Tony Palmer produced a controversial television documentary and published a book describing Menuhin as the serene center of a dysfunctional family.

As the violinist pursued his career, Palmer said, his mother controlled the lives of her children, dictating their reading materials, making them read their personal letters aloud and telling them whom they should marry. His mother even instructed his first wife on when to have sex with him, Palmer alleged.

But no one ever questioned Menuhin’s high-mindedness in all things. And he made more than 100 recordings, many classics, which now stand as his musical legacy.

“He was a giant in this century, as a violinist, musician and personality within the musical world,” violinist Itzhak Perlman said.

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A Menuhin Discography

Although many of Yehudi Menuhin’s finest and most famous recordings from his extensive discography are no longer in print, here are some highlights, spanning nearly eight decades, from the discs that are available.

*

Menuhin the Violinist

“Favorite Early Recordings” (Biddulph)

“Stephane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin: The Very Best” (Angel)

Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2 (Mercury Living Presence)

Beethoven: Violin Concerto (EMI Classics)

Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos. 3, 4, 7 (International Music/Magic Talent)

Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1 (Biddulph)

Schoenberg: Fantasy (Sony Classical)

*

Menuhin the Conductor

Bach: “Brandenberg Concertos” (Angel/Seraphim)

Vaughn Williams: Fantasia on “Greensleeves” (Arabesque)

Elgar: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 (Virgin Classics)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 (RPO)

Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 40 and 41 (Virgin Classics)

*

Menuhin as Both

Bach: Violin Concertos (Royal Classics)

Compiled by MARK SWED / Times Music Critic


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