Among the multitudes of famous anecdotes about violinist Yehudi Menuhin — whose centenary is being celebrated this year with tributes and a massive Warner Classics box set of 80 CDs and 11 DVDs — is the one about his celebrated Berlin debut in 1929. Backstage after the concert, Albert Einstein told the 13-year-old American prodigy, who had just played concertos by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms with Bruno Walter conducting: “Today, Yehudi, you have once again proved to me there is a god in heaven.”
Einstein wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Menuhin had been widely hailed as a boy genius in the press and made his first recording a year earlier. And Menuhin had no bigger fan than my mother. My grandfather and Menuhin’s father were from the same Belarusian town. One of my uncles, Yehudi’s age, was a violin prodigy who drowned in a swimming accident in his early teens. I was named after him.
I grew up on Menuhin recordings. My first concert was to hear Menuhin. Like any self-respecting American kid, I rebelled. I wanted to play percussion — not, as expected, violin. (The compromise was clarinet.) I developed an early distaste for vibrato, of which Menuhin was an expressive master. I was made uncomfortable by his otherworldly stage presence and put off by the sound he produced, especially in his later years once his technique became shaky. I felt spoiled, having also grown up hearing the Apollonian Jascha Heifetz, who regularly performed at USC, where he taught.
In fact, Menuhin’s was my world, which I discovered when I heard his 1953 performance of Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler. That is one of the most urgent performances ever captured on disc. As important is Menuhin’s 1968 recording of Berg’s Violin Concerto with Pierre Boulez conducting the BBC Symphony. The French conductor’s luminous elegance irradiates Menuhin’s intense humanity; there’s nothing else quite like it in the extensive discographies of either artist.
French filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon, who produced the big Warner set, considers Menuhin the greatest and quintessential 20th century musician. The boy wonder was first adored for his beguiling way with violin bonbons and the unbelievable maturity and direct expression he brought to the great violin concertos. But just as remarkably, he also proved a prodigy pioneer.
Today, Yehudi, you have once again proved to me there is a god in heaven.
— Albert Einstein
In 1932, the 16-year-old Menuhin became the first to record Edward Elgar’s Violin Concerto with the composer conducting, a recording that has never been out of print. At 18 and 19, Menuhin was the first to record Bach’s complete solo violin sonatas and partitas, not then well known. He made them the center of the solo violin repertory, the example of everything a violin could be. And Menuhin did it by becoming, maybe more than any other before or since, everything a violinist could be.
He had his limitations. His feet were not always on the ground, figuratively or literally (having become an exponent of yoga in the early 1950s and able to stand on his head, even when he reached 80). He was a visionary artist and thinker with exceptional near and distant vision, but not so much in the middle.
He lived a pampered life from birth to death. He never had occasion to get into a physical fight, which he later said may not have been the greatest thing for character building. Yet he threw himself into the war effort during World War II, living with and entertaining soldiers on the field and the wounded men in hospitals. Menuhin and composer-pianist Benjamin Britten were the first musicians to visit a Nazi concentration camp to play for the survivors and witness firsthand the horrors.
He then shocked many fellow Jews (Yehudi means Jew in Hebrew) by being the first musician from the Allied countries to play with Furtwängler, who had been music director of the Berlin Philharmonic during Hitler’s reign. Menuhin hailed Furtwängler for having saved Jewish musicians in the orchestra. Menuhin also believed there needed to be healing.
We never have stopped debating the Furtwängler dilemma, whether the high-minded conductor served the Nazi cause or undercut it by striving to continue an enduring good in German culture and Germany. Menuhin saw the good. His recordings with Furtwängler from the late ’40s and early ’50s of Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn concertos, along with the Bartók, have been excellently remastered on the Warner box set, “The Menuhin Century.” They are uniquely compelling sonic documents —all the more so for the fact these performances caused Menuhin to be called a collaborator and not welcomed in Israel for years.
What made Menuhin great? There is all the usual stuff about his ability to induce the violin to speak with immediacy; you almost feel as though he is communicating through telepathy. There is the ease of his playing. His instinct for phrasing and expression and form was such that his musicality was uncannily second nature.
He brings to Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin, which Menuhin commissioned, a quality I can only describe as holistic, a spiritual authority allied with corporeality. He was the musician who most embraced the duality of yin and yang. That didn’t happen overnight. It was a lifelong quest, slowly gained. But therein is found Menuhin’s true greatness.
Everywhere you find indications of that holistic marvel, listening to all the CDs and watching the videos of him on a gauzy 1947 Hollywood concert film, traipsing through Russia in 1987 or in conversation at his home on a Greek island in 1994, five years before he died.
It might seem a natural progression from affectless boy to elegant young man to wise old man. Maybe it was a natural progression, but it was far from common. Born in New York and raised in San Francisco, Menuhin early on became a world citizen who ultimately settled in England. He seemed in his youth blessed with his talent, downright beatific. He spent but a single day in school. His education was traveling the world and meeting the greats in every field.
Of course, his beatitudes were illusionary. He experienced the build-up and anguish of World War II. He was an odd family man, devoted yet frequently in the center of dysfunction he wasn’t very good at dealing with, so he didn’t deal. “The Menuhin Century” includes 20 CDs’ worth of recordings he made with his pianist sister Hephzibah, an excellent accompanist who did not chose to make a career in music, other than the lifelong collaborations with her brother.
They are among the violinist’s most reliable performances in the collection, but they are also the safest. His sister knew him too well and supported him. Used to getting his own way, however, Menuhin thrived when challenged.
Playing ragas with sitarist Ravi Shankar was about as uncomfortable as Menuhin could get. A trip to India in the 1950s opened Menuhin’s eyes to another world — cultural, spiritual and physical. This resulted in not only rethinking everything Menuhin knew about music but also about violin technique.
He had begun to develop technical difficulties, especially with his bow arm. His intonation wasn’t as reliable as it had been, and raga is the essence of intonation. But in India, Menuhin discovered that purity is a much bigger concept than in the West. Pure intonation may be a way of communicating with the gods, but through improvisation, there is also the understanding that nothing is predictable, just as poverty on the streets of Delhi and the purity of the spirit are not always separable.
His collaboration with Shankar, which began in India in the ’50s, led to a concert at the 1966 Bath Festival in England and the American release of “West Meets East” in June 1967, the same month as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The Menuhin-Shankar recording was as successful on the classical music charts (selling faster than any classical release in history) as the Beatles were on the pop charts.
The two projects were not unrelated. George Harrison followed in Menuhin’s footsteps to study with Shankar just before going into Abbey Road (Menuhin’s regular haunt) to record “Sgt. Pepper.” “West Meets East” is often hailed as, like “Sgt. Pepper,” revolutionary — the start of the crossover phenomenon. But the real importance of the Menuhin and Shankar collaboration, which led to two more discs, was the magnificence of the playing. No Western musician ever matched Menuhin in working with the famed sitarist.
The Warner set is a treasure chest but not a complete survey of Menuhin. Most, but not all, of his recordings were made by the British label EMI (Angel Records in America), now owned by Warner. Most of the famous ones are there, and some have never been heard, especially live performances and chamber music. Sony has put out a set of RCA recordings from the 1940s. Menuhin took up conducting late in his life. Most of those recordings have fallen by the wayside and would be worth reexamining.
We also need more attention paid to the music written for Menuhin. The last time I saw him perform was at a Lincoln Center birthday tribute in 1996. Several composers wrote pieces in his honor. He had given up playing the violin, but he conducted, and a surprising collection of composers was on hand, including Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Greek avant-gardist Iannis Xenakis and British mystic John Tavener. Menuhin conducted brilliantly.
A recording of many of these pieces was made shortly after Menuhin’s death, and some of the works show up on a new tribute recording beautifully played by Daniel Hope, who had studied with Menuhin.
Near the end of the Warner DVD, Menuhin stands back and reflects on what he had experienced. He attacks capitalism. By putting a price on everything, “the extremes of exploitation,” Menuhin says, “are imperative in the democratic system.” Profits come from absconding with nature’s reserves, selling the coal, oil and gold we don’t own. We need to guard against that, he warns.
The other extreme, however, leads almost inevitably to corruption and autocracy. We have to guard against that, he warns.
What Menuhin proposes is to understand limitations to every theory and every religion. Dogmatism, he further warns, always leads to untenable situations. Rather, Menuhin notes, life is the subject of great dichotomies.
It is the embrace of dichotomies that led Menuhin to perform with Furtwängler or, in 1975, propose a Middle Eastern “federation of cultures” that would include Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia and Israel.
We have no such federation, and look where we are today. But listen to Menuhin’s recordings, the heavenly early ones, the sour but unmistakably soulful later ones, and you can hear, as Einstein did, what a better world might sound like, a way apart from the vicious cycles of resentment and exploitation.