There has been a great outpouring of grief over the death of Prince who, by all accounts, was a highly gifted and innovative musician. I have not written about his life and death because, although of course I had heard of him, I was not at all familiar with his music, a telling sign of how ignorant I am of so much of popular culture. The Prince phenomenon occurred during a time when I was not paying much attention to the world of popular music.
But I do want to comment on another celebrated virtuoso musician for whom Friday would have been the 100th anniversary of his birth, and that is of the great violinist Yehudi Menuhin who died in 1999. In an appreciation, Tom Huizenga says that Menuhin was a phenomenon.
First off, one shouldn’t forget just what a virtuoso the young Menuhin was. By the time he made his first recordings, at age 11, he was already a star. He had made his Paris debut, played Carnegie Hall twice and commanded concert fees as large as $10,000. Critics were using words like “The Violinist of the Century.” At 16, Menuhin was at Abbey Road Studios to record Edward Elgar’s violin concerto with the composer conducting. The recording, an instant classic, has never been out of print.
“He was the most celebrated infant prodigy in history, together with Mozart,” Monsaingeon says.
Here is a short clip of him playing Mendelssohn’s violin concerto.
He also enjoyed playing Schubert’s haunting Ave Maria. Just beautiful.
But Huizenga says that Menuhin was more than a superlative violinist, he was also a humanist and political progressive, using his fame to advance good causes.
But two men who knew him well — documentary filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon and violinist Daniel Hope — maintain that as Menuhin grew older, he turned out to be far more than just another virtuoso.
“We had life-changing conversations about everything from music to humanism to politics,” Hope recalls. “He was very vocal in his disgust of racism and of intolerance in general, and he believed passionately that musicians had to stand up for what they believe in.”
And Menuhin practiced what he preached. He practically put his career on hold in the 1940s, playing hundreds of concerts for Allied troops in hospitals and near the front lines. With composer and pianist Benjamin Britten, he played for displaced people at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp just after it was liberated. Monsaingeon says Menuhin’s heart was broken by what he saw.
“The contact with human suffering made him a different man,” Monsaingeon says. “I think one can hear that in his playing. The [Schubert] ‘Ave Maria’ he would always play, he said to me, as a kind of prayer for those who might not return.”
Right after the war, Menuhin, a Jew, shocked the worlds of music and politics when he performed with Wilhelm Furtwängler. The German conductor had remained at the helm of the Berlin Philharmonic during the war and was accused of having ties with the Nazi regime. That Menuhin sought Furtwängler out and made recordings with him was a prime example, Hope says, of Menuhin the bridge builder.
“His view on that particular time was that we’ve been through enough of this horrendous hatred and now it’s time to rethink and now it’s time to come together again,” Hope says. “And it was a radical decision on his part to say, ‘I’m extending the hand of friendship.’ ”
Menuhin later squabbled with a number of governments and politicians. He gave a cunning, and moving, speech to the Israeli Knesset about the treatment of Palestinians. He gave impromptu concerts for poor South Africans under apartheid and disrupted a session in that country’s Parliament.
“Menuhin was so much more than just a violinist,” Hope insists. “He was a passionate believer in being a better person and making a better world.” And the way to do that, Menuhin said, was to reach out to people.
Menuhin was awarded the Wolf Prize by Israel but used that occasion to make a speech in 1991 in the Knesset criticizing the Israeli government for “governing by fear, by contempt for the basic dignities of life” of the Palestinian people in the occupied West Bank. One wonders what he would have said about the much worse treatment now, about the abominable practice of the demolition of Palestinian homes on the rise as part of a wider ethnic cleansing program.
I had always thought that Menuhin was British because he spoke with a slight English accent but learned from Huizenga that he was born in New York City. However he spent most of his performing career in Britain, becoming a citizen in 1985, and receiving multiple honors from that country, including a knighthood.
There is a trivial aspect of Menuhin that I’d like to share. I have always enjoyed the sound of words and Yehudi Menuhin struck me as the most melodious name of a person that I had ever heard. Just say it: Yehudi Menuhin, Yehudi Menuhin, Yehudi Menuhin. It has a rhythm and mellifluousness that rolls so smoothly off the tongue. (For that same reason, my favorite name for a country is Sierra Leone.) As a boy, I thought that it was the coolest name and I was intensely jealous of Menuhin that, apart from being such a great musician, he also had that wonderful name.