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Music

Violinist, conductor and humanist: Yehudi Menuhin 100 years after his birth

A child violin prodigy, Yehudi Menuhin went on to boost morale in World War II, campaign for equality and earn praise from Albert Einstein. The great violinist died 17 years ago, but his legacy lives on.

"My dear Yehudi, tonight I see that the day of miracles is not over. Our dear old Jehovah is still on the job." Those words from physicist Albert Einstein after a performance by the 16-year-old violinist in Berlin sum up the impression that Yehudi Menuhin made on his contemporaries.

In the first half of his Berlin debut in 1929, Menuhin had played Beethoven's Violin Concerto - and the Brahms Concerto in the second half. The "most famous kid on the planet," to quote his biographer Humphrey Burton, was a prodigy on the scale of Mozart, having appeared in a concert with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at age seven. Four years later, he debuted in New York's Carnegie Hall.

A Stradavarius for a boy

Menuhin later recalled, "When I began it was pure instinct. I had the knack, the gift, the will."

Yehudi Menuhin as a child. Copyright: Menuhin Archive/Warner Classics

With his Stradavarius in the 1920s

Born in New York City on April 22, 1916 to Belorussian Jews who had immigrated to the US via Palestine, the boy was given every imaginable means to enable his talent to flower. To enable their son to study under the famous violinist Louis Persinger, Menuhin's parents moved from San Francisco back to New York.

Persinger then advised them to move to Paris in 1926 so that the young Yehudi could study under Persinger's former teacher, Eugene Ysaye. But the boy immediately expressed his wish to study under Romanian composer George Enescu - and his wish was granted.

Menuhin later recalled, "What Enescu taught me - by example, not with words - were the notes transformed into a vibrant, living message, the piercing sharpness, the phrases laden with meaning."

At age 12, he'd received a valuable gift from the banker and arts patron Henry Goldman: a Stradavarius violin built in 1733. Performances with the Berlin Philharmonic under Bruno Walter and the London Symphony under Fritz Busch brought the prodigy in direct contact with the great artists of the day. After conducting a performance with Menuhin as soloist, British composer Edward Elgar remarked, "The way that boy plays my concerto is amazing."

Triumph and mid-life crisis

An American, Swiss and British citizen, he would later carry the title Baron Menuhin of Stoke d'Abernon and spend the latter decades of his life in that small British town.The violinist once related the origin of his first name.

Looking for an apartment in New York, his parents, both descended from Chassidic rabbis, were rejected by a prospective landlady with the words, "You'll be glad to know I won't take in Jews." In defiance of the anti-Semitic slur, Marutha Menuhin decided that her unborn child would be named "Yehudi," meaning "The Jew."

Yehudi Menuhin in 1927. Photo: AP

in 1927, soon to be the world's highest paid musician

His early years were followed by a career of further superlatives, including 70 years of recordings with EMI in the longest recording contract in history. Composers including Béla Bartók wrote works for him. In 1996, his 80th year, he conducted 110 concerts.

Yet the onetime prodigy's career also took a bad turn. At one point, Yehudi Menuhin was no longer able to play. After a one-and-a-half-year hiatus, he approached his instrument again, no longer instinctively but deliberately, giving over 500 performances during World War II for an uncritical audience: allied troops.

In a cable from Supreme Headquarters, US General Eisenhower responded, "His presence in Europe with fighting troops at this critical juncture of the war is essential in its effect upon their morale and most important."

A voice for freedom and equality

Joined by British composer Benjamin Britten, Menuhin performed for concentration camp survivors immediately after the war's end in 1945 - and in bombed-out Berlin, he appeared with Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Berlin Philharmonic. Astonished to be labeled a traitor for having reached out a little too soon to the conductor who had been a favorite of the Nazis, Menuhin campaigned in favor of Furtwängler's denazification.

Daniel Hope and Yehudi Menuhin. Photo: U. Uebelhart

With Daniel Hope at the festival in Gstaad, 1996

In April 1945, he played for the inauguration of the United Nations General Assembly in San Francisco - and visiting South Africa in 1950, he spoke out against segregation, insisting on playing for both black and white audiences.

Menuhin's first trip to India in 1951 was a life-changing experience. Hearing Indian music, he related, was "an experience more magical than almost any in the world. One is in the presence of creation." Before the Beatles, it was Menuhin's recordings with Ravi Shankar that introduced the Indian sitar player to the Western world, making Menuhin a proponent of "world music" long before the term was coined.

Later, to "fully give in to the musical impulse," Yehudi Menuhin explored gypsy music and jazz, and his improvisations with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli yielded a number of memorable recordings.

Menhuin's 80th birthday was marked in London's Buckingham Palace - and in New York with a concert including 14 works dedicated to him by composers including Steve Reich, John Tavener and Lukas Foss. His last concert appearance, with the Sinfonia Varsovia and violinist Daniel Hope as soloist, was in Dusseldorf on March 7, 1999.

Menuhin died five days later in Berlin of complications from bronchitis.

Stephane Grappelli and Yehudi Menuhin. Photo: Universal Pictorial Press

Celebrating his 80th birthday with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli

Menuhin's legacy

The recipient of countless awards and distinctions was also the founder of enduring institutions, including the Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists, the Menuhin Festival Gstaad in Switzerland and the Yehudi Menuhin School in Stoke d'Abernon in the county of Surrey, in southeastern England. 1977 saw the foundation of "Live Music Now," which sends young professional musicians to perform in hospices, prisons and other non-concert venues and has chapters in a number of cities, notably in Germany and Austria.

The writer of a number of books and essays on humanistic, political and ecological issues, Menuhin was one of the first in England to own an electric car. The 100th anniversary of his birth is being marked in concert events around the world.

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