The violin, through the serene clarity of its song, helps to keep our bearings in the storm, as a light in the night, a compass in the tempest, it shows us
a way to a haven of sincerity and respect.
Yehudi Menuhin had one of the longest and most distinguished careers of any violinist of the twentieth century.
The child of recent immigrants, Menuhin was born in New York in 1916. By the age of seven his performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto had found him instant fame. As a teenager he toured throughout the world and was regarded one of the greats long before his twentieth birthday. Even in his earliest recordings one can sense deeply passionate responses to the great composers. Though considered a technical master, it is his highly charged emotional playing that set him apart.
As a young man Menuhin went to Paris to study under violinist and composer George Enesco. He was a primary influence on Menuhin and the two remained friends and collaborators throughout their lives. During the thirties, Menuhin was a sought after international performer. Over the course of World War II he played five hundred concerts for Allied troops, and later returned to Germany to play for inmates recently liberated from the concentration camps. This visit to Germany had a profound effect on Menuhin.
As a Jew and a classical musician, Menuhin had a complex relationship with German culture. He was fluent in German and deeply influenced by classical German composers. Menuhin found in the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler an important musical peer. Despite accusations of Furtwängler’s pro-Nazi sympathies, Menuhin continued to support him and his work. It seemed that for many years, Menuhin led a double life. He was an outspoken supporter of dozens of causes for social justice, while also longing for a solitary life where he could ignore the concerns of society and attend only to the history of music and his role within it.
Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Menuhin performed and made recordings from the great works of the classical canon. During this time he also began to include rarely performed and lesser known works. One of his greatest achievements is the commissioning and performing of Sonata for Solo Violin by Bella Bartók. In Bartók, Menuhin found a composer of deep emotion and pathos that mimicked his own. Bartók’s work was at once technically rigorous and open to interpretive playing. Of Menuhin, Bartók said he played better than he imagined he would ever hear his work played. Their collaboration is considered one of the greats of twentieth-century classical music.
By the sixties, Menuhin began to increase the scope of his musical involvement.
In 1963 he opened the Yehudi Menuhin School, a school for musically gifted children. He also began conducting, which he would continue to do until his death. He conducted in many of the important music festivals and nearly every major orchestra in the world. It was around this time he also broke from his traditional roots and did work outside of the classical genre. One of his most successful ventures out of traditional performance was with the great Indian composer and sitarist Ravi Shankar.
Throughout the last twenty years of his life, Menuhin continued to engage in every aspect of musical work. As a performer, a conductor, a teacher, and a spokesperson, he spent his seventies and eighties as one of the most active musicians in the world.
He was a constant contributor to religious, social, and environmental organisations throughout the world. Among his many books were VIOLIN: SIX LESSONS (1972) and the autobiography UNFINISHED JOURNEY (1977).
On March 12, 1999 Yehudi Menuhin died in Berlin, Germany, ending one of the longest and most prestigious careers of any American violinist.
~ Courtesy pbs.org
Menuhin made recordings from 1928 until the year of his death, and his contract
with EMI (now Warner Classics) is the longest in the history of the recording industry. His interpretations of the Elgar violin concerto conducted by the composer, and
of the Beethoven and Brahms concerti under the baton of Furtwängler,
have never been surpassed.
Menuhin considered his mentor and teacher George Enescu “the most important all-round musician of the 20th century” and a childhood trip to Enescu’s home in Sinaia, Romania, changed his life. Encountering a group of Gypsy violinists in a café, he was transfixed, later saying, “it astonished me that they could fetch such extraordinary sounds from primitive instruments.” They made arrangements to meet again and play together in what would be Menuhin’s first ever jam session. As they parted, the lead Gypsy fiddler presented him with a basket of wild strawberries; the 11-year-old Menuhin in turn handed over his gold-mounted Sartory bow. The experience awakened in Menuhin a delight in, and reverence for, musical cultures beyond the classical realm that informed almost everything he later did, from championing and commissioning music by Bela Bartok to forging groundbreaking partnerships with non-classical musicians such as Ravi Shankar and Stephane Grappelli. (WQXR)