Commentary Magazine


Portrait of a Prodigy

In April 1929, a twelve-year-old violinist made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic playing three concerti—Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms—accompanied by Bruno Walter. At the end of the concert the already immortal Albert Einstein rushed to the artists’ room via the stage, embraced the boy, and cried: “Now I know there is a God in heaven!”

The boy was Yehudi Menuhin, and this Berlin performance was by no means his first sensation. Seventeen months before, he had played the Beethoven concerto in New York with Fritz Busch and the New York Symphony. After the concert, the New York Times critic, Olin Downes, who had wanted to attend a prizefight at Madison Square Garden that night rather than hear a violin prodigy, found himself drafting a review that in its uncontrolled excitement and enthusiasm seemed too strong to be deserved by any child; the review he finally wrote began with restrained comments about Menuhin’s “exceptional musical intelligence and sensitivity,” his conveying “very beautifully the poetry of the slow movement,” his “refreshing taste and simplicity” in the finale. But then Downes, unable to contain himself, opened up:

It would seem, therefore, that the object ordinarily loathed by reviewers and serious lovers of music—the infant prodigy—is not a myth. . . . It seems ridiculous to say that he showed a mature conception of Beethoven’s concerto, but that is the fact. Few violinists of years and experience known to this public have played Beethoven with as true a feeling for his form and content. . . . A boy of eleven [has] proved conclusively his right to be ranked, irrespective of his years, with outstanding interpreters of this music.

Today that boy is a man past sixty, rich in honors, fortune, and musical experience. He continues to play widely, if not as frequently as in the past. Nevertheless, his public performances are guardedly evaluated even by his friends; press comment, though frequently too overawed by the historical ring of his career to urge his retirement, still makes clear that his playing days—at least in concert—are or will soon be over. Yet his records, among them many recent ones of demanding compositions—only this past spring, an authoritative new recording of the Delius concerto was issued1—continue to sell; and to the available discs of his adult performances are increasingly being added LP reissues of those 78 RPM records which remain documents of the time when he was the infant wonder of the entire musical world.

All this, and the years before his first triumphs as well as the entire period between the beginning and the now inevitable end of his public career, are described by Menuhin in his just published memoirs, Unfinished Journey.2 The book is at once painfully pretentious, only intermittently interesting, marred by platitudes and over-fine writing, yet withal often profoundly moving and revealing. For what Menuhin illuminates in writing about his life is the extent to which a true prodigy is born old and yet remains a child forever in search of that original maturity. His writing, here as elsewhere, is an only partially witting account of that search, the degree to which it remains unsuccessful, and the miracle of completeness from which it started.

____________

 

Yehudi Menuhin was born in New York City in 1916, the first child of parents whose intelligence was exceeded only by the strength of their will. Moshe and Marutha (Sher) Menuhin, still alive today in very old age, were themselves born in Russia, he in the middle of the Jewish Pale of Settlement, and she in the Crimea near Yalta. Because of the pogroms they separately went to Palestine, and then again separately to New York, where they married. Moshe was descended from Hasidic rabbis; after religious and secular studies in Palestine (and attendance at NYU on a mathematics scholarship), he ended up teaching Hebrew school to support his wife and family. His wife, who feels herself a product of Tatar Khans, also worked both before and after her marriage as a Hebrew teacher. Their involvement with Hebrew was totally secular, and in the case of Moshe was accompanied by an anti-religious attitude which was later to broaden into a venemous anti-Zionism.

When their son was born he was named Yehudi—the Hebrew word for Jew—as a sign, paradoxically, that he was “Everyman, evoking no model and continuing no line.” His first years were spent in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where the father found it impossible to get along in the religious atmosphere surrounding the Talmud Torah in which he taught. California—the eternal land of opportunity—beckoned, and Yehudi with his parents (whom he called by the Hebrew words for mother and father, abba and eema) arrived in San Francisco in 1918, there to begin a quick rise to fame and riches.

The adult Menuhins did not simply give their thoughts and hopes—in the fashion of so many immigrant parents—to Yehudi and to a lesser extent to his younger (and also musically talented) sisters, Hephzibah and Yaltah; these parents devoted their energies entirely to the children, educating, disciplining, and supporting them as if they were already the royal family of music. From the age of two Yehudi was taken to hear the San Francisco Symphony; it was at one of these performances, when he was three, that he first noticed and was smitten by the concertmaster, Louis Persinger, playing the violin. Persinger—a great violinist, talented pianist, and the most significant American teacher of the violin during the second quarter of this century—was approached, but he refused Yehudi as a student because he had no interest in teaching a beginner. A year marking time with a man who, according to Menuhin, taught him nothing, at least produced the feeling that the violin was no longer a foreign object but rather a natural extension of his body. Then—at five—he again went to Persinger; this time he was accepted, and at his first lesson Persinger played a Bach slow movement for the little boy and his mother. Initiated into sublimity, Yehudi went home drunk on music.

From this point on his progress with the violin was so rapid as to seem effortless; and it was certainly astounding:

Not yet eight years old, I had already learned various “student” concerti . . . , the Bach Sonata in G minor, which had sealed with glory Persinger’s first lesson, the Mendelssohn concerto, Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole, the first movement of Paganini’s Concerto in D major, the Tchaikovsky—wolfing down this huge corpus, hair, nails, and all. . . .

He had five lessons a week from Persinger. Several years later, when he was on tour, he was to receive a three-hour lesson every day. Though he did not attend school, he was privately tutored, at first by his parents and then by specialists. The education given him lacked science and mathematics, but it was strong in literature and—perhaps because it was obvious that he would travel widely—languages. No heir to a throne could have lived in an environment more orderly, integrated, and efficient; his regimen was of course centered around the violin, but it allowed time even for play with his sisters and with other children who were brought in for just such a purpose.

His formal debut, when he was still seven, took place early in 1924; his first orchestral appearance, playing the Lalo with Alfred Hertz and the San Francisco Symphony, occurred the next year, followed closely by his first full-length recital in March 1925, a month before his ninth birthday. Persinger now moved to New York, and Yehudi (accompanied by mother and sisters) followed him there. He made his New York debut at the beginning of 1926 in a concert arranged by his hastily summoned father.

From the time he was seven or eight, Yehudi had wanted to study with a touring violinist he had heard in San Francisco, Georges Enesco, a Rumanian who lived in France. The Menuhins had no money to go to Europe, but fortune, in the guise of a Jewish Maecenas, made it all grandly possible. In Sidney Ehrman, himself an amateur violinist and the husband of an immensely wealthy heiress as well, Yehudi found a patron of extraordinary generosity, friendship, and long-term dedication. Ehrman’s approaches to the Menuhins were at first rejected, but after he offered to send the whole family to Europe with Yehudi, the parents gave in, and in 1926 they left America for a year in France. There Yehudi laid siege to Enesco, and before long he had become his pupil and even more his disciple and musical son. Menuhin was later to study some months with the third and last of his major teachers, Adolph Busch—the brother of Fritz Busch, the father-in-law of Rudolf Serkin, and one of the significant musician-violinists of the day—but Enesco’s combination of romantic freedom and passionate musical seriousness was the greatest single influence on him. He was to remain Enesco’s student, except for the time with Busch, at least until 1936.

Meanwhile the boy’s performing career had caught fire. His successes in New York and Berlin were followed by similar triumphs in London and in Leipzig, where he played the Mendelssohn concerto at the 1931 celebration of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Gewandhaus orchestra. In addition to these appearances on the concert stage, by the middle 1930’s, while still in his teens, he had recorded several concerti, all but one of the Bach unaccompanied works, and a variety of sonatas and less substantial salon pieces.

Much of World War II he spent entertaining American and Allied troops in the European and Pacific theaters. As soon as the war was over, he visited Germany to perform for the inmates of the newly liberated concentration camps. Shortly thereafter he found himself campaigning in the United States for the right of the conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler, then suspected of Nazi sympathies, to perform again. In this, with the help of the pianist Myra Hess, among others, Furtwängler was successful, and later made a series of important recordings with Menuhin, including performances of the Beethoven,3 Brahms,4 Mendelssohn,5 and (second) Bartok6 concerti.

In recent years, while continuing to play the violin, Menuhin has also turned his attention to conducting, often recording with an orchestra which bears his name. Among the works he has recorded, demonstrating solid musicianship if not a great deal of conductorial excitement, are the symphonies of Schubert (of which only the “Unfinished” is currently available in this country7 ) and the four orchestral suites of Bach.8 He has directed several festivals, and perhaps dearest to his heart is the Yehudi Menuhin Music School, which he founded in England—where he now lives permanently—in 1963. His school, a place where young musicians from the age of seven may come as boarders to combine grammar and high-school education with rigorous musical instruction, is an attempt to merge the discipline of the musical training he has witnessed on his visits to the Soviet Union with the personal artistic attention and respect for the individual he himself received as a child. In addition to all this, he has associated himself with a variety of extra-musical causes and has as a result become perhaps the most visible of the socially committed musicians of our time.

____________

 

An evaluation of Yehudi Menuhin must be divided into three parts: the short career of the prodigy; the much longer career of the adult artist; and the influence of the public-spirited citizen he has tried to be. His multitudinous recordings provide the material for a musical evaluation, and his memoirs are a convenient chronicle of his thoughts, pronouncements, and actions on musical as well as other and wider issues.

The tradition of the child prodigy of which Menuhin is a part is an old one, at its highest level limited to a few dazzlingly talented children. Without doubt, the greatest of all musical prodigies was Mozart, whose keyboard performance at eight was described by Johann Christian Bach as beyond “all understanding and imagination”; his early ability at improvisation was astounding and his compositions were remarkable in both quantity and finish. Schubert was also a great composer in his teens; so was Mendelssohn. On the piano Liszt was brilliant as a child, as was Paganini on the violin. Closer to our own time, and restricted almost entirely to the field of performance rather than composition, Josef Hofmann made a sensation at the piano on his 1887 American tour, and coeval with Menuhin’s rise were the unhappy prodigy careers of the violinist Ruggiero Ricci and the pianist Ruth Slenczynska.

Of all the performing prodigies of the last century, however, Yehudi Menuhin was the greatest. What marks the playing we can hear on his first recordings9 (early 1928, when he was twelve) and what must have similarly marked his New York and Berlin debuts, is not simply great ability, unusual promise, and the charming sweetness formerly associated with children. What one hears on these records is fully mature artistry characterized by strong and individual musical personality, rhythmic snap, and complete intellectual integration.

One of these 78 RPM sides—a performance of an anonymous 16th-century gaillarde, with Persinger providing a piano accompaniment at once sensitive, restrained, and masterful—goes far to justify the violin as an absolute value, like the human voice, independent of the distinction of the material performed on it. Indeed, Menuhin’s adolescent tone, in its pure warmth and high seriousness, itself carries an emotional punch not characteristic of the tone of any other violinist on records. In his early recordings, and frequently in those he made in the 1930’s, one hears a transformation of the gut, metal, and wood of the violin into living speech. This is an achievement beyond training and conscious effort, though it must of course be based on them; it is a laying bare of what in the 19th century would have been called the very essence of song.

One can hear this miracle accomplished again—if perhaps, due to the large scale of the compositions performed, less completely—in two recordings dating from the next year, 1929. In these Menuhin performs the Bach C major unaccompanied sonata10 and the Beethoven sonata Opus 12 No. 1 for violin and piano.11 The Bach in particular would be a superb performance at any age; from a boy of thirteen it is unbelievable. Interestingly, Menuhin was to record it twice later, once in 1934, when he was eighteen,12 and once in the middle 1970’s.13 The most recent recording is disfigured by a cosmetic coat of reverberation applied by engineers more concerned with making a violin sound like an orchestra than with making it sound like a violin. But the 1934 discs are distinguished not only by the musical intelligence and beauty of tone of the older recording; still more than that, they present a monumental musical conception, an obvious gain in pure physical strength, and the greater smoothness produced by the use of a superior violin.

If the Bach recording is the high point of the young Menuhin’s playing of formally austere music, the Bruch Concerto in G minor, which he recorded in 1931,14 is a revelation of the profundity contained in a work which is always treated as a mere showpiece. In the Bruch, his singing of the slow movement, in its wisdom and gravity, testifies to what was perceived by many in his audience as divine grace.

Menuhin as a child was quite aware of his extraordinary endowments and the power they conferred upon him. He now writes simply, without any false modesty:

Without qualifications, background, or experience, without knowing adolescent yearning, excitement and disappointment, I could at the age of seven or eight play the Symphonie Espagnole almost as well as anyone and better than most.

He was able to turn this self-knowledge to good use in the accomplishment of his musical—and career—goals. When at the age of ten he received the invitation to make his New York orchestral debut in a Mozart concerto, he “had a reservation: why Mozart, why not Beethoven? To play in Carnegie Hall was to play Beethoven, to arrive was to arrive.” The conductor, Fritz Busch, when told of Menuhin’s feelings, retorted: “Man lasst ja auch Jackie Coogan nicht den Hamlet spielen”—“One doesn’t hire Jackie Coogan to play Hamlet.” But Menuhin insisted that Busch hear him play the Beethoven, and after he finished the opening passages, he writes, “German endearments came raining down on me. ‘Mein lieber Knabe,’ he explained, ‘you can play anything with me, anytime, anywhere!’ ”

____________

 

It would have been unusual, given the physical and psychological problems of growing up, if this state of perfection had lasted. It did not. In his book he speaks of the breakup of his violin playing as paralleling the breakup of his first marriage; another and perhaps more profound explanation might reflect on the difficulty an erstwhile child prodigy finds in living without the discipline and support provided by parents and teachers, which is at the same time flattering and so necessary to an immature ego.

But whatever the relationship between his emotional and musical lives, he had, from an early age, recognized the existence of technical problems in his playing. The day after his New York orchestral debut he became aware of involuntary muscular tension in his arms. He could not help realizing increasingly as he grew older that not only his personal life but also his violin playing was “full of holes,” his career a destination reached before a proper foundation had been laid.

Perhaps fortunately, he has been concerned with self-analysis all his life. Applied to the violin, the concern to understand and exert conscious control has led him to books, teachers, and in the 1950’s to the practice of Yoga as a means of relaxing what must have been otherwise ungovernable tension. This involvement with Yoga began during a 1951 trip to the Orient, and in India he went so far as to engage a guru, who for fifteen years thereafter came to Europe every summer to guide Menuhin’s exercises. A predictable corollary to his belief in the value of Yoga is a dedication to an almost completely vegetarian diet and in particular a total avoidance of white sugar and white flour. He finds that this new way of life has deepened his control over the violin beyond what he knew as a child; it is perhaps enough that it has enabled him to continue performing at times when he must have been close to despair.

Be all that as it may, the evidence of his playing difficulties can be heard on the many recordings he has made in his adult life. They are most noticeable, as might be expected, in new recordings of works also done earlier. Such is the case, for instance, with his recent Bruch Concerto in G minor,15 which he had played so marvelously at fifteen. Comparing the newer recording to the older, one is conscious of a technical stiffness, a kind of clumsiness in getting around the violin, and above all a certain thinning and tightening of his once rich and seemingly easily produced tone. On the other hand, while there can be no doubt of this mechanical decline, the newer recording is redeemed by the nobility and penetration of his conception of the work, qualities lacking today among his younger colleagues. Much the same could be said of his two recordings of the unaccountably neglected Elgar concerto, the first made in 1932 (with the composer conducting)16 and the second in the middle 1960’s.17

But Menuhin has not, in the fashion of so many youthful successes, spent his life in an attempt merely to repeat his first triumphs; his repertory is vast and adventurous. He has recorded all the major works for violin and orchestra—with the exception, it seems, of the Sibelius and Tchaikovsky concerti—and several for the viola in addition. He has not shied away from the difficult (and still knotty for the audience) works of Bartók, and he has recently recorded the concerto of Alban Berg with Pierre Boulez.18 Contenting himself neither with already existing master-works nor with the minor romantic pieces obligatory for virtuoso violinists, he has commissioned works from such famous composers as Bartók and Ernest Bloch, and from lesser known writers as well. Nor has he restricted himself to the performance of what is normally accepted as serious, “classical” music; successfully appealing to younger audiences, he has in concert and on records attempted to combine Western instrumental performance with Indian artists and their music,19 and he has recorded, in the form of duets, renditions of 1930’s popular songs with the famous jazz violinist Stephane Grapelli.20

____________

 

It is likely that some of the same motives and energies which made possible and encouraged his exploration of the violin repertory also turned his attention to social and political issues. In addition to his efforts after World War II on behalf of Furtwängler, Menuhin was early active in arranging for Soviet artists to play in the United States, and he was a vocal supporter of Rostropovich—and Solzhenitsyn—in their battles with Soviet officialdom, battles which to a limited extent Menuhin shared during his 1969-75 term as president of the International Music Council (an offshoot of UNESCO). Similarly, though he had for many years owned a house in Greece, he made public his unwillingness to return to Greece during the Colonels’ regime, just as he would not, for a time after 1956, visit Hungary.

But of all Menuhin’s positions on non-musical matters, it has been his views and actions in relation to his fellow Jews, and specifically to the state of Israel, which have provoked the most discussion. Already in 1947, on one of his early postwar trips to Germany, he was accused, at a Displaced Persons camp, of being a little too quick in his willingness to forgive the Germans their crimes. In defending himself, he writes that he believed

insistence on vengeance, excluding all other response, was, however understandable, a weakness. Patriotism cannot be enough if it puts beyond consideration most of the human race. I too was a creature of my experiences, and they had shown me my fellow man the world over, even in Germany.

This statement, both in the burden of tolerance it places on Jews and in its demand that they resist what he sees as their own tendencies toward parochialism and exclusionism, is very revealing of Menuhin’s idea of what it means to be a Jew. He is obviously proud to be a Jew himself, at least as far as that designation refers to his ancestors. And yet, with that pride goes a marked residue of the opinions of his father, who made no secret of his negative feelings both about the Jewish religion and about Zionism.

Yehudi himself cannot be held responsible for his father’s prejudices, but there is evident in his memoirs a profound unease on matters Jewish. It is plain that he regards Israel and the Jewish people with a certain rueful affection, but it is also plain that for him all nationalisms—not least among them the Jewish variety—are oppressive and stifling, blocking the way to that internationalism which is the goal of so many who aspire to decency. He has played many times in Israel and even helped to raise money for charitable organizations there, but at the same time he cannot forbear lecturing Zionists and their sympathizers on their duties toward the Palestinians and their Arab brothers. He is an advocate of Middle Eastern confederation and one suspects that, without fully realizing the consequences, he would welcome the eventual integration of Israel into the surrounding milieu and its disappearance in its present form as a distinctively Jewish state.

Controversial as Menuhin’s attitudes toward things Jewish may be, they are entirely consistent with his general stance on world affairs. And this stance, in its pretension to being above ideological struggle, in its assumption of neutrality in the service of the brotherhood of man, in its hope for a new society combining the best features of the socialist and democratic worlds, in its reliance on passive resistance to one’s friends and graceful compromise with one’s enemies, falls very much within the accepted canon of liberal opinion. If his views have not found acceptance everywhere, from his comfortable position in the center of contemporary morality he can easily enough class the objectors as unconverted souls with whom an extra effort is required.

It is difficult not to see this emphasis on universalism and internationalism, which is so apparent in Menuhin’s non-musical public life, as deeply related to, and indeed coming out of, his great performing career. For it is an expression of the logic immanent in such an activity as playing the violin for ever larger and—one hopes—ever more appreciative audiences. A performer does not perform for himself, and still less does he perform for the composer or for some abstract idea of music itself. He performs for people, and the fewer who are a priori excluded from his sway, the better. A composer, as an original creator, cannot avoid taking sides and thereby making opponents as he makes adherents; a performer must try to satisfy all audiences and all musics. Thus, performers are perhaps even more tempted than most other people to serve the regnant political, social, and cultural ideas of their day.

Yehudi Menuhin is not to be condemned for such service. But neither is he to be credited—as he so often is—with extraordinary fidelity to the duties of human leadership. It is not as a leader of mankind that he is significant; it is as a violinist and exponent of a great musical literature that he has made his mark, first in a childhood of genius and then in an adult life of solid if less glamorous and overwhelming artistic accomplishment.


Footnotes

1 Angel S-37262.

2 Knopf, 393 pp., $12.50.

3 Seraphim 60135.

4 Seraphim 60232.

5 Electrola (Germany) 1C-047-00907.

6 La Voix de son Maître (France) 2C 053-01322.

7 Angel S-36609.

8 Seraphim SIB-6085.

9 LP transfer on Discopaedia (Canada) MB 1013. Other performances of short pieces, recorded in the early 1930's, may be heard in LP transfers on HMV (England) HLM 7077 and Orion ORS 7271.

10 HMV (England) DB 1368/70 and also Victor 8830/2 (78 RPM deleted); recently available on a private LP transfer made by Thomas L. Clear, TLC-2581.

11 HMV (England) DB 1365/7 and also Victor M-91 (78 RPM deleted).

12 HMV (England) DB 2284/6 and also Victor M-284 (78 RPM deleted).

13 Angel S-3817.

14 Available on LP as HMV (England) RLS 718.

15 Angel S-36920.

16 HMV (England) HLM 7107 (LP).

17 Angel S-36330.

18 HMV (England) ASD 2449.

19 Angel S-36418, S-36026.

20 Angel S-36968, S-37156.

About the Author




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.