For much of the 20th century, Yehudi Menuhin embodied the world’s idea of the child prodigy. Born in 1916, he began studying the violin at five; by the age of thirteen, he had appeared in Berlin, London, New York, and Paris, performing with such celebrated conductors as Fritz Busch, Georges Enesco, and Bruno Walter. “He was a child, and yet he was a man and a great artist,” Walter would later recall. Virtually everyone who heard the young Menuhin agreed that he was a musician of remarkable seriousness and accomplishment, mature far beyond his years.
To be sure, similar things have been said of any number of other prodigies, past and present. But Menuhin was also the first to record extensively in his youth, and not merely encore pieces but sonatas and concertos by major composers. This made it possible for subsequent generations to hear for themselves the artistry that led Albert Einstein to exclaim, “Now I know there is a God in heaven.”
As Menuhin grew older, and as the 78’s on which his reputation had originally been based went out of print, he re-recorded his repertoire, first for long-playing records and then again in stereo. These later recordings were generally thought to be competent, but inconsistent: a far cry from the playing that had stunned Einstein and Walter. Menuhin responded by cutting back on his solo appearances, turning instead to conducting, teaching, and various other ventures, including politics broadly understood. From the 1960’s on, he was seen less as a violinist than as a kind of all-purpose idealist, spouting forth opinions about everything from yoga (good) to nationalism (bad). Meanwhile, new prodigies were starting to perform and to record at even earlier ages, making his once-astonishing childhood career seem almost commonplace. By the time of his death in 1999, he had long since ceased to be a household name.
Starting in the early 90’s, though, Menuhin’s prewar records began to be transferred to CD, allowing modern-day listeners to hear what he sounded like in the 20’s and 30’s. And now he is the subject of a biography by Humphrey Burton, a British TV producer who knew Menuhin well and worked with him on many occasions.1
Like Burton’s previous biography of Leonard Bernstein, Yehudi Menuhin: A Life is sympathetic but candid, especially about the role Menuhin’s parents played in his early career. Burton, who differs from the vast majority of critics in hearing “very little falling off” in the quality of Menuhin’s postwar playing, does not understand the technical problems with which the violinist was beset from the 40’s on. But his book contains enough well-informed testimony to indicate why the most celebrated prodigy of his time failed to fulfill his seemingly miraculous promise.
In a sense, every classical musician is a prodigy, for exceptional musical talent always manifests itself early in life, and it is not uncommon for a gifted youngster to begin studying violin or piano around the age of six. Unlike “ordinarily” gifted children, however, prodigies develop near-professional techniques within an unusually brief time, perhaps as little as three or four years. What happens next depends on their parents.
“Believe me, when you find a prodigy, you find an ambitious parent in the background,” said the violinist Ruggiero Ricci, a prodigy himself and one who knew whereof he spoke. Some parents have scrupulously kept their young charges out of the spotlight of publicity, but such restraint is comparatively rare; the rule is more or less shameless exploitation. Yehudi Menuhin’s parents were exceptional only in their lifelong insistence that they had never exploited their son. The facts tell a different story.
Moshe and Marutha Mnuchin were Russian Jews who arrived in the U.S. by way of Palestine, eventually settling in San Francisco and changing the family name when Moshe took American citizenship in 1919. Though they taught Hebrew for a living, the Mnuchins were wholly secularized, loathing the insularity of the ghettoes from which they came. They also had (in Burton’s inadvertently revealing phrase) “a progressive outlook on Zionism,” meaning that they were opposed to it. At the same time, however, they never tried to shed their Jewish identities, and when a New York landlord, mistaking them for Gentiles, sought to entice them by explaining that no Jews were allowed in his apartment house, Marutha vowed on the spot that she would name her first-born son “Yehudi,” the Hebrew word for a Jew.
According to the later testimony of Yaltah Menuhin, the younger of Yehudi’s two sisters, Marutha “believed her destiny was to give birth to a genius.” His parents began taking him to concerts when he was two years old; by 1921, aged five, he was studying the violin in earnest, first with Sigmund Anker, one of San Francisco’s leading teachers, then with Louis Persinger, a pupil of the great Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe.2 He made his formal debut in 1924 at eight; two years later, he performed Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole with the San Francisco Symphony, of which Persinger was the concertmaster.
How does a child so young learn to play so well? The phenomenon has yet to be adequately explained, but prodigies clearly have a highly developed aptitude for mimesis—the ability to imitate with uncanny exactitude whatever they see or hear. As Menuhin would explain in Unfinished Journey, his 1977 memoir, Persinger “demonstrated and I imitated, winning achievement by ear, without detour through the conscious mind.” Persinger described their studies similarly in a 1924 interview:
We began our study of a new work, after its general characteristics were made clear to him, by going over it phrase by phrase. I would play the phrase, he would repeat it as exactly as possible. . . . [H]e seemed to absorb everything I taught him the way a sponge absorbs water.
The flaw in this “method” is that it is not in fact methodical. Prodigies learn so naturally and rapidly that their teachers are invariably tempted to let them play difficult pieces without having first systematically worked through the fundamentals of mechanical technique. When Menuhin performed the Symphonie espagnole for Ysaÿe in 1927, the older violinist declared himself “very happy indeed.” Then he asked the boy to play a four-octave arpeggio in A major, the most basic of technical exercises. Incredibly, Menuhin muffed it. But not so incredibly after all: his teacher Persinger had never made him play arpeggio studies, or any other kind of étude.
The problem was not that Menuhin lacked a virtuoso technique—by this time, he had already made his New York recital debut, to rave reviews—but rather that the technique was the product of imitation rather than comprehension. In his own words, he played “more or less as a bird sings, instinctively, uncalculating, unthinkingly.”
Recognizing that he needed further training, Moshe now took him to Europe to work with Georges Enesco and, later, Adolf Busch, two of the most profoundly musical violinists of the century. But both men, like Persinger, were inspiring coaches rather than methodical pedagogues, and though they taught him much about interpretation, he learned nothing from them about technique. Then and later, he was on his own.
Not long after Yehudi began to study with Enesco, Moshe Menuhin quit his teaching job to become his son’s manager. By then, Moshe and Marutha also had two daughters, Hephzibah (born in 1920) and Yaltah (born in 1921), both of whom shared Yehudi’s musical gifts and became fine pianists. All three Menuhins were tutored privately, and were disallowed contact with other boys and girls. “In hotels and even on railway trains,” Burton writes, the Menuhins “reserved a family suite, with a kitchen. Only once or twice in the first 20 years of his life did Yehudi eat out in a public restaurant.”
According to Moshe, the purpose of this isolation was to protect his son from cynical promoters and to permit him to develop naturally as a musician:
If he has a touch of genius—and I am compelled to believe he has—our task is to surround him with such a sane, helpful atmosphere that his capacities will unfold as plans unfold in a healthy environment.
But the truth is that Yehudi spent his entire boyhood in an unhealthy environment, rigidly controlled by his parents, from which he was permitted to venture forth solely in order to make money That he somehow managed to flourish as an artist was due not to the good sense of his rapacious father, but to his extraordinary talent.
In 1927, Menuhin played the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Fritz Busch (Adolf’s brother) and the New York Symphony A musician of the highest seriousness, Busch was at first reluctant to collaborate with an eleven-year-old wunderkind on one of the cornerstones of the classical repertoire. But a single run-through changed his mind: “Yehudi played so gloriously, and with such complete mastery, that by the second orchestral tutti I was already won over. This was perfection.”
The public—and the critics—agreed. The concert, for which Menuhin was dressed in velvet knickerbockers (Moshe would not let him perform in long pants until 1931), turned him into a celebrity virtually overnight. He cut his first recordings four months later, and embarked on a full-scale U.S. tour the following winter. A 1929 concert with Bruno Walter and the Berlin Philharmonic, at which he played concertos by Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, put the seal on his success. Thereafter, he would be as big a box-office draw as Jascha Heifetz or Fritz Kreisler, the idols of his San Francisco childhood.3
For all his popularity in the concert hall, it was Menuhin’s records that made him an international superstar. Between 1928 and 1939, he recorded works for violin and orchestra by Bach, Bruch, Chausson, Dvorák, Elgar, Lalo, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Paganini, and Schumann, as well as a large number of sonatas and shorter pieces, including the very first complete set of Bach’s unaccompanied sonatas and partitas. Most of the piano-accompanied sonatas also featured Hephzibah Menuhin, who had made her own debut at the age of eight and with whom Yehudi performed frequently in the 30’s.
What is most immediately striking about these recordings is that outside of certain deliberate (and brilliant) evocations of Heifetz and Kreisler—like Bazzini’s La Ronde des lutins and Kreisler’s own Caprice viennois and Tambourin chinois—Menuhin does not resemble any other violinist, not even Busch or Enesco. The big, sweet tone, the wide but beautifully controlled vibrato, the forceful attack and frank emotionalism: all add up to a style that is both instantly recognizable and irresistibly personal. Except for Heifetz, no other child prodigy has had so individual a manner of playing.
Moreover, none of Menuhin’s early recordings sounds like the work of a child, though some are plainly the work of an unformed young man. Thus, his 1936 performance of the Bach A-Minor Sonata, attractive enough in its own uncomplicated terms, cannot stand up to comparison with the lean, incisive tone and boldly asymmetrical phrasing of the masterly version recorded three years earlier by Joseph Szigeti. Next to such deeply considered playing, Menuhin sounds almost naïve.
But if the austere rigor of unaccompanied Bach was just beyond the young Menuhin’s intellectual grasp, he was altogether at home in romantic music, and it is in a quartet of romantic works recorded between 1931 and 1933 that he comes completely into his own. Bruch’s G-Minor Concerto, Sir Edward Elgar’s B-Minor Concerto (conducted by the seventy-five-year-old composer, who called his sixteen-year-old soloist “the most wonderful artist I have ever heard”), Ravel’s Tzigane (accompanied by the peerless ensemble pianist Artur Balsam), and the Symphonie espagnole (conducted by Enesco) are direct, open-hearted, and unaffectedly expressive. They rank among the greatest performances ever given by any violinist, at any age.
No prodigy, however great his gifts, can escape the awkwardness of adolescence. Around 1934, a note of uncertainty began to creep into Menuhin’s playing. This is especially evident in the Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata he recorded that year with Hephzibah: a heavy-footed, oddly slow performance that recalls an acute remark made about Yehudi in 1935 by the music critic Ferruccio Bonavia:
Neither child nor man, he has lost the divine simplicity of the former without having had the foundations of the individual style that is necessary to the grown man. The innocence has passed to his sister.
The change noted by Bonavia was due in part to the fact that Menuhin, though still under Mo-she’s heavy thumb, was no longer a child: in 1938, at the age of twenty-two, he would meet and marry his first wife, Nola. But in retrospect, it can also be seen as an outgrowth and harbinger of the technical difficulties that would dog him for the rest of his playing days.
As early as a 1940 recording with Hephzibah of the Brahms G-Major Sonata, Menuhin’s tone had become infected with an intermittent wobble. Burton dismisses it as trivial, merely remarking in passing that the violinist “could not always maintain a steady pressure of the bow on the strings.” But such unsteadiness is a sure sign of underlying technical trouble, and within a few years it had become impossible to ignore. Although he briefly recaptured the interpretative self-confidence—if not the tonal stability—of his adolescence, the fabric of his sound continued to unravel. After the early 50’s, he would never again play consistently well.
At first, Menuhin thought the unsteadiness in his bow arm was the result of muscular tension—hence his initial interest in yoga as a possible means of relieving that tension. But as his playing slowly disintegrated, he came to realize that he had mistaken a symptom for the cause. In a 1980 interview, he acknowledged what “old photographs” revealed: the playing position of his right arm and hand was “absolutely atrocious.” Specifically, his use of “pressure exerted through the first finger” caused a “lack of a proper balance in the bow.”
This was, as it happens, the same right-hand grip employed by Louis Persinger’s teacher, Eugène Ysaÿe—who had fallen victim to a chronic bowing tremor that cut short his own playing career. Undoubtedly, Persinger passed on the defective position to his infallibly mimetic student. By the time Menuhin realized it, he could not completely undo the damage caused by muscular habits acquired in childhood and reinforced by incessant repetition in adolescence.
Carl Flesch, the foremost violin teacher of the prewar era, wrote of Ysaÿe: “His end as a violinist provided a striking proof of the absolute need for correct technical foundations even where the artist is endowed with genius.” Much the same thing could have been said of Menuhin.
Technical and personal problems often travel in tandem. In 1944, Menuhin met and became romantically involved with Diana Gould, an English ballet dancer; three years later, he divorced his first wife to marry her. By then, he knew his playing was not what it had been, and it is tempting to speculate that his turn to nonmusical subjects had something to do with the disorder of his private and professional lives. Whatever the reason, shortly after the end of World War II Menuhin began embracing a variety of causes, most of them impeccably of the Left (though he would always be sound on the issue of repression in the Soviet Union). He continued in this vein ever after.
When it came to Judaism and Israel, Menuhin typically chose whatever position was likely to offend the largest number of Jews. One of the most egregious was his single-handed attempt to “de-Nazify” the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who had held an official government post in Hitler’s Germany and had conducted there throughout the war. True, Furtwängler’s wartime record was sufficiently murky to justify legitimate differences of opinion; but Menuhin went out of his way to perform and record with him at a time when most Jewish musicians refused to appear on the same platform.
Menuhin’s ambivalence toward Israel, a legacy of his father’s anti-Zionism, brought him under fire on other occasions, most notably during his tenure as president of the International Music Council (IMC), a United Nations department that Burton crisply dismisses as “a talking shop for idealists, mandarins, and hangers-on.” When UNESCO, the parent agency of the IMC, officially censured Israel in 1974, Menuhin was publicly pressured to resign. He refused to do so, leading the pianist Arthur Rubinstein to brand him “a bad Jew.”
But if the stances adopted by Menuhin offended some, they also won him popularity with others. This was especially the case in England, where he had settled in 1960, eventually renouncing his American citizenship to become a British subject and accept a knighthood. There, Sir Yehudi—later Lord Menuhin of Stoke d’Abernon—happily played the role of elder (musical) statesman, freely indulging what the skeptical Alexander Waugh called his “love and peace waffle.” (Of Menuhin’s deep-seated streak of self-righteousness his brother-in-law once remarked, “Very few people interested Yehudi. He was interested in all people.”) Though he continued to make occasional appearances as a soloist until three years before his death, he spent most of his time conducting, giving woolly-minded speeches, and teaching at the Yehudi Menuhin International School, an institute for gifted young musicians which he founded in 1963 and on whose grounds he was buried after his death in 1999.
Today, child prodigies are a seemingly indispensable part of the classical-music economy. The Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin was a veteran of the concert stage by the time he was sixteen; the Korean-American violinist Sarah Chang recorded her first CD at the age of nine.
Some contemporary prodigies, Kissin in particular, are indisputably major talents, while others, like the English soprano Charlotte Church, have no business performing in public. But none of them should ever have been subjected to the stresses of a modern, media-driven musical career at such young ages. Virtually every classical musician who has been allowed to perform professionally as a child (other than on isolated occasions) has experienced crippling psychological trauma as a result, and very few have been able to sustain major careers upon reaching adulthood.
In this respect, Menuhin has had an almost entirely negative influence on the culture of classical music, for he was the first child prodigy to live out his whole life as a media figure. He became the model for all who followed him, driving down the age at which one could qualify as a genuine prodigy. Without his phenomenal example, there might be no Sarah Changs—or Charlotte Churches. One can only hope they will escape the unhappy trajectory of his later career.
But even if Menuhin’s youthful triumphs have long since been superseded by the still more youthful triumphs of his successors, we still have the records he made as a boy, at which it remains impossible not to marvel. Perhaps the scientific study of the brain will some day shed light on why child prodigies are able to do what they do. For now, every prodigy is an impenetrable mystery, and Menuhin was among the greatest mysteries of all.
How did he do it? How could an innocent, inexperienced child interpret the classics with so great a degree of sensitivity and comprehension that distinguished artists, five times his age, unhesitatingly treated him as their equal? Three-quarters of a century after he made the first of the records that to this day continue to dazzle all who hear them, it seems less likely than ever that science alone will supply an answer to the riddle that was Yehudi Menuhin.
Menuhin on CD: A Select Discography
Yehudi Menuhin’s early recordings are now widely available for the first time since their original appearance on 78’s. Here are some of the best, as well as a few made after his youthful peak:
1928: Franz Ries’s La Capricciosa, recorded at Menuhin’s first session for Victor (with Louis Persinger at the piano), is found on The Young Menuhin: Encores, together with seventeen other shorter pieces—including La Ronde des lutins, Tambourin chinois, and the Ravel Tzigane—that show him at his most virtuosic (Testament SBT-1003).
1931-32: Menuhin’s classic recordings of the Bruch G-Minor Concerto, Op. 26 (conducted by Sir Landon Ronald), and the Elgar B-Minor Concerto, Op. 61 (conducted by the composer), both accompanied by the London Symphony, are now available on a single budget-priced CD, flawlessly remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn. Not yet released in the U.S., it can be ordered directly from England on line at www.amazon.co.uk (Naxos 8.110902).
1933: The violinist/conductor/composer Georges Enesco joined his most celebrated pupil in the studio for Chausson’s Poème and the Lalo Symphonie espagnole, both accompanied by the Paris Symphony (EMI References 65960).
1934-36: The first complete recording of Bach’s six sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin, made by Menuhin in the mid-3O’s, is now available on a two-disk set (EMI Reférences 67197, two CD’s).
1934-40: Menuhin’s artistic partnership with his sister Hephzibah is documented in a collection of sonata performances that includes the Bach E-Major Sonata, BWV 1016; the Beethoven A-Major Sonata (Kreutzer), Op. 47, and G-Major Sonata, Op. 96; and the Brahms G-Major Sonata, Op. 78, and D-Minor Sonata, Op. 108. This imported set, currently unavailable in the U.S., can be ordered on line at www.amazon.co.uk (Biddulph LAB 124/5, two CD’s).
1947: The most important of Menuhin’s postwar recordings was his first version of the Beethoven D-Major Violin Concerto, Op. 61, with Wilhelm Furtwängler and the Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Later performances of the concerto—including the better-known 1953 remake with Furtwängler and the Philharmonia—document the decline in his playing (Testament SBT-1109).
1951: Menuhin’s mature style can be heard at its most technically assured on Menuhin in Japan, which contains remakes of Bach’s G-Minor Sonata and E-Major Partita and the Kreutzer Sonata (plus other sonatas and encore pieces, including Caprice viennois), all recorded in two days of marathon sessions held during the violinist’s 1951 tour of Japan (Biddulph LAB 162/63, two CD’s).
Except as indicated, all of the CD’s listed above can be purchased on line by viewing this article on COMMENTARY’s website:
1 Yehudi Menuhin: A Life. Northeastern University Press, 561 pp., $35.00. Currently available CD versions of Menuhin’s early recordings are listed in the selected discography at the end of this piece.
2 Around this time, Moshe changed Yehudi’s “official” birthday from April 22, 1916, to January 22, 1917, in order to make the boy seem even younger than he was. (Menuhin’s age is given correctly throughout this essay.)
3 By 1928, Menuhin was already earning a minimum of $3,500 a concert—about $34,000 today—plus 20 percent of receipts in excess of the guarantee.