Thursday, September 10, 2009
Yehudi Menuhin was born in New York City, New York, to Bielorussian Jewish parents from what is now Belarus. His sisters were the concert pianist and human rights worker Hephzibah Menuhin and the pianist, painter, and poet Yaltah Menuhin. Through his father Moshe Menuhin, a former rabbinical student and anti-Zionist writer, Menuhin was descended from a distinguished rabbinical dynasty.
Menuhin began violin instruction at age three under violinist Sigmund Anker; his parents had wanted Louis Persinger to be his teacher, but Persinger refused. He displayed extraordinary talents at an early age. His first solo violin performance was at the age of seven with the San Francisco Symphony in 1923. Persinger then agreed to take Menuhin as a student. When the Menuhins went to Paris, Persinger suggested Yehudi go to his own teacher, Eugène Ysaÿe. He did have one lesson with Ysaÿe, but did not like his method or the fact that he was very old. Instead, he went to the Romanian composer and violinist George Enescu, after which he made several recordings with his sister Hephzibah. He was also a student of Adolf Busch. When a child and an adolescent, his fame was phenomenal. In 1929 he played in Berlin, under Bruno Walter's baton, three concerti by Bach, Brahms and Beethoven. Albert Einstein is said to have exclaimed at the end of the concert, "Now I know that there is a God!" In 1932, he recorded Edward Elgar's Violin Concerto in B minor for HMV in London, with the composer himself conducting.
Yehudi Menuhin performed for allied soldiers during World War II, and went with the composer Benjamin Britten to perform for inmates of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, after its liberation in April 1945. He returned to Germany in 1947 to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler as an act of reconciliation, becoming the first Jewish musician to do so following the Holocaust. He said to critics within the Jewish community that he wanted to rehabilitate Germany's music and spirit. After building early success on richly romantic and tonally opulent performances, he experienced considerable physical and artistic difficulties caused by overwork during the war as well as unfocused and unstructured early training. Careful practice and study combined with meditation and yoga helped him overcome many of these problems. His profound and considered musical interpretations are nearly universally acclaimed. When he finally resumed recording, he was known for practising by deconstructing music phrases one note at a time.
He and Louis Kentner (his second wife Diana's brother-in-law) gave the first performance of William Walton's Violin Sonata, at Zürich on 30 September 1949.
Menuhin continued to perform to an advanced age, becoming known for profound interpretations of an austere quality, as well as for his explorations of music outside the classical realm.
Menuhin regularly returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, sometimes performing with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. One of the more memorable later performances was of Elgar's Violin Concerto, which Menuhin had recorded with the composer in 1932.
On 22 April 1978 along with Stéphane Grappelli, Yehudi played Pick Yourself Up, taken from the Menuhin & Grappelli Play Berlin, Kern, Porter and Rodgers & Hart album as the interval act at the 23rd Eurovision Song Contest for TF1. The performance came direct from the studios of TF1 and not that of the venue (Palais des Congrès) from where the contest was held.
He also hosted the PBS telecast of the gala opening concert of the orchestra from Davies Symphony Hall in September 1980.
During the 1970s, '80s and '90s, he made jazz recordings with Stéphane Grappelli, classical recordings with L. Subramaniam and albums of Eastern music with the great sitarist Ravi Shankar. In 1983 he founded the Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists in Folkestone, Kent.
His recording contract with EMI lasted almost 70 years and is the longest in the history of the music industry. He made his first recording at age 13 in November 1929, and his last in 1999 at age 82. In total he recorded over 300 works for EMI, both as a violinist and as a conductor.
In 1990 he was the first conductor for the Asian Youth Orchestra which toured around Asia, including Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong with Julian Lloyd Webber and a group of young talented musicians from all over Asia.
Yehudi Menuhin was married twice. He first married Nola Nicholas, daughter of an Australian industrialist, and sister of Hephzibah Menuhin's first husband Lindsay Nicholas. They had two children, Krov and Zamira. Following their divorce in 1947, he married the British ballerina and actress Diana Gould, whose mother was the pianist Evelyn Suart (who had played with artists such as Eugène Ysaÿe and Karel Halíř), and whose stepfather was Admiral Sir Cecil Harcourt. Menuhin and Gould had two sons, Gerard and Jeremy, a pianist. Another child died shortly after birth.
The name Yehudi means 'Jew' in Hebrew. In an interview published in October 2004, he recounted to New Internationalist magazine the story of his name: it is a variation of the name Yehudah, a name given by Jacob, and one of the tribes of Israel. It means "Thanks to God".
Lord Menuhin died in Berlin, Germany following a brief illness, from complications of bronchitis.
Soon after his death, the Royal Academy of Music acquired the Yehudi Menuhin Archive, one of the most comprehensive collections ever assembled by an individual musician.