Yehudi Menuhin

Yehudi Menuhin was born in New York in 1911 of Russian Jewish parents. He and his musically gifted sisters were educated by private tutors. He made his debut in San Francisco at the age of seven, in Paris aged ten, in New York aged eleven and in Berlin aged thirteen. Since then he played with the world’s orchestras and conductors and received numerous awards and honours, including peace prizes.

During the war he played nearly five hundred benefit concerts for the Red Cross. His first marriage was dissolved in 1938 and two years after the war he married Diana Gould. In 1963 he founded the Menuhin School of Music in Surrey. In 1965 he became a KBE and in 1985 he adopted British nationality, two years before he received the Order of Merit.

He is widely considered one of the greatest violinists of the twentieth century. He died on 12th March 1999.

In 1989 I spent the best part of an afternoon talking to him in his house in Belgravia. Here is what he said to me about his life, his aspirations, and his music.

I urge everybody to read it. He was certainly a great man with an analytical mind and extraordinary vision.

Albert Einstein said when he heard you play as a young boy, ‘Now I know there is a God in heaven.’ Where you aware of the extraordinary nature of your talent? 

I’m still not aware of it, and I become less and less aware of it as I listen to very remarkable talented children who play beautifully, and then hear of others who rob banks at the age of eleven, others who tap into computers at the age of twelve and learn the secrets of the Pentagon, and others who storm into Tiananmen Square and are ready to be immolated for their peaceful purposes. I feel more and more that I’m one of a great many people, almost one of a great many young people, at the age of seventy-three that is probably a permissible illusion. When I was a child I felt absolutely normal and resented any allusion to Wunderkinder and prodigies. I hated it and I think I was right then and am right now. No doubt I played beautifully and had deep feeling, but Einstein was a man who was very impulsive, very emotional, and he could have said the same thing about his own remarkable intuitive discovery of the oneness of the universe. Anyone who looks on an insect or a flower and could say there is a God within us and we are a part of that God

I am indebted to the quality of my parents and my teachers, and their high-mindedness. There was never any talk of money in the house, no vulgarity; always high purpose, good literature and poetry and a great deal of fun. I was spared all the preoccupations with violence, or with sex, or with the unhealthy worries and frustrations that many people have to live under; the bad air, the sidewalks they have to walk on, the ugliness they are surrounded by. I feel therefore fortunate and grateful. I believe firmly that children bring a great deal into the world that they then forget. Learning is a process of forgetting. It sounds a paradox, but none the less, as we learn to live in the world, we forget that intangible quality we brought with us when we were born. People are conditioned by their prenatal stage.

I know that my mother was looking forward to having me and was very happy, and very much in love with my father, during the time she carried me. I was therefore surrounded by love, appreciation, warmth, health and trust, as well as encouragement to follow in the good ideals of unity. I remember, as a child, being disturbed when I saw the exhaust coming out of cars, because I knew instinctively that there was a unity in the world, that whatever came had to go, that whatever was burnt was transformed into something else. All these philosophical questions preoccupied me. One of my earliest dreams was to bring peace to the world; I imagined that if I played well enough it would happen. I will probably play in the Sistine Chapel next year some time, but it won’t bring peace to the world.

The real demands that were made on me in my childhood were qualitative and organized. My mother impressed upon me that, if I were serious about the violin, I would have to work a certain number of hours each day. I worked early so that I could go out in the late-morning sun and walk, run and play tennis. After lunch and sleep, I worked again. The public did not see the demands. What they saw were the fruits of the demands, which were the joy of making progress and playing, of expressing oneself. There is nothing like music to give a person overall co-ordination. It asks everything from the mind and from the co-ordination of the body from the fingers to the eyes. Everything is involved, and when you use everything, everything falls into place. It’s when you use only a part of yourself, like sitting in the office and concentrating on one thing, that you have to compensate with other activities, but playing an instrument or conducting is, in fact, as near a complete activity – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – as you can have, and in that respect it keeps one in good condition, unless one abuses it.

I was also lucky since children who pursue a career often leave the parental nest early and have to fend for themselves, but I don’t think any child in the world can have seen more of both parents than my sisters and I did. Of course, they had their frictions because they were totally different characters. My father was very emotional and deeply moral and felt for the whole of humanity. My mother was very maternal and felt for her own children first, then for others. She was highly disciplined and a remarkably strong character. So they had their differences from time to time, which resulted in sadness, for you always want your parents to be happy together – as they mostly were.

When we went to France in 1927, my father took leave of absence from his school and had to decide, after three months, whether or not he’d go back. It was a major decision: either he cut himself off from any further income, and could be with the family, or he abandoned his wife and three children in Paris and went back to earning his $300 a month. He took the right decision, which was to remain with the family. On our return to San Francisco we were self-supporting. In those days there was no income tax in America and prices were reasonable, and when we returned I gave a concert at the Civic Auditorium that earned us enough to keep us all for a year and a half.

There are, it follows, always penalties to pay. The sort of life I have been describing has its own inbuilt penalty, which is that the children don’t have experience of the outer world. We travelled so much that of course the outer world did penetrate quite a lot, but it was always kept at a certain distance from the family, which meanwhile maintained its routine. When we were seven, eight and nine years old or thereabouts, we would go every day at eleven o’clock to the park in San Francisco. Later on, when we were in Sydney or Melbourne for a month, we would go to the Botanical Gardens every day at the same time and feed the swans and walk or run around. But that was when I was nineteen, so the routine had gone on unbroken for twelve to fourteen years.

The concerts were always in the evening, so they didn’t interrupt the day. Any tribute or adulation from the public was also kept at arm’s length, although I would be aware that the concerts were sold out. My father looked after the business interests and the rest of the family life on tour. Later it took me a long time to get accustomed to dealing independently with people on a one-to-one basis, for we had never been to school to receive a formal education, though my mother saw to it that we had wonderful tutors. And when you spend your life with Mozart and Beethoven, Bach and Schumann and Brahms, you are living with great minds. It is a privilege given to very few people, for the great composers are those whose works convince the interpreter of the great and good truths, eternal and immutable, recognized in the proportion and structure of their works.

When you hear your first recording of the Elgar Violin Concerto, conducted by the composer himself, do you see it as the definitive performance? 

No, I don’t. Rarely, if ever, do I consider any musical performance a definitive one. It can never be nearer or farther from the absolute truth, but music is a live substance, and even today performances in the recording studio can still be ‘live’ if you play the whole work, or a whole movement, through, for even today retouching is not always feasible in many cases. When I listen to that recording of the Elgar, I enjoy it, and I have listened to it perhaps twice or three times since I made it. I always feel it is a beautiful recording. It has the ardour of youth; it has deep feeling; it has the authority of the composer himself; and it has the historical uniqueness of the fact it was done with the composer. Therefore I am very moved by it. Naturally I can imagine certain things I could do better or differently. But it doesn’t matter; it’s beautiful.

It is true that, when I came to my early thirties, I had to rebuild consciously the techniques which up till then had been unconscious. It happens with everybody. For instance, you can speak a language that you know well without thinking of the grammar, and you can grow up speaking it well depending on who you’ve heard speak it. It’s what Suzuki, the Japanese violin teacher, calls the ‘mother-tongue method’: imitation and repetition, by ear and by sight. Then, as soon as your mind is awake, you fall from grace, you leave the Garden of Eden, you begin to be responsible for your own actions. What you first knew you later have to understand, and you must find the path to natural knowing, and it may take years. I’ve traversed every, minute section of that path. I could play beautifully as a child, then I had to learn what it was I was doing, and sometimes, at certain periods of my life, I lost some of that original spontaneity. Now I have it absolutely, because I just feel a piece of music. I know it, can judge it, can seize it much more quickly, and one of the great things is that I can teach, which I maybe wouldn’t have been able to do had I gone on as an instinctive violinist.

It often seems difficult to relate music to moral, social or even symbolic values. 

It depends on the music. There are as many different kinds of music as there are kinds of literature. You can have moral music. For instance, I have just done the Brahms Requiem in Hamburg where it has been done every year for ninety-two years in the church where Brahms was baptized. It was a real service and one of the most moving things. No applause. People know the words, know the music and are cleansed after it. It is like an emotional purge.

Then you have music which is entertaining, music which is brilliant, music which is music to dance to or eat to, and music which is more intellectual. Certain of the last works of Beethoven are very intellectual. All the different types of music each speak of the life of a people, or of a period. Through music we can relive the very same feelings and thoughts that the composer had wherever he was living, and we can know his society. We know the courtesies of the court in Mozart’s days from his music, and we can feel with him how even tragic things were presented in a way that wouldn’t shock the perfection of the elegance and so on. Music is remarkable in that respect because it’s an art of time, and during the time it takes to play, it’s like a life. You live through it.

There has never been a people, a society, without music. Music is the organization of vibrations, palpable, oral, audible vibrations. As such it keeps us in touch with the universe. It allows us to express ourselves. The other night one of the friends of the Menuhin School decided he’d try to get us some support, which of course we need very badly. The government pays for the tuition, but not for repairs, or for scholarships for our overseas students. This man invited ten very important Japanese businessmen, and I produced three charming Japanese girls from my school. One played the violin and two played the piano. They played beautifully and the evening was a great success. The Japanese woman, as we know, has never been liberated, but our music gives the Japanese woman a chance to become totally liberated. What these little girls expressed in their music were some of the most touching feelings you could imagine. Who would have thought seventy years ago that Japanese women would be liberated by Western music? But it was the fact. They played with such emotion and such beauty and sensitivity, it was overwhelming.

Why does Britain show such general reluctance to support the arts by comparison with America and Europe? 

It’s a different background. In Germany, the state supports music and is a very great source of security to musicians. There are literally hundreds of opera houses in Germany. In America, support has come traditionally from the private pocket. In Britain there has been traditionally relatively little support, although it has grown enormously compared to what it used to be. It’s a matter of collective tradition. England can’t imitate others. It can only grow in its own way. I have to say that I have always loved and felt at home in England and London, so that when the British government offered me British citizenship, I accepted with joy, though on the understanding that I did not lose my American nationality.

Which contemporary violinist do you most admire? 

Gidon Kremer, a wonderful violinist and interpreter.

What prompted you to record with musicians outside your own sphere, like Ravi Shankar and Stéphane Grappelli? 

There are no boundaries where such superb musicians are concerned. They are simply the masters of their art, and enlarge one’s mind.

What is your assessment of Furtwängler, whom many have criticized for remaining in Germany under the Nazis?

A very great conductor and an absolutely clean man, no question of that. He stood up for Hindemith, he protected a great many Jews, helped many out of Germany, and himself had to escape towards the end of the war. He happened to conduct the orchestra when some of the German leaders were there, but we can’t expect everyone to behave in the same way. Sometimes it takes more courage to remain in your country than to leave it. Those who stayed suffered a pretty bad fate, and those who came out, after all, escaped. Yet there was this feeling of superiority among those who escaped, thinking that they showed great determination in leaving it behind. I would say, Jew or Gentile, you can’t blame those who stayed, you can’t blame those who escaped. It’s just the way things went. But Furtwängler himself was a man of integrity.

The anti-Semitism I have seen in my own lifetime has had a psychological impact on me only to the extent that I know it is important to maintain the dignity of the Jew and to avoid a kind of behaviour that might prompt a response. The caricature of the Jew is the businessman with the big cigar, who does exist sometimes. They can be charming and interesting people. What bothers me sometimes is that they are a little bit like the desert flowers. When they have only a drop of water they blossom. They make the most of the opportunity, as they did in Germany before the Nazi days, when they occupied extremely powerful positions. That must have created a certain amount of resentment. Of course, it gives no excuse for anti-Semitism, but you can understand it. The Jew does not stand out in Italy or Greece, nor would he in China, since the Chinese are far cleverer at business than the Jew. There are so many different types of Jew, but traditionally people have fastened on the Jew who is obviously different from them. But there are so many who are in no way different. It’s like the problem of the black in the United States. There are almost a majority of blacks that are nearly white, and no one bothers about them.

It is true that the Jews are far too sensitive, though they have perhaps been sensitized by history. They are too ready to imagine an insult; they are not prepared to give enough leeway, even to allow for a certain misbehaviour; they do carry a chip on their shoulders. They have to compensate, and it is a part of the psychology. One can understand that too, and one must understand it. They have to compensate for certain established assumptions. If it’s not one thing it’s another. If it’s not religion, it’s jealousy or it’s race. Yet it’s none of these things actually. It’s simply that people are nasty and want to condemn anything if they can find a little difference; can say that hair is frizzed instead of straight or that’s a detectable accent. Then they pounce on it.

Unfortunately, the Jews have come to Israel with the narrow aim of making themselves an independent nation, to a large extent disregarding the environment and the rest of the world. They didn’t come to establish a nation with the Palestinians and a wonderful federation (though now they realize that perhaps they should have done). They came instead with the pure desire to establish a Jewish state to the exclusion of everything else. They did it very successfully, but they did it ruthlessly, and probably the sense of fear is equal on both sides, I feel that the only solution lies in a federation, totally equal on both sides, as in Switzerland. If both have an equal title to the land, what else can you do? Meanwhile there is something cruel about all of us. We are capable of the most horrid things, especially if we have suffered them ourselves.

Why have so many leading musicians been Jewish? I think it’s ascribable simply to the fact that there were so many Jews who emigrated from Russia to the United States. The Jew is Russia, having been oppressed, found expression through the violin, because he was living in the same world where gypsy music was prevalent – in the Ukraine and the south of Russia. The violin was simply a Jewish instrument. A rabbi in New York told me that he was in Palestine, as it then was, in the early 1900s when the Russian pogroms were going on, and that hardly a Jewish refugee family arrived without violin case. And I don’t think that, in those days, the violin cases were filled with watches and stockings; they held genuine violins. The Russian Jews who arrived in New York brought with them a tremendous intensity of music making, much like the Negro in the United States whose first step to emancipation was singing the spiritual or playing the piano. There have been a great many musical traditions, only one of which was that of the Russian Jews, and today the Russian schools are producing as many non-Jewish violinists.

Your former marriage to Nola Nicholas apparently provoked a lot of adverse criticism from the Jewish press at the time. 

I wasn’t aware of it. If they had criticized me for other reasons, I would have accepted that certainly, and as it turned out it was not a successful marriage. That was as much my fault as hers, but I didn’t realize there was that criticism. Any number of Jews marry out of their religion, and I wouldn’t either applaud it or condemn it. It is just one of those things that happens or doesn’t happen.

Has the adulation you have received ever tempted you to abuse the rewards of fame? 

No, because I had to play the violin. The violin is relentless, and all the adulation in the world won’t enable you to play in tune unless you play in tune. When you measure yourself not by trivial adulation but by the work you have to do, then your measure is quite different. You can’t be spoilt. Besides, I have a marvellous wife, and she is so wonderfully loving and loyal and, at the same time, very critical. That’s the most wonderful kind of marriage. Marriages where the two flatter each other and reinforce each other are very dangerous in a way, especially if they have no children. People must have other people to criticize them.

Your wife has called you long on vision and short on imagination – a deficiency, she says, which makes you infuriatingly impractical. 

Diana has a marvellous capacity to visualize things as they actually are. For instance, she will be in an empty room and be able to imagine it decorated long before it is. I see the goal, but I don’t necessarily anticipate the details, although I’m willing to put up with the process as long as the goal is kept in mind. Women are processed by process and men see the goal. They’re both essential. Sometimes the goal proves more short-sighted than the process, and sometimes the process proves more long-sighted than the goal. We balance each other that way.

I am only too aware of Diana abandoning her own talents in our marriage, and I have often felt guilty about her self-denial. I have tried to compensate and have worked very hard to persuade her to do things she wants to do. But it takes a lot of persuasion. Even when she is here alone for a week or two, she will never lift the telephone to ask a friend round. It’s this feeling that she can’t indulge herself – a kind of extreme Protestant sense of not giving yourself pleasure. As soon as anything can be turned into an obligation or a duty, she’ll do it right away. It’s very curious. It is a kind of self-denial, yet no one shines in company more than she does.

Whereas your father rejoiced in you public performances, your mother longed for you to belong more to yourself, as she put it. Did their contrasting create an ambivalence for you? 

You can call it ambivalence. You can call it balance. I love my privacy and studying my score, but I also love meeting people and going out. I love playing the violin and I love conducting – two totally different occupations, one private, the other dealing with many voices. I can make the best of different situations. If you put me with political people, I am quite at home and interested, or if you put me with people on the street, I am fascinated by their mentality and way of life. I must say, however, that there is a great deal today that revolts me in the vulgarity and noise and the lack of depth all around.

As a young man you wrote: ‘Our ancestors were more honourable in that they did not trouble to conceal their feelings, they simply fought it out. In this sense the greatest hypocrisy goes hand in hand with the highest civilization.’ You seemed to think then that hypocrisy was not an acceptable price to pay for civilized values. What do you think now? 

I would now be a little hesitant about using the word hypocrisy because there can be various ways of clothing one’s thoughts and emotions, some of them extremely good. For instance, is it a hypocrisy to walk around clothed in warm weather when we could go naked? It’s a form of hypocrisy, but it’s a very useful and acceptable form, though many people who go to nude beaches show that there is a longing to be without clothes. In the same way, we clothe our thoughts, depending on the person we are with. That is a form of courtesy, not necessarily hypocritical but sincere in itself. If I know a person has lost a dear friend, I am not going to speak myself about a loss I may have had, because it wouldn’t be right, even as the Chinese feign gaiety in these circumstances in order to make you feel happy and not to burden you with their sorrow.

I think I am more aware today of everything that goes to create good in the world, and therefore I am more concerned with the building-blocks of good than I am with the abstract idea. The abstract idea is important, but after a while you realize that it is more important to so things. It is very important to have goals, otherwise you don’t know what you’re working for. In a way, I had a naughty sense of delight when the politicians were taken completely by surprise by the events that Gorbachev encouraged in Eastern Europe. All they could say was that it was going too fast. This was because they were comfortable in knowing where the enemy was, where the guns were – their mind didn’t have to exercise itself; they knew what to expect. But as soon As the barriers were broken, they didn’t know where they were, and they still don’t. Nor do they know where they’re going. But I know where they’re going. I know what’s happening in Europe.

I have a feeling that the next great struggle of the twenty-first century will be that of the federate principle – the principle of interdependence – against the backlog of the old nationalist thing. We’ll still have to fight that, but the new road is the interdependence of peoples and cultures, and that is the road we must travel. Anyone who stands against it is in the rearguard, and that’s why the creation of all these new nations since the Second World War is such an anomaly. It is out of step with the end of the twentieth century. Meanwhile it is still too early to pronounce factually on the vast changes the liberation of Eastern Europe has wrought, but it is obvious that it will enrich all the arts – music, literature, painting and sculpture.

On the question of where my own musical talent came from, I would say that heredity plays a big part in talent, but so does environment. That is one of those questions that goes on for ever in the sense that you can’t have only environment and no heredity, because you might be a dog, a cat, a human being or a fish; and you can’t have only heredity and no environment, because then you might be a plant that withers in the wrong kind of earth or in the sun without any water. You have to have both, and I had both. I have no doubt that I’m strong and, although I couldn’t live the life of the businessman or commuter, in my own way, for my purposes, I have plenty of vitality and a natural sense of what I need to feel well in terms of exercise and diet. I am not one-hundred-per-cent vegetarian, nor would I care to proselytize, but I have simply found that I dislike being carnivorous and that my instinct has proved right for me.

I have a very keen sense of the use of time, and I begrudge time spent that is not invested, just as some people feel about money. They don’t want to give money away, they’d rather see it grow. I’m not quite like that with time, because I always have time for people whom I feel I can be of use to and I generally find time for young musicians who call. But what I always like to do is to set a score, or give a concert, for a particular purpose. Everything I am doing now fits more and more into the scheme of things. Whereas previously I would go on tour for three months just to earn money, today I try to make each concert and each tour a contribution to and a step towards a future, whether mine or somebody else’s. I only wish that there were forty-eight hours in each day, in that life has presented me with so many more interests than I have had the time to follow and so many crafts I would have liked to learn.

I have been very fortunate. I have no axe to grind, I haven’t suffered humiliation. I haven’t ever suffered the unnatural death of any close friend. When I speak, I always speak with the thought in mind that I am perhaps speaking to people who haven’t had that blessed sort of good luck or privilege. My fulfilment lies in interpreting the works of composers, because even interpretation holds a certain measure of creation. I only do what I love and feel I need to do, and if this does amount to a great deal, it comes from an independent choice.

I don’t have any right to a feeling of superiority or to pass judgement. On the contrary, I feel that I have been spared with a kind destiny. My life is a constant sense of repayment for what I have had and a desire to protect the future. It goes without saying that there are still things I would wish to achieve in life. There is no horizon.

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