“I am the least chained of all men”
(Interview with Lord Menuhin in L’Humanité newspaper – 19 February 1999)
Born in New York in 1916, Yehudi Menuhin was the son of Moshe Menuhin and Marutha Sher, both Jews and born in Russia who migrated to Palestine and then to the United States. Two sisters would soon complete the family: Hephzibah, a future pianist with whom he would share a profound musical complicity and Yaltah who would also be an excellent musician. Marutha Sher dedicated her time to the education of her three children and Yehudi only attended school for one single day in his life.
At 5, Yehudi Menuhin learnt the violin with Sigmund Anker, then with Louis Persinger, director of the San Francisco Orchestra. He was already described as “a child in short pants, playing like a great adult”.
In 1923, he gave a public concert in San Francisco accompanied by Louis Persinger, and the following year he gave a recital at the Manhattan Opera House in New York. During his first travels to Europe, he met George Enesco who agreed to be his teacher. In his autobiography, Menuhin said about Eunesco that “he was not only a teacher… He was Providence to me, an inspiration that lifted me from the earth…”. Enesco sent the young Yehudi to Bâle, with one of the masters of the German school: Adolf Busch.
The time came for the historic debut in Paris and New York and the first recordings but it is the year 1929 that marked his worldwide consecration. By listening to him playing Bach, Beethoven and Brahms concertos, Albert Einstein said “Now I know there’s a God in heaven”.
Before his 20, Yehudi Menuhin recorded all the Bach Sonatas and Partitas for EMI and overwhelmed with admiration the most demanding musicians and music lovers.
When asked if he had been this genius child who did not need to study, he would answer “it is not fair, I needed to study, but like all the children, I was born with a heritage that dates back millions of years. The child is the embodiment of past lives. It is assumed that it is a new-born, but it is the miracle of a life that has not been interrupted since the origin of man and long before”.
(Interview with Le Monde Newspaper – 1996)
Yehudi Menuhin performed countless times and deepened the reflection on the most remarkable works of the classical repertoire. He also played an important role in the recovery of certain works that had been ignored until then and in making known works of Shostakovich or Prokokiev to the Western world.
Throughout his life, Yehudi Menuhin tirelessly took up the cause of the oppressed, using his notoriety to raise awareness among all audiences.
When war broke out, Menuhin produced himself more than 500 times for Allied forces and the Red Cross in the Pacific and England. In 1945, he toured with Benjamin Britten the liberated concentration and refugee camps. He also stood in defence of the director Wilhem Furtwängler who had retained his position at the Berlin Philharmonic under the Nazi Regime and was under fierce criticism. He wrote in his respect “You should know that staying in his position often requires more courage than deserting”.
Moreover, he constantly denounced the injustice of Apartheid in South Africa where he travelled and gave free concerts for the black community.
He toured in Israel and played in the Palestinian refugee camps.
Responding to the invitation of Pandit Nehru, Yehudi Menuhin travelled to India where he discovered a fascinating musical culture. He helped in making this music and artists know in the rest of world. In 1960, he received the Nehru Peace Prize.
In 1956, he created the Gstaad-Saanenland Summer Music Festival which continues to attract artists from all over the world nowadays. Yehudi Menuhin found happiness in his new career as a conductor. He was notably President and Associate Conductor of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Hallé Orchestra in England, Principal Guest Conductor of the Sinfonia Warsaw, President and Principal Conductor of the Hungarian Philharmonic Orchestra.
Yehudi Menuhin founded the Yehudi Menuhin School in England in 1963, the International Music Academy for Young Graduate String Players in Switzerland in 1977, the Association “Live Music Now” encouraging young musicians and organizing concerts in hospitals, homes and other “isolated” places.
In 1991, he founded the IYMF to ensure the sustainability of various projects such as MUS-E aiming at integrating artists in schools and the Assembly of European Cultures.
On March 12 1999 Yehudi Menuhin died of a heart attack in Berlin at the age of 82. He gave his last concert five days before when he conducted works of Prokofiev, Schnittke and Mendelssohn.
“When I die, I would like my ashes scattered in a river, a nice picnic and dancing all night long”
(Autobiography of Yehudi Menuhin – The Unfinished Journey)