Yehudi Menuhin: Violinist & Visionary

Jonathan Benthall

A lecture given by Jonathan Benthall on the 8th February 2014 at the Fine Arts Library, University of Texas at Austin.

Yehudi Menuhin believed, at any rate as a boy, that if he could play a Bach partita absolutely perfectly he could make the world a better place.

He was born in 1916 in New York to Moshe Mnuchin and Marutha Sher, both from Jewish families who had earlier migrated to Palestine to escape the pogroms in Russia. They were happy but not at all well off. The young family soon moved to California, where he begged to learn the violin at the age of 5, and at the age of 7 he started lessons with the leader of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Louis Persinger, who became his devoted mentor and piano accompanist. In 1926 he made his debut at the Manhattan Opera House, and the family including two young sisters, Hephzibah and Yaltah, also talented musicians, crossed to Europe and settled in Paris, where Yehudi persuaded the Romanian violinist and composer, Georges Enesco, to teach him. In 1929, Yehudi played Bach’s violin concerto in E major and the Beethoven and Brahms concerti at a single performance in Berlin and again in Dresden, and for the next ten years he toured Europe and America annually, playing with the greatest conductors of the time.

During World War 2, he played for Allied troops including the wounded and those about to go into battle, supported the Free French Army and General de Gaulle, and raised money for war charities. After the war, and the failure of his first marriage, he married an English ballet dancer, Diana Gould, and settled in London and Switzerland while continuing an international touring and recording schedule. Following ten years as director of the annual Bath Festival between 1959 and 1968, he took up conducting as a second profession. The high awards that he received in many countries, for his humanitarian as well as his musical achievements, included a British peerage and the Order of Merit, which is in the Queen’s personal gift. He died in 1999 in Berlin on tour, and is buried at the School near London that he had founded.

I have divided this talk into three sections: on his music, on his vision, and on the institutions that are his lasting legacy. I am not a musician myself, and many of you here will be much better qualified than I to opine on Menuhin’s career as a violinist and conductor. I shall focus on his recordings, which began as early as 1928. On his vision I am more confident to speak, having known Menuhin well for the last quarter-century of his life, while my wife Zamira is his daughter by his first marriage and knew him extremely well for sixty years. My sources are not only personal memories but also his publications, including his autobiography Unfinished Journey, and the indispensable biography by his friend Humphrey Burton published shortly after Menuhin’s death; also a documentary film made by another friend, Bruno Monsaingeon, The Violin of the Century. As regards my third section, the Menuhin institutions, the Latin inscription on the architect Sir Christopher Wren’s tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, seems applicable: Si monumentum requiris, circumspice, ‘If you are looking for a monument, look around you’. As far as I know, no other musician of the twentieth century has left such a varied legacy extending in practical ways the power of music as a civilizing force.


Menuhin’s allegiance to the ‘three Bs’ of his triumphant Berlin concert, just before his thirteenth birthday, continued throughout his life. He gave countless performances of the great Beethoven concerto, and left twelve recordings with different conductors, including one with him directing his own orchestra. He specially loved Brahms for his evocation of infinity and the world of dream.

But it is his commitment to Bach that stands out even more. His thirteenth birthday gift from his father Moshe was a 60 volume set of the Bach Gesellschaft Urtext of J.S. Bach’s complete works, to which he devoted systematic study. When he was about to be operated on for appendicitis in 1931 and his father told him to think of something beautiful before inhaling from the ether mask, he chose these unedited Bach scores. He was the first violinist to record the complete set of Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas, between 1934 and 1936 – though these are now part of the standard repertoire and a touchstone for assessing an aspiring violinist’s skill and maturity. One of Menuhin’s most famous recordings was the Double Bach violin concerto, played in 1932 with Enesco, for whom he had an immense admiration, under the baton of Pierre Monteux.

As a soloist Menuhin was also specially celebrated for his performances of the extensive Mozart repertoire, and of the Mendelssohn concerto. We should not forget his recordings of lovely salon pieces by Kreisler, Tartini and many others. Among major twentieth century composers, he was closest to Elgar and Bartók.

Sir Edward Elgar’s violin concerto had been given its premiere by Fritz Kreisler in 1910. In 1932, when negotiations for Kreisler or Ysaye to record it had fallen through, the entrepreneurially minded artistic director of EMI arranged for Menuhin to record it under Elgar’s baton in London and a few months later to perform it at the huge Albert Hall, with the Prime Minister in the audience. In the first half of the concert, Menuhin played concertos by Bach and Mozart with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Beecham. In the second half, Elgar sat on a red velvet stool to conduct his own concerto. This alliance of the 75-year old composer and the 16-year old violinist must have been very moving. Elgar wrote of his admiration for the lusciousness and majesty of Yehudi’s playing. Many others have recorded the concerto but the 1932 original has never been surpassed.

Most fundamentally Menuhin gave his audiences the impression that he was speaking to each of them individually, heart to heart.

Menuhin’s other very close association was with the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, of whom he once said ‘No other composer has drawn me as irresistibly’. One afternoon of 1943, in a private residence in New York, he and his piano accompanist played through Bartók’s First Violin Sonata for the composer, who responded after the first movement: ‘I did not think works could be played that beautifully until long after the composer was dead’. On the spot Yehudi commissioned a solo sonata, which proved to be Bartók’s last completed work, given its premiere at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1944: extremely difficult, slow to gain acceptance, but now praised as a masterpiece.

What were Menuhin’s superlative qualities as a violinist? Some have mentioned a golden tone; others a distinctive vibrato with his subtle control of left arm, wrist and fingers. Perhaps most fundamentally Menuhin gave his audiences the impression that he was speaking to each of them individually, heart to heart.

In the 1960s he formed the Bath Festival Orchestra, later known as the Menuhin Festival Orchestra; he learnt the skills of a conductor and conducted many famous orchestras. He also championed the scholarly study of original scores by Paganini and others; and he commissioned new works from many contemporary composers. Chamber music was a specialty of the Menuhin Festival in Gstaad, Switzerland. He was also a pioneer of crossover, playing with the sitarist Ravi Shankar (a decade before the Beatles) and the jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli – making some memorably seductive recordings with the latter, though always from a score while Grappelli improvised around him. Menuhin had the greatest respect for creative improvization and what he once called its ‘irresistibly contagious incandescence’, comparing it to a ‘trace mineral’ essential even in classical Western music. Menuhin’s sympathies stopped well short, however, of the Pop music that he regarded as a violation of the eardrums. He was President between 1969 and 1975 of the International Music Council, an offshoot of Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization, at a time when it played a far more important role than today, especially as a mediator of Cold War tensions.


The Second World War, which began when Menuhin was 23, was a turning point in what might otherwise have been the normal career of a travelling virtuoso – though it is worth remembering that other child prodigies have failed to make the transition to adult maturity, and their careers have petered out.

A resolute opponent and boycotter of the Nazi regime ever since Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Menuhin decided during the war not to stay comfortably in California on the periphery. He played at many military and naval bases and hospitals for the wounded, including a tour of the remote and bleak Aleutian Islands. In 1944 he gave a concert in Hawaii for marines about to be airlifted into a lethal battlefield – ‘the most depressing audience’, he wrote, ‘I have ever played for’.

After the Allied victory in 1945, Menuhin asked the British Army of Occupation if he could play in Germany, and he embarked on a short tour with Benjamin Britten as pianist, that included concerts for survivors of the Belsen concentration camp. In 1947, he provoked hostility among some Jewish refugees because he gave concerts both for those who were still in camps for Displaced Persons and also for ordinary Germans. While admitting that he and his family had personally been spared from suffering under the Nazis, and making clear his understanding of the justified bitterness of their victims, he asserted: ‘We cannot and we must not forget the past, but a time has come to face the future and begin building it’. In the same spirit, Menuhin staunchly defended Wilhelm Furtwängler against colleagues who boycotted the conductor because of his having stayed in Germany throughout the war, and he went on to make memorable recordings with him. Menuhin did not share Furtwängler’s naïve view that art transcended politics, but he was prepared to make a generous judgment of one of the greatest of all conductors. This urge to reconcile opposing points of view was one of the hallmarks of Menuhin’s sensibility.

Travelling to Alaska in unheated planes to field hospitals, playing for soldiers with no background in classical music, and finally witnessing the desolation of Germany after the war and the crimes of the Nazis: Menuhin’s inborn seriousness of purpose responded to all these experiences with a new sense of social as well as musical vocation. He used his celebrity to support innumerable humanitarian and educational causes. He took a principled stand against apartheid in South Africa and cultural repression in the Soviet Union, and towards the end of his life was outspoken in denouncing the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians – while also criticizing Islamist propaganda. He often reminded those of us fortunate enough to live in Western parliamentary democracies that neither the protections we take for granted against arbitrary rule and torture, nor our rights to a homeland, are guaranteed.

In many respects Menuhin pioneered points of view that were ahead of his time: on conservation of the environment; on the importance of diet (he was an implacable enemy of sugar, and sent packages of seaweed and yeast to sustain his daughter at her boarding school, when she would have preferred candy); on music as a multifaceted world heritage rather than a purely Western achievement; on ultimate insights underlying all religious traditions; on Yoga – in which he again anticipated the Beatles. While never forgetting his American, and more specifically Californian roots, he developed a special affection for the peoples of first India and later China.

Loyal to established institutions such as monarchy, he also sympathized with minorities and in particular the Gypsies – on account of both their wonderful violin tradition and also their tragic history of victimhood. One of his projects that could not be implemented was for a ‘Parliament of Cultures’, in which transnational minorities such as the Gypsies would be granted representation in the European Union independent of the boundaries of nation-states. Another unrealized visionary project was the Mozart Fund, according to which a small levy on the takings of all performances of Mozart’s compositions worldwide would be collected by an international office and distributed for humanitarian purposes. Maybe such a fund will one day be launched, but perhaps in the name of Beethoven or Verdi since from what I know of Mozart he had no interest in abstract causes.

Menuhin had no scientific training, indeed he had been home-schooled since the nursery, but his vision of music as an expression of cosmic interference patterns could be seen as influenced by his early friendship with Einstein. Another friend of his youth, and a valued confidante during the difficult years when his first marriage was coming apart, was the American novelist Willa Cather, whom he described as ‘the most wholesome person I’ve ever known, crystal-pure and simple’, with a ‘sharp intelligence’ and the ‘strength of the American soil’ but also a love of European literature that she imparted to all the Menuhin family.

A certain idealism pervaded Menuhin’s projects, as well as insight based on experience. Some of his commitments, for instance to homoeopathic medicine, provided ammunition for critics. However, as the last part of my lecture will demonstrate, the enduring result of his work – after memories fade of his live performances – is not merely a huge body of recordings made over seventy years, and his publications on the art of the violin, but also a legacy of solid and flourishing institutions.


The oldest and grandest of the legacies is the Menuhin Festival in Switzerland. Gstaad is a fashionable resort in the majestic mountains of the Bernese Oberland, but was not yet known for cultural activities in the 1950s, when Menuhin spent some time there during the summer holiday period. At the request of the local tourism director, Menuhin started by giving two summer concerts in 1957 with Benjamin Britten, the tenor Peter Pears and the cellist Maurice Gendron, in a seventeenth century village church in Saanen, near Gstaad, with a fine acoustic and beautiful frescos. The annual programme gradually expanded into a major European festival: chamber concerts are still held in the intimacy of the Saanen church, but every kind of music is performed in various venues including a tent for large-scale symphonic works.

Closest to Menuhin’s heart was the Yehudi Menuhin School, less than an hour’s drive from London: when he was awarded a peerage by the British Government in 1993 he chose the title Lord Menuhin of Stoke d’Abernon, where the school is located. The School was founded in 1964 for children from all over the world with special gifts for stringed instruments and piano. The aim has been to provide these pupils with outstanding teachers, adequate time to practice, frequent opportunities to perform, ensemble work with other gifted children, and a broad musical and general–academic education; all within a nourishing family community where each individual can develop his or her full potential. The school now has about seventy girls and boys aged between 8 and 19. After its first ten years it was awarded special status by the Government as a Centre of Excellence for the Performing Arts, thus eligible for support from the ministry of education. Parents pay a contribution to the cost of their child’s education according to their ability to pay.

After Menuhin’s death he was succeeded as President by Rostropovich, who was in turn succeeded by Daniel Barenboim. He, perhaps more than any other living musician, shares Menuhin’s philosophy of life and his determination to use music as a resource for social harmony and reconciliation. A small concert hall with superb acoustics was built at the School soon after Menuhin’s death. The School celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year and its reputation has never been higher, thanks to the judgment and good luck of its governors in appointing and retaining over the years some outstanding and dedicated senior staff.

Never having been to school himself, Menuhin was destined with his extraordinary gifts to be a man apart. He had no experience of “mucking in” with a peer group – and he was well aware of the psychological dangers that such apartness can present. Visitors to his School never fail to be impressed by the freshness and assurance of the pupils’ performances, and by the atmosphere of mutual supportiveness which is not necessarily guaranteed in schools for the exceptionally gifted.

A third Menuhin legacy is Live Music Now!, a charity he founded in Britain in 1977 to engage inspirational young professional musicians in performances and workshops for groups who are otherwise excluded from the joy of experiencing live music: in old people’s homes, schools for children with special needs, hospices, refugee centres, prisons and the like. Menuhin and his co-founder Ian Stoutzker sensed intuitively what has tended to be confirmed by neurochemical research, that music can actually help to reduce stress and strengthen the immune system, even assist in trust building and social bonding. Live Music Now! in Britain is now a nationwide, professionally run, outreach organization.

Fifteen years later, in 1992, a parallel Live Music Now! was launched in Germany which now has some twenty branches in German and Austrian cities. It is run in a different way, with a decentralized network of volunteers rather than salaried staff, but it is equally successful in the twin aim of encouraging young musicians, all of them engaged after auditions, and bringing live music to people who normally do not have the chance to experience it.

Then of course there is the Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists, which is the reason for our being together this evening. It started in 1983 in quite a modest way in Folkestone, the seaside resort on the south coast of England, with sponsorship from a local apple grower and an insurance company that subsequently became insolvent. Even at this early stage it was extremely cosmopolitan. Of the twelve senior and junior prizewinners in the first competition, six came from China, two from the United States, two from the United Kingdom, one from Poland, and one from the Netherlands. A similar pattern has followed ever since, but with more competition from Japan, South Korea and the former Soviet countries.

With a slight interruption of one year in the 1990s, the competition has been held every two years since the launch in 1983. The first session held outside England was in 1998, when Boulogne-sur-Mer in north-east France was chosen – long linked with Folkestone because of a ferry crossing, before the Channel Tunnel. It has since been held in London, Cardiff, Oslo, Beijing and now in Austin; in 2016 it will return to London to coincide with the Menuhin centenary. Apart from the competition’s success in helping to launch some outstanding careers, it is also notable for its atmosphere of learning, exchange and collegiality.

Another of Menuhin’s brainchildren is MUS-E, a project to help children from challenging environments through participation in music, singing and dance. This is coordinated in several countries by the foundation in Brussels that bears Menuhin’s name.

All this adds up to an institutional legacy whose common factor is a conviction that music is the most cosmopolitan of the arts and an indispensable humanizing resource. Menuhin was celebrated personally in his day as a performer and as an ambassador for music, but his legacy lives on – still sustained sixteen years after his death by those who knew him personally, but increasingly by younger people who are inspired by his reputation and by the way his vision has been crystallized in this network of institutions.

Lastly, though since the Second World War Menuhin made his homes in Europe, he never forgot his debt to those Americans who made his early success possible with teaching, encouragement, friendship and financial support, and he always retained an admiration for the United States, regarding it as ‘still the hope of the world’

This was the 9th Annual Nilsson Lecture in Contemporary Drama and Literature, held in conjunction with the Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists, University of Texas.