The Menuhin Century by Warner Classics.Last month I received an enormous box in the mail -- square like an LP box set and four inches deep. It was heavy, too. It was a collection, being released in honor of the 100th anniversary of violinist Yehudi Menuhin's birth today, called
I have to confess that my first reaction was sheer stress. Here was a collection of 80 CDs, 11 DVDs and a huge coffee-table book in three languages, full of Menuhin memorabilia such as photos, tour schedules, posters, concert programs, music pages, baby photos, handwritten notes -- so much! How could I possibly take it in?
The size felt like something from another era, the 20th century. When we can fit our address book, calendar, personal photos, lifelong record collection and more into a device only slightly bigger than a credit card, where is the place for something like this any more, in anyone's life? Look, I just read a book by Marie Kondo telling me to pretty much throw away anything that takes up space in my dwelling. This takes up space.
Yet our current world -- where none of my "things" is supposed to take up space, where nothing is supposed to take time, where a text stands in for a person-to-person conversation, where music goes straight into people's ears instead of through the air -- it leaves me wanting.
I decided to get off the hamster wheel, turn off the computer and try this old-fashioned endeavor of opening a box, leafing through a book, removing CDs to put in my old boombox (the only thing left in my house which plays CDs) and sitting around a bit.
What I discovered was an astonishing collection, curated by French documentarist, writer and violinist Bruno Monsaingeon, with whom I spoke over the phone last week and whose passion for Menuhin seems to have no bounds. Somehow in this fast-moving world of disposable food, Twitter-short conversation and remote relationship, here is someone with an enduring and burning admiration for a fellow human being and his art. What could be behind it?
American-born Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) made numerous recordings, played thousands of concerts around the world (including 500 for Allied troops during World War II), founded Gstaad Festival in Switzerland and the Yehudi Menuhin School in England, and achieved British knighthood, to name just a few of his accomplishments. He is often given more credit for being a humanitarian than he is for having violin brilliant technique, perhaps due to the fact that his technique indisputably went downhill as he aged.
But this collection makes it clear that in his early years, Menuhin had musicality and technique to rival all the greats, including Jascha Heifetz. One hears an exquisite sense of expression in recordings Menuhin made of Mozart Sonatas with his sister Hephzibah, when the two were just teenagers. His technical virtuosity is unquestionable in his early recordings of numerous showpieces like Ravel's "Tzigane" and this one:
"Dance of the Goblins" by Bazzini, played by Yehudi Menuhin in 1934 at age 18:
"At his peak, I don't think anybody played nearly as well as he did, with a complete picture of what violin music was about," Monsaingeon told me. "Apart from the fantastic virtuoso who he was in his teens and 20s, he also was some kind of a tortured personality. His sound was so warm, so golden and sunny -- and at the same time, it seemed as if he was bearing the weight of the world, he was so effusive."
At the age of five, Monsaingeon heard a 78 RPM recording of Menuhin playing Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5.
"A fire started to devour me," Monsaingeon said. "I immediately wanted to play the violin -- not knowing who Menuhin was, or even who Brahms was... Then that first concert that I heard, it literally conquered my young boy's heart, it was unbelievable." Years later, as a student at a summer music camp in England, he encountered Menuhin again, teaching master class. After class, Monsaingeon asked Menuhin about his fingerings and bowings for the Bach G minor Sonata. Though Menuhin had left his score at home, he surprised Monsaingeon the next morning with a score that he'd bought and marked up specifically for him. With that gesture, a lifelong personal friendship began, resulting later in the creation of a great number of films and documentaries together.
"We did so much work together, in Russia, in China, in the United States. I knew him to the very end," Monsaingeon said. "Yehudi died on the 12th of March, 1999. He wrote to me his last letter on the 11th, and I got it on the 13th. I was naturally devastated. I locked myself up and devoted the next nine months to the writing of this book, which I just needed to do. I had no contact with the outer world for nine months, in order to finish that book. It is written with my blood!"
The book that Monsaingeon curated to accompany the 91 discs in The Menuhin Century was first published in French more than 10 years ago. This is the first time it's been translated, to German and to English. Monsaingeon narrates some of the story, but he also liberally uses the writings of Menuhin himself to tell it. And Menuhin is an exceptional writer with great breadth of thought and subject matter. It's a joy to read his writing -- and a history lesson, as well.
The photos in the book range from the childhood archives of Yehudi with his sisters Hephzibah and Yalta, to pictures of Menuhin playing at a WWII military hospital, and with a vast array of famous people too long to list: among them his mentor George Enescu, Arturo Toscanini, Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Thomas Beecham, Dmitri Shostakovich, Pablo Casals, Charlie Chaplin, Ravi Shankar, David Oistrakh, and Pope John Paul II.
"Yehudi had access to everybody," Monsaingeon said, "the King of England, the President of the United States, or to the Pope. It was extraordinary. I don't think there's ever been a musician who had that kind of universal reception. He was a statesman, in a strange way, and very articulate."
What made him attractive to so many?
"First of all, he was a man of tremendous charm," Monsaingeon said. There was also something miraculous about the way he came into the limelight, at such an early age, he said. "When people saw that adorable little boy, charming, full of grace, I think there was something divine about him, something coming from an unexplainable realm."
Though many called Menuhin a child prodigy, Monsaingeon insists that he was not, at least in certain terms. "I really believe that Yehudi was not a wunderkind, he was not an infant prodigy. He was just a great artist, who so happened to be very young."
Monsaingeon tells the story of the French conductor Paul Paray, who was initially reluctant to listen to the young Menuhin, despite the continual urging of Enescu. "I can't stand infant prodigies so I was very reluctant," Paray told Monsaingeon much later, when Paray was in his 90s, "but finally I had to submit to Enescu's request." He said he greeted a young woman and her little chubby son, who had brought a huge number of scores, his mother saying he could play "All of the concertos." With great skepticism Paray asked Menuhin to play Lalo's "Symphony Espagnole," and he was immediately won over, just after the opening of the piece. "Mozart's come back!" Paray declared, then he embraced the boy and asked him to play the piece the following week with the Lamoureux Orchestra, and to return the following week to play the Tchaikovsky Concerto.
"Paray was a very respectable and very highly competent conductor," Monsaingeon said. "But he said that this was the greatest musical impression in his life."
Over a span of 35 years, Monsaingeon has found some spectacular documents and recordings of Menuhin. When he was still alive and the two were close friends, "I was always trying to get information from him as well," Monsaingeon said. "It was not always easy because he didn't have a very clear idea about dates of for the recordings."
Monsaingeon collected so many Menuhin-related recordings and memorabilia (much which has gone into this set), he can't remember where he found all of it. "I find it even difficult now to recall how I found that little tape of his performance in Los Angeles of 'Romanza Andaluza' by Sarasate and the 'Londonderry Air,' which by the way he never recorded apart from that," he said. When it came to Menuhin's (1940) Carnegie Hall concert, "I found a tape of that at a shop in New York and I bought it at least 30 years ago. And I must have bought it for at least $500, which 30 years ago was quite a sum, hoping that one day it would be published because it's the earliest thing which I did find."
"In my book there is a letter by Albert Einstein, writing to Menuhin, saying, 'Yesterday I have heard your performance of the Beethoven Concerto and the E major Bach, no one plays violin as you do, it's a life-changing experience...'" The letter was written in 1934, and Monsaingeon has tried to use the date of the letter trace the radio show that Einstein had heard. Back then, radio shows were broadcast live and sometimes recorded as well. "It would be fantastic to get that tape, if it exists somewhere, of a Beethoven Concerto played by Yehudi when he was 18. It would be absolutely amazing. So that kind of driving passion probably accounts for the fact that I did find some wonderful documents. I wanted to discover them!"
For Monsaingeon, curating this collection of Menuhin's recordings, writings, photos and memorabilia was a way to fulfill one of his deepest wishes: to know Menuhin as a young man and to experience his art from that time.
"After all, I knew him when he was no longer the young man that he had been," Monsaingeon said. "For a long time, I thought I had been born too late. I would have loved to have heard him in his younger years. I thought that way, until I found an extraordinary documentary dating from 1943, where he played 'Ave Maria' and the 'Flight of the Bumblebee.' When I dug up that archive, I just went crazy. Because it was then, when I came closer to the man who was Yehudi Menuhin, the greatest violinist of our time."
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