I’ve always been fascinated by the way Yehudi Menuhin evolved as an artist, starting with mastery and maturity from a very early age. He was eleven when he made his debut in Paris, and that same year his performance of the Beethoven Concerto under Fritz Busch made international headlines. He was considered not just one of the greatest violin prodigies of all times, but showed a profound musical understanding. Elgar asked him to premier his Violin Concerto when he was sixteen.
Menuhin spoke and wrote about his search for greater understanding of how he played. He started with his unconscious ability to emulate and memorize what he heard, and then figure out what conscious thinking would help him re-create it. Other artists have undoubtedly gone through a transition period from prodigy to the adjustments that come with reflection and adulthood, but don’t necessarily talk about it. Menuhin shared his thoughts and experiences in his memoir Unfinished Journey (affiliate link).
It was complicated and frustrating because he discovered that he hadn’t been given a technical foundation from the beginning. Yet, at the same time, everything he received from his teachers led to beautiful, lyrical, and unique interpretations of the masterpieces. Inevitably, it was left to Menuhin’s intellectual ability to sort out the changes that would take place.
He was born with a Talmudic mind, having the ability to make extremely fine distinctions. Talmud comes from the Hebrew word “to learn”. It is a vast collection of Jewish laws and traditions. Menuhin’s father, Moshe, was descended from the Schneerson family and was thus linked to the powerful Lubavitch Hasidic dynasty. Yehudi questioned everything from every perspective possible. Deciphering how he played and making his finely delineated subconscious into a workable conscious mind would challenge him for many years. Realizing that there was such a thin line between technique and musicianship would add to the riddle.
Flipping the Coin-Searching for Natural Ability
My first year as a violin student was far different from Menuhin’s. Other than the fact that my Hebrew name was the same as his, and that I had a compulsion to knit-pick the musical paradoxes that I was faced with, he and I had little in common. My search for filling in what was missing started with an incomplete musical perspective, technical scrapes, and indecisiveness. What we had in common was digging ourselves out of hole that was getting bigger by the day.
My first order of business was figuring out why I played out of tune. There appeared in that rabbit hole the image of the fingerboard being laid out in a more structured way. It was vital that every detail of how my mind played games with all the angles and misjudgments be laid bare. This was an example of how rewarding it was to face an old habit and get rid of it.
My goal was to uncover the perceptions that were hidden inside me that were more in line with violinists who made it look so refined. The methods that I had learned in technique class were just hints, and sometimes they got in the way. I remember trying to follow a teacher’s instructions about holding the bow, only to discover they caused discomfort and tension. Fortunately, my ear then took a leadership role, guiding me to move the bow. In this way, I was able to discover my ow way of holding it. If I had kept trying to imitate the teacher’s bow hold, I never would have discovered my personal approach.
What I have learned is that the path from technique to musical expression is not a one-way street. There are always new connections being made, sometimes from unexpected sources. A more efficient technical solution may trigger a more interesting phrase. Often in the collective memory of my ear I would hear my mother singing Yiddish songs and wonder at the ease in which she captured the musicality and spirit of a song.
This would make me strive to make a similar sound or to emulate the lilt of her voice. Fortunately I have a few recordings of her singing, which always sound fresh and interesting. The naturalness of music has been my constant companion, and it offers a life-long goal.
Creating a Foundation for Future Growth
Menuhin, who personified elegant simplicity, was looking for a technical language that would support his innate way of playing, his sublime musicianship and his rhythmic command. I would have been happy to trade some technical tid-bits for some of his secrets, but both of us would come away none-the-wiser. The search for artistic growth and understanding is intensely personal. Advice from others may be helpful, but the interpretation and refinement of such ideas have to be developed by the individual.
The goal of an artist is to identify his style, which is uniquely tied to his ear, and be able to re-create it as efficiently as possible. Menuhin’s sound was pure and fluid, and his phrasing was both highly refined and romantic. His style of movement showed a sincere, noble manner. When he was ready to examine how he played and to develop a support structure of technical knowledge, his standards were extremely high, which made the task even more daunting.
His quest for a deeper understanding of music led him into many interesting collaborations, including jazz with Stephane Grappelli and Indian music with Ravi Shankar. Menuhin developed into an outstanding writer, philosopher, diplomat on the world stage, and educator. The Yehudi Menuhin School was founded in 1963, where artists including Tasmin Little, Kennedy, Nicola Benedetti, and Colin Carr received their early training.
The discovery of so many paths that emanate from music and the mind made Menuhin a well-rounded human being. Many of his students and colleagues spoke of his compassion and patience. He faced the complexity of his own playing and was generous to share what he learned with others. He successfully made a difference in both the world of performing and teaching.
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An interesting essay, Paul. What an intriguing mind was Menuhin's. I heard a recital of his in the 1960s and years later, saw him conduct Elgar with the RTVE symphony orchestra. I was able to speak briefly to him backstage afterwards. I treasure a little paperback of 'Conversations with Menuhin' by Robin Daniels, with a foreword by Lawrence Durrell.
One small correction: it was Kreisler who premiered the Elgar concerto. The Menuhin recording dates from the early 30s, about 20 years later. I believe it was the premiere recording.
Wonderful discussion. I heard Menuhin once, in the late 1950's in Chicago. He played the Bartok, and it was with the Chicago Symphony, with Fritz Reiner conducting. Decades later, when they released that performance on a CD, I bought it and remembered certain little things he did, both inspirational turns of phrase of the moment and those tiny glitches that often happen in a performance. I remembered them because I was in the audience. That CD is my only claim to fame. I shall never forget it, nor shall I forget Yehudi Menuhin. He was truly one of a kind.
Paul, this is a beautiful and heartfelt piece. What a wonderful tribute to both Menuhin and your beloved mother. Thank you for sharing it with us!
Not even the premier recording of the Elgar. Albert Sammons and Marie Hall had both done it earlier-- the Sammons recording being a useful prod to Heifetz as he pulled his own interpretation together.
Thank you for the clarifications about the dedication and early recordings of the Elgar Concerto. What was remarkable about Menuhin’s recording was that he was 16, and it has achieved legendary status. I appreciate your kind words about my mother's recording. It’s a testament to how much she valued music.
Thank you Stephen for guiding me to two recordings of which I was unaware. I shall follow up on both. Incidentally, Hugh Bean, who recorded the Elgar with Sir Charles Grove and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, was a student of Sammons.
May I (again) pay tribute to his Six Lessons book, particularly the two chapters on bowing. If I follow them through, I begin to sound (a little) like him. This may or may not be my goal, but it is extraordinary for a set of written exercises. He had successfully analysed the motions and sensations which were so "natural" during his childhood, linking body to mind, and mind to soul.
Adrian, I have heard many people who were influenced and helped by that book. I think Menuhin was ahead of his time in showing the connection between the violin, body, and soul. We see more artists talking about it now. I remember a wonderful master class of the great pianist Leon Fleischer. His description of the music’s philosophy and spirit had us all at rapt attention.
For what this is worth, as an audience member, practically every orchestra I have recently seen has had a female concertmaster, or co-concertmaster. And, I have never heard of anybody being called a concertmistress. As far as being called a Dr., it seems unbelievable to me that there are people living in the stone age that don't want to call someone who's earned a doctorate by their title, because of gender. Although, it seems a lot of this was simply ginned up "controversy" to attack the incoming FLOTUS. Anyone with half a brain would have no problem calling Dr. Biden by her title. But then, when have politicians and media pundits had half a brain in recent memory? Cheers!
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December 14, 2020 at 04:54 AM · Paul, thank you for this most lovely essay and especially for sharing the achingly tender, most beautiful voice of your mother. It made my evening and I'm most grateful to you.