Not all family members can be objective when they write a biography of their famous uncle, but in the case of Lionel Menuhin Rolfe, he had access to so many interesting details about Yehudi’s life, he was able to evenly balance the shades of his personality.
Rolfe (1942-2018) was the son of Yehudi’s youngest sister, Yaltah. He wrote The Menuhins-A Family Odyssey (Boryanna Books) in 1978, describing a detailed description of the home life of Menuhin, his father, Moshe, who had very strong political feelings about Jews and Israel, and his mother, Marusha, who imbued in her son a sense of nobility and strength. Marusha had a stronger identification with her Russian lineage than her Jewish background. She told stories about her supposed Tartar ancestors, even though they were cruel, savage people who regularly killed Jews. Her passionate storytelling and love of exotic, Oriental costumes, made her an overwhelming personality.
Two well-known violin teachers guided Yehudi Menuhin, encouraging him to follow his highly developed ear and inspiring him with talk of philosophy and the humanities. Louis Persinger and Georges Enescu were more concerned with refined musical matters than a regimen of technical exercises, and Menuhin felt that influence may have contributed to the technical problems he encountered later in life. He used every means possible to understand his playing, including the intelligence and perspective he inherited from a long line of Orthodox rabbis on both sides of his family. If child makes the man, then Menuhin’s life and that of his ancestors makes for a fascinating field of study.
Enescu Over Ysaye
While the choice of Eugene Ysaÿe teaching Menuhin might have provided the technical fundamentals that he lacked, it was the Tartar side of Menuhin that led him to the more earthy, passionate Enescu. He would make a subtle gesture of displeasure but wouldn’t tell him what was wrong. Menuhin would have to find that out for himself. Once during a lesson Ravel came into the room to ask Enescu to play a new piece. He played it perfectly the first time, then Enescu asked if he could play it again. This time he did it without the music.
What drove Menuhin to Enescu was his own roots to the Chassidic Jewish tradition of Eastern Europe. Enescu was from Rumania, which is right at the border between East and West. Menuhin could think of him as one of his mother’s Tartar horsemen, yet his soul was mystical and musical, not violent.
While Enescu inspired a colorful, gypsy-like approach to music, Menuhin never received the highly structured technical foundation he felt was missing. Rolfe talks about Menuhin’s difficulty with bow control and intonation without being able to offer a good explanation for what he was going through.
The complexity of such a technical issue as an out-of-control bouncing bow cannot be addressed in any rational way, except by the person who was actually going through it. The only musical child of Yehudi, Jeremy responded to questions about his father’s trembling bow and lack of cohesiveness: "I am distrustful of any artist who always plays well." He subscribes to the theory that an artist should always be trying to do more than he can do, and thus he is often condemned to failure.
Unfortunately, artists need to do both, strive and succeed. It’s interesting that Yehudi felt the cause of his technical difficulties was a lack of scales and exercises, but when he was offered lessons with Ysaÿe, he turned them down. Ysaÿe asked him to play an A major arpeggio in four octaves and he floundered.
Persinger had written out a whole page of exercises in scales and thirds, but Yehudi never studied them, abhorring what he called "abstractions of technique." There is nothing easy about simplicity and grace, two qualities Menuhin had from the beginning. When he tried to re-absorb them and re-invent himself, it took a deep insight and much experimentation to re-orient himself with new techniques. Trying to replicate the charm and maturity he had as a youth would take more than scales. Thankfully, he succeeded in performing for the rest of his life because of his ability to form new strategies for his complex technique and psychology.
A Father with Conflicts About Judaism
While Yehudi always had strong spiritual philosophies and had a direct biological connection to the most revered of the Jewish Chassidic dynasties, his father Moshe made a break with his faith. Rolfe gives a thorough and fascinating history of how the generations found their way to Yehudi’s family, and how many prodigies of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, preceded him. The family connected to him were the Schneersons, and the first prodigy lived in the 15th century and was believed to be a direct descendant of King David.
Moshe was the great-great grandson of the founder of Chabad Hassidism. Even though he was sent to Orthodox Jewish schools, he had a deep aversion to the founding of Israel. In 1965 he wrote The Decadence of Judaism in Our Time. Yehudi had a more even-handed approach to being Jewish than his father. He was invited by Wilhelm Furtwangler, the music director of the Berlin Philharmonic, to perform in Berlin while Hitler was in power. He refused on the grounds of not associating with a country that had made Mendelssohn into a pariah.
Yehudi showed much bravery and individualism when he defended Furtwangler after the war for remaining in Germany during the Nazi regime. While the Jewish community tried to prevent Furtwangler from conducting around the world, Menuhin knew that he had saved the lives of many of the Jewish musicians.
A Rich and Defining History
Few families can compare to the Menuhins, and each story of the parents and siblings shows a family with deep and conflicting views. Rolfe, who was a writer for the Los Angeles Times and an editor for Psychology Today, showed Yehudi as a profound thinker grappling with his own place of honor in a very competitive musical and social environment. Rolfe successfully made the connection between the religious and intellectual roots of the Chassidic movement and the intricacies of how the mind and music interact.
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