Recalling Violinist Yehudi Menuhin's Family and Dynasty

January 13, 2021, 8:09 PM · 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.

Menuhin
The young Yehudi Menuhin.

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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Replies

January 14, 2021 at 07:34 PM · What a story, and what a violinist and musician. I heard Yehudi Menuhin once, in Orchestra Hall in 1957, in a performance of the Bartok Concerto. This performance (conducted by Fritz Reiner) was recorded and is on a CD (which I have). I actually remember many passages of that performance (minor musical, technical, and interpretive things Menuhin did, including a few scratches and other things) that I recognized when I first got the CD many years ago. It was an honor to be there as an audience member in the gallery, and is probably my only claim to fame.

January 14, 2021 at 08:49 PM · What a historic performance you were at! One of my dreams is to hear the Cleveland Orchestra in their hall. Menuhin’s performances on YouTube with Glenn Gould are extraordinary. I love how he met Gould on Gould’s terms, no mean feat. Leonard Bernstein somehow couldn’t do that, when he infamously distanced himself from Gould’s interpretation of a piano concerto they were collaborating on. Bernstein told the audience that this was not his interpretation.

January 15, 2021 at 12:31 AM · I started playing the violin because of Mr. Menuhin. I was a big fan when I was 10. I still am a big fan 50+ years later!

January 15, 2021 at 01:55 AM · Ann, I was very motivated by Isaac Stern when I was a little boy. Francescatti also inspired me with his huge, full vibrato. However, I knew that Menuhin was in a league by himself.

January 15, 2021 at 02:01 AM · Paul, On my bedroom wall I have the LP album cover from the Mozart 3rd and 5th with the Bath Festival Orchestra where Menuhin is standing with pigeons at his feet and he's giving a delightful smile to the camera.

January 15, 2021 at 03:22 AM · This is a beautifully written article about a wonderful artist. Thank you! I actually came upon Rolfe's book several years ago as a result of reading a Schneerson biography. I had not known the connection between the Schneerson and Menuhin families until that time and found it to be fascinating. Thank you for reminding me of Rolfe's wonderful book and of all the influences Menuhin's religious upbringing had on his musical life. (And the photo of young Yehudi is simply priceless!)

January 15, 2021 at 04:46 AM · Diana, the sincerity of Rolfe’s writing is a moving testament to how much he loved his family. It’s fair to say that he covered the family background and the Lubavitch Chassid connection with every detail in place. He eloquently showed the link between human, musical, and religious elements.

January 15, 2021 at 04:17 PM · Diana, Interestingly, a drawn close copy of the photo of young Menuhin is one of the cards in the Thematic Aperception Test. Some people taking the test will say it depicts a child who doesn't like to practice and is dreaming of something else.

January 15, 2021 at 06:22 PM · Ann: As a clinical psychologist, I administered the TAT (Thematic

Apperception Test) many, many times over a period of decades.

And, yes, I was always amused that most of my colleagues had no idea that that one card of the boy with the violin was in fact a rendering of the young Yehudi Menuhin.

Who says that psychologists aren't influenced by violinists? That's why we psychologists consider it so important that everyone be on the same page and stay in tune. :))

And, Menuhin's autobiography has (in my opinion) the greatest title of any autobiography ever written - Unfinished Journey

January 15, 2021 at 07:22 PM · Ann & Sander, Thank you for this incredible information! When I first saw the photo in Paul's wonderful blog, I found myself pondering the image and wondering if the caption might be, "Oy, veh!" Or, "What have I gotten myself into?"

January 15, 2021 at 11:39 PM · Sander, any chance you can give us a link to this card with Menuhin’s likeness?

January 16, 2021 at 12:14 AM · Sorry. Professional ethics and some legal considerations prevent me from doing much about this request. But it is an interesting issue.

January 16, 2021 at 04:23 AM · Paul, Google TAT card images, click on "images". It will be there.

Sander, I was given the TAT when I was 9 years old as part of a battery of tests related to my IQ and perceptions. I mentioned that I knew who the boy was and the psychologist looked at me like I had two heads. I had recently seen the picture because I'd read an autobiography by Menuhin. I recall chiefly being sad that he was not allowed to ride a bike lest he injure his hands.

January 16, 2021 at 05:05 AM · Thank you! The TAT is something new to me. It’s fascinating that Menuhin had achieved a unique status by being included in it.

January 16, 2021 at 05:49 AM · I seem to recall that the drawing was included because of the artist and not the identity of the subject.

January 16, 2021 at 03:40 PM · Ann and Paul and Diana: Thanks for your comments. It is indeed an interesting issue, and I can't think of anything comparable in the extensive field of psychological testing. Ann, I hope your contact with my profession was helpful.

Sandy

January 16, 2021 at 05:24 PM · I wonder how much the expression and character in the face of the TAT card has an effect on the viewer. If the face had been Midori, Heifetz,

Emanuel Ax, or Gene Fodor would the reaction have been different? Ann, your reaction to Menuhin was very empathetic. He had one of the most humane faces. It’s odd that the psychologist looked at you in an odd manner when you recognized Menuhin. He must have been very surprised.

January 16, 2021 at 06:20 PM · I find it interesting that a violinist which such imperfect technique could leave such magnificent legacy to the world of classical music. I tend to think of Mr. Menuhin as a most talented, beneficent and patient teacher and artist. Truly an inspiring human being. I wonder how a young Yehudi Mehuhin might fare in today's world of professional performance? Would he get overlooked/passed-over do to those technical imperfections?

January 16, 2021 at 06:32 PM · Excellent question, John. Comparing violinists enters the realm of personal taste and no two people agreeing. There is the purity and warmth of sound of Menuhin on the one hand and the ever-changing dynamism of Patricia Kopatchinskaja or Vild Frang on the other. Sadly, Menuhin had a devil of a problem with his bow bouncing out of control. What can be gleaned from this is that he had a mission and an indomitable will.

January 16, 2021 at 06:57 PM · Paul, Yes, the psychologist wasn't used to 9 year old classical music fans!

Sander, My experience was positive in that the testing was very professional but there was that little bit of condescension toward a 9 year old girl which at that time, almost 60 years ago, was quite common. It was uncomfortable for me though, as my situation has always caused people to treat me like a zoo animal. Of course being smarter than the psychologist didn't help! Sigh. I'm happy to have the perspective of age. Yay for aging!

January 16, 2021 at 07:35 PM · Ann:

Yes, I appreciate your comments. For what it's worth, for decades part of my work was with youngsters (culminating in co-authorship of two books on academic underachievement - personality and motivational factors).

And a very important part of my professional and personal orientation has always been to respect and appreciate my clients of all ages. And that included dealing with many youngsters who were a lot smarter and more talented than I was. So, I hope that makes up (at least in part) for your experience.

And, certainly, Yehudi Menuhin was one of the greatest and most interesting and unique violin prodigies in history.

Sandy

PS. For my most recent birthday, our two daughters (both grown and with families of their own) gave me a t-shirt that reads: "You don't scare me - I've got 2 daughters."

January 16, 2021 at 11:14 PM · Sander, you make me laugh. Wonderful shirt.

Paul, I recently read about Menuhin's bowing problem and to be quite frank never noticed it. I've heard people call it "bouncing all over the place." No, MY bow bounces all over the place, even below the bridge. I am left handed and the bow requires the finesse and control of a righty. However, I'm improving and sometimes can play a downbow from the frog on the E string without it sounding like ricochet bowing or a very frightened child at a recital. I'm doing exercises and just being extra careful. The downbows are more problematic. I don't quite know why.

And yes, it is the warmth and delicacy (in the pieces requiring it) of Menuhin's playing that I find attractive.

January 17, 2021 at 12:18 AM · Amen. There's been a subtle performance quality that has been addressed in other discussion threads on this website. It transcends technique. It's the ability to project a sense of emotional, in-the-moment voice (for want of a better term). Menuhin certainly had that.

I've made the following suggestion several times on this website, and got an article published on it in 1975 in The Instrumentalist (which I'm proud of because I'm an amateur). So, if I may make a suggestion, try this:

- Take 3 minutes each day (yes, just 3 minutes).

- Pick one very picky detail that you need to work on (e.g., the downbow on the E). Do the same one or pick a different one each day.

- Practice it super slow, 100% focus of attention, and a goal of getting it perfect.

- At the end of 3 minutes, you're done (unless you really want to do more).

- The 3 minutes is your daily chore. Just try this for a couple of weeks, and watch what happens.

Cheers,

Sandy

January 17, 2021 at 12:41 AM · Sander, yes, that's sort of what I've been doing. I have bowing exercises but at the end of practice when I want to end on a good note (so to speak) I concertize a little with pieces with which I'm familiar, concentrating on my worst faults such as the E down bows.

Professionally, I was a scientist so working on little details doesn't bother me in the least and when I do play a nice down bow I immediately try again 20 or 30 times (sometimes to discover, oh, today it was a fluke).

My teacher is giving me very challenging (for me) bowing patterns to use with the Kayser etudes, which I love because they are like songs to me. I used Wohlfahrt as a child and they were not nearly so interesting. I've been promised Mazas as I advance and I'm told they can be very tuneful.

January 17, 2021 at 05:06 PM · Ann:

Thank you for the update. Yes, as a scientist you've got a certain kind of expertise in ways of thinking that are clearly an advantage. So, isolate that 3 minutes a day and keep just one focus. It's helped for a lot of people (not only musicians) over the years, and I know it's so over-simplified that it seems ridiculous, but it works.

Since this thread is about Menuhin, I should add that in spite of the critiques of his technique that I've heard and read about all my life, that ability of his to project a violin-individualized emotional "voice" is so unique that (to me) I can almost hear a speaking voice. No?

Cheers,

Sandy

January 17, 2021 at 06:06 PM · Yes, the violin can truly speak in certain hands. Michael Rabin's version of Massanet's Meditation comes to mind too.

January 17, 2021 at 06:14 PM · Hey, yes, I heard Michael Rabin also. In the early 1960's, I was in college and in Philadelphia on a co-op job. I heard him at the Robin Hood Dell. He played the Paganini 1st Concerto, and the performance was the best I have EVER heard by anybody (live or in recordings, and that includes his own recording of it).

Sandy

January 17, 2021 at 06:26 PM · Alas, I've only heard him on recordings.

January 18, 2021 at 10:35 PM · The Menuhin bouncing bow topic returns. I am very aware that I am only a third-tier player and teacher, so this will seem very presumptuous. I only did one concert with him, I was 22, and he wasn't, but I remember that his playing, in my not-so-humble opinion, was strangely disconnected from self, and that he struck me as having a fragile personality. I'll let the psychologist on the panel rebut that.

Prompted by this article, I tried to re-read the bowing sections in his 5 Lessons... book, and once again did not get very far. My mind doesn't handle 3-dimensional geometry very well, I disagreed with much of it, but mainly, it seemed Too complicated. You can't think about all that stuff when you are playing.

I have been able to avoid the mechanical version of the bouncing bow problem with two simple, but not easy, concepts. 1) Let the string hold the bow, push and pull sideways against the friction of the rosin.

2) The bow wants to bounce. All three components act like springs; the stick, the hair, even the string, especially in the middle. The bouncing bow is not the result of faulty technique, it is natural. To prevent that bounce we need to do something specific and deliberate. For me that solution is: on a long up-bow, maintain 1st finger leverage until you get past the middle, before switching to arm-weight. On a long down-bow do sort of the opposite. Maintain arm-weight past the middle before switching to 1st finger leverage. .After long experimenting, I think the culprit is the third finger of the right hand. Menuhin advocates using a "bridge" or "pier" of the first and third fingers. But, if you do anything with the third finger, it applies leverage in the wrong direction, the bow hair looses traction. Apply arm-weight through the second finger instead.

Bottom line;- If you start that young, have that much talent, learn the technique while still a child, do Not analyze your playing. As a colleague once told me, right in the middle of a performance (!), "Don't think, just play".

January 19, 2021 at 01:39 AM · Joel, you remind me of the joy of discovering what works for your individual needs. I had a severe bouncing bow problem and by the time I rehabilitated it, it had almost no resemblance to the faulty bow arm I had. Thank goodness. I think Menuhin had a rougher time with his bow arm than most. There’s one quote in the book from his mother. Not good advice. Basically she said not to look at his own faults, but only to learn from the faults of others. But when it comes to fixing your bow arm, only you know what it feels like.

January 19, 2021 at 03:58 PM · What an interesting discussion, and from so many points of view. But on the aspect of dealing with one's own weaknesses and imperfections, especially in the transcendent art form of violin playing, I am reminded of what I learned decades ago from a wonderful psychologist and one of my great mentors in my field.

At the time, I was a grad student and getting particularly nasty criticisms from a couple of colleagues who I had considered good friends. I walked into my mentor's office to ask his advice. This is what he told me, and I never forgot it:

"Sandy, this is what you can tell these people. 'Look, I'm doing the best I can. If that's not good enough for you, I'm sorry.' Then go about your business. You've got enough challenging things to learn in our work. And being perfect isn't a pre-requisite."

Yes, of course we all try to find ways to improve on our weaknesses. But, in the process, some wonderful things can happen. So let's appreciate when great violinists, chamber players, orchestra musicians, teachers, amateurs, students, etc., when they do something that is artistic and memorable, in spite of (or even because of) their weaknesses and imperfections.

It's called being human. And perhaps the story of Yehudi Menuhin is a great example.

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