Whether he amounted to the greatest violinist of the 20th century is debatable - there are others, not least Jascha Heifetz and David Oistrakh, in the running for that title - but he was certainly the best known, with a name that was emblematic for musicianship even among those who weren't too sure how to pronounce it. And he enjoyed by far the longest career, which shifted from the fiddle to the baton in time for him to stay on the concert platform long after his dexterity as a player had given out.
Born in New York in 1916 to parents of Russian extraction, he was playing (credibly) in public at the age of seven, and had made his concerto debut with the San Francisco orchestra by 10. At 13 he was so established a virtuoso that he famously played three concertos - the Brahms, the Beethoven and one of the Bachs - with the Berlin Philharmonic. And before the age of 20 he was giving punishing recital tours throughout the world with his accompanist sister Hepzibah, clocking up some 75 cities in 1934 alone.
By then he had already become one of the first recording stars. He signed with EMI in 1932, for discs (in those days it was discs, plural) of the Bruch Concerto No 1. And it began a collaboration that continued throughout his performing life, providing EMI en route with one of the celebrated issues in the whole history of recording: the Elgar Violin Concerto which Menuhin, aged 16, made with the LSO under the direction of the composer himself. It wasn't Menuhin's only studio attempt at the piece, nor was it the best: his second stereo version under Adrian Boult in 1966 outclasses it, I'd say. But it was history. And the fact that it has hardly ever been out of the catalogue in the past 60 years testifies to its extraordinary power.
At 16, Menuhin was almost fully formed as a musician, with an easy eloquence, a fierce attack, an expressive vibrato and an astonishingly mature sense of how to test the boundaries of good taste in romantic repertory without breaking them.
That he acquired such judgement and maturity is all the more remarkable in that he had no formal education beyond music. There was never time. Whatever Menuhin knew about the world he taught himself; and no doubt it accounts for the engagingly eccentric views on life, art, politics, and every other subject that contributed in old age to his reputation as a guru.
In a single conversation he could offer you solutions to the Northern Ireland conflict, BSE, poor posture, crime, and Third World famine. And because he was Yehudi Menuhin, the "you" there might be anyone from Nehru to the Pope. He had the ear of the great. And the great found it useful to be seen lending their ear to this man who, having no enemies, had only admirers, among them Baroness Thatcher, a neighbour in Belgravia. I remember a time when I went to supper at the house in Gstaad from which he ran his Swiss mountain festival, and I was charged by someone from the festival to take with me the tidings that Mrs T was, unexpectedly, in town. "Oh heavens. Pull the curtains, bolt the door," said Menuhin. It was a joke. But not without some point.
That Menuhin made the transition from mere (if that's the right word) musician to philosopher-saint owes much to the way he consciously made use of his celebrity to find other roles for himself when his violin technique began to fade. And the deterioration began so long ago - in the mid-1970s - that it's only an older generation now who can recall him in top form. For the rest of us, there's only the discs and the films, which fortunately exist in large number.
There are more than 300 Menuhin recordings, some 250 of them violin performances of one kind or another (the rest have him conducting). And his career was committed to celluloid from its earliest days - not least in the batch of reels recently unearthed by the film-maker Bruno Monsaignon, showing the young Yehudi basking in the admiration of great luminaries such as Furtwangler and Toscanini.
But the most touching thing about Menuhin's own greatness was that he remained accessible to just about anyone who wanted contact with him. His interest in young talent was inexhaustible: there can hardly be a string player of promise under the age of 30 who doesn't come with an effusively handwritten commendation - "dazzlingly gifted", "must be heard", "a revelation" - from the Master. I have seen so many I could almost laugh at his ability to be dazzled and revealed to. But I know he meant it, always.
It was that enthusiasm for the young that drove him to devote so much of his later life to educational projects - the Menuhin School in Surrey, the Menuhin Academy in Gstaad - as well as projects that encouraged young performers to involve themselves in corners of society that otherwise had no access to music, such as prisons, hospitals and homes for the elderly.
Why did he do all this? The simple answer is that he was a supreme humanitarian. And if there was one experience that made him so, it was probably his concert tours of German concentration camps immediately after the Allied liberation. Playing Brahms and Bach to rows of living skeletons - Jews like himself - he realised how easily their fate might have been his. He had been lucky. And he never lost the sense of having led a blessed life.Reuse content