LORD MENUHIN: 1916-1999: He had no enemies - only admirers

Mother Teresa apart, it's hard to think of anyone who made a more obvious impact for good in the world, anyone who more persuasively realised the ideal of music as a healing art, or anyone better qualified for canonisation than Yehudi Menuhin. And now he's dead the opportunity is there. That he was Jewish is a minor matter: he transcended every barrier of race, religion, nationality and class.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
Arts and Entertainment
Crowd control: institutions like New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are packed

Art
Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices