Genius who spread his gift to youth of the world

David Lister@davidlister1
Thursday 24 September 2015 09:28

TO UNDERSTAND Yehudi Menuhin's love of music and his legacy, one has only to look at next month's concert programme at Birmingham's Symphony Hall.

Lord Menuhin was due to conduct three concerts there. Called, all too ironically, "My Life in Music: Reflections on an Unfinished Journey", the series was also to be introduced byhim. The man who loved to communicate his own passion for music was to give a talk to the audiences reminiscing about his life, recalling the musicians he had known and discussing the music itself.

But even more pertinently, each concert would have featured music for the violin played under his baton by artists he had nominated and whose career he had influenced - from the 12-year-old protege Nicola Benedetti to Rainer Kuchl, leader of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

Lord Menuhin leaves a legacy for young musicians - a structure of music education that has already produced the British virtuosos Nigel Kennedy and Tasmin Little.

It was 30 years ago that he founded his school in Surrey to provide tuition for musically gifted children from all over the world. He set up the school because he was conscious of the difficulties that children faced when studying music while attending a normal school. He also ensured there were scholarships and "aided places".

Menuhin was born in April 1916, in New York, of Russian- Jewish parents. He astonished a San Francisco audience at the age of seven with a debut violin performance. It was at his first concert in Berlin, just a few days short of his 13th birthday, that Albert Einstein followed Menuhin backstage, hugged him and declared: "Now I know there is a God in heaven!"

Menuhin lived in central London with his second wife, the ballerina Diana Gould, with whom he had two sons.

He received an honorary knighthood in 1965, but could not use the title until he became a British citizen in 1985. He became a lord in 1993.

His first marriage, in 1938, was to Nola Nicholas, the 19-year-old daughter of an Australian millionaire. In the late 1940s, Menuhin defied personal attacks to play for the Germans in Berlin. He did so, he said, to further tolerance and "the brotherhood of man".

His classical works were received rapturously wherever he went. But he was not afraid to experiment with different repertories, playing with artists from the sitar master, Ravi Shankar, to the virtuoso jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli.

More than once he introduced to the public works by famous composers. Bela Bartok, for instance, wrote Sonata for Violin especially for him. His listening tastes, likewise, were not confined to the highbrow. He was an admirer of the early Beatles music, but was knocked off-balance by a Rolling Stones concert. "I am no longer sure music is a universal language," he said sadly, complaining the music was devoid of subtlety, variety and intellect.

Deeply spiritual, Menuhin was a follower of Indian mysticism, which influenced both the way he lived and the way he viewed death. His own wishes for the way this passage should be marked "are based on the idea of a happy picnic on a river bank. My preference is for whatever will reunite me most quickly with the sources of life, accompanied by folk music and dance ... Back to the earth, under a tree, or in a river, that is what I choose".

He was a devotee of yoga. Yesterday Ewen Balfour, a former official with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, of which Menuhin was president, recalled that he used to plan Menuhin's daily timetable with the violinist beside him in a headstand posture.

Just before Christmas, Menuhin was promoting music teaching in schools in Britain, stressing that it could play a vital role in civilising society. "Art reflects the refinement of a civilisation," he said. "Music goes both ways. You make yourself heard and listen to others."

Sir Colin Davis, principal conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted him playing both the Beethoven and Elgar violin concertos. He said yesterday: "He will be remembered with great affection by young musicians. He has done an enormous amount for music education and put a lot of money into it.

"I had the good fortune to work with Yehudi when I was a young man. I remember most clearly the Beethoven violin concerto. Nobody has played it like that since. He had this poise. And he would submerge himself entirely in the music. He seemed to be able to eliminate his ego in all respects."

Humphrey Burton, a former head of music for BBC television who is writing a biography of Lord Menuhin, knew him for40 years and described him as the world's greatest violinist. "He was also a remarkable conductor and musicians loved working with him. The music flowed through him.

"The last thing he did was dictate letters from his hospital bed on Tuesday and the last was to Gordon Brown congratulating him on his Budget."

The Secretary of State for Culture, Chris Smith, said: "Yehudi Menuhin used his genius for music as a force for good to forge links across the globe. ... We are honoured he adopted British citizenship."

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