Almost exactly 70 years ago in Berlin, a 12-year-old violinist made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by the great Bruno Walter, in three profound concertos by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. At the end of the concert, a man jumped the stage, rushed back to the artist's room, embraced the boy and cried: "Now I know there is a God in heaven!"
The man was Albert Einstein. The boy was Yehudi Menuhin, and by the time of this Berlin triumph he was already a veteran in the extraordinary musical career that ended only yesterday when the violinist, 82, died after falling ill with bronchitis. He is survived by his wife, Diana, and four children, including two from a previous marriage.
Although Menuhin first achieved fame as a violinist, and later as a violist and a conductor, he was also famous just for being Yehudi Menuhin. With the possible exception of the late Leonard Bernstein, no figure in the classical world seemed to do so much.
He created music festivals all over the world and was an advocate of innovative education for the gifted; he headed music schools in England and Switzerland. He was an advocate for world peace (he won the Nehru Peace Prize and was repeatedly nominated for the Nobel), for alternative medicine, vegetarianism, organic farming, UNESCO, the plight of the gypsies, Palestinian statehood, human rights and other causes.
He broke barriers of every kind. He was the first famed classical musician to take up jazz -- his concerts and recording with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, beginning in the '50s, were legendary -- and to investigate what is now called "world music." His close friendship and musical collaboration with Ravi Shankar made the Indian sitarist an international figure. And it was Menuhin, who was as big a fan of the Beatles as they were of him, who brought Shankar to the Fab Four's attention.
Long before the hippies or even the beatniks, Menuhin was a denizen of what is now called the "New Age." He was perhaps the first famous practitioner of yoga to be photographed standing on his head and later conducted an orchestra in that position, as well as once holding a two-hour conversation with Indian statesman Pandit Nehru, while both were standing upside down.
While many of Menuhin's social and political activities produced controversy, it was his relation to his fellow Jews, and specifically to the State of Israel, that provoked the most discussion.
Other Jewish musicians used to joke that Menuhin had yet to meet the former Nazi Party member whose musical career he did not want to rehabilitate. In part, this was a reference to the violinist's efforts at the end of World War II on behalf of the great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, who had remained in Germany, but had not been a Nazi sympathizer.
But his memoirs reveal Menuhin's profound unease about matters Jewish. After Israel had repulsed several Arab armies in the Six-Day War of 1967, he compared Israeli soldiers to German stormtroopers. And he could never forego an opportunity to lecture Israelis about their duties toward the Palestinians and their other Arab brothers.
Menuhin had resided in England since the 1940s, became a British citizen in 1985, was rewarded with a life peerage in 1993 -- in the House of Lords he was known as Baron Menuhin of Stoke D'Abernon in the County of Surrey -- and spoke English with a decidedly upper-crust British accent.
"He is the only American Jewish violinist I know who wants to be both an Anglican vicar and a Palestinian refugee," the famed British pianist Clifford Curzon once said of Menuhin.
An evaluation of Menuhin must be divided into three parts: the short career of the prodigy and the much longer ones of the adult artist and of the public-spirited citizen. But he's likely to be remembered best as this century's greatest performing prodigy.
He was born in 1916 in New York City and grew up in San Francisco, where his Russian-Jewish parents moved shortly after he was born. His phenomenal talent first showed itself at age 3 ; at 5 he was studing with Louis Persinger, the San Francisco Symphony's concertmaster; at 7 his first public recital was reviewed with the words, "this is not talent, this is genius."
World fame came when the 10-year-old was invited to make his New York Philharmonic debut performing a Mozart concerto with conductor Fritz Busch in Carnegie Hall. Menuhin had had his heart set on the Beethoven concerto, but Busch retorted: "One doesn't hire Jackie Coogan to play Hamlet." But when the boy pleaded that he at least be permitted to audition the Beethoven for Busch, the conductor relented. After hearing Menuhin perform only the opening measures, Busch exclaimed: "My dear child, you can play anything with me, anytime, anywhere."
What Busch and Einstein heard was not simply the great ability, promise and charming sweetness expected of a remarkable prodigy. What they heard -- and it can be heard on the records Menuhin made in the late 1920s and '30s -- was a fully mature artistry, characterized by a strong personality, rhythmic snap and complete intellectual integration. Menuhin was not destined to be great; he already was.
In its pure warmth, high seriousness and in its emotional depth, Menuhin lifted the sound of the violin to the level of human speech. He was as unique in his way as Fritz Kreisler and Jascha Heifetz were in theirs.
But Menuhin's divinely inspired playing did not persist into his adult years. Even before World War II, he began to experience violinistic problems. All prodigies -- like other teen-agers -- have to learn how to adjust to adulthood. But Menuhin had more trouble than most simply because he had greater, instinctual gifts. And his teachers -- Persinger, Enesco and Busch -- had been afraid to tamper with his apparently God-given technique.
"Just as I had married [for the first time] without being prepared for marriage, so I played the violin without being prepared for violin playing," he admitted.
He rebuilt his playing, step by step. But while he remained a great musician, he never regained his abilities as a great violinist. Even as early as the 1950s, attending a Menuhin recital meant contending with the violinist's occasional lapses in intonation, clumsiness in getting around the violin and, above all, a tightening and thinning of his once rich and easily produced tone. But while his technical decline was obvious, there was no denying the nobility and penetration of many of his conceptions.
Partial hearing loss forced him to abandon the instrument about 12 years ago. Ever since, violin playing has been a little less interesting.
Pub Date: 3/13/99