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Yehudi with wife Hepzibah

Book excerpt

The warmth of the violin -- II

Yehudi Menuhin was the first major artist to boycott South Africa, vowing not to go until apartheid was overturned. Countless other bold political acts which made Yehudi much more than just a mere fiddler. Second part of an excerpt from Lionel Rolfe's important new book Death and Redemption in London and LA

Other times he affected things inadvertently. It was Yehudi, for instance, who popularized Yoga in the west when in the '50s an issue of Life Magazine showed a photograph of him in the Lotus position. He also introduced his old friend, Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar, to the west in a series of recordings, East Meets West, - which directly affected the Beatles' music.

In 1950, he played concerts in South Africa after reading about apartheid in Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country. At Paton's suggestion, my uncle played for the black African boys at a reformatory school. When informed by his South African management that this was not allowed under his contract, he went further: on each morning he was to give a concert for white South Africans, he gave free concerts for black South Africans. When challenged he pointed out there was no conflict, since blacks weren't allowed into the concert halls he played in. Even if they could afford the tickets, he added. That was how a young Desmond Tutu came to hear him play in the shantytown in which he grew up.

Next, Yehudi was the first major artist to boycott South Africa, vowing to do so until apartheid was overturned. Many other artists followed suit. There are countless other acts such as these which made Yehudi much more than just a mere fiddler.

The most unnerving of our many meetings in the Los Angeles area occurred at a luncheon at a hotel in Pasadena. On this occasion he warned me the world was going to become an uglier place - and that being a social activist was becoming an increasingly risky proposition. This unnerved me. It defied the whole logic of what the family was, and certainly what that family tradition was with which he had anointed me earlier.

It certainly contradicted what his beloved sister Hephzibah was up to. Hephzibah and her husband, Richard, ran a Center for Human Rights and Responsibilities at 16 Ponsonby Place, just off the Thames - near Westminster Abbey. Revolutionaries from South African or Ireland gravitated around Ponsonby Place. Hephzibah told me that in these countries, the center would have to work to protect the rights of the other sides once they were vanquished. Richard was a Viennese who survived a concentration camp with a vision to save the world. He once had his head beaten in for trying to stop Paki-bashing. Hephzibah's whole life was changing the world.

Although she fought for social change, she did so with the same sense of reverence her brother had about his Hassidic ancestors. She treasured them. Mussia was a big influence on Hephzibah. Mussia was a social worker at the turn of the century in Jerusalem, and Hephzibah was head of UNESCO's women's commission at one point. But it was another sister who most motivated Moshe: Shandel. She had committed suicide when the rebbe forbade her to marry the man she loved. He had picked out someone else for her. She committed the suicide the night of her wedding.

Moshe never stopped hating the rebbes for what they had done to his Shandel and to him. After his own father was killed by a crowd of Jew-haters led by priests carrying crosses, the Rebbe ordered his mother to marry a man who already had children. The man did not accept his new wife's offspring. So Moshe was sent to Jerusalem to live with the rebbe's representative there, who happened to be Moshe's grandfather. In time Moshe's grandfather died, and he was soon on his own. He was befriended by Arabs.

At one point, Yehudi felt he must distance himself from his father's rabid anti-Zionism. Even so, my uncle remained ever suspect in eyes of many Jews. Partly, this was so because of his support of Wilhelm Furtwangler, the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic throughout the Nazi years. (But he had also saved the lives of many of its Jewish members.) Still, he remained close to many in the Israeli consulate in London. But when Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir presented him with Israel's highest award, the Wolf Prize, Yehudi took the opportunity to lecture him about Palestinian rights.

Like most Jews, he wasn't terribly religious except in an intellectual kind of way. But he was very conscious of Jewish prophecy, and the role it played in making great music and changing the world.

The Menuhins all seemed to have rather odd marriages, starting with Moshe and Marutha. They also were very good at dissecting the weaknesses in each other's marriages, (but not their own). Yehudi and Hephzibah once asked me to get my mother to leave Joel Ryce, her husband and my stepfather, as if I had the power to do so. I told them it was not my place to do so, even if at times I didn't get along with Joel. Privately, I thought of telling them they should look at their own rather eccentric marriages before condemning my mom's marriage.

All the Menuhins -- my mom included -- rhapsodized about their spouses. A bit excessively, I think. Joel became a Jungian analyst of some note after he decided never to play another note as a pianist. He and my mom did a couple of world tours as duo pianists.

In a very real way, the mystical tradition of the Schneersohn went back to the 18th century when the whole world was transforming from feudalism to industrialism. The violin represented all those human values that had preceded industrialism and had a hard time surviving it. The dull, deadly pounding of the machine left little room for love, creativity and imagination.

The warmth of the wooden violin had to be felt against the clang of the steel of the industrial age, and the subsequent heartlessness of the computer age where thinking robots threaten our very existence.

Yehudi burdened me with a tradition that was completely irrelevant to living in Los Angeles. I suspect the fact that I felt so at home during my two visits to London in 1999 came from the fact the city was closer to the traditions he represented.

Perhaps had I perched at the edge of a cliff watching the night sky in a remote, frozen place amongst white birch trees shimmering in a moon-lit Russian snow, I might have better understood the connection. You can be a man in the universe connected to the cosmos by all kinds of mystical links, except in the City of the Angels. Or at least that's how I felt.

Maybe I only got this from my mom. She moved to London about forty years ago, after divorcing my dad. She hated Los Angeles, her considerable influence on its music scene as a pianist for many years notwithstanding. She was a regular at the old "Evenings on the Roof" series in the early '50s. She played music she didn't always admire, but she felt composers had to be encouraged.

Similarly, she played a friend's avant garde piano music in London, (proving that London could be as foolish as L.A. any time). It was aleotoric "chance" music. The motifs would come off mobiles swinging in the wind which blew in through the roof. She would improvise on musical phrases that were written on the mobiles. Such avant garde pretentiousness was not her style, but she still felt an obligation to participate.

You could almost say that Yehudi, Hephzibah and Yaltah were products of the Wild West. Louis Persinger, one of Yehudi's earliest teachers in San Francisco in the '20s, had actually played violin on the frontier. Still - western evocations aside -- it was fitting that Yehudi was memorialized at Westminster Abbey, and during the last year of the century and millennium.

Death is not a very noble thing. Our bodies give out, our hopes and dreams and aspirations slide away into nothingness. The skin wrinkles, already planning its eventual disintegration from our skeletons. Our bodies shut down. But something survives us all. If we are a Beethoven, or perhaps a Yehudi, we leave the world a much richer place. Maybe for all time. Most of us just affect those immediately around us in our deaths. But that something indomitable in the human spirit is there even in death - or maybe especially in death - for every one of us.

Published with permission from Lionel Rolfe

Previous part of this excerpt -- The history of the Menuhins, and why Yehudi was upset

Lonely in LA -- Read The Music Magazine's exclusive interview with Rolfe

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Quick external links

You can buy an electronic copy of Rolfe's new book at Deadend Street. For a print edition, you'll have to wait till later this year

Visit The Menuhin Foundation, Brussels

A Menuhin discography

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