How Yehudi Menuhin progressed from child prodigy to become a classical legend

Yehudi Menuhin. Picture: Courtesy of Royal Academy of Music

Yehudi Menuhin. Picture: Courtesy of Royal Academy of Music - Credit: Archant

On the centenary of his birth, Bridget Galton visits an exhibition charting the life of the virtuoso violinist.

Even those who have never been to a classical music concert will know the name of Yehudi Menuhin.

For over 75 years the virtuoso violinist lived in the spotlight as a performer, conductor and music school founder.

Now a fascinating exhibition at Marylebone’s Royal Academy of Music marks the centenary of his birth: charting his life from child prodigy to elder statesman, including his happy decades in Highgate.

The Academy in Marylebone Road, where Eric Coates, Myra Hess, Arthur Sullivan and Sir Henry Wood were alumni, holds the extensive Foyle Menuhin archive of writings, letters, photos, old scores and personal ephemera.

Museum curator Joanna Tapp says: “It’s a huge archive we’ve been cataloguing it and wanted to present the different roles and images of Menuhin over the years, both the one he presented of himself and the one the press imposed on him.”

Born in New York, when an anti-Semitic landlady showed his Belarus-born parents Moshe and Marutha around a prospective apartment and commented they’d be glad to know she didn’t take Jews, Marutha vowed to call her unborn son Yehudi, (Hebrew for Jew) as an act of pride and defiance.

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The family moved to San Francisco where Menuhin started learning violin aged four and made his first solo appearance three years later with the San Franciso Symphony Orchestra.

He soon became a media sensation; photos emphasised his youth; wearing shorts and earning an ice cream as a post concert reward.

One image in the exhibition shows him flanked by his adoring sisters Hephzibah and Yaltah. In another he meets screen idol Charlie Chaplin on the set of City Lights.

The family moved to Paris so Yehudi could study, a copy of his schedule shows he practised five hours at day - with a rest on Sunday.

“He had a close-knit supportive family. His father became his manager and he was home schooled. He credited them with keeping his feet on the ground during his peripatetic childhood,” says Tapp.

In Europe Menuhin studied under teachers such as Georges Enesco and Adolf Busch and in 1932 made his famous recording of Elgar’s Violin Concerto at Abbey Road studios with the composer conducting.

As his career progressed Menuhin was a renowned interpreter of Bach, Bartok and Ernescu.

“He was a great interpreter of music with a folk influence,” says Tapp.

“He had a wonderful connection and insight into this music. His style of playing and learning was spontaneous rather than technically perfect. One teacher taught him to visualise what the sounds looked like - to respond to the music emotionally. You can see notes on the scores like ‘sounds like the murmuring of a crowd around a minaret,’ or ‘sounds like an octopus trying to hug someone’.”

During the war Menuhin performed for Allied Soldiers and in 1945 with Benjamin Britten at the piano gave a concert for the surviving inmates of Bergen Belsen.

By contrast in 1947 Menuhin was the first Jewish musician to play with the Berlin Philharmonic under controversial conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler.

Many thought him a Nazi sympathiser for remaining in Germany throughout the war, but in a decision which would later give Menuhin problems playing in Israel, the violinist wanted to rehabilitate the German music scene.

“He was socially conscious and would play where other musicians would not - like Russia or South Africa because he believed in using music to build bridges and make connections.

“He would often write letters to the newspapers and came across as a humanist in his writings. Perhaps some felt he was an opinionated busy body but although he had a lot of self belief, he was no diva.”

The exhibition includes archival film footage and interviews with collaborators and friends as well as recordings of his work.

After visiting India in the 50s, Menuhin embraced yoga, Indian music and was an early adopter of organic food and green issues. Photos show him practising with his yogi and doing a headstand on the podium while conducting with his feet.

In 1959 he bought No2 The Grove, Highgate where he lived with second wife the ballerina Diana Gould and their two sons. Writing in his autobiography he says: “Everything seemed to point to London. For Diana, England was home, for the children it meant educational opportunity, for me, ever since my first sight of it thirty years earlier, it had been the most liveable country in the world.”

Menuhin became President and later Patron of the Highgate Society before moving to Knightsbridge in the early 80s.

He became a British Citizen in 1985 and was one of the first classical musicians to collaborate with non classical artists. John Dankworth, Stephane Grappelli and Ravi Shankar with whom he played a concert at the UN in New York and collaborated on the award-winning album West Meets East.

In later life his bowing arm grew weaker and he turned to conducting. He founded the charity Live Music Now, performing in schools, prisons and care homes, as well as the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey where he is buried under an oak tree in the grounds.

The violin case he took on his last trip to Berlin where he died in 1999 is on display with photos, love letters from Diana, the rosin he used on his bow strings, a scarf from Shankar, prayer beads, a chin rest and luggage labels that spoke of his nomadic life.

“There are also lots of combs,” says Tapp. “It was his ritual before going on stage to comb his hair, there might be something Freudian in that because his mother used to do it as a boy before he performed.”

She adds: “Menuhin was an amazing communicator through music, his playing was so recognisable, you could tell it was him in a few notes, people would go to a concert and feel he was playing to them. He drew people in and inspired young players.

“He believed music should be shared and was never afraid to do what he thought was right.”

Yehudi Menuhin: Journeys with a Violin runs at the Royal Academy of Music until November 30. Visit