Yehudi Menuhin is considered by most music critics as being one of the best violinists of all time. You’ll find more info here about his life, his career and the honors and awards he received during his lifetime, as it is a truly fascinating one!
The long history of the Menuhin family
Yehudi was born on the 22nd of April 1916 in New York City, in a family of Lithuanian and Jewish heritage. His mother was named Marutha and his father was Moshe Menuhin, the great great grandson of Shneur Zalman of Liadi.
Shneur Zalman of Liadi was an Orthodox rabbi that lived between 1745 and 1812 and is still known today for founding the first Rebbe of Chabad which is one of the branches of Hasidic Judaism also known as Chassidism. He created many works on religion, such as “Tanya”, “Torah Oh” and “Shulchan Aruch HaRav”.
Obviously, coming from such an important Jewish dynasty, the expectations were high for Yehudi ever since he was born. Fortunately, not only did he meet them, but he probably exceeded them as well.
Aside from Yehudi’s talent for the violin, his two sisters, Yaltah and Hephzibah became world-renowned pianists. Their father came to New York City in 1913 to study mathematics and political science at New York University, but he decided not to leave afterward and in 1919, he and his wife became American citizens.
Moshe was a dedicated anti-Zionist which meant he opposed the creation of the state of Israel. The anti-Zionist movement is as old and Zionism itself and many Jews supported this movement even back in the day so it’s not surprising to see that Moshe was one of them as well.
After becoming American citizens, Moshe decided to change the family name from Mnuchin to the one we know today, Menuhin.
Yehudi’s early career
If you want to be great at something, you usually have to start very early. Yehudi’s parents knew this very well so they arranged to start taking violin lessons as soon as he was four years old under the teaching of Sigmund Anker. Moshe and Marutha had wanted the famous Louis Persinger to be the teacher, but he didn’t accept the offer.
As Yehudi was a good student and also had an inclination for the violin, he made his first public appearance as a solo violinist with the San Francisco Symphony when he was just seven years old in 1923.
After this spectacular debut, Louis accepted to be his teacher and would go on to accompany him on the piano when Yehudi made his first recordings during the 1920s. Among the other students Louis had we can mention Ruggiero Ricci, Camilla Wicks, Zvi Zeitlin, Guila Bustabo, Almita Vamos and Isaac Stern.
In April 1929, Yehudi played with the Berlin Philharmonic to great success under the conductorship of Bruno Walter, one of the leading conductors of the 20th century. The next week, the opera house of Dresden canceled its scheduled program to make room for a performance by Yehudi.
At this performance, the 13 years old boy played several violin concertos by Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms to an audience that was overwhelmed by such immense talent in such a young person.
Later, his family decided to move to Paris and Yehudi’s former teacher, Louis Persinger suggested to Menuhin to try working with his very own old teacher, Eugène Ysaÿe, a famed pedagogue and virtuoso of the era. After just one lesson with Eugène, Yehudi decided he didn’t like the way he was teaching nor his very old age – Eugène was in his 70s.
Yehudi decided Romanian violinist and composer George Enescu would fit him better and indeed, the two of them started a teacher-student relationship. With guidance from George, Yehudi went to record various compositions with a piano accompaniment which even included his own sister, Hepzibah.
While in Basel, Adolf Busch also acted as his teacher. During his year-long stay in Switzerland, he also started to study Italian and German.
World War II and international fame
During World War II, Yehudi played for the Allied forces troops. After the war was over, he played for those who survived the concentration camps in July of 1945, three months after their liberation. Two years later he became the first Jewish musician to return in concert to Germany.
His decision was criticized by several important members of the Jewish community especially since he played under the conductorship of Wilhelm Furtwängler who kept his position at the Berlin Philharmonic even during the Nazi regime. Yehudi defended his choice by saying this was an act of reconciliation and rehabilitation of Germany.
Yehudi also added that Wilhelm had also helped several Jews escape Nazi Germany so he shouldn’t be criticized.
In 1955 he was a member of the jury for the Queen Elisabeth Music Competition and secured a Rockefeller Foundation grant for the winner, violinist Alberto Lysy. The two of them would go on to tour Europe together.
The Menuhin Festival Gstaad was founded by Yehudi in Switzerland in 1957 and five years later he also created the Yehudi Menuhin School in Stoke d’Abernon, England and a music program in a private school in California.
The 1960s would prove to be a landmark for the life and career of Yehudi. He would be the artistic director of the Bath Festival between 1959 and 1968. In 1965 he became an honorary knight for the United Kingdom. He also received his very first Grammy Award nomination in 1961 and won for the first time in 1968.
Yehudi received ten nominations at the Grammy Awards with eight of them during the 1960s. The first nomination he ever received was for “Best Classical Performance – Vocal or Instrumental – Chamber Music” for his “J.S.Bach: The Complete Brandenburg Concerti” album.
His work was nominated in five categories in the next several years, from “Best Classical Performance – Chamber Music” to “Best Performance – Orchestra”. In 1968 he won his first Grammy for his first nomination in the “Best Chamber Music Performance” field for the album “West Meets East”, a collaborative effort with Indian sitar Ravi Shankar.
Yehudi received three more Grammy nominations in the following years, winning a second one in 1978 for “Concert of the Century” in the “Best Classical Album” field.
Between 1969 and 1975, Yehudi was the President of the International Music Council and named the 1st of October as International Music Day. In 1977 he started a charity in the United Kingdom. The charity’s aim was to train and pay professional musicians so they would work in the community in order to give everyone a chance to hear live music performances.
During the 1970s he released two albums with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli: “Jalousie” and “Fascinating Rhythm” (Music of the ’30s), both released in 1975. He also recorded the third collaborative album with Ravi Shankar in 1976, after the second volume of their “West Meets East” saga was released in 1968.
Yehudi and Robert Masters founded in 1983 the Yehudi Menuhin International Competition for Young Violinists which still exists to this day with the 2022 edition due to take place in Richmond, Virginia. Among those who won the competition, we can name Tasmin Little, Julia Fischer, Nikolaj Znaider, Ray Chen and Daishin Kashimoto.
During the mid to late 1980s, he also received two of his biggest honors: the Kennedy Center Honor in 1986 and he became a member of the Order of Merit in 1987 in the United Kingdom.
The honors continued well into the 1990s, one of the significant moments being the Wolf Prize which was awarded by the Government of Israel. As he was an anti-Zionist, in his speech he delivered a criticism of the occupation of the West Bank by Israeli troops.
In 1992 he became an Ambassador of Goodwill for UNESCO, followed by the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship (the highest honor by India’s National Academy for Arts) and the Konex Decoration from Argentina, both in 1994.
In 1999, nearly 83 years old, he recorded a new album under his deal with EMI, a collaboration that lasted for almost 70 years, starting when he was 13 in 1929. In 2009, EMI released a retrospective of 51 CDs of Yehudi’s career.
1999 was also the year in which Yehudi Menuhin passed away, in Germany, from complications of bronchitis. He is survived by two sons, Gerard and Jeremy.