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Time for Menuhin to take a bow

As the Royal Academy of Music mounts a Yehudi Menuhin exhibition, Gerald Isaaman looks back at the violinist’s life

10 March, 2016

THE trouble with archives that you have to discover where they are – often locked away in some American university – in order to delve into some illustrious career. So lovers of music, in particular the violin, will be delighted to discover that the Royal Academy of Music in St Marylebone, which acquired the archive of Yehudi Menuhin shortly after he died in 1999, has now mounted an exhibition of some of its prize contents. Indeed, in a comparatively small space, it recalls the supreme artistry of Yehudi Menuhin, the boy with magical talents who took up in the instrument aged four, played it solo in public at seven and made his first recording at 13, the last in 1999, shortly before he departed. Saturday is the anniversary of that sad event. And though he was American-born, he spent much of his life in London, his base while touring the world. His own distinctive playing of great composers became recognisable to the cognoscenti as he used music as to reconcile the horrors of the Holocaust and West Bank internment in Israel. His socially conscious interests took him to apartheid-torn South Africa and to Russia as he attempted to build bridges between conflicting interests, even at the United Nations in New York, with his amazing ability to captivate an audience. And at the same time he expanded his interests into yoga, playing with Ravi Shankar in India and jazz with Stéphane Grappelli and the Johnny Dankworth band with Cleo Laine. He once said that while he knew instinctively that he wanted to play the violin “at the age of four I was too young to know that the violin would exact a price commensurate with the grace it conferred…” And on another occasion he declared: “The violinist is that peculiarly human phenomenon distilled to a rare potency – half tiger, half poet.” No 2 The Grove, in Highgate, was his home from 1959 with his second wife, the ballerina and actress Diana Gould and their two sons. He described England as “the most liveable country in the world” and became a British citizen in 1985. His presence resulted in him being invited to take on the role as President of the Highgate Society. Indeed, it was there in The Grove that I interviewed him when, conscious and active in protecting the environment, he displayed an early limousine that had a bonnet filled with batteries to reduce its petrol consumption. And I recall him opening a festival at Keats House, in Hampstead, with the quiet, charming seriousness and desire to be involved in society that earned him honours galore – a knighthood, a life peerage and the Order of Merit, as well as 20 honorary doctorates from universities. His concern for others, especially students, resulted in the Yehudi Menuhin School – which was launched in 1963, in Stoke D’Abernon, Surrey, offering places for 60 talented youngsters, aged eight to 19 – and in the helpful music guides he produced. The exhibition provides the human touch with displays of early photographs, newspaper headlines, love letters to him from Diana, the rosin he used on his violin strings, prayer beads, and luggage labels revealing his dedicated travels giving concerts worldwide, both as a performer and a conductor in his later years. They provide an inspired touch for an inspired genius who fought for his ideals, especially prejudice. He told the poignant story of how his parents, who arrived in America from Russia, sought an apartment of their own in New York, as near as possible to a park. “Showing them out after they had viewed it, the landlady said: ‘And you’ll be glad to know I don’t take Jews.’ Her mistake made clear to her, the anti-Semitic landlady was renounced, and another apartment found. But her blunder left its mark. “Back on the street my mother made a vow. Her unborn baby would have a label proclaiming his race to the world. He would be called Yehudi, the Hebrew name for a Jew.” l Yehudi Menuhin: Journeys with a Violin is at the Royal Academy of Music until November 30. www.ram.ac.uk/ museum/exhibition/ yehudi-menuhin

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