Why renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin was more than a great musician

Clemency Burton-Hill celebrates the 100th anniversary of Yehudi's birth by reflecting on his life and teachings

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When I was 15 I walked up the stairs of a grand old house in London’s Chester Square. I thought I was coming for a violin lesson. What I got was a life lesson.

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Yehudi Menuhin was one of the greatest artists of all time, and much of what happened that afternoon did concern violin playing: he helped me loosen my vibrato and bowing arm and refined my interpretation of Bach and Beethoven. I undoubtedly came away a better fiddle player. I also came away with the powerful revelation that to be a truly great musician, it’s about much more than just music.

Yehudi Menuhin was the violinist he was because of the man he was: a human being of immense curiosity, generosity and empathy who believed great art could come from anywhere and should be accessible to everyone. Despite being one of the most famous people on the planet, Menuhin had tremendous humility. He was the supreme teacher because he never stopped learning.

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Yehudi and Clemency

He soaked up the wonders of life like a sponge and was always open to enlightenment from those he met along the way: from the poorest Hungarian Gypsy violinist or South African township kid to fellow musicians Ravi Shankar and Stéphane Grappelli, as well as the ordinary people who touched his heart – even as his music, with its immortal golden tone, touched theirs. Menuhin had a gilded existence, transcending the overcrowded Bronx tenement of his birth to become Lord Menuhin with a mansion in Belgravia and a glitzy address book. But he never lost sight of what ultimately matters. There was no man more determined to leave the world a better place than he found it.

It’s easy to be cynical about the idea that music can change lives, but Menuhin was driven by this conviction. For him, music was a civilising force that could break down barriers, bring disparate people together and forge a more humane future. This infused everything he did, from playing around 500 concerts to servicemen and wounded soldiers throughout the Second World War, to travelling to Belsen in July 1945 to play for survivors. He set up the charity Live Music Now (still thriving) with a mission to bring classical music to those who would not ordinarily hear it: sick children; prisoners; the elderly, dispossessed and homeless – all the while providing valuable opportunities for young professional musicians.

Young people remained a major inspiration to him. He founded the international Menuhin Competition and the UK’s Yehudi Menuhin School to support the next generation. When he died in Berlin in 1999 on a conducting tour, it was one of his protégés, Daniel Hope, who was the soloist; other starry alumnae of the school include violinists Nigel Kennedy, Nicola Benedetti and Alina Ibragimova.

But Menuhin’s legacy goes far beyond classical music. With Shankar, he invented the concept of “crossover” art. He was responsible for bringing Indian yoga guru BKS Iyengar to the West. He imported the first-ever electric car. He launched one of London’s first health food shops and extolled the virtues of a “clean” diet long before it was fashionable. He was passionate about social justice and, as president of Unesco’s International Music Council, he was highly active on the political and humanitarian stage, speaking out against oppression in cultures as diverse as post-colonial India, apartheid South Africa, Moscow at the height of the Cold War and Israel in the 1990s.

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Menuhin was no saint. He was a complex character, the product of a highly unusual upbringing. His parents, Moshe and Marutha, home-educated him and his two sisters Hephzibah and Yaltah (both also exceptionally gifted pianists, although their talents were never so nurtured).

Growing up, Menuhin was at once freakishly worldly – criss-crossing the globe on endless tours – and appallingly coddled: it’s said that his parents shaved his legs after he hit puberty in order to keep him in short trousers and promote the lucrative image of the “boy wonder” for as long as possible. Apparently, at 16, he was still not allowed to cross the road on his own.

The contradictions extend into adulthood: Menuhin’s children as well as his closest friends and colleagues speak openly in a new BBC documentary, and a picture emerges of someone who felt keenly the plight of his fellow man, yet could be devastatingly distant to his own family. He never spent more than a week in one place. He left his first marriage, to the Australian heiress Nola Nicholas, in ruins; his second, to the British ballet dancer Diana Gould, was famously combusti- ble. He was a workaholic, never more at home than on stage and, although he was often powerfully articulate, I wonder if he only felt truly able to express himself through his violin.

Of that, perhaps his greatest ally and friend, Menuhin once remarked: “The violin would exact a price commensu- rate with the grace it conferred.”

One hundred years since his birth, we’re all the beneficiaries of that price, and of that grace.

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Yehudi Menuhin: Who’s Yehudi? airs tonight (Sunday 24th April) at 8.00pm on BBC4