The Menuhin Century - Warner Classics
"I think the extraordinary thing is that he was a normal genius."
That's violinist and filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon talking about Yehudi Menuhin, violinist, educator, humanitarian, and dear friend. Bruno was five years old when he first heard a recording of Yehudi Menuhin. It ignited his imagination as a musician and later as a filmmaker.
"The thing was that Yehudi gave you the impression or the illusion but I think it was rather the real impression, while you were in his presence, that you were his one intense interlocutor, and at the same time, there was no sense of exclusivity," Bruno says. "And I think this was one of his great qualities and the reason why he was such a universal person. He was at ease in England, America, China, France, Russia. He was as at ease with the Pope as he was with the Queen of England or the President of the U.S. or with you. So it was he had that wonderful sense of humor which was part of the general poetic image that was his."
Yehudi Menuhin was born on April 22, 1916. To celebrate his centennial, Bruno Monsaingeon has curated The Menuhin Century, an extravagant box set of 80 CDs, including rare and previously unreleased material, 11 DVDs, and a hardback book, spanning a 70-year period.
"Yehudi Menuhin was a household name right from the start," Bruno explains. "When he gave his first concert in Paris when he was 11, New York City at 10, Berlin at 12, playing the three greatest violin concertos ever written by Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms it is something which cannot one cannot believe. It is a fairy tale."
That fairy tale began when Yehudi Menuhin was just four years old and his parents took him to see the San Francisco Symphony. It was at that concert that Menuhin became mesmerized by the sound of the violin coming from the leader and assistant conductor, Louie Persinger. At age eight, Menuhin had a very memorable first lesson with Persinger. "Persinger played to Yehudi and his mother the Adagio from the G minor sonata for solo violin by J.S. Bach," Bruno relates. "Now, as you know, young violinists do not start out with Bach. They start out by playing … little by little pieces and uncomplicated music. But the fact that his teacher immediately felt that Yehudi Menuhin was mature enough to hear that great adagio by J.S. Bach, and I find it very symbolic of what happened right afterwards, when Yehudi Menuhin decided not quite for his first recording but almost, it was his second recording, to tackle the great sonata in C major by Bach which is even more imposing and even more complicated than the G minor. So the fact that his ambition was the greatest music not only violin music, but the greatest music ever written."
That same year, Menuhin set his sights on mastering Beethoven's only violin concerto. But first, Persinger told Menuhin he needed to learn Mozart's A Major concerto. Menuhin rushed through the Mozart concerto, learning it in just one week. Persinger sent the young boy home to really learn how to play the Mozart; that is, from his heart, not just his head. Then, he could move on to Beethoven. "And he learned the Beethoven concerto right after that, of course" Bruno says. "And it became perhaps the concerto that he played most and nobody played it as often as he did. I suppose it must have been one thousand times in his lifetime that he played the concerto. And when we talked about it, he was still excited about each turn, about the way the G minor modulation comes at such and such a point. And the connections … still after playing the work a thousand times he was still … he was never jaded. The freshness of the musician, so boyish, even when he was 80."
Yehudi Menuhin also had a very gifted sister, Hephzibah, who was a pianist. Together, they made more than 20 recordings, several of which are represented on The Menuhin Century collection. "She was a wonderful girl," Bruno recalls, "as moving as he was, as gifted as he was in all the fields she was playing the piano, but in terms of language and philosophical intelligence, culture, she was on a par with him. And that is why this duo, the Yehudi and Hephzibah duo, has remained a legend."
In talking with Bruno Monsaingeon, I discovered that Yehudi Menuhin was as great a man as he was a musician. His generosity, Bruno told me, was beyond human belief. "I can give you another example which was very striking," Bruno recounts. "One day in Stuttgart, in Germany, he'd given a concert in the afternoon, and he was supposed to go back to Paris. He was playing the next day in Brussels, but he'd promised to come pick his wife up in Paris. After the recital, we went to the airport and there was a strike; Air France was on strike. No one could get back to Paris. He could have flown to Brussels, but no he'd promised his wife. So he freighted an airplane for the two of us. Not only did he do that for the sake of his wife, but since there were eight seats on the plane, he had an announcement made in the airport that six people would be welcome. The six that could came immediately, and when they saw Yehudi Menuhin, they thought they were in a dream. But that was the kind of human generosity he was capable of. Unbelievable."
The Menuhin Century collection gives you an in-depth look at Yehudi Menuhin, the musician, the visionary, the educator, and the humanitarian whose influence is still felt today. "He's a timeless artist and I think that the fact that we have managed to bring forward, to publish a lot of new documents about him and that people young people, boys and girls, men and women, Chinese or English or Russian or workers and presidents can be touched by the sound of that extraordinary violin, of that extraordinarily pure musical attitude. Of course, he's there as a kind of performer and interpreter of the music. And he for sure does not disappear. His presence is so totally his own. But there's also such humility, and the emotion that he's giving us is due to maybe the fact that he's not only speaking about himself or the composer, but because he's speaking about us."