This Week in Music History: Yehudi Menuhin is born (1916)

Classical music has such a long, storied history, that it can be difficult to know where to start. Each week, we’ll be exploring an important event that left its mark.

This week? The birth of a globetrotting violinist who broke borders both national and musical: the great Yehudi Menuhin.

Yehudi Menuhin’s parents were both born in Russia, but they met in Palestine, having both emigrated—and then, by chance, they met again in New York, having both emigrated a second time. Yehudi was their first child, born in New York City on April 22, 1916. The name, simply meaning “The Jew,” was chosen as an act of defiance against an anti-Semitic landlady.

It wasn’t long after the young family’s move across the country to San Francisco that young Yehudi’s astonishing talent started to make itself clear. He started playing violin at the age of five, and his first professional concert was a mere two years later. He played Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole with the San Francisco Symphony at the age of just nine, and in February 1927 made a remarkable debut in Paris. The Paris conductor, Paul Paray, tells the story vividly:

The ten-year-old’s career was well under way, and so was the globetrotting lifestyle he would maintain throughout his life. He stayed in Paris to study with the great violinist and composer George Enescu but found time for tours back in the US as well. At his debut in Berlin in 1929, Albert Einstein told him that his playing was proof to him of the existence of God.

Not every childhood prodigy sustains their career into adulthood, but Menuhin became not just one of the 20th century’s most significant musicians, but one of its most significant cultural figures. He collaborated with a huge number of the most important musicians of the day—including Edward Elgar, who conducted him in the Violin Concerto for a legendary recording made in 1932, and Béla Bartók, who wrote his Sonata for Solo Violin (one of his final works) for Menuhin in 1944.

His collaborations outside classical music were also significant. He made a famous recording with jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli, and additionally collaborated with Duke Ellington and Ravi Shankar, proving that classical music need not be so shut off from other styles.

Menuhin contributed so much more to cultural life, even away from the concert hall altogether. While touring in India in 1952, he discovered yoga, which was then all but unknown in the West. He arranged for the yogi he met there, B.K.S. Iyengar, to visit Europe—a landmark moment in the global popularization of yoga. He also founded the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, which teaches gifted young musicians. The UK was the country where he lived for most of his adult life: he became a British citizen in 1985.

But Menuhin is one of the musicians who most powerfully show that music doesn’t depend on boundaries, whether national or stylistic. “The world has lost a great soul,” said Ravi Shankar after Menuhin’s death in 1999, “whose passion was music and humanity.”

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