My Link to the Menuhin Odyssey

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January 1, 2019 · Posted in Commentary 

Lionel with his mother, pianist Yaltah Menuhin.

[This is a chapter from Lionel’s The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey (1978, Panjandrum; 2014, Boryanabooks).]

BY A TWIST OF FATE that to this day I am not entirely comfortable with, I was born into one of the great families in the history of world music—the Menuhins. My mother, Yaltah Menuhin, is the youngest sister of the great violinist, Yehudi Menuhin. Were it not for the fame of Yehudi, the Menuhin name might not have attracted your attention. My mother and her sister Hephzibah were both prodigy pianists. But Yehudi’s fame towers over that of his sisters, and indeed, over nearly every violinist there is or has been. There is controversy, to be sure, about whether his playing has matured as he has grown older; but still, Yehudi is a star among stars.

With such a luminary in my immediate family, you can see why this book would have to be, in part, an examination of my own feelings while growing up within the Menuhin tribe. But the following pages have more to do with my mother, Yaltah, and my uncle Yehudi and aunt Hephzibah, and my grandparents Moshe and Marutha Menuhin-with their feelings, thoughts and ideas as I have heard and remembered them through the years, and particularly in conversations and “interviews” held primarily to compile material for this book. As a writer I have turned the stage over to them, which is as such a book should be-more a family memoir or odyssey than a biography per se. But I have reserved the right to comment where it seems to be needed. Whatever foibles or peculiarities of theirs I have recorded, I nevertheless respect the issues around which their lives are lived with deep commitment. World peace and music are equally important to my family, and a deep concern with the meaning of life moves in each one of them.

As I am writing this, Yehudi is in his sixtieth year, and by the time this book is in print he will have ended his second sabbatical. The last time he took a sabbatical was forty years ago, when he was making his widely publicized transition from child prodigy to adult violinist. Just before his most recent sabbatical, I walked with him into the Artist’s Room at EMI Recording Studios in London. I was surprised at how humbly Yehudi mentioned that this had originally been the great Caruso’s room. Yehudi himself had called this room home practically since his playpen days. He started recording at EMI in 1928, and his recordings now number in the hundreds.


Yehudi Menuhin

By the time of his first sabbatical, Yehudi’s very name, which means “the Jew,” had become a fad. “Who’s Yahoodi?” was a national joke during the Great Depression. Yet like the ineffable name of God, its power came from the fact that it sounded so exotic and mysterious. The joke had two appealing elements: the name had a lilt to it, and the joke implied a faint sneer.

The name’s owner, however, had a magnificent and noble face as a child, and it became even more so as Yehudi grew older. The way he played the violin proved that the face was no mere mask. People loved the child and that love embraced his talented sisters as well.

Growing up so close to these illustrious people has left me with many questions and many anxieties. In reading about my Menuhin ancestors, and in talking with my relatives today, many old questions and anxieties were resolved, only to be replaced by others born out of my new awareness and out of the waves that the writing of my book sent through the Menuhin clan.

There are questions to which I have never really found adequate answers. What is the source of great genius like that displayed in the Menuhin family line? What psychological factors foster an entire brood of genius children? Or is genius purely genetic, or prearranged by fate, or a miracle? There are no easy answers. I do know that my mother has struggled mightily—and I believe Yehudi and Hephzibah have as well—to square herself with that tradition, as I also must. It is a tradition I felt compelled to study partly because of my own emotional and blood relation to it, but also because of the gaps between the public image of the Menuhins and the realities I saw. My story, then, is in part about the strong and sometimes troubled relationships between the Menuhins, past and present. It also describes how the Menuhin ancestors lived, and what they created within the tradition-bound community of extremely religious Jews in Russia who came to be known as the Hassidim. The inevitable problems of organization dictated that Yehudi be the focus of my book, as rightly he should be. His life, in a sense, forms the scaffolding from which I have tried to work the complex psychological and genealogical material of my family’s story. And it is probably fair to say that Yehudi has been the focus of my life, as well. He was the almost mythic figure my mother, Yaltah, talked of constantly, and worshipped totally.

The facts of Yehudi’s life are well known; a previous biography, countless news stories, and Yehudi’s own recent autobiography have described much of it—the dates, the stories of his legendary youth, his honors, his political/social philosophy, the influence of his immigrant parents, etc. My own research confirms what I grew up knowing intimately—the details of Yehudi’s life. Yet they had never explained to me the mystery of his gift, and the gifts of his two sisters. Nor did they explain how the Menuhins related to each other, or to the world. In the limelight of international news coverage, the Menuhin family projected genius, charm and confidence. But there has also been a secretiveness behind which they have lived, though cracks in the facade have appeared from time to time, particularly concerning Moshe, the family patriarch. His anti-Zionism was reported over the years, but his long and angry anti-Zionist, anti-Israeli tract, The Decadence of Judaism in Our Time, found its way into print only through the vanity press in America. Unreported storms raged within the Menuhin clan as they do in any other family, but somehow ours took on epic proportions because of the characters involved.

* * *

Yehudi first set bow to strings in a room in the Jewish section of San Francisco in the early twenties. Since then the greatest part of his life has been lived on concert stages, in recording studios, great hotels and estates and with the adulation of fawning aristocrats, seemingly far from his origins in the ghetto. Born shortly before the Russian Revolution, Yehudi was a part of the great upsurge arising out of a crumbling order. Millions of his people had been expelled from Russia as the victims of this falling old order. His violin sang their song—and that is why they loved it so.

My uncle’s early music was distinguished from that created by other child prodigies from the same ghetto by its profound and mature interpretation; he had something more than just astounding technique. The same could be said of several of Yehudi’s ancestors who were called illuy, child prodigies. They displayed precocity not only in music but in science and writing, oratory and especially religion; religion, of course, combined all the others. As the nineteenth century came to an end, so did the tradition of all-encompassing religious scholastics. It’s a good guess that the world lost some great religious leaders when the violin became a passion in the Russian Jewish world. The instrument was adopted from the gypsies who were associated with licentiousness, with sensuality; whereas Torah study was work for the mind, spirit and intellect. The violin became the bridge between body and mind. And when one masters the violin, one enters the realms of love, creativity, joy. That the child Yehudi could create a bridge to other worlds for his adult audiences seemed, indeed, a miracle. Only his parents knew, however, that Yehudi was not the first in his family’s tradition of miraculous children. Child prodigies were the hallmark of Yehudi’s Hassidic ancestors, the Schneersohns.

I didn’t understand why my uncle possessed so much power until I began to see behind Yehudi our common family tradition of which I was not even aware until after my thirtieth birthday. Only then did I discover that our family, unique among Russian Jews, has a family tree that can be traced back generation by generation for five centuries. My discovery has left me awed and troubled.

I am awed because the family traces its power directly to the Kabbalah, the font of Jewish mysticism. Schneur Zalman, the founder of the Lubavitcher dynasty, and the first Schneersohn, was as important a musician as he was a religious leader. But I am also troubled because studying ancestors seems too pat a way to find one’s identity. Yet ultimately, I am a Menuhin, and the reader will see that to be a Menuhin is no simple matter.

I had always thought that I simply was not the type to go in for ancestor worship and family tree investigations. Yet late in 1972, on a trip to London and Zurich to see my mother, whom I had not seen for a number of years, a chain of events began that led me to a fascination with my own genealogy. Many of my mother’s friends in Zurich were deeply involved with the psychology of Carl Jung. I became drawn to the notion of a collective unconscious, which Jung explains in part as a “certain psychic disposition shaped by the forces of heredity.” My mother’s description of our ancestors and my newfound fascination with Jung started the wheels turning that led, inevitably, to this book.

The year after the Zurich trip, I went to Israel, since my grandparents had lived there for many years. There I met a cousin of Yehudi’s named Leah who surprised me by using the rather strong term “emotional cripple” to describe not only Yehudi but all the Menuhins. Leah said that they were out of touch with very important parts of themselves, but I rejected what she said because I knew of her bitterness about that side of her family. Now, however, I sometimes see that many of us in Yehudi’s orbit could be described as lost souls, and perhaps that includes the great man himself. Leah’s remarks came back to me when I later read a similar notion in Jung. He said that when a person becomes the instrument of a great art, that person, as well as many around him, must suffer for it in his personal life. Leah’s bitterness was directed mostly at my grandparents, Moshe and Marutha, who had lived their lives solely for their children, and especially for Yehudi. Nothing and nobody would be allowed to interfere with that, including relatives.

One can see in Yehudi, Hephzibah and Yaltah, as Leah in Israel might explain, much that smacks of those who have suffered from psychological repression, suggesting perhaps more their connection with the priestly than with the prophetic tradition from which they grew. They worship the light and shun the dark in their tastes in both literature and music. Yehudi and Yaltah equally express distaste for writers who reveal the sleazy and violent aspects of life. It’s as if they fear their own negative, dark sides. Still, quite recently, my mother wrote to me expressing her own resentment of her parents and especially the way they have treated her own sons, my brother Robert and me. “I feel you have lightened the burden for me,” she said to me in her letter. “I’ve just carried it silently, whereas you have transformed it into something creative and concrete. You, in great pain, searched for the answer and wrote your book…you have worked out mysteriously what I could not face.” Now she is appalled at “the whole mechanics of hellish intrigues and climbing,” which she feels came out of her parents’ fear of poverty and particularly her mother’s desire to escape her Jewishness.

* * *

All three of the Menuhin children today live as expatriate Americans in London. Their lives have been molded by the legend of their precocity, and they seem to resent it sometimes. Yehudi uses quotation marks around the word prodigy, as if he doesn’t believe there really are any. If there was any “miracle” that occurred in the 1920s in the San Francisco of his youth, he attributes it to the clean air and water and the nutritious food of that period. There were a number of prodigies from that area, he points out—he was merely the first and the most famous.

One could dismiss the simplicity of Yehudi’s explanation because he is, as a great many people know, a crackpot on the subject of nutrition. Yet there was, indeed, Ruggiero Ricci, a child prodigy of Italian immigrant parents. He was born two years later than Yehudi and was taught by the same teacher, Louis Persinger.

Poor Ricci idolized Yehudi. Ricci’s father was convinced that of his eight musical children, one would surely equal the Jewish boy’s precocity on the violin. Ricci used to go to Yehudi’s San Francisco concerts with his fists clenched. He became a great violinist in his own right, but his career never took on the legendary aspects of Yehudi’s. Perhaps his childhood lacked the wholesomeness, along with the inspiration and encouragement, that Yehudi lists as essential to the care and feeding of young musicians. Ricci’s father’s method of encouraging his son was to shout at him: “Be a fiddler or be a garbage man!” Ricci was obviously not as lucky in his choice of parents as was Yehudi.

There was also Isaac Stern, the last of the three great San Francisco violin prodigies. Stern was born two years after Ricci. One of the better-kept secrets of the Menuhin family is that Yaltah and Marutha personally delivered the promising Stern his first violin.

Today there are those critics who would compare Stern’s violin playing quite favorably with Yehudi’s, yet Yehudi’s career and name have a certain magic, a charisma, that few violinists possess. People are forever calling Yehudi “the former wunderkind.” Something about Yehudi sets him apart from the other violinists, and this may be the ultimate difficulty of his tale. It has been suggested that he was the greatest musical prodigy of this century. Yet, much as anyone else, Yehudi is at a loss to explain his amazing talent. “Make sure, Lionel,” he has said to me, “that you don’t compare me to Mozart. Mine was not that kind of gift.”

The more I studied our common ancestry, the more it became apparent that somehow many of the forces in history and culture had been transmitted down the generational chain to Yehudi as surely as if they had been quantified as a chemical in his genes. (And some of them may well have been.) This, of course, might contradict the great science of genetics, but a more mystical explanation than the molecular structure of the genes appeals to me. I suspect that what is at work here is the ancient secret, understood by studying Kabbalah, not chemistry—and Yehudi’s father, Moshe. The mysterious alchemy of great child prodigies often includes a driven and driving father.

* * *

The ancient Hebrews knew the magical power of music. David played the lyre for Saul to drive away the evil spirits of melancholy and depression that plagued the king. Yehudi, who gave his first public performance at six years of age, is said to be a direct descendant of the Old Testament’s greatest child prodigy. This is because the Schneersohns are, according to the Lubavitcher tradition, directly descended from David.

In the eighteenth century, song was the wise man’s-the tzaddik’s—way into heaven. Schneur Zalman was not only the last of the tzaddiks, but also the last great composer of Jewish liturgical music. Myth and music were the two areas in which the Hassids excelled. Through myths, tales and parables, the tzaddiks explained the relationship between God and man, heaven and earth. Through music, they transcended opposites.

Schneur Zalman lived seven generations before Yehudi. Yet when Yehudi first emerged from the Jewish section of San Francisco in the 1920s, his father, Moshe, went out of his way to deny that there had been any unusual musical ability among his son’s ancestors. Nor did he mention the influential role of the family in Jewish tradition.

Perhaps Moshe knew how strange the boy might appear to American eyes if the whole tale were told. The Messianic impulse is not a quality that Americans find endearing in immigrants, especially when it is expressed as aggressiveness. One dictionary defines Messianism as a “mystically idealistic and aggressive and crusading spirit,” which it is not unfair to say Yehudi’s ancestors had exhibited. Often, the Menuhins seem more like seers than artists. Yehudi warns of terrible, gigantic natural catastrophes that he feels will inevitably overcome mankind. Hephzibah sees a new world coming into being out of social chaos, a new and far better world. Moshe prophesizes disaster for his people, the Jews, because they created a political state in Palestine.

Yaltah feels this world is not as real as other worlds, and thus, there is something unworldly about her. Yet in some ways she is closer to her feelings than either her brother or sister. You sense that when she says “My brother is a man who lives with a loneliness we will never know,” she knows it quite well. For suffering, she says, is the paramount fact of life, and either you wallow in it or you use it in a creative, positive way. That, according to Yaltah, is what her brother is all about. She talks of how he withdraws into his universe of music, sliding in and out of our world. When he is playing well, she says, he is bringing messages from up there down here. And that is certainly the way my mother plays her music as well.

Being in touch with the ancient secret in our modern world must be a terrible burden. I think of what a friend of mine once said after attending with me one of Yehudi’s concerts. She was impressed, of course, by his playing. But when she saw him up close after the concert, she commented, “He looks so tired. It must be hard being a legend in your own time.” Yes, I thought, especially a legend that has been incubating not only during his own time, but for centuries.

* * *

While I was writing this book, Norman Mailer announced that his biggest opus since The Naked and The Dead was to be a novel about every generation of an archetypal Jewish family since Egyptian days. His story is fiction, whereas my family tree is real, to be sure. The story of the Lubavitchers is a migration through wars, revolutions and pogroms in search of salvation across the continents and oceans. The migration ended in San Francisco where the tale of Yehudi begins. Yehudi is a culmination of the whole historic flow of the great mystical and revolutionary movement known as Hassidism. To know what went into the making of Yehudi, the prodigy, you must learn history. You must also understand the mechanisms by which a family tradition is maintained at almost any price.

Being both a Menuhin and a Rolfe, I have been as ambivalent about my book as have been my relatives. I have agonized over my loyalties but have ultimately decided to tell the story of the Menuhins as completely as I know how-and it is, after all, a story that deserves to be told.

If there is some bitterness in my own story, my family odyssey was not motivated by it. For years I had resisted suggestions by friends and editors to write about my family. The discovery of my own link to the Hassids got me started, and as the ghosts of the Menuhin past became more real, Yehudi’s image started changing. Too awe-struck by my connection to the Menuhins, I did not suspect that awe could turn to rage during my search for my family’s roots. Part of the rage was a feeling that I was but another of the distressed souls who surround Yehudi. Yet side by side with rage, my awe of the Menuhin legend and the Menuhin music remains as strong as ever. If it was necessary to go beyond official Menuhin legends and facts, then it was equally necessary for me to go beyond my personal resentments in recording what is the Menuhin odyssey.


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