My Uncle Yehudi, Ravi Shankar & The Mystic East

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January 1, 2013 · Posted in Commentary 

Menuhin (left) and Shankar (right)

Album cover

By Lionel Rolfe

The death of Ravi Shankar last week made much mention of his close friendship with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who happened to be my uncle, with whom he made three albums, “East Meets West” in the ‘50s before Shankar hooked up with the Beatles.

Yehudi says that George Enesco, who was one of Yehudi’s earliest teachers, could perform great feats with all kinds of music. He could play any opera, symphony or chamber piece “in the most inspired fashion on the piano using various auxiliary means such as whistles, grunts and singing to convey the full impact and breadth of the score.” He orchestrated the horns with his grunts, the violins with his singing and whistles.

Enesco’s playing had a gypsy quality, an “impetuous, emotion-filled expressiveness.” Again it is interesting to note that Yehudi could just as well have been talking about his own playing, and the music of his Hassidic ancestors. Rumania, where Enesco came from is on the very border of East and West.

Enesco also had a fascination with Oriental music and had even sat in on sessions of Ravi and Udi Shankar in the ‘30s. In Paris, Enesco took Yehudi to hear Balinese music at the great Colonial Exhibit.

Georges Enesco spoke of the way Yehudi played Mendelssohn: “He can give free reign to the Oriental something which is in every Jew, but that won’t do with Bach and Beethoven. They’re emotional, too, but in a restrained, classical way.”

Enesco was the reason Yehudi was first drawn to Europe; he wanted to study with the great Rumanian composer, perhaps because that man represented the Oriental influence Yehudi was searching for. To the child that Yehudi still was, Enesco must have looked like a Roman emperor. In Yehudi’s words, his head was topped by “a shaggy crown of black hair,” and he was “tremendously tall and romantic-looking.” To Yehudi, Enesco could have been one of his mother’s Tartar horsemen, yet his soul was mystical and musical, not violent.

On one of the trips that my grandfather Moshe, Yehudi’s father, and Yehudi took to Enesco’s Sinaia (Rumania’s summer capital in the Carpathian Alps), they visited a gypsy camp. Yehudi remembers being fascinated by “the absolutely natural way the music spoke, by the way it imitated bird song and other natural sounds.” But Moshe was listening in amazement because the gypsies were playing the “Jewish melodies” he had sung as a child.

Moshe’s wife Marutha, too, was a carrier of the Eastern influence, and it most showed in her trunk of costumes. She was fascinated by ethnic clothing, and costumes were a part of her abundant fantasy life, the theme of which was a hunt for the exotic. Marutha had always wanted a Chinese grandchild, for instance, and Yehudi’s daughter, Zamira, provided her with a great-grandchild by marrying (and later divorcing) the Chinese pianist Fou T’song, by whom she had a son.

Of course this Oriental essence that all Jews carry and that Yehudi seemed to express so well, has been noted before. The great Martin Buber said that if you peer into the soul of any Jew, you would find there an Oriental element. In Yehudi’s case, the Oriental influence came primarily from his mother. The intellect came from his father.


My mother Yaltah Menuhin, a prodigy pianist, told me that Yehudi met Shankar in the ‘30s in Indonesia. I haven’t been able to confirm this, but I did read that Shankar went to concerts Yehudi performed in Paris in the ‘30s when he was still a boy.

For sure, Yehudi met Ravi Shankar, famed Indian sitar player, in 1952, and became an early apostle. In 1955 he played with a group of Indian musicians in New York. Since it was such an unusual concert for that time, he was asked to explain it in the New York Times in April, 1955.

“The only parallel in our music is that found in the twelve-tone system of Schoenberg, which builds intricate compositions on the unalterable sequence of an established succession of notes. There is no ego in this music; the Indians have no Beethoven whose genius is honored age by age, for, instead of confining creation to rare, immortal individuals, it is extended to every artist who plays. Gradually, across the ages, our music has evolved from this mysterious form, now so strange to us,” Yehudi wrote.

Shankar played with Yehudi at the Yehudi’s Bath Festival in the early 1960s. For two days, Yehudi was coached by Shankar. He wore a silk tunic and sat cross-legged on the stage for the performance. In 1962, Shankar and Yehudi recorded their first album together, “East Meets West.”

Shankar, of course, was admired by such giants of the popular music world as Dave Brubeck and the Beatles’ George Harrison, and in one joint television interview, Yehudi and another Beatle, John Lennon, had a difference of interpretation about Shankar.

Lennon said that the climax of Eastern music would be a golden age when there would be no war. Yehudi replied that he was “despairing of the golden age, but would accept this music as a golden moment.” Only a member of the generation coming of age in the sixties could display a greater naivete than Yehudi.

When the Asian Music Circle was formed in London in 1953, Yehudi became its first president. But by 1962 the invasion of the West by the East was so complete that he was stating his concerns in the London Times about whether the Indian musicians were becoming too Westernized; they were forming orchestras.


Back in the ‘70s, I spent several hours discussing Yehudi’s inclination toward the east with Princess Irene, formerly of the Greek monarchy, now when I met her was living in London after her brother Constantine was deposed.

Certainly Yehudi must be given great credit for having looked to the East, both in his music and his yoga, for the balance necessary for uniting materialism and spirituality, she told me as we lunched at the EMI studio.

I liked Princess Irene even if royalty did not always impress me. When I talked with her, I quickly felt that there was something sad and discarded about her, that there wasn’t an iota of bad intention in her, despite the fact that one couldn’t say the same thing about her mother, the former Queen Fredericka.

While Yehudi was out of the room, Irene asked me what the book I was writing was about and I told her it was about Yehudi and our family tradition. Then told me she had learned of the Hassidic tradition through the writing of Martin Buber. That immediately commended her to me, for back in my room was a Buber work I was reading with great fascination.

We naturally began talking of Yehudi, and his relationship to that tradition, and she confirmed my thoughts when she said, “Yehudi’s whole personality became clear to me and I understood who he was when I read Buber.” She had been struck by the uncanny similarity between the Hassidic wise men and the gurus of India. When she discovered that Yehudi was descended from generations of wise men, it was a revelation to her.

Although Yehudi may sometimes dismiss his Hassidic lineage, he has confided to me on other occasions that when he recognized his long line of ancestors he began to understand himself, even though he has said he is not a person concerned with family trees. It is obvious even to Yehudi that much of his identity has come from his ancestors, despite the ambivalence with which he relates to that identity.

Yehudi’s immediate attraction to yoga occurred during his difficulties in the postwar period. Israel and India both became important to him, even though he discovered yoga in a place no more exotic than a New Zealand doctor’s office. Yehudi found a book on yoga while waiting to see the doctor, and by the time he arrived in California, yoga had become his passion. My mother took me once to cellist Gregor Piatigorsky’s house where she, the great cellist and her brother were going to play trios. When she walked in, her brother was standing on his head. She said something, no doubt with some humor intended, about the difficulty of playing while upside down.

Yehudi didn’t see the humor. He snapped, “Can’t you see that I am upside down?”

In any event, Yehudi was finding his redemption in the East, and that fact was no doubt connected with his own sense of ancestry, which he said developed as he went around the world meeting its peoples.

In February of 1953, Life helped launch the West’s fascination with yoga on a large scale by running a spread about Yehudi’s discovery of it. The magazine quoted Yehudi as saying that yoga gave him a sense of “general well-being.” It showed Yehudi on various pages in assorted yoga contortions and went on to say that his music had been revitalized by it. “Whatever private difficulties he has had with his art, he seems to have conquered them,” the article said.

Despite my mother’s initial doubts, she did start delving into yoga, but she was as unable to get me to stand on my head as she had been to teach me Russian. One exciting thing did happen, however: one day Marlon Brando called and talked to my mother about yoga. That was exciting for me because we had just seen him in “Teahouse of the August Moon,” one of the few Hollywood movies my mother ever allowed me to see. Yehudi was of the opinion that if only violinists, nurses, teachers, prisoners and presidents would bind themselves in knots, breathe deeply until lightheaded, clean their nasal passages with string, twist their spines and walk erect, with their sights to the stars, then everything would be much better. Yehudi’s passions for natural food, yoga and ecology grow out of his belief that a good musician has to oppose all that is inhuman. He also believes that “music is by nature civilizing.” Music, according to him, is formed by “deliberate application and precise thought; thus its standards of “thought, insight and effort” are good ones by which to compare everything else.

Of course Yehudi was a purist about music. “The great people in the world of jazz and classical music have lasted a long time,” he explains. Yet he was an admirer of the early Beatles. “They were a spontaneous group that came off the streets of Liverpool, and that’s the way a certain kind of folk music should happen.”

On the other hand, he recently walked out of a Rolling Stones concert because he was stunned by the fans’ need to “shout, cheer, stamp their feet and climb on the seats.”In my world more is expected of the artist than of the audience. Here it is in fact the audience’s performance—the musicians are merely the trigger. If you took an electric drill or a pile driver, tuned it so it sounded a tune and amplified it a hundred times, it would sound to the people nearby much as this concert sounded to me.

On one occasion during my stay in London in 1973 Yehudi was genuinely pleased when I joined him in a long discussion that turned away from politics and into metaphysics.

His art is really not so different from that practiced by his saintly ancestors in their prayer. What they and Yehudi have tried to attain is a mystical union. Certainly Yehudi’s metaphysics do not quite include the kind of heaven that so moved his Hassidic forefathers. But that is not to say he is a materialist rather than an idealist. If you ask him what reality is, you come away with a slightly paradoxical duality. It is not materialist or idealist, he says. “They converge.” He says that there is a reality behind the external reality. No doubt he explains this concept better with his violin than with his words, but nonetheless the words must give some illumination of the man.

He takes a pencil and draws concentric circles on a piece of paper. “Reality,” he says, “grows in concentric circles. When you are a baby and when you die are the two times in your life that you see through all the levels of reality.” He draws an arrow outside the circles, an arrow pointing to the greater universe out there. You see, in this first circle reality is what you touch and smell. Later on it is school, where all to often one is subjected to a regimen that kills everything within although some sense of discipline, inner discipline, must be acquired. In the larger circle of reality you worry about your job or your food or the opposite sex. All these are fine and necessary things. But most people never go outside these realities. Only a few do: real gurus, artists, mystics, a few of the really great scientists. These people have a sense of the universe constantly, that same sense that all human beings have at birth and near death. “You know,” he pauses, “in India, when a great teacher dies, he knows that he is going to die. He sees no difference between life and death. So he summons his disciples, and his death is not an unhappy occasion.”


Lionel Rolfe is the author of “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey,” available on Amazon’s Kindle Store at: Many of his other books are available there too. His new book, “The Misadventures of Ari Mendelsohn: A Mostly True Memoir Of California Journalism” has just become available in paperback form on Amazon as well.


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