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A Wondrous Violinist Who Was a True Citizen of the World

Appreciation: Menuhin touched many with his grace, and his influence will likely reach into the next century.

March 16, 1999|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

In 1976, Yehudi Menuhin wrote a memoir entitled "Unfinished Journey." In 1996, he updated the book with "Unfinished Journey: Twenty Years Later." On Friday, Yehudi Menuhin--the violinist who inspired everyone from amateur violinist Albert Einstein to world leaders, and who was revered by musicians and audiences the world over for close to eight decades--finished his journey.

That journey was a spiritual quest, and it, more than his greatness as a violinist, will, I suspect, keep him a force into the next century and beyond. He was, at his best, a wondrous musician, the kind who could appear touched by grace and transport a responsive listener into a sense of sharing that grace.

Still, he was not the century's greatest violinist. No one person has been. He played second fiddle to Heifetz's superhuman control, to Szigeti's striking originality as an interpreter, to Kreisler's melting tone. But no matter. Menuhin was something else. He was one of the world's best people.

Music, because it is primarily nonrepresentational and non-narrative, can present us with terrible moral dilemmas. Bad men and bad occasions have produced very good music. We embrace little art from Nazi Germany today except its music, be it wartime recordings of transportive German performances of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony performed before audiences of rapt uniformed SS agents or the musical public's forgiveness of such Nazi collaborators as Karajan or Richard Strauss.

With Menuhin we have no problem. George Steiner has called him "probably the most widely loved personality in the history of the performing arts." And it was with a near-saintly demeanor that Menuhin traveled his long journey that began with performances as a 7-year-old in short pants in San Francisco and continued right up to the end. He was 82 when he died Friday of heart failure in Berlin, where he had been scheduled to conduct.

He wasn't, of course, a saint, nor could he possibly ever be canonized. His name, given by his famously prepossessing mother in response to an anti-Semitic remark from a landlord, means Jew in Hebrew.

Menuhin, in fact, was a direct descendant of Russian rabbis who created the mystical Hasidic sect of Judaism. And, in a recent book, "Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground," Los Angeles writer Lionel Rolfe, who is Menuhin's nephew, describes the violinist as a kind of latter-day musical Bal Shem, the 18th century Russian Hasidic prophet and gentle man who existed as a serene presence in turbulent times.

The Bal Shem's specialty was to create an ecstatic state of mind called Hitlahavut. "Through Hitlahavut," Rolfe writes, "the Messiah will be persuaded to come. Hitlahavut unites man with God in the wondrous state of concentration where even the most oft-repeated actions become fresh again."

That may also be the best description of Menuhin's playing that I have yet encountered, and it also tells us something about his utopian dreams. Those dreams began early. He writes that as a child he believed "that peace might be visited upon the Earth if I could only play the Bach Chaconne well-enough in the Sistine Chapel." It was with a childish high mind he began making music, and he never lost those high ideals, which could be endearing, inspiring and irritating.

Menuhin tested humanity and himself. During World War II, he played before thousands of soldiers, looking deeply into the eyes of men he knew were about to die and attempting, like a mystical rabbi, to give them a final ecstasy to take into battle. At the other extreme, he played for concentration camp survivors at Belsen, trying to stir the ecstasy that had been drained from them. He then became the first Jew to play after the war with the Berlin Philharmonic, under Wilhelm Furtwangler, even though that meant death threats when he played in Israel.

For Menuhin, world peace meant world peace--it meant letting go of ego. As a consequence, the descendant of Hasidic rabbis and the man whose name meant Jew felt comfortable in all religions and considered himself a citizen of the world. Although devoted to Israel and the son of a Zionist, he defied the Jewish state time and again by promoting the Palestinian cause. He was as drawn to India--with its musicians and holy men--as he was to his estate in London. He was made a British lord in 1993, but was also a defiant one, designing a coat of arms that includes a violin string, a round-wheeled Gypsy flag and a seven-branched Jewish candelabrum, which now sits in the House of Lords.

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