In the April issue of BBC Music Magazine we celebrated the life and work of violinist Yehudi Menuhin, born 100 years ago today. As a player, teacher and conductor, Menuhin inspired whole generations of musicians. Below, three of today’s leading musicians share their memories of the great man…
Image: (c) Eleanor Hope
Daniel Hope, violinist
I was privileged to know Menuhin for 25 years, performing over 60 concerts with him including his very final performance, on 7 March 1999 in Düsseldorf. He was a constant source of inspiration and wonder. Musically I learnt constantly from him, just happy to have the chance of observing him close-up; but it was also a testing education in the fierce, peripatetic life of the soloist. Travel with Menuhin was never dull and the cities to which I was introduced delighted and alarmed in equal measure. The soloist’s life is a kaleidescope of hotels, stages, aiports, orchestras. But I was travelling with a world expert; he’d been on the road since he was still in shorts.
He’d leave his Guarneri del Gesù in an open violin case on the table; he never put it away. He picked it up and played it, almost as if he were drinking a glass of water. And the sound he made! He once told me: ‘One has to play every day. One is like a bird, and can you imagine a bird saying “I’m tired today, I don’t feel like flying”?’ The violin was a part of him. To this day, his sound remains in my ear, so unique and so fascinatingly beautiful. And, of course, there’s his final concert. After the Schnittke Concerto, he encouraged me to play an encore. I spontaneously chose Kaddish, Ravel’s musical version of the Jewish prayer for the dead. I had grown up on Menuhin’s unique interpretation of this work and wanted to dedicate it to him. Menuhin pushed me out onto the stage and sat amongst the orchestra listening to it. Perhaps it may have been in some way prophetic. Five days later, he passed away.
Daniel Hope’s new album ‘My Tribute to Yehudi Menuhin’ is out now on Deutsche Grammophon
Clemency Burton-Hill, violinist and BBC Radio 3 presenter
My overwhelming memory of Yehudi Menuhin is his extraordinarily warm smile and twinkling blue eyes. I was obviously hugely in awe of him – he was one of my great musical heroes. I was only 15 but he instantly put me at ease, and I have very strong memories of playing Bach with him in particular – my favourite composer and his too, pretty much. He also told me to do yoga, which I don’t think I had ever heard of at that point.
I was struck by his incredible warmth: that you could be someone so celebrated, so famous and that he seemed as though he really cared about what I had to say both on my fiddle and as a person. I think he probably made everyone he encountered feel like that. That is quite a special quality as a human being.
I think the ultimate thing that I learned from him is that being a great musician is about more than just music. What was so compelling for me about Menuhin the man was his empathy for other human beings and his curiosity about other musical cultures, which informed every single note he ever played.
Clemency Burton-Hill presents the documentary ‘Yehudi Menuhin: Who’s Yehudi?’ on BBC Four on 24 April
Julian Lloyd Webber, cellist
Over the years I played Elgar’s Cello Concerto many times with many renowned conductors and it was by no means the ‘starriest’ maestros who delivered the most sympathetic accompaniments. The exception to this rule was Yehudi Menuhin – a ‘star’ in every sense of the word. I loved working with him because he was not only a marvellous musician but also a string player who would follow every nuance of bowing and rubato. Each performance felt alive and spontaneous and I knew that Yehudi would be with me every moment of the way. Which is why – despite protestations from Philips Classics, who were keen to use a younger, trendier conductor – I insisted that it must be Yehudi when the time arrived for me to record this seminal work.
We enjoyed many happy concerts together but I remember one above the others for a non-musical reason. We were about to play the Elgar in Sydney and – wanting to discuss a point of interpretation – I knocked on his dressing room door. ‘Come in!’ cried Yehudi and I duly entered, somewhat surprised to see him standing on his head. ‘It’s about this accelerando‘ I told his feet. ‘Where exactly? Show me on the score’. Prostrating myself on the floor, I carefully placed the music upside down in front of Yehudi’s eyes before beginning a detailed discussion of Elgar’s masterpiece with the inverted maestro. If only the audience could have seen us!