A Master's Gentle Eloquence

For a musician, whose natural medium is the most eloquent of languages, recourse to the more imperfect vocabulary of words
By Jurretta J. Heckscher

For a musician, whose natural medium is the most eloquent of languages, recourse to the more imperfect vocabulary of words must be a little like walking on stilts. And as for the dubious business of autobiography, it is a rare performer who can claim the effort of self-expression at the typewriter one-half as successful or as justified as the vibrant communication from stage and recording studio.

Perhaps in this undertaking, as in so many others, Yehudi Menuhin is the exception, Violinist par excellence, condunctor, music educator and humanist fervently committed to causes as diverse as Amnesty International and organic foods, Menuhin is one of a handful of classical musicians whose world-wide fame promises to endear his recently published memoirs to a public beyond devoted specialists. But for those expecting either a pristine dissertation on performance or a spicy self-revelation, "Unfinished Journey" will be a disappointment: it is above all a book about people, ideas and music and is only secondarily the thoroughly polite exposure of an extraordinary life.

The events are there, of course, providing a framework. Menuhim recalls the unique home shielding him from the distortion that menaces any child prodigy: "I am one of those privileged people whose early years shine in retrospect as a time of unblemished happiness." There is the extraordinary upbringing: residences in San Francisco Paris and Switzerland, exposure to Europe's musical elite between the wars on endless train rides and the acquisition (without formal education) of competence in half-a-dozen languages and an unfettered intellectual curiosity.

Menuhin is more reticent about the private events of an adulthood spend in the public eye. He writes cryptically, and with ovbious pain, of his hasty first marriage and subsequent divorce ("Each of us had married an illusion...There was nothing in my past to teach me how to cope with failure"). He speaks warmly, and with a tinge of regret, of his four living children (a fifth died at birth)--"as a father I have probably spend less time with my children than any man not sentenced to life imprisonment." And no amount of reserve can hide his delight in his second wife, British ex-ballet-dancer Diana Gould: "she has been a constant inspiration, a stimulus, an expression of animated beauty in my life and in our children's lives."

But more importantly, there is the music. Noting with characteristic humor that "it is a feature of the violinist's career to burst abruptly into view...like Aphrodite washed ashore on Cyprus, beautifully complete, and often younger than she," Menuhin makes clear that his own career had less exciting origins. At two, his parents smuggled him into a matinee of the San Francisco Symphony; at four, unappeased by a toy violin ("this travesty of my longings enraged me"), he acquired his first instrument; by the time he was twenty he was an established master on both sides of the Atlantic.

Menuhin demonstrates that the process was overwhelmingly influenced by a succession of teachers, from an initial incompetent or two ("to teach vibrato, Anker would shout 'Vibrate! Vibrate!' with never a clue given as to how to do it") to the inspired and inspiring tutelage of his beloved Georges Enesco ("I know that everything I do carries his imprint yet").

Menuhin has been privileged to follow an extraordinarily diverse career, from concert soloist to conductor, competition judge, enthusiastic festival leader and dedicated teacher of children. Nowhere in "Unfinished Journey" does he give an exhaustive discussion of technique. Instead, there are brief illuminations offered without a trace of condescension: an intriguing commentary on the opening bars of the Beethoven concerto, one of the fruits of Menuhin's own groping "from intuition through intellectual analysis to restored spontaneity," hints on teaching correct fluidity of motion and allusions to his practise of Yoga as an aid to technique. Finally, Menuhin offers a felicitous exploration of his own supreme art, almost shyly, as though he hesitated to expose so personal an insight: The interpreter's duty is threefold. First, he must master the numberless muscular pressures which in every position on every string will produce every quality of sound. Then, having learned the phonetics of his language, he must put them together to convey a message, and to do this must have a fullness in himself to express before the composer's fullness finds a response. Lastly he needs an understanding of the composer's style, a corrective to the urge to express himself rather than the music. Thus, he puts all his equipment, his skill, the raw material of his whole life at the service of another man's vision--a vision which has become his own without, at the moment of performance, the need for thinking about it.

Elsewhere, he insists that "it was not playing for myself that had spurred my three-year-old ambition, but playing what others might want to hear and thus forging contacts between human beings." The emphasis, if not the timing, is wholly believable, for Menuhin's autobiography is above all a book about people, a series of descerning and generous portraits of the individuals encountered throughout a lifetime. The great and lowly alike are brought to life with a few deft words: de Gaulle, Nehru, Ben-Gurion, Willa Cather ("Aunt Willa...a rock of strength and sweetness"), Bela Bartok ("a composer to bear comparison with the giants of the past"), the family's Italian cook, a hotel porter in Leipzig, Solzhenitsyn, Glenn Gould ("that most exotic of my colleagues") and Jacob Epstein ("like his sculptures, he seemed as if God had formed him with a few grand strokes, not attending much to detail")

Tongue-in-cheek, Menuhin describes the typical violinist as "more sensual than intellectual, somewhat narrow in outlook, and probably vain." But for those who might in actuality be considered his rivals he has nothing but praise, defending Jascha Heifetz against charges of coldness and mourning the late David Oistrakh as "a friend beyond price."

If Menuhin's own rich humanity is made clear by such comments, his disarming idealism and fluent intelligence are equally manifest elsewhere. Whether he is describing (with unabashed pride) his efforts on behalf of Soviet dissidents or his defiance of apartheid, discoursing on acoustics, lauding Yoga and the wisdom of India with the divotion of discipleship, of opining on the different qualities of audiences around the world, one has the sense of sharing in the spontaneous conversation of an urbane and gracious friend.

But perhaps the final judgement on "Unfinished Journey," for all its articulate (and selective) revelation, is indicated by Menuhin himself. "Rightly or wrongly," he writes, "I imagine that I know a human being from his or her musical performance. Performing, an artist lays himself bare, he exposes the secret temperament, the hidden motive, he risks the psychological revelation." Particularly for a master of the most exquisitely expressive of instruments, the deepest unfolding of self is the music. Of that continuing intimacy, "Unfinished Journey" is a gentle elucidation.