Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Yehudi Menuhin

Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) in 1976
Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) in 1976

Monday’s Music History Monday post marked the birth – on April 22, 1916 – of the distinguished American-British violinist, conductor, and teacher Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999).  During the course of that post, I wrote that Menuhin:

“was a man of unwavering moral integrity and courage: a soft-spoken, kind, gentle, and elegant man, a role model for everyone who knew him.”

In support of that statement, I would offer up two of the many examples of his integrity and courage.  But first, an anecdote that sets the stage for those examples.

Menuhin was born in New York City to a family of Lithuanian Jewish immigrants.  His given name – “Yehudi” – literally means “Jew” in Hebrew.  In an interview published in the British magazine New Internationalist, Menuhin described how he got his name:

“Obliged to find an apartment [in New York City], my parents searched the neighborhood and chose one. Showing them out after they had viewed it, the landlady said: ‘And you’ll be glad to know I don’t take Jews.’ Her mistake made clear to her, the antisemitic landlady was renounced, and another apartment found. But her blunder left its mark. Back on the street my mother made a vow. Her unborn baby would have a label proclaiming his race to the world. He would be called ‘The Jew.’”

With that bit of background in mind, here are the two promised examples of Menuhin’s integrity and courage.

Menuhin and Benjamin Britten performing together some ten years later, circa 1955
Menuhin and Benjamin Britten performing together some ten years later, circa 1955

During World War Two, he tirelessly performed for Allied soldiers. Immediately after the war, in June and July of 1945, Menuhin toured and performed at camps for “displaced persons” – Holocaust survivors – including concerts given just outside of where the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp had stood (it had been demolished in May 1945, soon after the end of the war).  Menuhin’s piano accompanist on the trip was none-other-than the composer and pianist Benjamin Britten.

During the course of the tour, Menuhin saw (and heard and smelled) things that not a single one of us can imagine, things that stayed with him for the rest of his life.

And yet.

And yet, in 1947 he returned to Germany to perform violin concerti with the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Wilhelm Furtwängler (1886-1954). There, in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, Yehudi Menuhin was the first Jewish musician to perform in Germany, saying that he did so in order to facilitate the rehabilitation of German music and to help heal the spirit of the German people.

Menuhin was criticized for performing in Germany by some, but in retrospect, it was a moral and courageous thing to do.…

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