Yehudi Menuhin & Jewish Politics

TONY PALMER, MENUHIN: A Family Portrait, faber and faber, London 1991

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{p. 40} In Hungary and Budapest, which Yehudi visited soon after the end of the war, Yehudi insisted that his concerts of Bartok's music were relayed by loudspeakers in the squares and strects outside the concert hall. More controversially, Yehudi's championship of German musicians (performers and orchestras) who had stayed in Nazi Germany and were, therefore, thought to have been collaborators and so could find no employment after 1945 is again witness to Yehudi's understanding of the human predicament. His relationship with the great German conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, despised after 1945 as being the 'Nazi conductor', is a long and troublesome story to which we shall return later. Suffice to say here that the relationship raised the hackles of zealous Jews everywhere, and made a visit to the new state of Israel virtually impossible for some years. Even as late as 1957, when Yehudi insisted on playing the Bloch Violin Concerto with the New York Philharmonic as a tribute to that 'Old Testament prophet' of his childhood, who was by now neglected and dying, the taunt of anti-Semitism still hung in the air as a result of Yehudi's supposed 'collaboration' with ex-Nazis.

So, while it would be quite wrong to accuse Yehudi here of naivety in the ways of the world, his simple honesty is often interpreted in that way. 'The problem is,' his second wife told me, 'that Yehudi hasn't got a wall to back against. He was not taught to believe in evil, so he doesn't. Which is nice for him, but not so easy for the rest who have to keep the evil away from him. It's not easy living with someone who never suspects, who never believes that people may be asking for favours with ulterior motives. Anybody can push him, and he just disappears into the distance. 'From the beginning, his parents taught him to follow a distant light. So he doesn't want shadows or motes to get in the way,' she told me. 'Or if they do, he simply shuts his eyes and goes into a dive.' And so, following this distant light, the young Yehudi began to concern himself with events beyond family, beyond day-to-day relationships, events that were - in his eldest son's words - 'cosmic

{p. 41} in scope'. It was not simply that he had been cosseted and protected from an early age from the normal buffets of the storm; it was not that he was unaware of the sufferings to which all human beings are subjected; it was not that he was incapable of reaching out to touch another human being in pity or in love. It was more that he never doubted the clarity of his vision, his distant light. He had come to believe that to all things there was an inevitability, a sense of justice, of virtue and of goodness. The discovery that this was not so, and that the world held no such promise, no such assurance, knocked him completely off the rails.

{p. 66} 'Like everything else in our family,' remembered Yaltah, 'we never realized until it was too late that the world was not as we had been led to believe. And so we have had to constantly resurrect ourselves like corpses, but now with half our brains gone and our hearts pickled.'

In 1945, something in Yehudi had told him enough was enough. Nola; the AF of M; maybe the sight of the exiled Bartok in 1943; the terrible awareness that a world of suffering existed towards which, like any artist, he was being inexorably pulled. Yehudi felt he had no choice, and rose up to protest against the injustice done to Furtwangler. He insisted on going to Berlin to play with 'Hitler's orchestra', the Berlin Philharmonic; indeed he was the first non-German soloist to do so after the war, let alone the first Jewish soloist. It was an act of solidarity for which the Berlin Philharmonic has remained profoundly grateful ever since. When I asked permission to film Yehudi with the Berlin Philharmonic, I expected a polite refusal or else a fee so massive that any filming would have been impossible. (Under von Karajan, the Berlin Philharmonic became a notoriously greedy orchestra.) To my amazement, the reply from Berlin was immediate and positive. Anything that Yehudi wanted, they told me, was acceptable to them and, what's more, they would accept no fee.

Although the first concert after the war (including the Brahms Concerto) was conducted not by Furtwangler but by Sergio Celibidache, there is little doubt that Yehudi's presence helped re-establish the Berlin Philharmonic's respectability. Within a year, Furtwangler himself was reinstated.

In America, meanwhile, the Chicago Symphony had invited Furtwangler for a series of concerts. Contracts were exchanged and plans made, whereupon the Jewish lobby in Chicago - important, since they were the orchestra's principal sponsors - announced a boycott. Incensed, Yehudi announced what he called a 'counter boycott' and refused to play with the Chicago Symphony for many

{p. 67} years. Furtwangler was to repay Yehudi manyfold, by providing (for instance) the orchestral accompaniment to what is perhaps the greatest of all Yehudi's recordings, the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Indeed, it is one of the finest of all recordings of the Concerto, and so closely did the two men's lives become intertwined that Furtwangler was later a witness at the marriage of Yehudi's sister-in-law to the Hungarian pianist Louis Kentner.

The price of this friendship was great, however. Yehudi was publicly branded a traitor and a collaborator. Some of his concerts in occupied Germany were boycotted, even some of those he gave in displaced persons' camps. At one free concert, for example, only five people turned up. One newspaper announced that it would follow Yehudi 'like a curse until your conscience awakes', and compared his playing with those Jewish orchestras who had been forced to play for concentration camp inmates while they were being gassed or hung. Wherever he went, Yehudi was booed and hissed and shouted at. In Central and South America, an entire tour was threatened. The Jewish mafia, which controlled musical life in New York, was equally hostile. No further invitations came from Carnegie Hall or from the Symphony Hall in San Francisco. And when the state of Israel was founded in 1948, Yehudi waited in vain for two years before a visit could be arranged, and only then in the face of a threatened assassination attempt. His first concert was given under armed guard. Even Yehudi's father, Moshe, caught the backlash. Although he died of cancer, Marutha still blames the Zionist lobby for what she believes was his comparatively early death.

As a result of these setbacks, Yehudi now seems to have become possessed of an almost missionary zeal. He began to criss-cross the lunar landscape of Europe in much the same way as he had criss-crossed America in the 1930s, except that this time the travel arrangements were rather more primitive. In Romania he raised a fortune for the Red Cross and for various Jewish charities - Bucharest had become the unofficial Jewish capital of Europe in the years between

{p. 68} the end of the war and the foundation of Israel, and there were over two hundred thousand Jewish refugees in Bucharest at this time. In Czechoslovakia, he played Dvorak's Violin Concerto in Prague for the Russian military authorities; on a second visit, he was arrested as an agent provocateur and confined to prison, believing he was about to be sent to Siberia.

And he was also the first Western soloist to get to Moscow, where his naive enthusiasm became so great that eventually it clouded his judgement. Greeted by the great Russian violinist David Oistrakh, feted at official banquets as if he had single-handedly engineered the Russian-American pact which had brought down the Nazi regime, eyed suspiciously by Dmitri Shostakovich, Yehudi sailed through Moscow like a conquering hero. He stayed at the Metropole Hotel, overlooking Red Square, renowned then as now for its caviar and sturgeon. Indeed, so swept away was he by Russian hospitality, that the manifest cruelties of the Russian regime seem to have escaped him. In his autobiography, Yehudi writes of meeting the father of the exiled Russian cellist, Piatigorsky, in the foyer of a government building. 'This cursed regime,' the old man cried out. 'It doesn't care for its old people. It leaves them to rot. It has no heart, no pity.'

The full horror inflicted by Stalin on the Russian people was, at that time, largely unknown. But the particular treatment of certain individuals (and musical colleagues) such as Shostakovich was suspected even if not fully realized. Pravda, after all, was available in the West, and it was Pravda which had denounced Shostakovich's music in 1937 as 'negative, grinding and meaningless'. Oistrakh later gave Yehudi a facsimile copy of Shostakovich's First Violin Concerto, although the origins of the concerto seem to have been of little interest to him; he prefers to describe this tormented work as simply providing the violinist with 'gratifying opportunities to bring the house down'. In fact, the concerto was written in a white heat following yet another public denunciation (as a result of which Shostakovich thought he was going to be shot), and then hidden to

{p. 69} avoid further disgrace. Is it conceivable that Oistrakh (to whom the work is dedicated and to whom the manuscript had been eventually entrusted lest the authorities tear it up as they had done the manuscript of Shostakovich's Ninth Symphony) can have made no mention of the circumstances in which the work was written? And considering the number of times the two violinists played together in later years, is it possible that Oistrakh never talked about one of the most important instrumental compositions of recent years? Oistrakh was, by all reports, a prudent and careful man, as well as a supremely gifted violinist. But he would never have tolerated Yehudi's view that, had Shostakovich been 'free', the composer would have been 'more experimental' and repudiated the 'blatant effects' that 'coarsen his best writing'. If ever there was a composer who spoke directly to us of his condition and of his times, it is Shostakovich. Did Yehudi not notice this, or did he prefer not to notice? Did his missionary zeal in fact have limits, or had his mind already moved on to other things?

'Without a doubt this was the worst period of my life,' he later admitted. 'How far had I fallen from my childhood dream of universal peace and harmony.' More importantly, he had also begun to accept that, ultimately, there were also limits to music's ability to heal. He began to describe the mistakes he felt he had made in his private life as 'crimes', as he 'drifted nearer to disaster than at any other time'. Yehudi now speaks of this 'miserable period of his life' as a result of his indecision (and that of Nola) in putting a final end to their marriage. Certainly this must have been a factor, but I believe it was a symptom rather than the cause. In the summer of 1945, and again in the autumn, and again in 1946, he undertook a series of visits to recently liberated concentration camps - now euphemistically described as Displaced Persons Camps - which had a profound effect. They would have done so on any man or woman, but for a Jew, the son of Marutha and Moshe, the child prodigy for whom even shopping for food was a 'preposterous' activity to be avoided for ever, they were a

{p. 106} and Solzhenitsyn, whose Nobel Prize awarded in 1970 had been violently attacked by Furtseva as merely the latest attempt by the West to discredit Russian art.

Not surprisingly, Pravda failed to mention a word of Yehudi's speech, although news of what he had said spread rapidly. According to Yehudi, he was frequently stopped in the street, in hotel corridors and backstage with a touch of the hand, 'a gift slipped into my pocket', or a 'whispered congratulation'. And so, armed with the feeling that he had touched a nerve in the Russian consciousness, Yehudi (the institution) decided to challenge the institution of the Russian state. Intending to plead for two particular individuals who wanted their families to join them in the West, Yehudi demanded an interview with the Ministry of Culture. Furtseva had by now conveniently 'left' Moscow; so had her immediate deputy. But Supagin, the number three with special responsibilities for visiting artists, agreed to see him.

The conversation was acrimonious. If the laws of the USSR were half as strict as the West maintained, Yehudi was told, Solzhenitsyn would be in prison. Every reply Yehudi made was described by Supagin as 'capitalist propaganda'. Stalin was invoked as hero and father of the Soviet people, and the West's obsession with drugs and violence as justification for 'not letting people do what they want to'. ' We,' said Supagin, 'have great plans for them.' Yehudi stormed out, his patience exhausted.

The hostility of Russian officialdom to Yehudi continued for some years. Three years later, for instance, at a special twenty-fifth anniversary celebration ofthe IMC in Paris, the cellist Rostropovich mysteriously failed to show up. Oh, he's had a heart attack and cannot travel, Yehudi was told. Horrified, Yehudi managed to get hold of Rostropovich's wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, on the telephone. Rostropovich was in Georgia, giving a concert, she said. He'd been sent there by the Ministry. A heart attack? she asked in amusement. Who has told you this lie? Yehudi was furious and cabled the Ministry of Culture. No, Rostropovich was unavailable,

{p. 107} but would Mr Menuhin accept Shostakovich and his new quartet as a substitute? (This must have been Shostakovich's 15th String Quartet, among his most bitter and personal attacks on the Soviet system. So the offer had an extraordinary irony and further demonstrated to Yehudi the total stupidity of the Ministry of Culture.) No, said Yehudi, he would accept no substitute and decided to cable Brezhnev himself, threatening to expose the lies the Ministry was telling. It is doubtful whether Brezhnev had ever heard of Menuhin; but Rostropovich got his visa and the Paris concert went ahead without further mishap.

To take on Russia in the sixties and seventies might have seemed fair game; the state of Israel was another matter, especially as Yehudi was Jewish. Perhaps it was inevitable that, like all Jewish artists of worldwide repute, Yehudi would sooner or later bccome involved publicly with the problems of Israel. After the Camp David agreement, for instance, it was the photograph of Yehudi playing before the Wailing Wall that did most to symbolize, internationally, the Egyptian/Israeli initiative. Not that Yehudi had any truck with Zionism, in the sense that Zionists claim the Jews have a political right to displace thousands, if not millions, of Palestinians and other Arabs because they believe the land of Israel belongs exclusively to them. Repeated attempts by Yehudi to persuade the Israeli leaders (notably Golda Meir) to consider the damage their wholesale resettlement of the Arabs was causing, fell on deaf ears. As Mrs Meir reminded him, her refugees were the displaced Jews of Russia, of Poland and of Germany. They had come to Israel 'to fulfil themselves, not to liberate others'.

Such an attitude, however understandable, was bound to irritate Yehudi. As we have seen, Yehudi's presidency of the International Music Council had pushed him further and further centre stage in the political arena. As part of UNESCO, itself part of the United Nations, the IMC was supposedly above politics. But when, for instance, the question of China's admission to the UN in the period immediately after President Nixon's China adventure had become

{p. 108} politically important, it was suggested to the IMC that it might be expedient to expel Taiwan in the hope of persuading (or allowing) China to join. The IMC, at Yehudi's insistence, refused. Likewise when UNESCO had officially censured Israel in November 1974 for its occupation of the West Bank, for its desecration of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem and for its demolition of Arab houses to make way for the new Israeli townships, Yehudi convinced himself (and the IMC) that this was the kind of political involvement that was beyond the scope of either UNESCO or the IMC. He was shocked by an open letter publishcd simultaneously in London, Paris and New York, and signed by over two hundred musicians (among them Leonard Bernstein and Isaac Stern), supporting the UNESCO resolution. In a letter of surprising toughness, Yehudi wrote to Bernstein urging moderation. Public condemnation of Israel, he argued, particularly in such a bellicose and chauvinistic manner, would only harden hearts, 'obscure the issue' and prevent dialogue. 'Every wise and courageous friend is a precious asset to Israel,' Yehudi wrote.

The naivety of Yehudi's appeal had (and has) a certain attraction. It was said that he underestimated entirely a) the siege mentality of most Israelis; b) the fear (understandable) which most Israelis felt toward the Arabs; and c) the pig-headed nostalgia that even non-Zionists felt towards an ancient, almost mythical 'fatherland'. Yehudi's point was more simple, he argued. To criticize the Israelis for a policy born out of practical need and religious justification solved nothing. Dalogue was always preferable to confrontation, and never more so than when the quarrel was about a strip of land over which two different people both claimed sovereignty.

Nonetheless, ignoring - or rather refusing to make any conccssion to - what most people would want to call political reality, Yehudi Menuhin, a violinist, plunged on. He wrote to various political leadcrs in Israel demanding a meeting. He threatened to resign as president of the IMC. At the next gathering of the IMC (in Toronto,

{p. 109} September 1975), he proposed a Middle Eastern 'Federation of Cultures', comprising members from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia and Israel. 'It's our solemn duty,' he told the delegates, 'to conduct ourselves in a way which can give comfort and hope to humanity at large . . . as would befit the dignity and dedication of our calling.' And this was not a Kissinger or even a President Carter speaking. This was a man with no political power, a man of no real influence (even as president of the IMC) other than his perceived moral stature. Yehudi, the protected and apparcntly ignorant child from San Francisco, was now challenging the United Nations itself on one of the more contentious issues of the decade.

Some of his ideas were bizarre, such as suggesting to UNESCO that 'every parliament should have voices for the speechless, [and] deputies who represent the fowl of the air and the fish of the sea. ' But his notion that cultures should have representation at international gatherings such as the UN is an important idea deserving better attention than it has hitherto received. Do the Red Indians of North America not deserve recognition? Or the Kurds? Or the Aborigines? Is it not true that the Ukrainians are quite different in culture from the Uzbekis? If so, why are they represented internationally by the same delegation from Moscow? 'Without losing loyalty to one's nation,' Yehudi told the IMC congress, 'our era demands of a newer, wider loyalty and allegiance.'

Such considerations have, I maintain, become more and more central to Yehudi's whole way of life; more so, perhaps, than his violin-playing. Partly this has come about because, in his innermost self, he has never regained that sublime innocence and trust in his playing that carried him to such astonishing heights of artistry when he was young. Partly his dream world of childhood and its aspirations have been tarnished (if not destroyed) by Nola and Belsen (dreams and images both), although one must be careful not to exaggerate their long-term effect. It is clear to me that Yehudi has often sought to reconstruct his world of dreams on a global scale; when challenged about the unreality of some

{p. 192} Menuhin cousins, and showing Diana the churches of Moscow. When one reads Diana's diary of this visit, one senses the same conspiratorial atmosphere (us against them) that had pervaded the Menuhin household when Yehudi, Hephzibah and Yaltah were children. The car which had met the Menuhins at the airport, for instance, black enough and cavernous enough to house 'the coffin of an Enemy of the Regime'; the 'splintered parquet of [their] bedroom'; 'the tepid bath-water'; 'the skimpy curtains [in their bedroomsl hanging like shrunken washing from their peeling gold poles'; Hephzibah practising 'on a golden piano covered with cupids and simpering ladies'. It must have seemed to Hephzibah and Yehudi much like their first trip to Paris and Berlin over thirty years earlier. A source of endless giggles and adventure. The joy is that Diana seems to have understood this and, with her natural abrasiveness, become the cheerleader, effortlessly 'bashing' (her word) their Russian hosts into subservience. Her 'battering-ram teehnique' carried all before thern; Marutha would have been proud of her.

Thus, the bond between brother and sister was reforged. Crities said that Yehudi sometimes insisted that Hephzibah accompany him at recitals out of a feeling of family loyalty; otherwise, they said, her own concert career might have been a little sketchy. The same critics have since levelled the same accusation against Yehudi's son, Jeremy, whose appearances lately under his father's baton are in part a desire by Yehudi to relive that earlier, glorious partnership. (Yaltah was also an accomplished pianist, incidentally, although her physical frailty has prevented her from achieving what she rnight have done. Yehudi always maintains that Yaltah has 'remarkable musicality ... less commanding of the keyboard [than Hephzibah], but her performances are more revealing'.)

But such criticism misses the mark. Yehudi's performances with all his family are often, as we have seen, attempts to re-experience the golden moments of his childhood. In a striking passage in his autobiography, Yehudi suddenly lists all those qualities which he says Hephzibah has in common with Marutha - 'balanced, metho-

{p. 193} dical and [so] reliable that when confronted with a duty she will do it, unaffected by the pressures of immediate past or immediate future ... [Hephzibah] abhors exaggeration, and her playing has a clean, clear, somewhat no-nonsense approach, abjuring frills. It has as little cosmetic as she has, as little patience with the gaudy, eyecatching gesture as she herselfis free of ambition to attract attention.'

But these qualities are a long way from the real Marutha, as both Yaltah and Hephzibah had come to realize. For years, however, Yehudi, the son, continued to love his mother deeply, and continued to believe that Hephzibah had 'found utter fulfilment in her life, her husband, and her own music, and wore self-discipline, not as a rein upon an explosive temperament, but with joyful equanimity. She had nothing to suppress,' Yehudi added. Marutha, on the other hand, had certainly not worn her self-discipline 'with joyful equanimity'. Too late Yehudi discovered that Hephzibah was riddled with self-doubt just as she was becoming increasingly riddled with cancer. Too late he was forced to admit that 'she was not self-propelled. She needed an object of inspiration, preferably her brother [my italics]. She required other people's conviction to bolster her own; her character permitted self-assertiveness only in a larger cause.' We now know what Hephzibah had attempted to suppress; her letters speak eloquently of'the wreckage'. We know too that this attempt, with its desperate struggle to reconcile fact with fantasy, had been doomed from the beginning.

A year after Hephzibah's death, Moshe died. From the moment Yehudi had finally left home - at Nola's insistence - Moshe's entire life had lost its purpose. No more interviews, no more management of the finances, just his avocados and his tomatoes, his plums and his oranges, the flowers in his 'own Jerusalem at Los Gatos'. He had begun to write - he was, after all, an established Hebrew scholar - in particular about what he saw as the failure of Israel to become the Promised Land. It was now so concerned with military and territorial matters, he said, that its spiritual purpose had been forgotten. Eventually he wrote a book entitled The Decadence of Judaism

{p. 194} in our Time. It caused an uproar in Israel, not least because Moshe was Yehudi's father. As a result of the book, 'his people hated him,' Marutha told me. 'He was controversial with the Jewish people because he had told them the truth.' Referring to some vast Jewish conspiracy which has obviously grown in Marutha's mind, she claimed that the book was 'taken out of the libraries. It disappeared. My husband was persecuted by the Zionist movement to such an extent that finally he got cancer. Our family was maligned! And the stress caused the cancer.' When Marutha told me this in Yehudi's presence, Yehudi immediately protested that the causal connection between reaction to the book and the cancer from which Moshe died was less than certain. 'There you are,' Marutha said to me triumphantly. 'That's typical Yehudi. Always trying to find a diplomatic solution. But it's a fact. He was killed by his own people.' Later, Yehudi told me again about the death of Hephzibah: 'I admit it. It was her life that killed her,' he said.

Like all the Menuhins, Moshe was a wonderful storyteller. The aural tradition of the Jews of the Pale was still within living memory. A favourite story concerned an ancestor named Benjamin who was, inevitably, a fiddler. Benjamin also possessed a voice 'so golden that one's heart melted in sweetness and adoration'. As a result, he was frequently called upon to sing at weddings as well as other, less formal celebrations. One such was a drunken party given by the local landowner, a debauch which apparently had continued for several days and nights. Benjamin, no doubt as drunk as the rest, had been persuaded to put on a bearskin and perform like a dancing bear. Eventually, said Moshe, he had been thrown into a huge barrel of water and ordered to continue singing. Benjamin had seemed to love every minute of it and sang away at the top of his voice. He had been rewarded by the landowner, whose party it was, with a new brick house. When he had come to his senses, however, and returned sober to the rabbi under whom he was studying the Talmud, Benjamin had been so disgusted by his behaviour that he had trampled on his violin and vowed to spend the rest of his life

{p. 195} singing holy prayers in penance. 'It does not become aJew to fiddle while his people are in exile,' he had said.

Yehudi is a fiddler who has been 'singing holy prayers' with his violin his entire life in penance for the transgressions of his parents. In the beginning, this was clearly instinctive. But later, as reality crashed down upon him, he saw that these holy prayers were threatened. Yaltah, and later Hephzibah, realized the truth before him, but were not strong enough to do anything. Yehudi, however, was tougher; much tougher. Sensing that he now had a mission, he transformed these holy prayers into concern for a universal brotherhood, just as Hephzibah's character had ultimately 'permitted self-assertiveness only in a larger cause'.

The tragedy of Yehudi's life has been the extent to which he has been unable to reconcile myth with reality. One might argue that he was never given much of a chance. One of his very first reviews, for instance, was from Irving Weil. Writing in the New York Journal, he said: 'If you had closed your eyes, you would immediately have lost the picture of the rather fat little youngster in blouse and knickers and bare knees, with his fiddle to his chin, staunchly bowing away in front of the orchestra.' Of all the early reviews that I have been able to find (and Moshe kept most of them, in enormous scrapbooks), only Richard Stokes, contributing to the New York Evening World, observed something odd, although this must have been more by luck than judgement. '[Yehudi's] method appears to me faulty,' Stokes wrote, 'in that the violin is permitted to slope down from the shoulder, instead of being flung aloft . . . while the tone is dependent wholly on strength of bowing, instead of partly on the pressure of the fingers of the left hand.'

Considerations of violin technique apart, it was an ominous warning. No matter that elsewhere Stokes said that Yehudi was 'well-nigh supernatural, plunging the hearer into metaphysical speculations as to the theory of reincarnation'. No matter that the Brooklyn Eagle said that 'one is inclined to doubt Yehudi's mortality'. ...


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