Menuhin and his composers-the hunt for Sound
Peter Sheppard Skaerved
Speech given at the David Josefowitz Recital Hall, Royal Academy of Music 4/2/16
NB: references available from PSS through the ‘contact’ link
We have to begin with Sound. Here is Menuhin in 1966, playing the Ernest Bloch Concerto. LINK
I have been casting around with where to start today: It’s not easy to know where —- in fact, it’s easier to curate an exhibition than talk about it. I can imagine myself, or you, taking many different entrances, routes, and departures (at varying velocities) from the show that I am rather proud of having co-curated in the ground floor gallery adjacent, but I would find it difficult to say: begin here. But if I have to stand here and talk, we have to begin somewhere. And I suspect that if there is one place that we are going to begin and end, it will be sound —- as a player that’s everything.
This talk is unashamedly personal, will use a very narrow focus. If I had time, I would spend a lot of time today talking about Yoga, but I have banned myself from that. So. SOUND. What am I listening to, what do I do? … because, as someone who has the violin under my chin every day, that is where I begin and end, violin PRACTICE. In 1961, Menuhin said about practice:
‘It is no burden to me […]. Though I spend most of my life playing the violin, I derive great satisfaction and, strange as it may sound, wonderful relaxation from my practice. The violin has a certain measure of quietness that is extremely soothing.’
String players are practical, and neurotic, about sound. We strive for clarity, for colour, for richness, for control, and at the same time, know that there is a contradiction – that the most moving sounds that we ever hear, and forgive me, if I still talk about violin playing here, are the most personal, where the temperament (the ‘circulation of the lymph’, as TS Eliot would have it) breaks through. And here’s another paradox; technical control enables us to express what we doing (yes, I know that it’s crude) with honesty BUT the expression of what is going on beneath the surface is also the very thing which can destabilise, and perhaps should destabilise, our ability to remain impassively ‘in control’.
In my opinion, no instrument throws this paradox into sharper relief than the violin —so its greatest exponents will always be out there on a very narrow ridge, between integrity and perfection —and the judge of whether or not they fall, will a be the listener. If the listener is honest, they will have to face the fact that this judgement, if judgement it has to be, is both fallible and temporal. There is no player of the violin in the recorded age who ventured more, ventured all more, than Yehudi Menuhin, which means that, amongst musicians (and this is a compliment) there is no string player who will arouse the most fervent debate, and if the interlocutors observe their positions in this debate, over months and years, they will find that their position shifts and moves. And I am one of them!
But one thing will remain constant, an undying admiration for this unprecedented musician’s sense of quest, of exploration, of journeying.If we can, briefly, forget, that he was born, during a war, into a century which would see the worst, and the best of humanity, we might remember that his was a generation inspired by a new spirit of discovery. The age of imperial and missionary exploration had being supplanted by the spirit of Amundsen, Scott and Fridthof Nansen, of Amelia Erhardt, and the Alcock Brothers-and this lyrical assault on the most intractable elements of ice and air, was matched by a growth of excitement at the new discoveries in science: a century in which a mathematician Jakob Bronowski, born 8 years before Yehudi Menuhin, would say: ‘We have to Touch People’. And curiously, I feel that Menuhin stands at the apex of an extraordinary and maybe temporary, rapprochement between the arts and sciences, a wonder who made sense to the violinist Albert Einstein, who himself began each day whilst writing his Theory of the General Relativity in 1915, playing Bach, after his morning coffee, drunk in silence. And perhaps very point of that apex is Sound.
So let’s listen a little, Menuhin at 23, playing more Bloch LINK
This is Menuhin playing Abodah ‘God’s Worship’ [NB], by Ernest Bloch, written for him when he was just 11 years old – the first work ever dedicated to the violinist. Writing at the end of World War II, Joseph Szigeti, 14 years older than Menuhin, pointed out that that Menuhin’s earlier recorging of this piece, with Louis Persinger, was only the second recording made of any of Bloch’s music (The first was Szigeti’s own of Nigun) . This true collaboration between the two violinists (Ernest Bloch studied with Ysaÿe -who persuaded his parents he should not pursue a career as a virtuoso) initiated lasted until 1958, when[ii] Menuhin commissioned two violin suites to help by then terminally ill composer pay his medical bills.
But something important will already be coming apparent, as other names appear; Menuhin was at the vanguard of a new breed of violinists-whose gift was, as Oistrakh would later put it to Viktor Jusefovich-to be ‘vessels’ through which the music passed, not composer. The first great master of the mass-market recording medium, Fritz Kreisler, composed and played so much of his own music, that had to pretend to be a musicologist, ‘discovering’ pieces until he famously, outed himself, but of course, this blended seamlessly with his exquisite miniatures and his peerless ability as an arranger. All of Menuhin’s teachers after Louis Persinger (his only pedagogue, in some ways) were composer-virtuosi – Busch, EugeneYsaÿe, and Enesco, and all of them (including Persinger), multi-instrumentalists, which Menuhin was not; if anything this seems to have fired the need to find his true voice in the colloquy with others.
And here is something with which it is easy or difficult (your answer establishes what kind of musician you are) to identify. From an early age, it seemed, Menuhin intuited thet his playing would suffer no loss of personality in through seeking out ideas, inspiration, colour and sound, from others, rather the contrary (although his reaction to Ysaÿe, seems to speak to a fear that too much technical work might have this very effect) I would argue that we can make no divide between how this lifelong quest was pursued in this collaborations with teachers, with collaborating players, with composers, and with other inspirational figures from Iyengar to Chaplin. He was seeking himself in the creative interchange with everyone…of course in this quest for sound, Menuhin marks the first generation of players to grow up entirely in the age of recorded sounds, enabling him to hear and assimilate the playing of a far greater range of players than previous generations.
And before we get to the stuff of this talk, I would like to remind ourselves of one of the greatest of these, the first truly great All-American violinist and recording artist, Maud Powell (1867-1920). She does not figure in our exhibition, as Menuhin never heard her live, but there’s something about her sound and her pioneering spirit-she travelled to concerts on sleds, mules and snowshoes, (with the cellist May Mukle-whose portrait you just walked past) which certainly inspired the California boy, particularly her recording of the ‘The Swan’, which Menuhin recalled finding deeply impressive as a child. Here it is LiNK (By the way, that’s her treasured 1775 J B Guadagnini, Turin)
And I am going to keep harping on what I hear as Menuhin’s ‘hunt for sound’, because, it seems to me, that there is connection between his reaching out to the violinists that he admired, and his instinct to stay close to composers. . In describing his stylistic ambitions Menuhin said he hoped to emulate: “Kreisler’s elegance , Elman’s sonority (‘the violin that speaks’) and Heifetz’s technique ” .But, it is, I believe, Arnold Steinhardt, the greatest of American Quartet leaders, who puts his finger on it:
“I often used to wonder where the plaintive, almost sobbing quality of Yehudi Menuhin’s playing came from until I heard his teacher, the Romanian violinist George Enesco.”
Here Enesco plays Chausson: LINK
Curiously, prior to the twentieth century, I do not get the impression that students sought out teachers for their sound; but in the case of Menuhin and his contact with Enesco, it is the extraordinary marriage of sound as pure music, of utter integrity, composition, performance, interpretation, being-as one.The writer Robert MacFarlane has pointed out, that the ancient Egyptain glyph for ‘to be’ is a hare, leaping over water. This seems oddly appropriate; like Thomas Traherne’s: ‘I felt a vigour in my strength/That was all spirit’. And it’s this profound ‘life in the sound’ which Menuhin both always had, sought out, and brought to his work with living composers-the profound ability, or perhaps the sense of obligation, that music demanded to be taken to another place. Pablo Casals offered Menuhin a model of what a musician should be: “His simplicity grandeur and integrity restore our faith in human nature.” He might have been describing what HE was seeking.
An Aside: It’s interesting that, aside from Bloch, Menuhin did not build performer/composer relationships with his three great teachers, all recognised today as significant, even great composers (in a way that would have been unthinkable when I was a child). It’s worth remembering that it was Oscar Shumsky, who made the first recording of the completeYsaÿe Sonatas, at the beginning of the 80s. Menuhin did not play Ysaÿe or Busch’s music, but Enesco’s Sonatas were core repertoire for him (and his pianist sisters) and play a signal part in the ‘Music of Man’. However, he never commissioned a significant work from Enesco.
In 1926, Menuhin played for the legendary Belgian violinist, conductor and composer Eugène Ysaÿe in Brussels. When asked to play a basic arpeggio Menuhin recalled he “groped all over the fingerboard like a blind mouse.” Ysaÿe counselled him to practice scales and arpeggios, but the young violinist resisted: “Music was alive to me, and I suspect that unending hours of work on dull material might well have blunted rather than polished my interpretation of it.”
Eugène Ysaÿe -Schubert-Ave maria LINK
The moment, which changes everything, was this July 1932: LINK the encounter with Edward Elgar in 1932. This path has been very well trodden; I would like to suggest another view on what happened; maybe two more foci, as it seems to me that the transformative nature of this moment, was very British, and Menuhin’s road, and it’s reciprocal impact prefigured, with two earlier prodigies, both of whom became beloved by audiences here.
The first is Joseph Joachim. In 1844, he made his London debut, with Mendelssohn conducting, a debut so astonishing, that the fact that it was given by a child, just 13, was moot. Joachim played Beethoven Violin Concerto and once and for all, established this previously misunderstood work as the ne plus ultra of violin concertos. Joachim was nicknamed ‘Jusuf’ (‘He will add,’ in Hebrew) by Mendelssohn, and was the first great violinist (alongside Heinrich Ernst) to celebrate being Jewish. He was beloved by British Audiences until his death over 60 years later.
Joseph Joachim – Bach-G minor Prelude LINK
There can also be no question that the integrity of Joachim’s playing, his dialogues with the greatest composers of his day, Brahms and the Schumanns, as well as his revelatory insights into Bach and Beethoven, offered a model which Menuhin reached after, and which his colleagues and listeners sensed in him, and held him to. We all reach for this-I think that it’s fair to say that Joachim, is the conscience of every violinist to this day!
The other model is perhaps less apparent, but very important to me. In 1909 the Irish composer Hamilton Harty, later to take over the Halle Orchestra from its founder, composed an extraordinary Violin concerto for the 18 year old virtuoso Josef Szigeti, then resident in Surrey. In his first autobiographical work ‘With Strings Attached’, Szigeti explained how the work with Harty, his first close collaboration with a composer, the premiere, and the opportunity to take the work on tour overseas, offered an exit from what he realised later had become a tired and unimaginative ‘young virtuoso’s’ life playing a narrow range of what Ysaye what call ‘sucrements’ (Szigeti plays Hubay-Zephyr )
Hamilton Harty-Violin Concerto (Ralph Holmes) LINK
Szigeti’s career took an abrupt turn to the serious after this encounter, with ground-breaking performances of works by Prokofiev and Busoni. The big difference between Szigeti and Menuhin, was that Menuhin was born to opportunity, in many ways, to cultural privilege, whereas, Szigeti found his way towards a creative musical life after making his money as a teenager as a jobbing virtuoso playing for circuses and variety shows. Interestingly, as Szigeti rather proudly pointed out in ‘With Strings Attached’, with the exception of Bartok’s Contrasts, he never actively sought to commission anything – a difference from Menuhin which I would suggest, had its roots in the differences in their upbringings cited above.
However, nothing that anyone did could possibly rival the impact of Menuhin’s encounter with the Elgar Concerto; I would argue that this was one of the first great ‘virtual events’ in music history – 9 decades after Mendelssohn and Joachim’s epochal stage encounter with Beethoven in London, Edward Elgar and another prodigious teenager went to work in a studio in St John’s Wood, and created a recorded document whose immediacy has yet to be matched. The successful performances at the Albert Hall followed, but it was the recording which set a new standard of, well everything that happens when interpreter and composer meet, and sparks fly. In 1933, Elgar inscribed a full score of the concerto to Menuhin, containing a hidden dedication. Over a particular lyrical motif the composer penned the six syllables of ‘Yehudi Menuhin’ and over them wrote: ‘Adumbration, Admiration’. You can see it in the exhibit-no one seemed to have noticed it, since it was inscribed.
I am aware that this is, very much my point of view, that I am looking for and finding, in Menuhin’s creative life, and most especially his sound, something which I recognise. I need to take a breath and hand over to Virgil Thomson, warning against everything which Menuhin was not, in the 1940s:
‘What most artists believe to be majestic nowadays is the big round tone. They display this, if they have it, in every piece. And when they feel obliged, out of some minimum of loyalty to a composer’s intentions, to play less loud than forte, they play with a small round tone. To the production of roundness they will sacrifice rhythm, dynamic proportion …. To Loudness, they sacrifice, of necessity, the colour gamut’
Here’s Menuhin-very far from the ‘Big Round Tone’, playing Schoenberg. LINK– demonstrating, in this extraordinary encounter with Glenn Gould and Schoenberg, his willingness, to go far out of his comfort zone.
The composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger spotted that Menuhin could offer:
“ … the moment when a man succeeds in grasping his thought, his real thought, right at the core; the moment when we touch the truth, when communion is established. ….Everyone understood, felt, participated in what he himself must have been feeling.”
And then, there’s the Flame! Thirty years after the Damascene studio encounter with Elgar, Menuhin went into the studio again, playing Music by the greatest living British composer-for me, it was as if, for once, the luminosity of his right arm, and the aural vision, found its way into the whole of the ensemble, for this great recording : LINK That’s the Tippett ‘Fantastia Concertante on a Theme of Corelli’. This featured the Bath Festival Orchestra, with Menuhin, Robert Masters and Academy professor Derek Simpson as soloists, conducted by Tippett.
Such incandescence, for me at is the heart of Menuhin’s journey of collaboration, and what composers found he offered. The pieces which jump out at me are the ones which believe that music can make that journey, and that the dialogues between composer, performer and listener, build bridges of sound, imagination and something else, which for now, we will call ‘spirit’, to somewhere, and somewhere ‘special’. And it is clear, and its audible just from listening, that Menuhin believed that music, had a sacred duty OR SANKALPA to transport everyone who played and listened, and expected composers to offer that in their works.(It’s something which I was raised to believe, and, I have to say, in my lifetime of working with composers, they do not disappoint. )
Perhaps this is where I sense common ground between Menuhin’s journey with the solo works of J S Bach, and his work with living composers. For the purpose of today, I would suggest that it was one of his composer/teachers who ignited the first touchpaper in this regard:
Adolph Busch-Chaconne: LINK
Menuhin studied in Basel with violinist and composer Adolph Busch from 1929 to 1930. A serious musician of peerless integrity, Menuhin recalled that Busch ‘ate, breathed and slept Bach and Beethoven’ ([Adolph’s brother, Fritz Busch, had conducted Menuhin’s New York Philharmonic debut in 1927).
In our exhibition, you will see Menuhin’s copy of Adolph Busch’s edition of the Bach Sonatas and Partitas. It is the earliest copy of Bach in the collection which bears Menuhin’s hand, and not Louis Persinger’s (which can be seen on the Leopold Auer 1917 edition next to it). It bears witness, on every page, to the young violinist’s determination to get to the heart of this music, to take on the burden of duty, which today every player feels.- it can be seen on many of the works which Menuhin loved the most, such as this (SHOW. Bartok 2nd Concerto-part)
The world expert on Busch, Tully Potter, has reminded me that Busch himself did not mark his copies at all, so we can be sure that that this sculptural ‘carving’ at the page is all Menuhin. And, now, we need to go in circles balancing this, was the influence of the composer, violinist, pianist, seer who in many ways, was the polar opposite of Busch-here are the two, recording the Bach Double concerto, a month before the Elgar recording. Menuhin/Enesco Bach Double.LINK It’s a potent cocktail.
Sidebar: Just to point out, that if Menuhin had done nothing but play the works written for him, just the times that he played them, we would be talking about him, as one of the most significant instigators of new works for the violin of the 20th Century – a new music specialist. But as Michael Tippett pointed out, somewhat wistfully, in ‘20th Century Blues’, Menuhin wanted to play everything, all the time.
I will make a sharp about-turn, and look down the reverse end of the telescope. By the end of an extraordinary career of premieres, a ‘second stream’ of new works had been created. The second stream of work, which is so significant, that it cannot be ignored, is the amount of work which was written for him, inspired by him, as a tribute, and was premiered by other people. This crescendo-d in the two decades running up to his death. His 70th birthday in 1986 elicited this extraordinarily beautiful MS from Hans Werner Henze; his Serenade for solo violin.The premiere was given by Adelina Oprean, Carl Flesch winner, and Menuhin Academy alumna.
Henze spoke to me several times about Menuhin – about his integrity, and his sound. And it is clear, both from having talked to him about this little piece, and the piece itself, that it is a portrait-perhaps of the unique sweep of the bow across the strings playing Bach, of Henze’s sense of the unique quality colour and timbre which he heard in Menuhin’s sound – it makes a particularly interesting challenge, playing it … who’s piece, who’s sound is it?
Henze- Serenade (Peter Sheppard Skaerved)LINK
It is clear to me, that a vital element in approaching the works that were written for Menuhin is this element of portraiture. In 1926, Eugène Ysaÿe completed 6 Sonates – are explicit portraits of six players who he admired-Szigeti, Thibaud, Enesco, Kreisler, Crickboom and Quiroga. There’s an important clue here-the pieces are not only pictures of the sound of the players, and in the case of Enesco and Kreisler, the music that they wrote, but also the kind of music that they advocated:
Eugène Ysaÿe-First Sonata (Oscar Shumsky) LINK
When the Composer/pianist/conductor Antal Dorati introduced Menuhin to the music of Béla Bartók, he was introducing a composer whose entire violinistic output is dominated by work which can be seen as violin portraiture, in the Ysaÿe mould the first Concerto, Steffi Geyer, the Second Zoltan Szekely, the two sonatas Jelly d’Aranyi … so it should be no surprise that the Solo Sonata, written for Menuhin in 1944, turns out to be, amongst many other things, to offer various aspects of what Menuhin’s playing was, and perhaps, what Bartok dreamt it might be-from a mirror of his Bach playing: LINK, to the extraordinary lyricism LINK
Menuhin wrote: “Here, in the twentieth century, was a composer to bear comparison with the giants of the past.”
Sidebar: Menuhin described conductor, composer and pianist Antal Doráti as his closest collaborator. Talking to Humphrey Burton, he said, “We had a lot of fun together!” Doráti persuaded Menuhin to study the music of Bartók and they first recorded the 2nd Violin Concerto in 1946. Their work stretched from duo playing, to concerto collaborations, and discussions of the work of other composers (such as the revisions of the Frank Martin ‘Polyptyque’ which can be seen in this exhibition) – and various works which Dorati wrote for Menuhin to play and conduct.
Two types of violinist/collaborators emerged as the age of violinist/composers faded. The first type are fascinated with getting behind the door of the ‘composers workshop’, to as Szigeti put it ‘ to be able to look into the composer’s workshops .. the nearest that some of us will ever get to the joys and the birth pangs of the creative worker’ [ix]-to be part of the process, as much as possible … and those who love the mystery of the process remaining a mystery. Menuhin, for the main part seems to have kept to the second course; it’s not often noted, that for technical assistance composing the violin Sonata, Bartok turned to Rudolph Kolisch LINK – However it’s interesting that the work that Kolisch had done never seems to surface in his reflections-any more than Fritz Kreisler gave consideration to the work which Willy Reed had done with Elgar to bring his violin concerto to near perfect form before he began to learn it. I won’t go into the somewhat scandalous and they are scandalous, circumstances that went into this work being published, and entering the canon in an unuauthorised (which as Kolisch pointed, outraged in this 1977 recording, Menuhin freely admitted) version. It’s not a high point.
Of course there were extraordinary collaborations between Menuhin and one British composer which did not result in any significant performances of the composer’s violin music. Benjamin Britten’s major works for violin all date from the mid-1930s, when he was working with the extraordinary Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa. There’s, not much – the violin concerto, only really firmly in the repertoire in the past decade, and two works for violin and piano
Eugène Ysaÿe-Second Sonata (Antonio Brosa)LINK
Brosa and Britten established a powerful collaboration-they premiered the exquisite Suite Op 6 in Barcelona in 1936 at lunchtime on the day when my teacher Louis Krasner premiered the Berg concerto-a performance which was audible in every piece that Britten wrote subsequently. After the Second World War, Benjamin Britten and Menuhin played at the recently liberated concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. Britten confessed the experience “coloured everything he had written subsequently”. Menuhin and Britten went on to establish an extraordinary chamber music collaboration, recording and performing Schubert, Haydn, Debussy. I feel that an enormous opportunity was missed here-a glimpse of what a Britten work for Menuhin might have sounded like, can be heard here,(with Maurice Gendron) playing the Bridge Piano Trio – it’s a tantalising lacuna: LINK
Menuhin did not, as far as I am aware, play any of Britten’s violin music, though I did take part in rather strange performance of the Simple Symphony which he conducted. The lightning-bolt effect of Britten’s collaboration with Rostropovich resulted in a great Sonata, a large Concertante work, and three cello suites…leaving this violinist grinding my teeth in frustration at the missed opportunity!
In our exhibition, we chose to focus on two composers with whom Menuhin forged a partnership in the postwar period. This was a fraught decision, as there were many more which I was desperate to get in; but making a really good exhibition often involves leaving things out.
In 1973 Menuhin premiered ‘Polyptyque’, for violin with two string orchestras] written for him by the great Swiss composer Frank Martin, he revealed a great deal of what he expected from the music of his time.
“When I play Martin’s Polyptyque’, I feel the same elevation of soul as with Bach’s ‘Chaconne’.”
Frank Martin- LINK
Martin’s extraordinary work works as a series of passion tableaux- the two-orchestra format a clear reference to the Matthew Passion. But the soloist, unlike in the Bach, is not the Evangelist. No one seems to have spoken about this, so I think that I should observe, as my instinct is that it is important, that that what distinguishes this work, is that the soloist narrates the story as Christ. This is not unprecedented in the instrumental canon-one might argue that Haydn did the same thing in the original (non-vocal versions ) of his 7 Words, but I feel that there is something important at work here, concerning how both audiences and composers saw Menuhin. The fact that the idea does not seem incongruous, or dissonant, in any way, is instructive.
Let’s turn for a moment, away from the question of sound and identity, to the STOFF of making a piece of music. The English composer and Royal Academy of Music professor Lennox Berkeley worked closely with Menuhin on the figuration of his concerto. Spending time with this archive reveals much of Menuhin’s working methods on scores, and as is clear, the richness of new works written for him; but as I have hinted earlier, there is not that much evidence of the ‘composers workshop’ of performer and composer sweating to get things right. If you look in the case with the Berkeley materials, however, you will see clear evidence, that in the case of Lennox Berkeley’s concerto this was not the case.
Berkeley had been unconvinced by the premiere in 1961:
“(1971)Yehudi recorded my Violin Concerto with Adrian [Boult] and the Menuhin Festival Orchestra … because of the sketchy performance I’d written it off as a failure. Now I think it’s a much better piece than I had imagined.”
Judging by the materials, it seems to me, that composer and violinist laboured over the original performance materials, to get the cadenza materials to ‘work’, and then went back ‘in’ to the Chester parts, and reworked this material again, prior to the recording 10 years after the premiere. The early performances, under the composer and later Norman del Mar, seem to have been ‘incident-prone’, and in the meantime, Manoug Parikian (my teacher), a steadying hand for a number of composers (including Britten and Rawsthorne) gave successful performances. The recording was a success, although the work failed to enter the repertoire. When I performed it in Berkeley’s 85th year, it had lain untouched for nearly two decades . But his was a case where the collaboration continued. In 1969, Menuhin took over the joint directorship of the Windsor Festival. For his first Festival, he commissioned Lennox Berkeley to write ‘Windsor Variations’. And, in 1988, Lennox Berkeley’s son, Michael, wrote a trenchant ‘Study’ which Menuhin commissioned for what was then the Portsmouth Quartet competition. This morphing of the composer/Menuhin relationship into test pieces for competitions was mirrored with Andrezj Panufnik-who wrote the test piece for the 1990 London International Quartet competition, his 3rd Quartet-a piece which I was lucky enough to premiere.
In 1971 Menuhin also premiered a fantastic concerto by Andrezj Panufnik. Panufnik was, of course, a conductor of considerable distinction and confidence, whereas Lennox Berkely was diffident about his abilities. This was necessary, because this was one of the most adventurous scores which Menuhin premiered-a virtuoso extended chamber work requiring needle sharp coordination between soloist and ensemble. It’s also written using some of the experimental score techniques which Panufnik, Lutoslawski and Penderecki developed in the three decades after the war. In many ways, although the scoring might seem similar (violin and strings), this is a work which is as far from the Frank Martin as is imaginable.
Andrezj Panufnik – Concerto (Menuhin)LINK
For me the loveliest place to end this talk is with Ernest Bloch’s two Suites for Violin which Menuhin commissioned in 1958. This was a gesture of love, for his old friend, advisor, and colleague, short of money to pay his medical bills. I think that Menuhin wanted to find a way to help his old friend, but knew that he would not accept a gift. These are Bloch’s only completed works for violin alone, but the medium had been on his mind for some years-perhaps in the wake of the success of the premiere of the Bartok Solo Sonata a decade earlier. Josef Szigeti noted that in the papers which Bloch left to the Library of congress, were the notes and fragments for a much for substantial work-a ‘Symphony for Violin’. It’s a tantalising prospect; certainly it was in America. In the following decades we see an exciting upsurge in the number of American large works for this medium, including David Diamond’s Solo Sonata, John Cage’s Freeman Etudes, and the king of them all, George Rochberg;s epochal ‘Caprice Variations’.
Menuhin and Bartok started it all .
Menuhin’s copies of the two suites reveal the thought that he gave to the impact that the pieces, would make, and the two and fro of discussions, presumably by letter and telephone. Any performer, looking at this, will find themselves saying either, ‘yes, I would do that’ or ‘no I would not’. And the yes or no, is nothing to do with technical procedures, but with the obligation to the performer and the composer to stray onto each others’ demesnes.
The more composers you work with as a performer, the more you realise that there is no rule of thumb as to the acceptability, obligation, and etiquette of these mutual interferences. Menuhin’s instinct, which was a sound one, was to do with the performer’s instinct, his stage craft, working out how to make sure that the big moments-crucial cadences, and codas, delivered the punch which would ensure that the audience gave the piece its due. Perhaps today, we might find this a little dated, but it’s worth noting the amount of effort which for instance, Bartok poured into getting the endings of the 2nd Violin Concerto, the Concerto for Orchestra, to ‘work’. Today, this is the craft we tend to associate more (and bizarrely so) with the speechwriter.
But remember, that Bloch can be seen as one of the hands that had shaped the young Menuhin, given him his first new works, perhaps helped him as they helped each other, to find an authentic voice, a sound that reflected who he really was. Menuhin’s care to make this pieces speak, when he could do something for his old friend, is a loving, moving, gesture.
But let’s finish with Bach: