On January 17, 1926, a 9-year-old Yehudi Menuhin gave his premiere solo violin performance in New York, at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Although he went on to have an important musical career as both soloist and conductor, Menuhin was no less well-known as a human-rights activist, internationalist, vegetarian and as a personality who introduced people in the West to the philosophy and cultures of the East.

Yehudi Menuhin was born in New York on April 22, 1916. His parents, both Russian-born, had met in Palestine in 1909 and immigrated to the United States five years later. They supposedly decided to name their son “Yehudi” (Jew, in Hebrew) after a potential landlady showing them an apartment building in New York boasted that she didn’t rent to Jews.

In 1917, the family moved to San Francisco, where Yehudi asked for his first violin at age 3 and began lessons at age 5. He and his sisters, Yalta and Hephzibah, both of them also musicians (pianists), were home-schooled by their parents, who also were wary of exploiting their son’s obvious prodigious musical talent by pushing him into overly demanding professional training too early.

In fact, later in his life, Yehudi found himself having to defend his parents of charges from biographers that they had been overly protective and controlling. In any event, much of his musical development was intuitive, and when he went through his first professional crisis at age 19, withdrawing from performing for some time, it was in part to come to terms with the lack of technical rigor in his early training.

Playing before troops and Holocaust survivors

Before the crises, however, was the early glory: Menuhin’s first concert performance was in 1924, followed by a full-length public recital in San Francisco a year later, at age 8. When he performed at the Metropolitan 87 years ago today, the magazine Musical America noted “Yehudi Menuhin is the name. Remember it! It is not easy, but some day it may become a household word!”

By 1927, he was studying in Paris with the great violinist Georges Enescu. He made his first recordings for His Master’s Voice (later RCA Victor) in 1928 he received a Stradivarius violin, then worth $60,000, from Henry Goldman, after the investment banker heard that he had received a negative review in the New York Times for having performed on an inferior instrument.

During World War II, Menuhin performed more than 500 times before Allied troops. After the liberation he played and visited in concentration camps and displaced-persons camps. Still, he came under criticism from some Jewish groups for also appearing post- war with Wilhelm Furtwaengler and the Berlin Philharmonic, since Furtwaengler had continued his career under the Nazi regime. Menuhin defended his friend, pointing out that the conductor had never become a party member, and had helped out Jewish musicians, adding, “It is time to bind the wounds.”

No fan of Israeli policy

Menuhin’s Jewishness was always subject to critical scrutiny: His father, from a long rabbinical line and a former Hebrew teacher, had become a strident anti-Zionist, even refusing to attend concerts that Yehudi gave in support of Israel. And the son, who was himself strongly anti-nationalist, later became critical of many aspects of Israel’s activity.

He refused to join a boycott of Unesco in 1975 after it rejected Israel’s bid for membership (at the time he was head of the organization’s international music board). He insisted on playing concerts not only for Israel’s benefit but also for Palestinian refugees.

In 1991, Menuhin received the prestigious Wolf Prize (given to scientists and artists), and in his acceptance speech, delivered at the Knesset, he harshly criticized Israel’s occupation of the territories, describing it as “unworthy of my great people, the Jews, who have striven to abide by a code of moral rectitude for some 5,000 years.”

Menuhin continued performing until the early 1990s – not just Western classical music, but also in cooperative projects with sitarist Ravi Shankar and with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. He also conducted widely, and he sponsored a music school, music festivals and a major international competition for young violinists. He died on March 12, 1999, at the age of 82.