Yaltah in the 1960s
 
Carola Grindea speaks with Yaltah Menuhin about her musical upbringing and career

 

You must have been very young when you started to play the piano. Do you remember anything about your first years at the piano?

I was about three when I began to play. I remember my first teacher very clearly. She was a warm-hearted person and held me on her knees most of the time. I cannot remember anything about the music, but her comforting presence is still with me in my memory. It was very amusing to hear her say, many years later, that I was her best pupil. We both laughed when I asked her if that was the best she could do.

When I was four, I was taken to Paris because Yehudi and Hephzibah began to study there. Marcel Ciampi, the piano professor, accepted Hephzibah but would not hear of giving lessons to a little four-year-old girl. When I rushed to the piano and began to play Schumann's Kinderszenen, though, he agreed to teach me as well. With him the lessons were quite different. He was demanding, but could not help feeling paternal towards me. I am grateful that he stimulated my interest in practicing, making all the technical exercises more like games - I had to play them in all keys, up and down the keyboard. He also insisted that exercises should be played very musically, with all shades of lovely tone. Technique was never separated from music and this is so important. It means you don't find youself burdened with inspiration with no means of sharing it.

Mother was undoubtedly a formidable person, but she did not sit with me or with the others during practicing; she just told us to do it and it was done. I never felt that she was part of the real love of music which has sustained me all along. She was more externally interested in our distinguishing ourselves in performance. Her attitude was probably that of her generation. She was worried that Yehudi's tremendous successes - and later on, Hephzibah's - might go to our heads. So she did everything to make sure that we weren't in any way worldly. She certainly had a special ability to make you doubt whether you had really achieved anything even when the teacher was satisfied with your progress. Little did she realize that I was only a small child and did not have the over self-confidence that needs to be discouraged. While my teachers were so kind and encouraging, my mother made a point of criticizing everything.

In spite of the fact that all the attention was focused on Yehudi and Hephzibah, I never felt left out, because the two of them were so enclosing, so loving. They made me feel that the three of us were ONE and whenever one of us was hurt, the three of us suffered. We never talked about it though, because Mother did not believe in discussing one's emotions. It wasn't done. It would have been a sign of weakness, and this was not admissible for a Menuhin. You had to be above fear, above illness. If you had a fever, you practiced; if you had surgery, you still walked and did your practicing and your lessons. This attitude helped create a bond between the three of us. It was enough for Yehudi to look at one of us and we would carry on with a high head and a light heart.

Many people thought that I was lonely and might have resented it when Hephzibah began playing with Yehudi. It was not so. First of all, in a family with such great talents, one does not think of oneself as an individual. I was so much part of the atmosphere; I couldn't help becoming very involved, especially during the days of concerts when vibrations were so high in the hotel rooms and you could feel the tension in your parents. Concert days were not like ordinary days. They were like weddings and everything had to be special, sort of sacred.

Then there were the days of rehearsals. I felt privileged that I could listen to those two great masters, Georges Enesco and Marcel Ciampi, guiding the two young artists so protectively, yet giving them so much insight into the music. I was usually sent next door to do my practicing, but I much preferred to sit quietly and listen to what they said. I am sure I absorbed and learned much more that way. All I remember is that the two of them lived with music all the time and I also wanted to have music. When Yehudi and Hephzibah were practicing, I also practiced, but there was no question of my having a career in music. My mother married me off at the age of 16. This was a disastrous experience, so I came home to Washington, D.C., where my parents were living then. It was in 1938, during those agitated days just before the war. I missed Yehudi and Hephzibah desperately. My only solace was my music, so I gave many concerts. They were just a continuation of my former life which had been so brutally interrupted. I was not interested in managers or success; I only wanted music to continue. So I started my life as a pianist, playing with all kinds of musicians or doing solo work or concertos. By that time I had married again and had to bring up my two sons, but music continued to be part of my life.

It was only ofter meeting Joel Ryce, my present husband, that my life and my playing took a different turn. I arrived in London to play Mozart's Two Piano Concerto with Hephzibah. Yehudi was conducting. I was thrilled that the three of us were going to make music together. I stayed at a place in Kensington with Madame Voronin, who let rooms with pianos to musicians. The first person to open the door was this dedicated, fire-like young man who was taking lessons with Myra Hess and who never left his piano. We began to play duets, on one piano, on two pianos, and we both felt that working together was like an extension of each other's personality. Not that we are alike: he has a beautiful, large hand that produces a fat tone, and in those days, I was shy and hardly dared make myself heard. I had to play with many violinists, cellists, and bassoonists who would say, "The lid can stay down, can't it?". When I had a pianist next to me, sharing the piano, wanting true equality in the sense that there is always dialogue, I found what I was searching for. The next 10 years of playing together were years of intense joy and great development for both of us.
We did some teaching, and it was while working with the highly gifted children at the Yehudi Menuhin School that Joel decided he wanted to better understand his own mind and that of his pupils, so he switched to psychology. This is a long and slow process, and now I find myself playing alone again. I feel, though, that I have learned so much through our playing and working together that it helps me get through my work. Perhaps this has also sustained me in the past few months when I had to stand in for Hephzibah because she was unable to fulfill her engagements. I had to play the Schumann Concerto, Beethoven's 'Emperor', and several recitals. As to teaching, I have only one pupil, a very dedicated one, and that is ... ME!

How did you find playing with the other Menuhins? You were one of the soloists, along with Hephzibah and Jeremy, in Mozart's Triple Piano Concerto with Yehudi conducting during the celebrations of his 60th birthday.

It was rather strenuous for me because we don't meet often enough to work together. Besides, I am hopelessly emotional, and for me, music is almost a mystical, intuitive experience. For them, it is combined with tremendous objectivity and self-control. When Jeremy joined us, it was different because both my sister and I were like two aunts wanting the little one to do very well. It must have been a terrifying experience for him, but I must say that Yehudi was absolutely splendid. Once on the platform, there was nothing else but the music and we, the soloists, responded in the same way.

 

Interview with Yaltah conducted by Carola Grindea in 1979, first published in the Piano Journal, no.3 1982.
Reprinted by kind permission of the author.
   
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