Centenary of a Wunderkind

Yehudi Menuhin in 1943While processing the thousands of newspaper cuttings in the basement of Westminster Music Library, the distinctive styles and peculiarities of the great music critics of the 1920s and ’30s start to become apparent: their dry sarcasm, or the ill-concealed pleasure with which they denounce an earnest young singer’s German pronunciation. Yet as much as the critics loved to criticise, there was one kind of performer unfailingly met with much interest and enthusiasm: the child prodigy.

Scarcely a week went by without a new “Boy Wonder”, “Infant Genius”, or “Rising Star” headline in the music column, accompanied by a positive review and encouraging wishes for the child’s future. Was it the end of the Great War and the promise of a bright, peaceful age to come which led the papers to invest so much hope in these children? Unfortunately good wishes can only propel musical success so far, and more often than not these promising young talents collapsed under the pressure of constant touring and performing – not to mention the ten-hour practice regime imposed by their unflinchingly strict parents.

Yehudi Menuhin with Bruno Walter in December 1931By 1929, the most cynical London concert-goers probably paid scant attention to the papers advertising the London debut of “Another Infant Prodigy” (Evening Standard, 02/11/1929) by the name of Yehudi Menuhin, highlights of whose American career already included concertos with the San Francisco- and New York- Symphony Orchestras. Yet the flurry of reviews which followed this 13-year-old’s London premiere (Brahms’ Violin Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra) soon silenced the doubters.

“Boy Prodigy’s Coolness” (Daily Mail), “Wonder Boy Violinist” (Daily Chronicle), “A Violin Prodigy” (The Observer), read the papers, as they fought to heap the most praise on the short-trousered genius who had so impressed them the previous night.

Yehudi Menuhin headline from the Daily Mail, 8 December 1930Others sought a different angle: “Women Mob Boy Violinist”, read the Daily Mail following a different concert, and in a later edition the headline tantalising speculated, “What Will He Do When a Man?”

What indeed? We can now look back and answer that prophetic voice – “Much!” Yehudi Menuhin, far from being the one-hit wonder many may have expected, has become a household name. Known now not only as violinist, but also conductor, educator and philanthropist, his achievements are innumerable. He has, for much of the last century, ranked amongst the finest and most famous of professional musicians. It is certainly a remarkable and fascinating experience to survey Westminster Music Library’s collection of newspaper cuttings and read how Menuhin – the man who needs no introduction – was introduced.

Yehudi Menuhin display at Westminster Music Library, April 2016

As you would expect given Menuhin’s fame and success, Westminster Music Library’s collection is rich in Menuhin biographies, texts and journal articles. Since this year – today, in fact – marks 100 years since the violinist’s birth, we are currently exhibiting our collection in a large and detailed display created  by Senior Library Assistant Andrew. Come in and read about Menuhin’s fascinating life and career, explore Oxford Music Online or discover what all the fuss is about by listening to one of his famous recordings courtesy of Westminster Libraries’ free online resource – Naxos Music Library (log in to the online reosurces with your library card number).

Yehudi Menuhin display at Westminster Music Library, April 2016

You can also look at the hundreds of original newspaper articles in Westminster Music Library which span much of his career, but be prepared to set aside enough time, they truly are a vast and absorbing treasure trove of information.

[Jon]

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