By Lionel Rolfe
A couple of days ago I was in a deeply melancholic state because of various personal struggles, including health and financial issues and an ex-wife I still love, but it all is leavened with the sense that as one approaches the end of life, the world becomes a much more apocalyptical place.
Sitting here in Los Angeles, I gazed at recent photographs of Nelson Mandela in South Africa wearing a kind of a beatific smile. It left me wondering if he really felt that sanguine about the planet he is leaving soon. I pondered these matters in part because it evoked some powerful links in my own life.
Mandela, as we all know, was a compatriot of another great Apartheid leader–Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who I saw in 1999 at Westminster Abbey in London at a memorial for the violinist Yehudi Menuhin–who also is my uncle.
Tutu, whose house Nelson Mandela first retired to after decades of imprisonment, delivered the most powerful message of all. Tutu was there to deliver a message from Mandela for the occasion and it was but one of several messages delivered by folks such as the Dalai Lama who described Yehudi as a “spiritual brother” and “a dear friend and comrade-in-arms in the struggle for a more peaceful and compassionate world.” He did so in an audience that included former Prime Minister Thatcher, Prince Charles, Sir Edward Heath and various ambassadors, human rights campaigners, important figures in classical music, and the like, all of whom were sitting within a few feet of us at the front of the great and completely packed cathedral.
My companion at the event was London violinist Gillian Cohen, who said with awe “They haven’t done anything like this since Princess Diana.” We both agreed of all the people who had spoken, Tutu was easily the most impressive. The former Archbishop of Cape Town read Mandela’s message, and then talked in simple words of how he had found lifelong inspiration because as a teenager he had heard Yehudi play in the Shantytowns where he grew up. Tutu’s description of first hearing Yehudi sounded so real, so vivid, it was as if he were telling a few friends about some important memories.
In fact Tutu was describing a major moment in the anti-Apartheid struggle. It was in 1950 and Yehudi had gone to perform in South Africa. After playing concerts for white audiences, he announced he was going to go play for children in Soweto–which included Tutu. Yehudi’s friend Alan Paton who ran a school in Soweto had asked Yehudi to come and play for his children. Paton was an early anti-Apartheid pioneer, whose book Cry The Beloved Country played a major role in the struggle to bring down Apartheid.
Yehudi left South Africa, which led to the international boycott of that country by most of the world’s great artists.
Yehudi was an indomitable spirit. Considered the greatest musical prodigy since Mozart, he used his instrument to good effect. Yehudi single handedly introduced Yoga to the west when he appeared on a several page spread in Life Magazine in various Yoga positions, also in the ’50s. He also was a friend of Nehru, the great Indian leader in the aftermath of Gandhi. His first classic performances with his old friend Ravi Shankar called “East Meets West” introduced Indian classical music to the west, before the Beatles. He also played jazz violin with Stephan Grappelli and even Ray Charles and Duke Ellington. Playing Bach with the great Russian violinist David Oistrach in London was one of the first steps in ending the Cold War.
But the last time I had lunch with Yehudi, we met at a hotel in Pasadena when his “Menuhin Players,’ whom he conducted and were some of the best musicians in London, were on tour. He was there to give a concert at the Ambassador Auditorium.
My uncle’s impact on the world was felt in his presence. Normally I left him feeling energized and alive and even hopeful.
He was generally a force for progress, in human affairs. But at our last meeting, Yehudi dispensed with the usual lecture about the virtues of not eating meat and told me that he regarded me as the most intelligent and creative of my eight cousins, including his own children. Since he was not a man given to base flattery, I took what he said seriously. He saw me as the only one left to carry on in the grand tradition of artistic creativity from which our family sprang.
I let my uncle buy me a delicious lamb dinner, and he seemed more congenial and amused by this than in the past. He was a vegetarian. So he indulged me because he wanted to talk seriously.
Yehudi was never one to be given to pessimism. He had stared down history on more than one occasion. He spent much of World War II on the front lines, giving concerts for the soldiers. He was the first player to perform for the survivors of Auschwitz, as well as the war-weary denizens of Germany. When the United Nations first gathered in San Francisco, the occasion was celebrated with Yehudi playing the greatest piece of violin music of all times — the Beethoven Violin Concerto.
So now he wanted to warn me that grim times lay ahead. He said global tensions, starvation, drought, wars and military coups were in our likely future. He warned me that social activism might become very dangerous in the future, and he was a man who had not been afraid to stand up to power. When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir presented him the Wolf Prize, Israel’s highest honor, he took the opportunity to lecture Shamir publicly on the need to recognize the rights of the Palestinian Arabs. But now in his final years, he felt the future was an impending nightmare. And what made it very scary was that he was speaking with the wisdom of a man who had seen and done much. And he was pessimistic.
A long life can grind you down, but I was surprised Yehudi was letting it crush his indomitable spirit. My mother Yaltah, Yehudi’s pianist sister, who outlived her brother by a couple or so years, had told me she felt Yehudi was giving up on life. He died from a heart attack in Germany in March of 1999. Sadly, were his vision a rolling stone, it is indeed gathering no moss in its plunge toward oblivion.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of two books on the Menuhin family, “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather” and “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey,” available on Amazon’s Kindle Store.