Friday, February 11, 2011

The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather

In the book, "The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin & Willa Cather" acclaimed author Lionel Rolfe (The Menuhins: A family Odyssey, Literary L.A. and Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground) has delved into his fascinating family history to reveal the extraordinary story of the friendship between novelist Willa Cather, and his mother, piano prodigy Yaltah Menuhin (1920-2001), sister of legendary violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Rolfe's mother Yaltah was repeatedly discouraged from pursuing a musical career by her parents Moshe and Marutha who were Russian Jewish emigres to San Francisco where Moshe was superintendent of the city's Hebrew School. Yehudi was the eldest; Hephzibah, the middle daughter; and Yaltah, the youngest. They were all musical prodigies but Yehudi, the first born son, was the favored child. Hephzibah, not unlike Mozart's sister Nannerl, was allowed to perform as a pianist, but mainly as an accompanist to her brother. Yaltah, who might have been the most dedicated and talented of the three, was given little, if any, emotional support for her own musical aspirations.

Willa Cather or "Aunt Willa" provided the perfect counterbalance to Yaltah's mother, Marutha, who only allowed Yaltah and her sister Hephzibah to study piano as a means for attracting a husband. In Rolfe's intimate account of the Menuhin household, his grandmother Marutha, a "ruthless woman" displayed continued hostility and resentment toward Yaltah, reminding her youngest that her birth was unplanned—the result of a faulty diaphragm. As a youngster, while her sister Hephzibah accompanied Yehudi during concerts, Marutha reprimanded Yaltah for not being content cooking, scrubbing, and sewing for her brother and sister.

The relationship between novelist Willa Cather and the Menuhin household began in France, as the family was seeking a teacher for Yehudi. Cather was in Paris at the same time visiting mutual acquaintances. Yehudi was given an opportunity to play for the legendary violinist, Eugene Ysaÿe, by then an elderly man. Although Ysaÿe accepted Yehudi as a pupil, and recognized his immense talent, the Menuhin family chose instead to further little Yehudi's studies with Ysaÿe's pupil Louis Persinger in New York City. Besides, there was no way the family could remain in Europe on the eve of the Holocaust. Shortly after first meeting Willa Cather in 1930, the Menuhins made Manhattan their home base and enlisted Cather as a private tutor for the children. Her duties were to instruct them in Shakespeare and American Literature.

Willa Cather was one of the few people Marutha Menuhin entrusted with her children's home-schooling education. The connection was surprising given that Willa had previously written about musical prodigies as if they were circus freaks. But according to Edith Lewis, Willa's lifelong companion, the children "were not only the most gifted children Willa Cather had ever known, with that wonderful aura of imaginative charm, prescience, inspiration, that even the most gifted lose after they grow up; they were also extremely lovable, affectionate, and unspoiled; in some ways naive, in others sensitive and discerning far beyond their years." Willa was granted permission to take the children outdoors (Marutha preferred to keep them out of public view)—and when she did, it was often Central Park at six in the morning to discuss philosophy, art, religion and life. Willa was not only the children's mentor—especially Yaltah's—she was their playmate. Perhaps divining the tension between mother and youngest daughter, Aunt Willa would take Yaltah to see plays, attend operas, visit museums and art galleries.

Rolfe makes a strong case that Yaltah might have been the inspiration for the heroine of the novella "Lucy Gayheart". She was, after all, composing the story at the time when she regularly saw the Menuhin family. Cather was one of the first novelists to write about women who follow their own muse—women as artists rather than wives and mothers.

A musician's musician, Yaltah Menuhin was a regular on the concert stages, but her influence went far beyond that. When a young musician needed an endorsement for a Fulbright scholarship, her word was like gold. She recommended both violinist Eudice Shapiro and cellist Gabor Rejto for teaching positions in the music department of the University of Southern California. Yaltah Menuhin pioneered the works of Castelnuovo-Tedesco, George Antheil, Ernst Krenek and Walter Piston, among others. And for guidance and strength, Yaltah Menuhin returned to the lessons her mentor and friend Willa Cather had to impart, time and time again. "The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin & Willa Cather" has moved me to further explore their shared gifts. For starters, here's a beautiful recording of Yaltah Menuhin performing Beethoven's Waldstein.

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