‘Menuhin had an almost entirely negative influence’

In a Commentary essay on child prodigies, the critic Terry Teachout lays blame for cultural degeneration on Yehudi and his parents:

Some contemporary prodigies, Kissin in particular, are indisputably major talents, while others, like the English soprano Charlotte Church, have no business performing in public. But none of them should ever have been subjected to the stresses of a modern, media-driven musical career at such young ages. Virtually every classical musician who has been allowed to perform professionally as a child (other than on isolated occasions) has experienced crippling psychological trauma as a result, and very few have been able to sustain major careers upon reaching adulthood.

In this respect, Menuhin has had an almost entirely negative influence on the culture of classical music, for he was the first child prodigy to live out his whole life as a media figure. He became the model for all who followed him, driving down the age at which one could qualify as a genuine prodigy. Without his phenomenal example, there might be no Sarah Changs—or Charlotte Churches. One can only hope they will escape the unhappy trajectory of his later career….

Read on here.

I find this a bit harsh. Those of us who knew the man might add a few nuances.

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  • JBV says:

    I don’t think it’s fair to blame Menuhin, but I certainly blame the industry and audiences for being completely seduced by the idea of prodigies, who incredible as they can be, usually end up worn out, played out, psychologically exhausted, and in my opinion, very often utterly mediocre. The obsession with brilliant young players has meant the gradual elimination of paths for musicians who mature in their twenties and thirties, many of whom are far more interesting, profound, thoughtful, subtle, and insightful, yet have usually been forced to take full-time jobs because there is no more chance of a career.

    How many competitions now let musicians over the age of 28 compete?
    How many young “prodigies” have flamed out in the halls of Juilliard and Curtis, eventually relegated to trick-pony status by the age of 20?

  • Chris says:

    Those that can, do – those that can’t do, teach – and those that can’t teach, criticise!

  • A bit like saying that Mozart had a deleterious effect on the subsequent generation of composers. Frankly a stupid post. Menuhin was a monumental figure in the field of classical music…and beyond; a man of deep humanity (and humility) and, at his best a violinist of incomparable gift. The decline in his technical prowess was sad to behold, but he bore it bravely, philosophically indeed and, if nothing else it served as a salutary reminder of the fragility and impermanence of human existence.

  • Dave Thomson says:

    He wrote this in 2001! Why are you commenting on it now?

  • Tamino says:

    “Virtually every classical musician who has been allowed to perform professionally as a child (other than on isolated occasions) has experienced crippling psychological trauma as a result, and very few have been able to sustain major careers upon reaching adulthood.”

    That’s a thesis and mere opinion that is lacking proof in her diatribe.

    While psychological trauma – or more severe psychological conditions like disorders from the autistic spectrum which are not acquired but one is born with – is often prevalent in these extremely gifted (in one dimension) people, it is anything but clear which came first and if there is any causal connection at all.

    Maybe Kissin performing at a young age actually helped him or even saved him from drifting into deeper psychological trouble?

    Maybe Menuhin without his violin prodigy career would have ended up in a mental hospital at young age?

    Maybe Barenboim without channeling his feelings into the piano would have become a murderer?

    Who knows?

    • sycorax says:

      Well, Tamino, I know two violinists who started very young and became something like “wunderkinder”. Both were rather unhappy, in both cases the relationship with the parents was (and even is) deeply disturbed and both would never let a kid of theirs perform at too young age.

      We’ve discussed this subject at home very often. Our son is highly talented and he got the first offers for public performances as he was 14. For a time he was rather upset with us because we both were firmly against him going in public. His father after 50 years in the scene said “Your talent won’t disappear, but ripen with education and with living a rather normal youth”. And I simply wanted him to enjoy his time as a teenager and besides … he’s adopted and before he came to us his life was very hard. Music was (and is) his way to deal with what he made through in his childhood. Hence we thought it’s better for him to be “protected” for the last years before becoming an adult. And now, 18 years old (and a music student of course) he sometimes says: “You were right. I certainly wouldn’t have liked my education among other students as much if I were the former ‘wunderkind’ coming in to this group.”

      • Tamino says:

        Those are not Wunderkinder. That term is used too widely.
        Those are talented children who are abused by narcissistic overambitious parents.
        Real Wunderkinder make their own way. They make their way naturally, without excessive force. They are just exceptionally gifted and lucky to discover it.

        I also know a lot of people like the ones you describe. No Wunderkinder. Just talented children with horrible parents.

    • klavierBWV988 says:

      you could be right about Barenboim

  • fflambeau says:

    Complete nonsense. First, he wasn’t the first or earliest wunderkind. Of course, there were Mozart and Mendelssohn and many others too.

    I suspect that the gifted violinst Daniel Hope disagrees strongly with this tosh.

  • Simon says:

    An unfalsifiable statement. You cannot just handwave and say ‘after Menuhin, things got bad for prodigies, hence it must have been because of him.’ Causal inference in social science is hard, this is just a lazy just-so type explanation.

  • Novagerio says:

    Menuhin’s influence as a human being speaks volumes, and his musicality should never be questioned. His early recordings (at least until he was 21) are sublime. There is a purity and a vulnerability of expression in his playing that for me is almost transcendental.
    Later in life he understood that he had not studied bowing technique propably, wich caused the famous “shaky” Menuhin sound from the later years.
    Another parallel case we should not forget is Ruggero Ricci, who also studied with Persinger (like Menuhin) and managed a life long career staying relatively in good shape.
    Was Persinger perhaps the “bad guy” in this case?…

  • Robert Roy says:

    A friend of mine feels Greta Thunberg is being exploited. My answer is to show him the photos of the young Anne-Sophie Mutter recording and working with Karajan. Was Mutter being ‘exploited’ at such a young age or is she simply fulfilling her destiny? Surely that’s the reason she was granted such talent.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      How dare you!!!

      Anne-Sophie had talent to an extraordinary degree. She cannot be compared to the saintly figure of Thunberg who is lionized by a society which has itself sadly been infantilized by the nanny state and willing to worship at the altar of children. How frightening it must be for any child thinking, well, I’m all there is. Where are the adults?

  • MHW says:

    Thank you for the link to the article. I disagree with Teachout’s assessment that his wobbly sound was due entirely to faulty technique. As a violinist, I can tell you, this problem coincides with adolescence because that’s when nerves start to affect the player. Shaking comes from the head, not the arm.

    • NYMike says:

      And as a violinist who restudied technique in his late 20s ala Dounis, I can say that Teachout’s opinion of too much righthand pressure is correct.Once learning to stop gripping the bow too tightly, I stopped scratching and drew a steady sound. I heard Menuhin play Mendelssohn’s Concerto when in his early 20s and he was already having difficulty.

  • david hilton says:

    More than a bit harsh. And unrealistic. Virtually every classical musician I know who is now in their “later career” would happily exchange the trajectory of Menuhin’s life, both professional and personal, with what they have had to endure, as jobbing musicians or as acclaimed soloists. Sure Menuhin ceased being the darling of the critics; but very few musicians ever are in the first place.

  • Mock Mahler says:

    I direct attention to ‘Far From the Tree’ by psychologist Andrew Solomon, which deals with parenting of ‘different’ children of all kinds, including musical prodigies. Among them is pianist Drew Petersen, whose childhood seems to have been handled well. At 25 he is building a significant career.

  • BrianB says:

    Well, why blame the Menuhin family? Let’s put the blame where it belongs with those darn Mozarts!

  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    I think it’s worth pointing out, this essay was published in June 2001…while it’s not recent, it’s certainly relevant.

    The public seems to find wunderkinds irresistible. Sadly few of these audience members understand that reciting the words of Shakespeare is not nearly as difficult as comprehending their full meaning and phrasing them with appropriate nuance.

    Yet year after year another few videos show up, not revealing a wunderkind of the Menuhin rank but simply one who has been taught purely by rote for hours and hours on end, with constant access to multiple teachers.

    The public increasingly fail to understand what makes a great artist great, and much as looks sell to one audience, another is eager to see a child on stage reciting a Mozart concerto; the strongest impression is not one of depth but mostly likely of mechanical execution. It’s no small accomplishment to reach that threshold, but it’s not so rare, as we learn of more, to find it. Yet it’s still a major selling point.

    Show me a violinist performing Beethoven Op. 131 at age 8 with senior musicians , with musical depth and understanding and I’ll be prepared to say prodigy.

  • gareth says:

    The “English” soprano Charlotte Church ???

    Mr Teachout still has much to learn…

  • M McAlpine says:

    There was a lad called Mozart who was a bit of a protege so I hear.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Not only is Teachout’s essay getting old, but it wasn’t very original in 2001 either, given that Ruth Sleczynska’s “Forbidden Childhood” was published in 1957, and Renee B. Fisher’s “Musical Prodigies – Masters at an Early Age” was published in 1973, with an interesting and perceptive foreword by … Yehudi Menuhin! Blaming Menuhin or his parents for the problems of any other prodigy seems absurd to me.

    I do not regard Charlotte Church (bizarre to see her name next to that of Sarah Chang’s, or in association with Yehudi Menuhin’s!) as being a victim or a symptom of the prodigy “problem.” Church was never to prodigy “classical” singing what Menuhin was to prodigy violin playing. Rather Church was to prodigy singing what Vanessa Mae was to prodigy violin playing. That is, talented but over-praised — we find it surprising to hear children do things other than childishly.

    I don’t blame Menuhin for the problems of Michael Jackson, either, but I guess Teachout would say we should.

    Many prodigy violinists go on to play just fine into adulthood – Bronislaw Huberman, Erica Morini, Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz. Some flame out to be sure. Some violinists flame out who were never performing prodigies, perhaps because prodigy or non-prodigy, the entire regimen of lessons and practicing at an early age is essential, but not “normal.” Yes Menuhin had problems playing as an adult, exactly as Fritz Kreisler had predicted. Ricci also played very differently (and not always as beautifully) as an adult than in his childhood recordings. That might have been the case with both of them even if they had never been prodigies.

    Ricci said some exceptionally harsh things about the entire child prodigy situation (and the parents of prodigies situation). I am relying on my memory here but I think it was along these lines: “all parents of child prodigies should be shot. Then they should line up the kid against the wall and finish the job.” Whew! Given the very different way his parents approached the whole thing versus Menuhin’s parents, this is understandable. Still ….

    • MWnyc says:

      I never thought of Charlotte Church as a classical singer, and I think that only in Britain would she be called one.

      And she always seemed to me to be pretty well-adjusted under the circumstances.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        She isn’t regarded as a “classical singer” in Britain either. She is better described as “providing a bit of class” to those who don’t know anything about classical singing.

    • Greg Bottini says:

      Thank you, David, for your reasoned response to Teachout’s simplistic nonsense.

  • Nathaniel Rosen says:

    Yehudi’s hands shook when he was holding a knife and fork, leading me to believe that there was an underlying neurological disease. (I observed this in the 1980’s).

  • CRMH says:

    Those of us who remember him, indeed played with him, should think of Terence Judd in this context.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Very interesting article. I am not a violinist and therefore am unable to comment about the accuracy of the explanation given for Menuhin’s decline.
    There is no doubt, however,that some of his later playing was atrocious.
    I did meet him once very briefly after a concert.
    He struck me as a rather “cold fish”.

    • Chris says:

      And I met him (with several of my orchestra colleagues) in his dressing room between rehearsal and concert, during which time he showed us some of the fingerings and other technical aspects of several concertos and other solo pieces from his repertoire. He was neither self-centre, nor opinionated – I thought he was really a quite modest individual in that 40 minutes or so we spent in his company.

  • Ivy Lin says:

    Ah, short memories. Once there was a lonely boy who was pushed by his abusive father to become a “child prodigy.” The boy’s father lied about his age. His mother was sickly and the talented boy had to support his family.

    When the boy grew up he was maladjusted. He threw tantrums. His health failed. It does not seem like he had a very happy life.

    Nevertheless, the story of Beethoven should tell you that child prodigies (and the dark family dynamics behind them) are nothing new.

  • engineers_unite says:

    There was a violinist called Busch, who had a truly wonderful career.
    He was very relieved when the “Menuhin boy” left, and said so.

    He said he never wanted to teach such children again, (then made an exception for my teacher!)

  • Gerald Martin says:

    I can’t remember the former child prodigy (violinist?) whose words I am likely scrambling (and they are probably apocryphal anyway), but:

    “I performed my first concert at age six. Before that I was a bum.”

    • Presbyteros says:

      Jascha Heifitz told admirer Groucho Marx that he had earned a living as a musician since the age of seven. Marx responded, “And I suppose before that you were just a bum.”

  • Ellingtonia says:

    Some “child prodigies” do actually turn into adult geniuses, witness here the playing of 13 year old Derek Trucks opening for the Allman Brothers………..he was good then, he has matured into the best guitarist in the world (of any genre). Try Youtubeing Midnight in Harlem by his band to see him now.

  • Many who have extreme talent when young are unable to make a good transition to adult performers. Others, however—for example, Josh Bell—seem to make the transition more smoothly. It’s hard to know the reason for the difference, something in the basic personality I would guess. Bell has been careful to maintain privacy in his life. But in ay case, it does seem unfair to blame Menuhin. As others have said, it’s the hype machine of modern PR that is really to blame, constantly looking for a new child prodigy to promote.

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