`I WAS born old, and I shall die young,'' Yehudi Menuhin mused as we sat talking in the living room of his elegant home here in London's fashionable Belgravia section. Indeed, the most striking quality upon first meeting the man who has been called the world's most distinguished violinist is his extraordinary youthfulness. In his seventh decade, Mr. Menuhin moves with the agility and ease of a teen-ager, while his face, with its alert, penetrating eyes, remains virtually unwrinkled.
I had managed to catch Menuhin, or more precisely Sir Yehudi (the American-born musician received an honorary knighthood from Queen Elizabeth in 1966, but did not use the title until he became a British citizen a few years ago) shortly before he was due to fly off to join the newly founded Asian Youth Orchestra for a 10-concert tour of the Far East, hosted by the city of Shanghai.
The orchestra is made up of 100 musicians between the ages of 18 and 24. As the orchestra's president and lead conductor, as well as a prime mover behind the organization, Menuhin was looking forward to the trip with enormous pride. Soon after our meeting, however, he summarily canceled the tour. When we talked again, he was eager to tell why.
Referring to the June student killings at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, the violinist explains that ``the revulsion of the world, including my own, to this beastly event was such that very, very sadly I told the orchestra, which was awaiting me, that I would not be coming.''
What's not widely known about Menuhin is his preoccupation with world events. From an early age, he was acutely aware of the privileged access to people in high places all over the globe his position gave him.
As a result, for as long as he can remember he has always taken it upon himself to do something, however small, to ``bridge the gaps of understanding'' between individuals on both a personal and international level, as he puts it. The prestigious Nehru Prize for the promotion of world peace is just one of the accolades he has received over the years which testify to his efforts in this area.
It's not surprising to learn, then, that shortly after the students began demonstrating, Menuhin sent a personal appeal by telegram to the Chinese government.
He urged Chinese leaders to welcome representatives of the students into their councils and to initiate them into the responsibilities and complications of politics, with the hope of gradually making the students feel that they had a voice in the process. Menuhin believes the leaders weighed his idea before choosing the more extreme measures that ultimately sent shock waves throughout the world.
In the aftermath of the massacre, Chinese officials at the highest level implored Menuhin to carry on with his tour, as planned, with the assurance that all would be ``normal.'' But he declined.
`I wouldn't want to go to endorse the lie,'' says Sir Yehudi, ``the lie being that nothing happened - that a few hooligans were chased out of the square, law and order was restored, and that everything was for the best.'' And, he points out, with more than one-third of the Asian Youth Orchestra coming from China, it would have been impossible to carry on, regardless.
There is a palpable sadness in Menuhin's voice as he speaks. Asians, and particularly the Chinese, he maintains, are vital to the perpetuation of excellence in music today. He notes that many of the world's best practitioners of Western music are coming out of the East, not the West. Having worked with many Asian musicians over the years, he attributes this phenomenon largely to attitude.
``People of Asian cultures simply work very intelligently,'' he observes. ``And they also have a good understanding of the human body; they know how to go about using their body. They know how to relax, and they can work without tension for longer periods. ... When compared with Westerners, this understanding is a real advantage.''
Menuhin's interest in the East, and China in particular, is long-standing. After first visiting China 12 years ago, he has made a point of regularly inviting many of the country's musicians to study at his two schools.
In fact, the other side of Sir Yehudi's close involvement with the Asian Youth Orchestra comes from his special devotion to working with young people. The International Menuhin Music Academy in Gstaad, Switzerland, is for graduate string players, but the Yehudi Menuhin School in Stoke d'Abernon, England, accepts children as young as age six.
Rather than having to be exceptional musically, all that is required of applicants for the British school is that they have a good ear, an instinctive sense of rhythm, good coordination, and a reasonable capacity for singing and instrument playing.
With these basics, Menuhin believes, it is not difficult to turn an enthusiastic young person into an accomplished musician, with a few years' training.
``Unlike adults who diffuse their energies in a number of areas,'' says Sir Yehudi, ``the child gives everything to the one passion.''
This single-minded quality is something Menuhin knows firsthand. The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, the young Yehudi (in Hebrew meaning, ``the Jew,'' a name his mother chose in defiance of the anti-Semitism she found in early 20th-century America) discovered music at the age of two in his family's adopted home town of San Francisco. His father, a Hebrew school principal, and his mother, a teacher of the language, would often take their infant son to the city's symphony concerts.
After considerable pestering of his parents, the four-year-old Yehudi, inspired by the string players he had watched, began taking violin lessons. Three years later, in 1924, he made his concert debut.
SOON he was in demand everywhere. It has been said that, except for the young Mozart, no child musician before or since has aroused such attention. At age 11, he began touring the world - an activity he has continued nonstop up to this day.
Menuhin's preeminent success, he believes, owes as much to the support provided by his parents as to any natural talent. His father, after much soul-searching, decided to quit his job and so keep the family together while the boy traveled.
To Menuhin's parents, family life always came before anything else, he says. In yet another unorthodox move, both parents educated their son and his two younger sisters, themselves. Only music and language lessons were entrusted to tutors.
His unique upbringing meant that Menuhin largely missed out on the companionship of other children. As a result, he says, it took many years for him to feel comfortable with people his own age.
It also meant that having what amounted to a full-time career as a child - coupled with financially supporting his family - placed awesome responsibilities upon his very young shoulders. But, although Menuhin concedes in one breath to being ``born old,'' he insists in the next breath that he never viewed his circumstance as burdensome.
``I'm not a person to think in terms of the way people see situations from the outside,'' he maintains. ``People might say: `He's supporting his family; this is a great responsibility' and, therefore, I must be very good and work really hard, because I owe it to my parents. None of that! ... My main motive was to just play as well as I could.''
Still, didn't he ever want to take a break from what must have been considerable pressure?
``No,'' he replies without hesitation, going on to explain that, having visited nearly every country on earth and having become fluent in five languages, ``I gained my freedom through my work and my life.''
While Sir Yehudi has been saying publicly for years that he plans to cut back on his professional commitments in order to devote more time to his wife, four grown children, and six grandchildren, his schedule is currently jam-packed well into the 1990s.
A close friend comments, ``He does more than 150 concerts a year, not to mention his many other public activities. He always says that he's going to reduce his workload but, instead, seems each year to get busier than ever.''
Listening to his immediate plans, which include two tours of the United States (the East Coast in October and the West Coast in February-March), it becomes abundantly clear that this is a man who has no real intention of slowing down.
Asked why a ``living legend'' drives himself so hard, Menuhin sighs, insisting that such a label has no meaning for him.
Waxing philosophical, he adds, ``I don't think that I'll ever give up the winged aspect of life: I am continually trying to escape to other heights.''