'I only felt loved when I played well'
Pianist Jeremy Menuhin tells Judith Woods about growing up in the shadow of his father, the violinist and philanthropist Yehudi Menuhin
'For a long time, I resented the public and, to this day, I can quite easily hate them. My father had a sort of love affair with the public, which excluded all of us, and it's hard, even now, to escape those instinctive feelings of animosity."
Jeremy Menuhin: 'My father regarded me as an adjunct to his career, like some empty vessel, to be filled by him'
Pianist Jeremy Menuhin speaks softly as he attempts to explain the complex legacy of his father, the violin virtuoso, conductor and philanthropist, Yehudi, who died in 1999, aged 82.
Yehudi, later Lord Menuhin, was acclaimed a genius at the age of seven, and spent the next 75 years being celebrated as much for his noble works as his musical achievements. Married to Diana, a former prima ballerina and striking beauty, he espoused a great many worthy causes: from green issues, to campaigning for justice in Tibet and championing young musicians by founding the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, which includes Nigel Kennedy among its alumni.
To the outside world, Jeremy Menuhin and his three elder siblings, including two from Yehudi's first marriage, wanted for nothing. They would be photographed for newspapers and magazines, relaxing together with their parents in the Alps, like a latter-day von Trapp family. The reality was very different.
"The emotional life of our family was grotesque," says Menuhin, 43. "We barely saw our parents, and when we did, the atmosphere was dour and artificial. We crept round, and weren't allowed to go down to dinner if there were guests.
"Emotions were discouraged, as was dissent of any sort. You couldn't even express an opinion about a piece of furniture, because that would be considered distasteful and irritating."
Effectively brought up by a series of nannies, Menuhin was frightened of his parents, who never expressed affection for, and seldom even interest in, their children. He describes his father, a man renowned the world over for his financial generosity, his serene spirituality and support of humanitarian causes, as "cold and detached"; his mother as domineering and volatile.
"When my mother scolded my father, as she did for a good part of every day, he would retreat behind a mask-like smile that concealed a lot of anger, which almost never came out," says Menuhin.
"Had it come out in one fell swoop, she wouldn't have survived. But my mother would always get what she wanted. I imagine that if she'd said,'Go and suffocate the children', he would have picked up a pillow and smothered us, because it was more important to obey her than do anything else."
Menuhin, a gifted pianist, who is divorced, with two teenage children, plays regularly in Europe and America, and has recorded works by Schubert, Debussy and Dvorák.
Based in Hampstead, he is currently undertaking a major project to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, in 2006. He is recording all of Mozart's 27 piano concertos, in partnership with the English Symphony Orchestra, taking the role of both soloist and director.
"My father would have been pleased. Although I became a musician in opposition to him, he eventually accepted me," he says. "He regarded me as something of an adjunct to his performances and his career, like some empty vessel, to be filled by him. But when I performed well, he was genuinely proud, which was gratifying."
It was Menuhin's Swiss nanny who suggested he be taught an instrument. He had shown an interest in music and it was clear he was keen to learn, so she organised lessons. Unlike Yehudi, who was intensively hot-housed from the age of four by his overbearing mother, and played his first professional engagement in San Francisco at the age of eight, Menuhin received no parental encouragement.
This had nothing to do with anxiety about the pressures of following in his father's footsteps. Nor was there any sense of professional rivalry from his father at the prospect of sharing the spotlight. Quite simply, Yehudi never thought about his children enough to entertain any ambitions for them.
"My father's mother ruled his family with a rod of iron and he became the linchpin and breadwinner of the family from a very early age," says Menuhin.
"When you've been the focus of family life from the age of seven, you see other people as peripheral. It's not just an ordinary selfishness - there's no moral dimension - it's just that he dedicated his life to his music and to his own development, so nothing else, not even his wife or children, was three-dimensional to him."
The tension between Menuhin's father and mother made life very difficult for those around them. There was mutual admiration: even in old age, the pair jointly signed their names "Yehudiana", and held hands. She travelled everywhere with him, spending up to 17 hours a day organising paperwork and travel arrangements. But there was also a tremendous personality clash.
Yehudi's self-absorption, his obsession with yoga and his peculiarly fastidious eating habits, made him difficult to live with.
Before her death in 2003, aged 90, Lady Menuhin admitted she had once thrown a typewriter at her husband, in fury, but that usually she reined in her frustration.
`I learned to be strict with myself from childhood. How else could I stand this life with Yehudi?" she said. Their children grew accustomed to watching from the sidelines, spectators in their own family.
As an adult, Jeremy Menuhin cuts a gentle, thoughtful figure. Slightly built, he speaks eloquently - but in measured, calm tones - of the emotional privations that were the flipside of his materially privileged childhood.
"I was incredibly diplomatic from an early age, disturbingly so. It was creepy. I would defend my father to my mother and explain what he really meant; this was the only role available to me, and children instinctively fulfil the roles available to them within the dynamics of the household," says Menuhin.
"When two people like my parents get together, they create a folie à deux. They accentuate each other's personalities and everyone else melts away, further and further. That's what happened to us."
When it became clear his youngest son was a talented player, Yehudi took control of his career. At 15, Menuhin played at the Gstaad festival, established by his father; at 16, he found himself giving recitals to packed halls.
"I hadn't practised the piano very hard, because I'd been at school six months before, and I simply wasn't good enough yet," he says. "But my father had been performing from the age of six, so it was the only way he knew of introducing me to the musical world. I was so used to feeling a blind respect to both my parents, I went along with it."
As Menuhin grew more experienced and his repertoire widened, he played with his father. In music, he discovered a sense of shared purpose and the rapport that he had always craved. But the feeling was always brief.
"When I played well - and despite my lack of preparation, I could play well - I felt loved. Those were the only moments when I did feel loved."
At the age of 22, Menuhin won the prestigious Young Concert Artists piano competition in New York. In the ensuing years, he gradually eased himself free of his father and pursued his own career, keen to forge his own reputation.
"I remember arriving one summer in Switzerland with the children, to visit my parents, and as soon as we walked in the door, my mother said,'Paris Match is here, doing a piece. Come along, children, and have your picture taken with your grandfather in the garden'.
"I said, 'No, first things first. You should say hello to the children instead of playing out the happy family myth in front of the camera.' "
Menuhin says his repressed upbringing led him to treat his children very differently. His 16-year-old daughter lives with him; his son, aged 19, with his ex-wife, who has a home half a mile away. "I'm very happy that my children say exactly what they think, even if I've perhaps gone too far in the other direction," he says.
"Respect is something that you earn as a parent, you never get it for free. Fear is a completely different thing and that is something I certainly know all about. There are many ways of being an emotional tyrant. You can shout and tell your children to shut up, or you can convey to them that it's forbidden to communicate or express emotions."
Although he understands the restless creativity that drove his father, Menuhin is much less forgiving of the single-minded way Yehudi pursued his passions. He was widely respected for his political engagement, and his rather saintly aura invariably opened doors and charmed the rich and powerful into supporting his causes.
But his family paid a high price for their father's success.
"When I think of all the middle-men, the concert promoters, managers and journalists who were more important to my parents than us, it makes me angry," he says.
"In many ways, my parents lived a very public life. My father dedicated his life to music, which is the way serious artists behave. But perhaps, in some cases, serious artists shouldn't have children."