Tuesday, 26 June 2001

Yaltah Menuhin

Yaltah Menuhin was the youngest of three Menuhin children. A distinguished pianist, she played widely as a soloist, in recital with many fine string players, and in a four-hand and two-piano duo with her third husband, Joel Ryce. She played occasionally with her famous brother, Yehudi, and with him and their sister, Hephzibah, most notably at the Bath Festival when Yehudi was its director. In 1966, at a celebration of Yehudi's 50th birthday, they were joined in a concert at the Royal Festival Hall by his pianist son Jeremy.
Yaltah's life was not an easy one. An unwanted third child, she was born inconveniently in 1921 at the time when her brother's talents were exploding. From an early age her life consisted of constant travelling, as the family accompanied Yehudi on his early tours. Piano studies began at three, early teachers being Rudolph Serkin and Marcel Ciampi, and the family set a rigorous study schedule of music and languages, with no toys or friends allowed. Even the afternoon walks were spent memorising philosophical texts. Conversation had to be conducted in the language that was being studied, even when reporting illness.
In later life Yaltah would recall that virtually all the family's attention centred on Yehudi, with any remaining for Hephzibah. Although Yaltah played in public from youth, her parents took little interest in her career. While the opinion was occasionally mooted that hers was possibly the finest talent of the three children, her ability went largely unrecognised. She was told at home that it was only the Menuhin name that made people suppose that she had something to offer. Everything she achieved throughout her life needed great determination and initiative.
When Yaltah was 16, her mother forced her to marry a wealthy lawyer whom she hardly knew. For her this was a most devastating moment: being pushed into an arrangement for the sake of money and expediency made her feel unwanted and unloved.
The sham marriage collapsed after only six months. Wishing to avoid scandal, she escaped to New York. There, under the pseudonym Kate Davies, she studied at the Juilliard for some months with Carl Freidberg, living in near poverty on a diet consisting mainly of cabbage.
On her return home to San Francisco in 1940, she was confronted by her mother with the prospect of another forced marriage. She avoided it by eloping with Benjamin Rolfe, a US Army officer, who was facing similar pressure from his parents. She became an army wife, moving from camp to camp with her husband. Later they settled in Los Angeles, where Yaltah became known for playing Mozart, Chopin and Mendelssohn, as well as for her performances of contemporary music. She also toured with the violinist Israel Baker, the violists Paul Doktor and Michael Mann, and the cellists Gabor Rejto and George Neikrug.
Her impulsive marriage proved not to be a happy one. Although two sons were born, her husband grew increasingly jealous of her career. On some occasions when she returned from a concert, he refused to let her into the house. Faced with a rapidly deteriorating situation, she eventually decided, with the support of her elder son, to leave.
In 1959 she moved to London, where she met and later married the American pianist Joel Ryce, to the strong disapproval of her mother who thenceforth refused to acknowledge her existence. She and Joel were blissfully married for 38 years. The couple performed as a piano duo regularly for 10 of them.
In 1971, physical problems forced Joel's early retirement as a musician. During the difficult transition to his second career as a highly regarded Jungian psychotherapist, Yaltah supported him, putting her own career in second place. She retired from concert life after a heart attack in 1988. When Joel died in 1998 she was devastated, but gradually her spirit reasserted itself and she resumed playing. My lasting musical impression was her brief appearances with the 13-year-old violinist Nicola Benedetti, a rising star from the Menuhin School, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall last November, and in Glasgow only last month.
I had daily contact with Yaltah Menuhin during her last three years. She was a person of angelic disposition who saw good in everything and everybody. A gifted poet, linguist, painter and cook, she was generous with her time, energy and extraordinary warmth, putting others first while retaining independence to pursue her own direction.

Riki Gerardy


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