Yehudi Menuhin was born in New York City to Russian Jewish parents in 1917. He first picked up the violin at the age of 4 and, displaying precocious talent for his age, performed his first solo piece with the San Francisco Symphony at the age of seven. From then on he embarked on an illustrious musical career which saw him become one of the most revered violin players and conductors of the 20th century.
In contrast, Ravi Shankar decided to dedicated his time to studying the sitar and the tradition of Indian Classical Music only at the age of 18. From 1938 to 1944 he studied under court musician Allauddin Khan. He then worked as a composer and travelling performer building up a reputation as one of India’s most famous musicians to date.
The pair first met in New Delhi in 1951 when Menuhin went to India to play a number of concerts. It was at that meeting that Menuhin first heard Shankar play. He was astonished at the improvisational freedom, rhythmic and melodic subtleties that he heard in the music and instantly formed a particular attachment to it. Shankar reports saying, ‘I had never before seen a western classical musician respond so emotionally to our music, not just show interest in its technical aspects. This reaction of Yehudi’s to our music and my own reaction to his personality were the beginning of a beautiful friendship between us.’
After returning from India, Menuhin soon became the western champion of its music. He expressed his opinion that, ‘Indian music long ago achieved a complex sophistication which only in the twentieth century, with the work of Bartok and Stravinsky, has Western music begun to adumbrate.’
Shankar, encouraged by his success, soon left India with the new philosophy of trying to educate western ears. He toured Britain, Germany and the United States and recorded his first long playing records, Three Ragas and The Sounds of India.
Founded in their mutual commitment to music, over the next decade and a half, the two did enjoy a ‘beautiful friendship’ often playing at the same concerts but never sharing the stage. Only in 1966, fourteen years after their first meeting, did they finally combined their talents to perform and record with one another.
Menuhin was in charge of the Bath Festival and he decided that they should perform at the festival together. He was unfamiliar with Indian scales and unaccustomed to improvisation. Nonetheless, he played impeccably, becoming the first Western musician to perform a classical raga on stage with Indian musicians.
The performance was such a success that EMI offered to record the pair. These recordings would become the first of the trilogy entitled West Meets East and would set a high standard for cross cultural playing. The eloquent sitar and violin duet forms the centre piece of the album and undoubtedly went a long way to winning them a Grammy in the chamber music category. That year, 1967, was the first and only year since, where award-winning albums in all three categories of rock, jazz, and classical music were influenced in some degree by Indian music. The other winners were The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite.
Shankar and Menuhin again performed together at the end of 1967. This time, bringing Indian music to the whole world via its television screens, they played at the United Nations in New York City in celebration of Human Rights Day. According to musicologist Peter Lavezzoli, ‘The significance of 1967 cannot be overstated in terms of Indian classical music being made increasingly accessible to a Western audience’, and Menuhin and Shankar were ‘chief architects of this development.’
Menuhin and Shankar would continue to have a profound effect on music. At an international level they achieved many great things individually as well as with other musicians. Those few years of rich collaboration at the end of the sixties, however, were instrumental in bringing Indian music to the west.