Los Angeles author Lionel Rolfe has written in The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin & Willa Cather a moving biography of his mother Yaltah Menuhin, sister of famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin, and her relationship with novelist Willa Cather. Yaltah like Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny and Mozart’s sister Nannerl showed brilliance as a musician early but was discouraged by family members and always overshadowed by her famous brother. Rolfe looks closely at what it takes for women to overcome the obstacles that family, husbands, and the larger society put in front of them having successful careers.
Rolfe’s mother Yaltah was actively discouraged by her parents Moshe and Marutha who were Russian Jewish emigres to San Francisco where Moshe was superintendant of city’s Hebrew schools. All three of their children-- Yehudi, the oldest; Hephzibah, the middle girl; and Yaltah, the youngest—were musical prodigies. At first the mother had decided the daughters wouldn’t have musical careers, but then mother relented, seeing that Hephzibah could perform well in the secondary role as accompanist on the piano when her brother played his violin. The parents then that Yaltah was too “fragile” to be a touring musician.
If you compare the three Menuhin prodigies with Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, the parallels are striking. The Mendelssohns of Hamburg, Germany, like the Menuhins of San Francisco, California, were an extremely intellectual Jewish family and both mothers were music teachers. Both Fanny Mendelssohn in the 1830s Yaltah Menuhin in the 1930s had family members telling them to give up before they started.
In fact, the Menuhins were on the 20th centuryCalifornia version of a Jewish tradition of producing prodigies going back the shtetls of Eastern Europe. So in many ways this is a western Jewish story. Moshe was a descendant of the Lubavitch Schneersohn dynasty, one of the great Hasidic religious dynasties of Eastern Europe. Rolfe’s descriptions of the Menuhins in Los Gatos, California, in the later 1930s having intrigues over who their three teenager children would be allowed to court and then marry almost sound like the intrigues of a Hassidic or European court, but music was at the center rather than politics or religion.
What’s critical in his mother’s life, Rolfe argues, is her relationship with this independent older woman novelist Willa Cather. Though the two were together only in the last decade of Cather’s life, Rolfe shows this short but intense relationship was important for both. Rolfe retells the fascinated story how his grandparents educated all three children at home, and in New York Cather was the Shakespeare tutor for the three Menuhin children.
Rolfe gives a fascinating argument that the short-lived Cather-Menuhin friendship was inspiring for both Willa and Yalta. He argues that Yaltah was the inspiration for the heroine of the novella Lucy Gayheart, which Willa Cather was writing at the same time she regularly saw the Menuhin. Further, Rolfe argues that Yaltah thought Aunt Willa was the mother that her own mother had never been. Yaltah got from Aunt Willa the image of an independent woman artist, not controlled by her parents or a husband. Yaltah alternated between obeying her dominating parents and rebelling against them. It does seem likely that the rebellion was in part inspired by Aunt Willa. While Yaltah was at first like Nannerl Mozart, Mozart's sister, letting her father choose her first husband in a marriage which lasted only six months, then Yaltah rebelled, chosing as her second husband a man her parents couldn't stand.
Yaltah and FannyMendelssohn were unlike in another way. Fanny Mendelssohn did get the support her husband William Hensel to publish her composition and performed in the weekly family musical salons. In contrast, Yaltah Menuhin, despite lack of support from all her three husbands, performed in public concerts. Though Yaltah Menuhin never had the stellar musical career of her older brother Yehudi, she did perform piano in concerts from aged 30 to 80 in North America, Europe, and England. In Los Angeles during the 1950s where Yaltah lived with her second husband and two sons she regularly took part in the “Evenings on the Roof” series performing the work of many new composers. Again, she was a woman who stood on her own two feet like her Aunt Willa. Rolfe’s book is a moving story of a fascinating Californian Jewish woman who in order to become a musician overcomes numerous obstacles.