The Prodigy Who Chose Marriage over Music
‘I will sacrifice everything I have loed up to now, to go with my husband.’ These were the words of Hephzibah Menuhin at 17, as she ended her internationally celebrated musical career, left California and moved toi Terrinallum, a remote property in western Victoria, to become a grazier’s wife.
Her impulsive decision to marry Lindsay Nicholas, whom she had known for only a few weeks, ricocheted across the world.
Hephzibah belonged to that rare musical species that has it all: brilliance, charisma, nerve and dedication. Classical music has a certain mystique, a nuance of romance, an aura of inaccessibility, and the Menuhins – Hephzibah, Yaltah and Yehudi – had been introduced to the concert platform as prodigies. Hephzibah’s decision smashed the fantasy that this extraordinary musical triumvitate would dazzle audiences for years to come.
In An Exacting Heart, award-winning biographer Jacqueline Kent creates a powerful literary portrait of Hephzibah just as she championed Beatrice Davis in A Certain Style. Both are relatively unsung heroines in spite of the outstanding contributions they made in their chosen fields. Beatrice was significant in Australian publishing; Hephzibah was a phenomenal musician who pioneered social change.
In rural Victoria she initiated travelling libraries and enhanced music in schools. Her feminist leanings came to the fore when, in response to Malcolm Sargent’s comment that Brahms’s Piano Concerto in D minor was ‘a man’s concerto’. Hephzibah sat down at a Bechstein and impressively articulated this hefty blockbuster until Sargent capitulated.
During World War II she operated a lookout post for identifying Japanese bombers, assisted in setting up Red Cross units, taught first aid and, with her husband’s support, fostered disadvantaged children. She later adopted a young Jewish refugee. After 1943, she gave recitals, toured with Yehudi, helped establish the chamber music entrepreneur Musica Viva, performed with a flotilla of ensembles and soloed with the Sydney and Melbourne orchestras.
Ken’t wry tone in illuminating her subject’s capricious yet expansive personality and the vivid snapshots of the cultural climate in which Hephzibah lived are entertaining. At Hephzibah’s first tea party for local farmers’ wives, she provided only herbal tea. She disapproved of tannin. The guests’ uniform, a chorus of pearls and twinsets, was counterpointed by their host’s blazing red silk shirt and bellowing white trousers tapered at the ankle. These visitors reported that she was nice, which Hephzibah accurately understood to mean odd.
Chilling comments from family friends such as ‘you are always aware of the steel claws you cannot see’ in her mother Marutha Menuhin’s household, and beliefs that Yehudi was infantilised and excessively cosseted, and that their existence was closed, evoke Hephzibah’s childhood. A childhood flooded by a tide of mind-scrambling mixed messages. While Hephzibah knew that the only means of gaining her mother’s approval was by excelling as a pianist, Marutha told the press: ‘I always praised Hephzibah far more for a well balanced and executed meal than for any concert she might ever play.’ While Yehudi was groomed for a stellar career, Hephzibah was counselled to choose between marriage and music. Media attention was steered towards yehudi and she was shielded, not least from reviews that praised her performances. As far as her parents were concerned, Hephzibah’s performances were valuable only insofar as they bolstered Yehudi. Hephzibah refused to be defined by her talent.
She became restless, bored and unfulfilled in her marriage with Lindsay Nicholas, and fell in love with Viennese sociologist and human rights activist Richard Hauser. Echoing her lunge into exile and obscurity years before, she now abandoned Nicholas and their sons. She married Hauser and they established a Centre for Human Rights in their London home. Hephzibah’s concerts often provided the finances for their various causes.
In a non-judgmental, unobtrusive style, Kent piques our curiosity as she scans the psychological profiles of hephzibah’s circle, and poignantly captures Hephzibah’s tortured and contraditory inner world.
When his sister died from throat cancer, Yehudi speculated that this was because she never really voiced her true feelings. Perhaps not, but she had dared to live by the impassioned details of her exacting heart.
Gillian Wills, Weekend Australian, February 2-3, 2008
Louis Braille Audio Talking Book ISBN 978 1 74212 077 5