Memorial Service for Yehudi Menuhin
June 3rd 1999
Eulogy by Dom Laurence Freeman OSB
Death is always an occasion for grieving and for celebrating. There is the pain of loss but also the sense of liberation, the agony of absence but also the awareness of how every life enhances the total history of humanity.
In the case of Yehudi Menuhin these paradoxes are particularly intense and universal. His family and friends will feel the loss most painfully. But, in his case, a very great multitude who never met him in the flesh also experienced his friendship: the friendship born of the sympathy of a shared humanity. By his art and genius and his vastly open spirit, Yehudi Menuhin has helped untold millions to understand and appreciate more richly what humanity is about.
I remember in one of my first conversations with him talking about the “Cloud of Unknowing,” a medieval mystical work. His curiosity and questions and comments renewed my own enthusiasm for what was for me a very familiar work; and a week later he contacted me to ask for details of a particular edition I had mentioned. In the same way his quick, eager, childlike yet highly sophisticated and passionate mind renewed the originality of many great works for his audiences for nearly eighty years. In an age obsessed with reproduction his interpretative genius never failed to remind us of the meaning of the original.
Family, friends, fellow musicians and audiences everywhere will miss his irreplaceable spirit of enthusiasm, his passion for justice and his brave compassion for the underprivileged and neglected.
But we can all also celebrate the affirmation of our culture he devoted himself to. At a time when there may not seem much to be proud about in western society, the work of his life – and the ongoing life of his work in so many fields – can lift our spirits and renew our hope. This is the work of the great teachers, the true gurus of society, and this is how I would like to applaud him today.
He once said that ‘we cannot enjoy the fruits of civilisation without a relationship to the eternal’. It was this insight – an experience not merely a concept – that opened him to the essential truth in all religions. He was one of those rare artists who is both deeply spiritual and deeply religious.
From this universal spiritual sense came his capacity for friendship with the followers of all religions. It is a mark of Yehudi Menuhin’s deep and broad humanity that I, a Christian monk, can also share with you, his family and friends today, the condolences and appreciation of a Buddhist monk, His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
For nearly thirty years, the Dalai Lama says, he regarded him as a spiritual brother and his admiration and affection grew with time.
‘The sense of solidarity that I enjoyed from him (the Dalai Lama says) in my work of promoting such basic human values as compassion, non-violence and inter-religious understanding, was a source of great encouragement and inspiration. Not only has the world lost one its greatest musicians but it has also lost a great humanitarian. I, too, have lost a dear friend and a comrade-in-arms in the struggle for a more peaceful, harmonious and compassionate world.’
Like the Dalai Lama Yehudi Menuhin was a friend and patron of The World Community for Christian Meditation, a contemplative community that believes in the unifying power of pure prayer, the capacity of true silence to realise deep community among all peoples. I was at first surprised that a great musician should so appreciate the value of silence. In later conversations I understood that he did so because his sense of the sacred was so rooted in his belief in the sacredness of sense. Music, he surprised me once by saying, is the most physical of the arts as well as the most interior.
A musician, like a meditator, like someone sitting with a refugee or with a dying person or with a young person in distress, must know how to listen. Yehudi Menuhin was one of humanity’s rare and great listeners. He teaches us what we should be listening to at the heart of humanity, at the heart of the world. There is much to celebrate in his life, much to be thankful for, much to learn, much to pass on from what he discovered and shared with such beauty.
In my last conversation with him he spoke revealingly about what he heard at the heart of music – a new music he said, something unearthly, the resonances and vibrations on which all matter is ultimately built. If one could call him a mystic it would be because he was such a man of sense. And we can feel sure that what he heard once he hears and enjoys for ever.