the founder of goldman sachs bought a violin for a prodigy -- 5/03/19

Today's selection -- from Stradivari's Genius by Toby Faber. Yehudi Menuhin was one of the 20th century's most influential violinists. A renowned prodigy at age 11, his family was unable to buy him a violin of a quality to match his talent. That was soon remedied by the generosity of the founder of Goldman Sachs, who bought him a world-renowned Stradivarius violin:

" 'The ultimate wunderkind' (to use Itzhak Perlman's description of him) made his New York orchestral debut on No­vember 25, 1927. He was eleven years old but pretending to be ten, a common subterfuge among child prodigies, and appeared on stage in velvet knickerbockers and white shirt. Chubby, need­ing help from the concert-master in tuning his Grancino violin, Menuhin would be rewarded for a successful performance with a tub of strawberry ice cream. It would have to have been a very large tub indeed. It was not just that he played Beethoven's Vio­lin Concerto with flawless technique; he also projected it with such maturity. Menuhin was already a celebrity when he was booked to play the solo; by the end of his performance he had, in the words of the New York Times critic Olin Downes, 'proved conclusively his right to be ranked with the outstanding inter­preters of this music.'

"Within three weeks Menuhin was back in Carnegie Hall for another recital. Again it was a triumph and this time, although he also expressed some reservations, Downes marveled at the tone the violinist was able to extract from his 'rather poor instru­ment.'

"Menuhin was not to suffer the handicap for long. Only about a year later, he was invited to call on Henry Goldman, a banker whose wealth can be judged by the fact that his name lives on in the world of finance, paired with Sachs. In his earlier days Gold­man had been a door-to-door salesman of cheap violins, ones la­beled as Strads but never in danger of being mistaken for the real thing. Now he was a patron of the arts and a music lover, and had been in the audience at another Menuhin concert where the prodigy seemed to struggle on a borrowed del Gesù. Some re­views had been damning, but the performance must still have had enough in it to impress the financier. Menuhin's visit to his New York apartment began with a tour of the art collection. Al­though now completely blind, Goldman still knew the details of every piece: the Cellini bronze inkstand, van Dyck portrait, Donatello sculpture, and Holbein miniatures. Then the conver­sation turned to the purpose of Goldman's invitation, as the banker made a remarkable offer: 'Now, you must choose any vi­olin you want, no matter what the price. Choose it; it's yours.'

The 'Prince Khevenhüller' Stradivari of 1733 was presented to Menuhin on his 12th birthday.

"Menuhin had the pick of all the instruments available for sale around the world. He took his time, visiting every New York dealer and asking older violinists for advice before he eventually decided -- on Emil Herrmann's [Stradivarius known as the] Khevenhüller. In his memoirs al­most fifty years later Menuhin would describe the violin, which he still owned: 'Ample and round, varnished a deep glowing red, its grand proportions were matched by a sound at once power­ful, mellow and sweet.' The violin would be described to the world as a twelfth-birthday present for the young violinist, who was in fact almost thirteen. The contrast between age and youth is hard to ignore. The violin itself was nearly two hundred years old, made by a luthier in his ninetieth year. Menuhin, that most spiritual of violinists, was sensitive to the implications: 'A great violin is alive; its very shape embodies its maker's intentions, and its wood stores the history, or the soul, of its successive owners. I never play without feeling that I have released or, alas, violated spirits.'

"Herrmann threw in a Tourte bow with the violin. He could afford to be generous. The reported price of $60,000 [$620,000], when comparable Strads were going for half that, is a tribute to his skills as a salesman. That brochure had done its job.

"Among the violins that Menuhin had rejected in favor of the Khevenhüller was the [Stradivarius known as the] Betts, the violin its namesake claimed to have bought in 1820 for £1 {$70]. Made in 1704, toward the be­ginning of Stradivari's golden period, and described by the Hills as one of the great productions of his life, it was priced at $110,000  [$1.2 million]. The violinist, at least, had not abused his benefactor's generosity. It is not certain that the same can be said of Yehudi's father. There have always been rumors that he received a commission on the sale, and it is curious that Herrmann's receipt -- 'To Yehudi Menuhin -- In Trust of his father, Moshe Menuhin ... one violin ... known as the "Prince Khevenhüller" ' -- is for only $48,000 [$500,000]. The implica­tion that Moshe pocketed $12,000 [$120,000] may be hard to swallow; perhaps he simply felt that $60,000 [$620,000] was a better figure for publicity purposes, or perhaps he felt that Mr. Goldman would not notice the difference. If so, he was probably right. For the rest of his life the blind 'Uncle Henry,' as he came to be known in the Menuhin household, would sit in the front row at his beneficiary's concerts. He must have derived consid­erable satisfaction from his purchase of a work of art that could be heard as well as seen."



Toby Faber


Stradivari's Genius


Random House


Copyright 2004 by Toby Faber


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