Lionel Rolfe’s telling account of his mother’s life is a fascinating read that reveals as much about its author as it provides a look into the wings of the fabled Menuhin family. However, the May-December, student-mentor relationship of Yaltah Menuhin with Willa Cather is more prominent in the title than the actual text.
For musiclovers there is much to learn about the backstage intrigues of professional concert life. Yaltah, the youngest of the trio of musical prodigies is frequently described as “the best musician of the three,” due in large part for her love of chamber music where all partners are equal. Brother Yehudi—whose best performances came as a child prodigy, never fully regaining his considerable talent after “re-learning” the instrument (cross-reference below)—sought and held the limelight using the middle sister, Hephzibah, as his accompanist when it suited him. All three siblings seldom performed together.
Rolfe struggled with the classical guitar for some years but his fear of being dubbed “a second-rate Menuhin” led him into journalism and the Los Angeles underground press.
Only ten years old, Yaltah bonded immediately with the middle-aged Willa Cather, learning from “Aunt Willa” about art, truth and life. The issue of Cather’s sexuality, particularly regarding her longtime companions Edith Lewis and Isabelle McClung, are broached but never concluded. Indeed, the many references to homosexuality including Thomas Mann’s “pride” and artists Frank Ingerson and George Dennison’s “marriage” are more in line with the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” syndrome than the search for truth that—ostensibly—drives the principals.
Rolfe makes the case that Cather’s Lucy Gayheart is fashioned on his mother’s own fight for her artistic independence and respect within the family. With the considerable age difference, the joy of just being with the children and the considerable physical pain Cather suffered while writing Lucy, there’s a remarkable degree of similarity to the tone of Mann’s Death in Venice.
The theme of suffering for one’s art permeates, what with the wear and tear of concert tours and the shared loneliness of writers and pianists as they spend countless hours locked away perfecting their craft.
The consequent breakdown of family life is almost a given. Rolfe gets caught up in his mother’s divorce from his father, Ben, taking her side, resulting in many emotional upheavals. When her next husband, Joel Ryce, abandons his music career (also a pianist) to become a Jungian therapist, Rolfe’s resentment is almost as palpable as the omission of his mother’s accomplishments by Grove’s Dictionary.
Throughout the book, much is made of the “music of words,” and their common elements: rhythm, counterpoint and themes. But—finally—it is through great art that Rolfe inadvertently betrays himself. The quote early on from Cather’s My Antonia shines brightly above and beyond the author’s capable but essentially rudimentary prose that surrounds it—rather like hearing a few bars of a Bach Partita in the midst of a Salieri Aria.
Rolfe’s homage is clear and his book provides valuable insight into the lives of those around him, but the time has now come to abandon the family and allow his own voice to emerge as it will. JWR