In 1967, 1968, and 1976, two of the world’s greatest musicians blended their talents for three groundbreaking albums in succession, all called “West Meets East.” Ravi Shankar, a maestro of the Indian sitar (a long-necked, lute-like instrument), joined forces with American violin virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin to create sound that music lovers have called “hypnotic,” featuring long, lyrical conversations between their two instruments. The first of these collaborations between the musicians would go on to win a Grammy award.
A meeting of minds and music
These albums were critical and popular successes when they appeared, and many of the best-known tracks were later gathered together on “West Meets East: The Historic Shankar/Menuhin Sessions.” The favorites in this compilation include “Prabhati,” “Raga Piloo,” “Twilight Mood,” and more. “Prabhati” was composed by Shankar especially for Menuhin.
Menuhin and Shankar were instrumental in introducing the West to classical Indian compositions. Menuhin happened to meet Shankar by chance, and the two went on to develop a firm friendship, based on their mutual respect for one another’s cultures and one another’s mastery of respective arts. “West Meets East” assembled their joint performances of Indian ragas in ways that highlighted the distinctive voices of each man’s instrument and musical personality. The violin and the sitar seem to dance together as Menuhin’s instrument adds notes of sweet melancholy to the leaps and cavortings of Shankar’s sitar.
The ancient beauty of the ragas
Traditional music theory in India centers on the creative use of ragas. Theoretically, thousands of different ragas are available for performers to draw on, although only a few hundred are in regular use.
The root word of “raga” in Sanskrit means “color” or “passion.” This classical form developed not only in India, but also in neighboring Pakistan and Bangladesh. A raga is a type of melodic schematic in which a musician can improvise across various types of compositions. Ragas are complex forms that allow for extensive variation and the exhibition of individual artistic talents.
A raga offers a specified set of ordered pitches in a scale, with each raga being defined by not only the pitches characteristic of it, but by formulas for arranging them as well. A musician can work within these pitches to put emphasis on certain degrees of the ascending or descending scale. By doing this, and by hopping from one note to another in ways that are distinct to the raga form, the musician can establish the atmosphere he or she wishes to create.
What Shankar and Menuhin did in “West Meets East” was to take the ancient raga tradition and spin it into new music that was at the same time respectful of its heritage and open to creative new interpretations, based on the sensibilities of the two artists.
Ravi Shankar – ambassador for global understanding
Ravi Shankar was not only a performer; he was also a composer of music in the North Indian and other traditions. Born in 1920 in Varanasi into a high-caste Brahman family, he spent his youth studying music and dance and toured India and Europe with his brother’s dance group.
From the ages of 18 to 25, Shankar devoted himself to the intense study of the sitar. He later served as All-India Radio’s music director, established the National Orchestra of India, founded music schools in Mumbai and Los Angeles, and composed for films. His scores for the films in director Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (1955 - 1959) are among his best-known and most acclaimed works.
In the 1960s, Shankar performed at the Monterey Pop Festival and at Woodstock. In 1971, he teamed up with George Harrison of the Beatles to organize the first modern benefit concert, the Concert for Bangladesh, designed to aid refugees fleeing hunger, natural disasters, and persecution. The concert album won a 1973 Grammy Award.
Shankar’s later compositions reflected his long-standing familiarity with Western musical forms, which he seamlessly mingled with classical Indian motifs. His daughter Norah Jones is a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter, and his daughter Anoushka Shankar has become a respected sitar player and composer in her own right.
Ravi Shankar died in 2012, at age 92, in Southern California.
Yehudi Menuhin – champion of humanity
Also a composer as well as a performer, Yehudi Menuhin was born in New York City in 1916, the child of Lithuanian Jewish parents. He grew up in San Francisco, where at age 7 he enthralled an audience of adult connoisseurs with his performance of the Violin Concerto by Felix Mendelssohn. As a teenage performer, he toured widely, winning acclaim for his technical fluency, the depth of his emotional range, and his individual style of interpretation.
Menuhin performed and recorded with some of the world’s finest conductors. He spent World War II appearing in some 500 concerts for Allied troops, and performed with composer Benjamin Britten for the recently freed survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
In addition to his collaborations with Shankar, Menuhin also ventured into jazz and cut notable recordings with jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli.
Over the course of his career, Menuhin became known for championing lesser-known composers in his performances. Like Shankar, he was a dedicated humanitarian and music educator. He founded the Yehudi Menuhin School in Surrey, England, in 1963, focusing on teaching musically gifted youth. In the 1960s, he appeared as a conductor with noted world orchestras, and by the 1990s was focused exclusively on conducting.
Menuhin, who had become a British citizen in 1985, remained a life-long crusader for human rights, social justice, and environmental causes. He died in 1999 in Berlin, Germany.