Abbey Road 90: Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin Record West Meets East - the first time Indian and Western Classical music come together

10th July 2021

In July 1966, the most famous classical violin player in the world was sat on the floor of Abbey Road’s Studio Three beside his musical contemporary, an Indian musician who created sounds far away from Menuhin’s own.


It was indeed a pivotal moment bringing Western classical and Indian classical music together on a global scale for the first time.

As part of our 90th anniversary celebrations, Journalist Naomi Larsson Pineda, who has been helping us to research the Abbey Road story over the last nine months, explores how their unlikely relationship was formed and looks into the recording of the ground-breaking album at Abbey Road.

 
Yehudi Menuhin was an American violinist born to Russian parents in 1916, a musical prodigy who became a world-class player before he even reached his teens. Menuhin knew Abbey Road well, by 1966 he had already been recording at the studios for over three decades. In 1932 Menuhin had been chosen to record Elgar’s Violin Concerto in Abbey Road’s Studio One, backed by the London Symphony Orchestra when he was just 16 years old.

Born in India in 1920, Shankar was the sitar virtuoso and composer whose genius and temperance opened western minds to Indian and eastern music for the first time.

Both musicians had already heard of one another by the time they properly met in 1952. Shankar recalled coming across Menuhin as a 17-year-old in Paris. Shankar, then 13, was in France with his older brother and his company of Hindu musicians and dancers when they had a visit from Menuhin and his sister Hephzibah, an accomplished pianist. Shankar later said he never forgot Menuhin’s playing on that day.
 
 
By the 1950s Menuhin had developed a fascination with cultures and influences beyond his world of western classical music. He first visited India in January 1952 and was introduced to Shankar at a gathering at the house of India Radio’s director-general in Delhi. Menuhin, already interested in yoga and with a sensibility to explore a culture beyond his own, is said to have clicked with Shankar from the moment they met.

They became friends and teachers to one another, forming a musical and personal relationship that would have ripple effects throughout the world.
Shankar was famously a friend and mentor to George Harrison who was heavily influenced by the sounds of the sitar and Indian culture, which bled into The Beatles’ later music. But Shankar was already breaking boundaries even before his meeting with The Beatles. Signed to HMV India, Shankar first recorded at Abbey Road Studios in 1956 for the album Music of India, Three Classical Ragas. It was Shankar’s first solo record and the second time Indian classical music had been recorded on LP.
 
 
Menuhin was both fascinated and shocked by Indian music, with it being so far from traditional western classical understanding. Indian classical musicians don’t read music from paper, they play from memory and through oral tradition and improvisation. Menuhin apparently found the thought of improvisation terrifying.

Ravi Shankar once said we must listen to Indian classical music “with an open mind”. “We listen to our classical music with the same respectful attitude as you hear Bach or Beethoven or Mozart. Our music doesn’t have the essential things as in the western classical music such as harmony, dimensions and modulation and things like that. It is all improvised in these ragas.”

In an interview with the BBC in 1961, Menuhin was asked why he takes Indian music so seriously. "I love this music,” he said. “The extreme subtlety, the incredible organisation, the incredible awareness that must be continuously present in the minds of each individual who is playing it. “The manual dexterity fascinates me as a violinist. The wonderful sensitivity and rapidity of the reflexes.”

These two streams of thought and expression were brought together in the seminal 1967 album East Meets West (also referred to as West Meets East), a collaboration between these two experimental musical minds.

 
 

“It was on West Meets East that Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin, already friends for 14 years, first recorded together. Here in Abbey Road Studios in 1966 East met West, but not at the border. The land underfoot was Indian, for Menuhin played Shankar's music. It was the first great collaboration between virtuosos from different traditions, the precursor of countless such meetings, and it topped the Billboard classical charts for 6 months." – Oliver Craske, biographer of Ravi Shankar.

 
In the 1960s Menuhin had become artistic director of the Bath Festival, curating and conducting his orchestra and using the festival as a way to explore different musical influences.

In June 1966 both men did their first public performance together on stage in Bath. A few days later in July, they committed the work to tape, recording improvisations and Shankar’s ragas in Abbey Road’s Studio Three over two days. The resulting record, released a year later, includes three ragas and three further Menuhin recordings of George Enescu’s Violin Sonata (another huge influence on Menuhin) with his sister Hephzibah on piano.

A dig into Abbey Road’s archives reveals the session tracks were listed as improvisations and lasted from 10.00am-13.15pm on 3 July, and over two three-hour sessions the following day, engineered by Neville Boyling and Mike Sheady, with tabla and tamboura accompanists.

The Grammy-award-winning album spent six months at the top of the classical charts. It was the first time Asian music had won an award for chamber music, and indeed was a pivotal moment bringing western classical and Indian classical music together on a global scale for the first time.
 
 
 

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