We're soon going to know the list of those nominated for the Queen's New Year Honours list. The process of identifying, recommending and nominating those to be honoured I'd hope has criteria beyond the person's fame, capacity to influence or celebrity profile. I'd like there to be two specific criteria. :
Is the person a great human being?
Have they contributed to human compassion and inspired us to be more humane?
The answer to the second would help answer the first. Now I admit this post didn't begin with a thought about the New Years Honours List. It started with me listening to a piece of music and thinking for the umpteenth time that the violinist is one of the greatest human beings I've admired in my lifetime. That sparked the question, what makes someone a great human being?
Generous outward looking compassion.
Discontent with injustice.
Love for a broken world.
Bringer of joy into the lives of others.
Cherishing of human worth.
Communication across cultures.
Hopeful poise towards the future.
Moral integrity and courage.
That isn't an exhaustive list. It certainly won't be universally agreed. But for me it describes Yehudi Menuhin. I first encountered Menuhin on an EMI recording of Brahms' Violin Concerto, the first classical record I ever listened to at the age of 20! A mind and soul that was soaked exclusively in the ferment of the music of the late 60's and early 70's, had no idiom or discourse to interpret what I was hearing. I remember the joyful bewilderment, the humbling realisation that there are other languages than my own, deeper chords in my being than I knew, longings from who knows where. These were awakened by the creative power, remorseless beauty, corrective harmony and proffered vision of an artist at the height of his powers commanding attention with the overwhelming argument of that wordless language of the human heart and spirit which we call music. I still can't hear the first bars of the second movement without remembering with grateful embarrassment that epiphany in sound which conferred such a generous invitation to come, to hear, and to relinquish that culpable arrogance that thinks it knows, and discovers such arrogance is ignorance.
There are different ways God invades our lives and subverts our certainties. Ever since that afternoon, music has had the power to do this to me. Not long after I read Menuhin's autobiography, Unfinished Journey. That's when I became interested in what moves and inspires, what gives moral content and human value, what is that inexplicable quality that is expressed through the creative kenosis that enables music to express human integrity, transcendent beauty and those deep truths of existence out of which our joys and tragedies are fashioned. Amongst other things it is the list of attributes of what I consider makes a great human being. On my own unfinished journey, Yehudi Menuhin has been a recurring humanising presence whose gift was the opening up of a new inner universe.