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Violinist Michael Rabin and the mother from hell

rabinMichael012212_optBY WARREN BOROSON
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM

Many gifted artists have died all too young, their enormous promise not entirely fulfilled. Among the most famous: the poets Keats and Shelley, composers Mozart and Schubert, singers Fritz Wunderlich and Kathleen Ferrier, and violinists Ginette Neveu and Michael Rabin.

Jan. 19 is the 40th anniversary of Rabin’s tragic death at the age of 35. His authorized biography — authorized by his surviving older sister, Francine — has just been revised and updated: “Michael Rabin: America’s Virtuoso Violinist,” by Anthony Feinstein, professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto.

The book answers a number of questions about Rabin. What accounted for the swift decline of his musical career? What did he die of? Did he commit suicide, as some people have claimed?

Above all, what went wrong?

Certainly he was an especially gifted violinist. He began playing at age 7, and made solo appearances at Carnegie Hall at ages 13 and 15. Critics hailed him as a new Jascha Heifeitz. He played the violin during the film “Rhapsody,” with Elizabeth Taylor. He was the youngest soloist ever to appear on the prestigious “Telephone Hour.” Olin Downes, a New York Times critic, wrote: “Mr. Rabin appears to us to have simply everything.” He toured all over the world. But while critics never doubted his amazing virtuosity, there were questions about his expressiveness. (When one watches a film of him playing today, he sometimes seems so bored that he might have been painting a wall.)

Sadly, his was not a well-rounded personality. He was uni-dimensional, and he was bitter about it. Playing the violin magnificently was the chief prop to his self-esteem. And everyone agrees why: His mother, Jeanne, a failed musician herself, wanted to triumph vicariously through her son, and she turned him into a classic “mama’s boy.”

While she surely deserves some sympathy, she is portrayed in the biography as the "Mother from Hell." Rabin himself referred to her as his musical mentor…and his musical tormentor. And he told a friend (one of very, very few), “My mother sees me as the career she always wanted.”

Francine, his sister, told the author Feinstein, “Unlike Michael, I had friends, and they would come to our apartment…. Sometimes my mother would be yelling at Michael, and I remember beng embarrassed because my friends were there and my mother was screaming at Michael…. He probably got hit if he played a note out of tune sometimes. Or she would demand that he play a passage 100 times. Extraordinary things like that….”

And again: “We didn’t dare disobey her in anything she told us to do. If we protested, she smacked us around a little bit.”

Rabin himself was resentful: “I can’t take it very much longer. God damn, you’d think I’m an infant the way she treats me and makes the fool of me in front of people. It’s embarrassing and belittling.”

In any case, practicing six to eight hours a day leaves you little time to read, to socialize, to make friends, to play, to grow. The same has been said about the cold, aloof, intellectually shallow Jascha Heifitz.



 
Comments (5)
5 Wednesday, 09 July 2014 22:00
Angela Sullivan
Loved Michael Rabin I knew someone that knew him very very well he played at this Mans wedding also a great musician, Pianist. He told me many things about Michael Rabin, one being about his mother. who actually threw herself on his coffin an screamed how could you do this to me. That spoke volumes. As far as stupid critics go Michael Rabin played with enormous feeling and musicality unlike many violinist today that make silly faces & gestures. The music comes from within. Who ever thought Michael was boring was a complete idiot.
4 Friday, 14 March 2014 15:32
Dan Leeson
Sometime around 1953, Michael gave a solo recital (with piano) in Bridgeport, Ct and I was asked by the chairman of the local university music dept. to turn pages at the concert. It was at that even that I met Michael's horror of a mother, and she may have been the worst Jewish mother it was my misfortune to meet. She never left Michael alone but made herself a sort of clown to entertain the boy. She would point at me and say, "Isn't that a nice boy who will turn pages for you?"

I think she was incredibly insensitive in her behavior towards her teenage son, and after years of that kind of mother-pecking, I think that Michael just went off the rails.

Sad case.
3 Friday, 27 December 2013 19:42
Paul J. Bosco
About 12 years ago I purchased, in a Christie's rare coin auction, a ":large lot" consisting of dozens of music medals and 100+ other items they didn't know what to do with. The latter were mostly autographed photos of musicians, given to the violin theoretician --I've forgotten his name-- who was the source of this wonderful collection. There were two Michael Rabins, at least one presented to the older man by MR as a respectful teenager.

Among my customers were several good string players, including long-time Met Opera cellist Gerry Kagan. GK, who died last year, had played with MR in a string quartet when he was 18 and MR 14. He said MR would have been the USA's finest violinist. Or maybe he said he WAS the finest, and would have become the finest in the world.

I was told I could value the Rabins at about the same level as the excellent, very personal Menuhin. I think this was because they valued his greatness, and less because of a scarcity factor.

These musicians/colleagues were agreed that Michael had a "difficult relationship" with his mother. I believe they leaned toward the suicide theory. I think I recall it said that he had supposedly climbed up on a kitchen counter and fell off. They were highly skeptical about the "accident" and took no pains to exonerate mama.

I don't know if this is helpful in increasing understanding, but at a minimum it suggests the "mother from hell" part of the website name is not gratuitous.

--Paul J. Bosco
Manhattan
2 Friday, 27 December 2013 19:41
Paul J. Bosco
About 12 years ago I purchased, in a Christie's rare coin auction, a ":large lot" consisting of dozens of music medals and 100+ other items they didn't know what to do with. The latter were mostly autographed photos of musicians, given to the violin theoretician --I've forgotten his name-- who was the source of this wonderful collection. There were two Michael Rabins, at least one presented to the older man by MR as a respectful teenager.

Among my customers were several good string players, including long-time Met Opera cellist Gerry Kagan. GK, who died last year, had played with MR in a string quartet when he was 18 and MR 14. He said MR would have been the USA's finest violinist. Or maybe he said he WAS the finest, and would have become the finest in the world.

I was told I could value the Rabins at about the same level as the excellent, very personal Menuhin. I think this was because they valued his greatness, and less because of a scarcity factor.

These musicians/colleagues were agreed that Michael had a "difficult relationship" with his mother. I believe they leaned toward the suicide theory. I think I recall it said that he had supposedly climbed up on a kitchen counter and fell off. They were highly skeptical about the "accident" and took no pains to exonerate mama.

I don't know if this is helpful in increasing understanding, but at a minimum it suggests the "mother from hell" part of the website name is not gratuitous.

--Paul J. Bosco
Manhattan
1 Sunday, 15 December 2013 02:06
John Pokorny
Michael Rabin was my first real violin influence, along with Isaac Stern, back in 1963, which is about when that fabulous recording "The Magic Bow" was released. It was played on the radio and in stores and its appeal was irresistible. To this day it remains for me one of the two or three greatest violin recordings ever, not only for the performances, but also for the engineering and the quality of the vinyl. That first pressing still sounds exceptional, though I've played it with everything from a nail to a toothpick, so to speak.
Unfortunately, mistakes abound when people write about Heifetz and Rabin, including the too-common misspelling of HeifEtz (it's not an 'i'!!)t, above. Curious, isn't it, when both these artists were so punctillious about their own craft.
Well, one was the idol of the other, and it's gratifying today to see the younger generations expressing their admiration and almost worship for both their recordings. It means their achievements will live on as the epitome of the art of violin playing and of a standard to strive for and love.
Best wishes to you all.

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