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.
The first young woman Rabin developed a crush on, Adrienne Lewis, said about him, “He was not a particularly interesting person to know, but when he picked up the violin, it was pure magic. I wish he could have continued it into his conversation.”
When Rabin rushed over to Adrienne after a concert, she told Feinstein, his mother “rounded on me in public, shouting at me that I didn’t understand who Michael was, what his obligations were, what kind of public figure he was, and so on. I felt humiliated…. Michael stood there, crimson, crestfallen and silent.”
Adrienne closed the door on Rabin.
A later friend, Suzanne Landry, told Feinstein that “This dear, sweet person, a gentle soul, had never been allowed to grow up…. She treated him like a kid, and once I saw her loudly berate him after a concert for not putting on a coat. You’ll catch a cold, Michael. But he was a big man already.”
Not that Rabin’s life was totally spartan. For a while he enjoyed biking, collecting model airplanes, playing table tennis. He had a sense of humor. (He referred to his numerous recitals as “rectals.”) And he wrote lots of letters, including this lively one from Hollywood:
“My God, you should see Elizabeth Taylor — is she an idiot. She goes around in a tremendous pink Rolls Royce…. Naturally, she has two white poodles with her, and smokes cigarettes from a $1,500 gold mouthpiece which is about 15 inches long….”
Still, Feinstein concludes that, “For Michael, life outside of music was empty.”
Eventually Rabin developed psychological problems — for example, he became afraid of falling off the stage. He began taking powerful sedatives and other medications. He cancelled concerts; his performances turned sloppy. Invitations to play dried up. He entered a hospital, Mount Sinai in New York City, and visited a psychiatrist.
He tried to make a comeback, and succeeded for a while, but then returned to his medications. In his apartment, groggy with sedatives while answering the phone, he slipped, fractured his skull, and died. (You would never know all this from the entry on him in Wikipedia.)
The author clearly did prodigious research, and knows a lot about music. But his book is badly flawed — repetitious, full of spelling mistakes, thinking sometimes so shallow that it seems like a book for children. The publisher, the respected Amadeus Press, should have done a better job of copyediting. Still, once the reader gets past the first few chapters the book becomes absorbing.
Rabin’s funeral was attended by such celebrities as Van Cliburn and Itzhak Perlman. June Le Bell, a friend of Rabin’s and a radio commentator who attended, reported that Rabin’s mother (who died four years later) seemed inconsolable. “She just wouldn’t stop screaming. The ranting and screaming didn’t read true. I’m sure she was feeling these things, but I also think it was her way of becoming the center of attention, which is what I think she wanted all along.”
ALSO BY WARREN BOROSON