May 2, 2022
The violinist Michael Rabin was born on this day, May 2, 1936. His pianist mother, Jeanne, and violinist father, George, quickly realized Michael’s musical talent. It was said that Michael could beat time with a wooden stick at the age of one, and at three he already possessed perfect pitch. Soon after that, Michael started piano lessons with his mother, and at seven he switched to the violin, beginning lessons with his father, who was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic. It was soon evident to George that he had a child prodigy on his hands, and he eventually arranged for Michael to study with Ivan Galamian, arguably the most distinguished and sought-after violin pedagogue of that era.
I first heard about Michael Rabin from my parents and my musician friends when I was twelve or thirteen. He had just recorded eleven of Paganini’s twenty-four Caprices for solo violin—some of the most challenging works in the repertoire. By comparison, I was a kid with musical talent, but at my level those Caprices were still years away. I would tell grown-ups that I wanted to be a concert violinist, but often I was more interested in hanging out with my pals after school than practicing. In short, I was no child prodigy.
Michael Rabin’s recording of Paganini Caprices swept me off my feet. They were not only played flawlessly, but also with a sweet and utterly appealing musicality—and this from a boy less than a year older than me. In hindsight, I’m grateful to Michael for putting me on high alert that if I wanted to be a violinist, I had better practice more and see less of my friends.
Fast forward several years to my acceptance as a violin student at the Curtis Institute of Music. During my audition for Efrem Zimbalist, the school’s director, he surprisingly asked me with whom I’d like to study, rather than simply assigning me a teacher. And here, I’m once again grateful to Michael. As his renown as a virtuoso violinist grew, so did the reputation of his teacher, Ivan Galamian. I chose Galamian, who turned out to be a perfect fit for my development as a violinist.
I first met Michael when I was a student at Meadowmount, Galamian’s summer string camp in the Adirondack mountains. Perhaps, with musician parents who could encourage, guide, and monitor his progress, Michael, who previously had been a student there, didn’t need this musical refuge set in rural heaven as much as the rest of us did. Aside from providing ample musical inspiration, the camp became a substitute for tough parents, in that it could strictly insist on practice—always a struggle for the real parents of a talented but occasionally lazy child. Up at seven o’clock, breakfast, four hours of practice, lunch, and then more practice. Michael, already a star awash with concert tours, recordings, and celebrity, returned to Meadowmount no longer as a student but now as a conquering hero, to continue lessons with his esteemed teacher. Michael needed a place to practice, and he opened his fiddle case in what amounted to a makeshift little garage directly across from our student living quarters. Naturally, all of us eavesdropped on his practicing. What I remember, aside from a sense of his effortless proficiency on the violin, was the biggest, most voluptuous tone I had ever heard. This was in keeping with what each of us had heard countless times from Galamian about producing the kind of sound that would easily reach the last row of Carnegie Hall.
At Meadowmount, when conversation turned to Michael’s phenomenal gift, his mother’s name often came up. Jean Rabin was an accomplished pianist who devoted herself in adult life mostly to teaching, but around the camp she was regarded as a dominating and fearful presence in Michael’s young life. True or not, a story made the rounds that when Michael was still a student at Meadowmount, his mother was stopped nearby by police for speeding, and when she could not produce a driver’s license was taken to the local police station. Mrs. Rabin called Michael, pleading with him to come pay the fine so she could be released, but her son gleefully told his friends that he was considering leaving his mother in jail overnight—payback for all the grief she had given him over the years to practice, practice, practice. Michael ultimately changed his mind and paid the fine, if the story has any merit.
Over the next years, I followed Michael’s career by listening to his brilliant recordings of the great Romantic violin repertoire, but also hearing via the musical grapevine of his successful concert tours throughout the world. It was something for all aspiring violinists to rejoice over. One of us had made it to the very top.
But that musical grapevine slowly began to issue news about Michael I did not want to hear. There were reports of his fear of falling off the stage, occasionally prompting him to sit down while he performed, Worse still, Michael’s playing had apparently suffered—something I found particularly hard to believe given his supreme mastery of the violin. Sadly, it was confirmed by my dear friend and colleague, violist Michael Tree, who had attended a violin recital of Rabin’s at New York City’s Alice Tully Hall. Michael told me it was heartbreaking to hear a great violinist reduced to a shadow of his former self. As I remember, the attending music critics wrote about the hall’s acoustics, the recital repertoire, and other details, but, out of deference to Michael, not a word about his playing.
What went wrong? we in the music community asked about Michael’s undoing. Was it the constant pressure of having to maintain his high standards? Was it having thousands of adoring fans but few real friends as he traveled the world alone? Or, as we gossiped with no actual facts at our disposal, was it his mother who had made him practice to the point of stunting his growth as a healthy human being?
And here I must, at least somewhat, come to Mrs. Rabin’s defense. Michael did not ask for this rare gift that was bestowed on him, nor did his mother. As a parent, and especially as a musician herself, Mrs. Rabin must have felt an enormous responsibility to nurture Michael’s gift. And what kid at age seven has the awareness of his or her talent, or the discipline to practice? I certainly didn’t. In my case there were tearful scenes in which my parents said that money didn’t grow on trees and no practice meant no lessons. What I couldn’t have known as a child was that concert violinists, as well as great ballet dancers, world-class gymnasts, tennis stars, and golf pros have to start very young in order to establish not only specific sets of muscles but also all-important neural networks in the brain. As my teacher Ivan Galamian once said to me about the wickedly difficult Paganini Caprices, you have to practice them before “the cake is baked,” that is, before the body has completely formed and significant technical improvement becomes difficult if not impossible. And so, in the world of successful concert violinists there are inevitably parents in the background who often have had to lay down the law: practice, practice, practice!
But Mrs. Rabin and all the other parents with talented children arguably have another, and far greater, responsibility to see that they grow and thrive in ways that perhaps have little to do with mastering scales, etudes, and concertos. Perhaps they might consider laying down a more encompassing law such as, “Practice, Take a walk in the woods. Practice. Read an exciting book. Practice. Share a pizza with your best friend.”
Michael eventually managed to emerge from a very dark place in his life. At that hopeful time, I happened to hear a performance he gave of the Brahms Violin Concerto. To my relief, it had the flair and flawless playing of the old Michael Rabin. At that point, Michael lived as I did on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and I occasionally bumped into him either on the street or at concerts, Typically, we traded stories about the ins and outs of the traveling musician. I remember Michael telling me with great relish that he never flew into JFK after a European tour, because the airport customs there was impossibly slow. Instead, he flew to Boston’s Logan Airport, whisked through their much more modern customs routine, and hopped a shuttle to New York City.
I left those encounters thinking that Michael was once more on solid footing both as a person and as a musician. But one morning I opened the newspaper and to my shock read that Michael had died the day before, on January 17, 1972. At first, I and many others feared that Michael had had a mental relapse and committed suicide, but in reality he had slipped while preparing lunch in his apartment, hit his head, and died of a concussion.
I attended Michael’s funeral service, held at a nearby Upper West Side funeral home. The place was packed with a who’s who of musicians, but what I remember is not the music played nor the words spoken at the service, but Mrs. Rabin’s grief-stricken wail that resounded through the chapel and pierced our hearts to the core. I find it uncomfortable even to imagine what Mrs. Rabin was going through. A parent’s worse nightmare is to lose a child. but in this case also to accept that her son’s hopes (and perhaps his mother’s as well) for a life of spectacular promise had been suddenly and incontrovertibly extinguished.
Not long after Michael passed away, I got to know his father. George, a sweet and quiet man, invited me to his place in Brooklyn and asked whether I’d like to have Michael’s beautifully appointed leather double violin case. Of course, it no longer contained the “Kubelik” Guarnerius del Gesu and a violin of lesser pedigree with which Michael traveled the world. It was just an empty violin case, but then again it was Michael Rabin’s violin case. Without needing a double violin case myself, but because it was a small way to remember Michael, I accepted George’s offer.
The violin case sat in my closet not for years but for decades. Once in a great while I would take it out and imagine Michael’s travels with it. This undoubtedly was the very case that flew to Boston rather than New York City in order to expedite customs, and which then took the shuttle home to Michael’s Upper West Side apartment.
Recently, I offered the case to my long time friend, the violinist and renowned bow expert Paul Childs. Rather than have it continue to sit in my closet, I thought Paul might have a use for it. But Paul had another idea: why not put the case up for auction? This concerned me. It had been almost fifty years since Michael died. Would anyone even remember him, much less want his violin case?
To my surprise, after active bidding during the auction, the case went for an impressively high price to a violinist in Europe. It warms my heart to know that Michael Rabin and his breathtaking performances are still remembered.
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