Michael Rabin: America’s Virtuoso Violinist

Michael Rabin: America’s Virtuoso Violinist
By Anthony Feinstein
Amadeus Press; 222 pages
A review by R. C. Speck

Nothing can make us feel the loss brought by an untimely death better than a good biography. That’s what Anthony Feinstein accomplishes with Michael Rabin: America’s Virtuoso Violinist. Many are too young to remember Rabin as the troubled, fragile genius of the 1960s, let alone as the unstoppable child prodigy of the 1950s who was touted as the next Jascha Heifetz. Rabin’s recorded output was relatively meager, so his legacy lives much in the memories of those who saw him perform and knew him personally. Feinstein’s wonderful biography is just the thing to keep these memories alive.

During Rabin’s prodigy years, Feinstein focuses on Rabin’s family. Rabin’s mother, a Juilliard-trained pianist, oversaw every inch of her son’s musical development and would often push the boy to practice eight hours a day. Feinstein often asks whether young Michael would have turned out better had his mother not been so overbearing.

Feinstein chronicles the 1950s as one smashing success after another as Rabin amazed audiences with fiendishly difficult pieces by Paganini, Tchaikovsky, Wieniawski, and others. Feinstein describes the grueling work, the endless travel, and painful sacrifice the boy had to make to become one of the premier violinists of his day (an impressive roster including Heifetz, Isaac Stern, Yehudi Menuhin, and Rabin’s mentor Zino Francescatti).

We also learn of Michael Rabin the boy, his sweetness, his love for airplanes and photography, and his seemingly chronic loneliness.

This last point spelled trouble for Michael once he reached adulthood. Feinstein wonders if Rabin’s years as a prodigy robbed him of his childhood or arrested his emotional development. Constantly on the road in the early 1960s, Rabin began taking prescription medication. He soon became addicted, with side effects wreaking havoc on his health and ruining performances. Disaster followed disaster until Rabin hit rock bottom in 1963 with a nervous breakdown.

Rabin rejuvenated his career shortly after but was never quite the same. He was no longer the world’s preeminent violinist. Big concert stages no longer beckoned. Recording studios remained closed to him. And despite his strenuous efforts to kick his drug habit, he never quite did.

It’s tempting to attribute Rabin’s death to his addiction, but that wouldn’t be a fair assessment. By 1972, things were looking up for Rabin. He had worked his way back into the public’s favor. He had a busy schedule. He had a steady girlfriend. Feinstein shows that Rabin’s death was nothing more than a tragic, avoidable accident. Could it have been prevented years earlier? Can we second-guess history? Or should we just see Michael Rabin as a gentle, unlucky genius who gave us beautiful music during his short time on Earth? Feinstein lets us decide.

This book review appeared in the summer 2012 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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