Michael Rabin – America’s First Teen Violin Sensation November 26 2021
Michael Rabin was known as one of the preeminent violin virtuosos of the 20th century. After a debut at Carnegie Hall at the age of 13, Michael went on to travel over 700,000 miles during his career.
Sadly, the career of Michael Rabin was cut extremely short. He died at the age of 35 and had not released a notable recording since his early 20s.
In the span of a decade, Michael Rabin went from a pudgy wunderkind to a young man grappling with the challenges of fame and a developing neurological condition.
Despite his short career, Michael Rabin remains renowned for his playing abilities. His legacy lives on in several compilations of his performances from the height of his career. Here is a closer look at the life of Michael Rabin and his impact on the musical world.
BORN TO A FAMILY OF MUSICIANS
The Rabin Family - A publicity photograph by 1948
Michael Rabin was born in New York on May 2, 1936. His father was George Rabinowitz, the son of Romanian immigrants and the second oldest of nine children. His mother, Jeanne Seidman, was born to Russian-Jewish immigrants.
As with many musical prodigies, Michael Rabin was not the first in his family to pursue a career in music. His father and mother were both trained musicians.
Michael’s father was a violinist who eventually played with the New York Philharmonic while his mother practiced piano under the top teacher at the Institute of Musical Art. She would eventually teach private piano lessons.
GEORGE AND JEANNE SUFFER SIGNIFICANT LOSSES
Michael was not the first child born to George and Jeanne. Jay Rabinowitz was born in December 1924. Jeanne started teaching Jay to play the piano at a young age. Several photographs exist of Jay at the age of six or seven sitting in front of a piano.
The little boy was a natural pianist. Unfortunately, he fell ill in February of 1932 and was admitted to the hospital. He was diagnosed with scarlet fever and died several weeks later.
Jeanne also suffered the loss of both parents. Her father passed three years before Jay while her mother died a year later. Within a period of four years, Jeanne had lost her father, mother, and her first child.
THE RABINOWITZ HOUSEHOLD GROWS
Just over two years after Jay’s death, George and Jeanne welcomed their first daughter into the world. Bertine Rabinowitz was born on February 27, 1934. Michael Rabinowitz was born two years later.
The Rabinowitz household now includes two little children, helping George and Jeanne recover from their earlier losses. Music also began to fill the house, which helped shape the early life of Michael.
[Photo] Michael Rabin at age 10
George’s relatives included Rose, Jean, and Grace, who performed around the country as the Rabinowitz Trio. His eldest sister, Clara, was an accomplished piano soloist. George’s youngest brother moonlighted as a violinist. The family’s apartment also included musical guests. Dinner was often followed by chamber music, with the children drifting to sleep as their relatives played Mozart and Beethoven.
GEORGE AND JEANNE CHOOSE A NEW NAME
After the birth of their children, George and Jeanne decided to abbreviate their surname. Rabinowitz became Rabin.
George’s youngest brother, Norman, a musician, adopted the stage name of Norman Robbins. However, George’s sister Clara embraced the family’s European origins and started using the spelling Rabinowitch.
The family had a happy life in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which was a predominantly Jewish neighborhood at the time. George was working steadily while Jeanne continued to offer piano lessons, affording the family a comfortable lifestyle.
MICHAEL'S MUSICAL ABILITIES APPEAR AT AN EARLY AGE
A common story about Michael Rabin’s early childhood is that he could beat perfect time with a wooden spoon at the age of one. By the age of three, he had developed perfect pitch. He could accurately call out any note after any sound, from a key on the piano to a car horn outside.
Jeanne also devoted herself to teaching piano to her two young children. Bertine and Michael both received lessons from their mother for many years starting at the age of six.
A concert program from Jeanne’s piano studio in 1943 lists Bertine, Michael, and three students as performers. Bertine and Michael were both gifted pianists, but likely lacked the natural aptitude of their deceased brother Jay.
MICHAEL DEVELOPS A LOVE FOR THE VIOLIN
Interestingly, Michael did not play the violin during his earliest years, despite his father being a professional violinist. It would take a trip to the country for Michael to discover the instrument that would change his life.
A year or two after he began learning piano, Michael’s family went on a trip to the country for a short day with family friends – the Spielberg family.
William Spielberg was a doctor and amateur violinist. Mr. Spielberg also bred white turkeys. During the trip, Michael was wandering around the property when he discovered a child’s violin. Michael picked up the instrument, began tuning it, and would not put it down when it was time to leave.
[Photo] Mr. Rabin in his early twenties playing the violin
Mr. Spielberg let Michael keep the violin. George restrung the instrument after they got back home and began teaching Michael how to play. After just a few lessons, George realized that Michael’s natural abilities surpassed his own. George decided that Michael would likely develop more under the leadership of a more skilled instructor.
MICHAEL BEGINS STUDYING WITH IVAN GALAMIAN
In the fall of 1943, Michael returned to school. He was also receiving piano lessons from his mother and violin lessons from his father. George had also started looking for a new teacher for Michael. He arranged for Michael to play for Ivan Galamian, who had recently moved to a nearby apartment.
After listening to Michael perform, Galamian was impressed enough to arrange for Michael to study at his studio. Galamian’s assistant began instructing Michael until Galamian took over teaching duties.
Michael Rabin playing Paganini's Caprice No.5 at Carnegie Hall (1953)
Ivan Galamian was of Armenian descent and born in Iran. Ivan had lived through the Russian Revolution, World War I, the influenza pandemic, and prison before arriving in the United States. Outside of George and Jeanne, Ivan was likely the most influential person in Michael’s life. The two remained close until Michael’s death years later.
By the end of 1944, Michael Rabin was devoting most of his free time outside of his general school studies to practicing the violin. He had a tough, self-imposed regime. He was committed to becoming the world’s best violinist, which also led to him being removed from conventional schooling so he could focus on the violin.
MICHAEL DEMONSTRATED EXCEPTIONAL DISCIPLINE
Another interesting story from Michael’s childhood demonstrates his determination and willpower. During practice, he would only move to the next section of a rendition until after he mastered the current section. He would set an empty food bowl and six marbles in the room. After successfully playing the section, he would place one marble in the bowl. After six of the marbles were in the bowl, he would allow himself to move on to the next section.
Michael demonstrated compulsive behavior with his strict training regime. However, his constant practice also left Michael with no time for playing with peers. As he was also removed from conventional schooling, Bertine was the only child he spent much time with.
Michael Rabin playing Brahms' violin sonata No.3 II.Adagio at Carnegie Hall (1953)
Michael continued to spend most of his time practicing while attending Juilliard. He would frequently spend six to eight hours a day practicing, which is a figure that former classmates believe is underestimated.
Michael continued to improve his musical skills but did not develop proper social skills. He also spent a considerable amount of time around adults, especially after the next major change to his routine. In the autumn of 1946, Galamian joined the faculty at Juilliard. The following year, Galamian helped Rabin secure a scholarship to the school.
FIRST PROFESSIONAL APPEARANCE AND SOLO RECORDINGS
Along with attending Juilliard, 1947 was the year that Michael launched his professional career. At the age of 10, Michael played with the Havana Philharmonic. The orchestra played under Artur Rodzinski. Michael had only been playing the violin for a little over three years at this point. Yet, he was tackling songs that would be a challenge for the most seasoned virtuosos.
[Photo] Michael Rabin -The Unpublished Recordings by Testament label
After his professional debut, Galamian and Michael’s parents acted quickly. Michael received critical acclaim for his performance. Young Michael was soon touring the Northeast for various public performances.
Two years later, at the age of 12, Michael made his recording debut. He performed for the Columbia Masterworks label and recorded a set of 11 of Paganini’s Caprices.
13-YEAR-OLD MICHAEL MAKES HIS CARNEGIE HALL DEBUT
In 1949, Michael celebrated his bar mitzvah and his debut at Carnegie Hall. The performance at Carnegie Hall was part of an event held by the National Orchestral Association. The event included 146 students from four music schools. Michael stood out among his peers and again received critical acclaim for his performance.
After the performance at Carnegie Hall, Michael embarked on his first international tour. He traveled to Cuba for a 10-day trip and performed with the Havana Philharmonic. His arrival was marked with fanfare, as the local newspapers were amazed at Michael’s young age.
[Photo] Program for a concert of Rabin in Lisbon
The trip to Cuba was also Michael’s first time on an airplane. He enjoyed the trip so much that he started to keep a flight log. By the end of his career, Michael had 81 pages filled with flight times and lists of cities and countries that he visited.
MICHAEL RABIN MEETS ZINO FRANCESCATTI
The 1950s were the high point of Michael’s career and likely his life. In 1950, Michael began meeting with fellow violinist Zino Francescatti. Francescatti had recently recorded music for Columbia records. After hearing Michael play, Zino contacted an executive at Columbia and arranged a meeting.
Michael recorded 11 caprices. However, the music was not released for another two years. Michael was only 12 when he recorded the caprices and 14 when the music was released. Columbia wanted to delay the record to avoid overshadowing Francescatti’s latest release.
Michael Rabin watching Jascha Heifetz in rehearsal - Bell Telephone Hour 1950
Yet, it was another recommendation from Francescatti that would change Michael’s life. Francescatti arranged for Michael to perform on NBC’s The Bell Telephone Hour’s 10th-anniversary program. Michael performed for the nation at the age of 14.
Michael’s career took off. He spent the better part of the next decade on the road. He logged over 700,000 miles and played for millions of people. Yet, Michael was lonely.
Michael had no friends. He considered Zino Francescatti and Francescatti’s wife to be his friends, but Zino gradually became more distant. Early letters show Michael and Zino excitedly discussing their musical interests and performances. However, Zino’s replies gradually become shorter and more formal.
MICHAEL TOURS AUSTRALIA AND NEARLY DESTROYS HIS OWN CAREER
In 1952, Michael left Juilliard and began focusing on touring full time. He was only 16 years old and had already recorded music for a major record label, played at Carnegie Hall, and appeared on a nationally broadcast radio program.
The next stage of his career was to include a rigorous touring schedule, starting with a 40-day trip through Australia. The trip to Australia nearly ended Michael’s career before it could really get started.
Michael Rabin rehearsing with the MGM Studio Orchestra in 1953
The trip started well enough, with a few performances in Sydney. However, the reviews from critics were mixed. Michael received praise from some critics and slightly negative reviews from others.
The mixed reviews did not sit well with Michael. At this point, Michael had only experienced public adoration. He felt humiliated, which led to anger. An interview that appeared in local papers included rude comments, such as “Australians are just so smug” and “Americans are more unassuming, although they know a lot more.”
The comments did not help Michael’s reviews. The local media was soon obsessed with the 16-year-old American. Newspaper articles appeared featuring unflattering photographs and negative reviews of his performances. Michael attempted to issue an apology, but the damage was already done. The negative publicity followed Michael throughout the rest of his tour.
MICHAEL RETURNS TO THE UNITED STATES AND VISITS HOLLYWOOD
Michael was eager to return home, but he immediately resumed his busy schedule. After arriving back in the United States, he only had 15 hours to rest before appearing in another Bell Telephone Hour program. Shortly after, he visited the Columbia recording studios in New York City. Michael recorded with the Columbia Symphony Orchestra before departing for California on his first trip to the West Coast.
Michael Rabin Poster for a concert in Tel Aviv (1958-1959) signed by him
In California, Michael played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He also fell in love with California. He enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere but soon had to leave for performances throughout the Midwest.
Luckily, work brought Michael back to California the following year. He had signed a contract to record the soundtrack for a Hollywood film starring Elizabeth Taylor. The movie, Rhapsody, was not a success, but it was a notable highlight in Michael’s career.
After finishing work on the soundtrack, Michael continued touring. He also continued writing to his sister Bertine. Michael’s letters to his sister offer more insight into his emotions during this period, including his sense of isolation and social anxiety.
MICHAEL AND JEANNE'S RELATIONSHIP BEGINS TO FRACTURE
Life on the road was hard for Michael, especially when dealing with his mother. Jeanne was essentially Michael’s tour manager and publicist. She went everywhere with him and managed his schedule. The pressure would occasionally cause Michael to act out. Michael and his mother would get into long fights, which often ended with Michael throwing objects or running out of the house.
Michael was almost 18 and had never had a friend or a girlfriend. However, in 1956 Michael started dating a woman named Adrienne. Unfortunately, the relationship did not last. Michael was infatuated with Adrienne, but she felt differently.
Michael Rabin playing Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto (finale)
During the short-lived courtship, Michael also experienced a medical issue that would become a common occurrence. Michael collapsed on stage during a performance. During a medical checkup, Michael was told that he was suffering from a nervous breakdown.
MICHAEL'S CAREER SLOWS DOWN AND HIS ANXIETY INCREASES
After the medical incident, Michael Rabin had to cancel several performances. He also received several mixed reviews for the performances that he gave during this period.
For the next several years, Michael gradually developed more anxieties. For example, he developed a profound fear that he would grow dizzy and fall off the stage during a performance. The anxiety seemed to come and go. Unfortunately, they also seemed to derail the rest of Michael’s career.
[Photo] Mr. Rabin shown in his early thirties cleaning the interior of his violin with raw rice
The last decade of Michael’s life was spent with sporadic performances. He would also occasionally put on free performances at public parks. However, he never married or had children. He also never recorded again.
Michael abruptly ended his recording career at the end of the 1950s. After 1959, Michael never set foot in a recording studio.
In 1972, at the age of 35, he slippered on the floor of his appartment striking his head and succumbed to his injuries. A toxicology screen revealed that he had taken barbiturate, so he was sadly back on the addictive drugs that had earlier scuppered his career.
Most of Michael Rabin’s legacy is found in two separate releases containing work recorded for Columbia Records, which are now owned by Capitol-EMI.
His complete solos of Paganini’s 24 caprices are available on a single album while the rest of his work has been released as a six-disc album. Michael’s last recording was in 1959, but his music and his unique story live on.
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