Whom the Gods Would Destroy
Late in life, the celebrated violin teacher Ivan Galamian, whose students at the Juilliard School included Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman and Young Uck Kim, among many others, was asked to name the most gifted artist he ever taught. "Oh, I must say it was Michael Rabin," Galamian replied immediately. "There was almost extraordinary talent -- no weaknesses, never!"
In fact, as Anthony Feinstein chronicles in his meticulous, sympathetic and altogether admirable biography, Michael Rabin: America's Virtuoso Violinist (Amadeus, $29.95), the young genius had frailties aplenty, and his downfall was little short of spectacular. Rabin was making recordings and television appearances by the age of 13, and he was among the most highly esteemed violinists in the world before he had reached his twenties. Then everything came apart. Drugs, overwork, isolation and lingering emotional immaturity combined to wreck his career and, eventually, take his life.
Rabin was yet another of those child prodigies whose accomplishments were built on a base of fear, his early years blighted by a stage mother out of darkest nightmare. "These days it would probably be called child abuse," his sister told Feinstein. "He probably got hit if he played a note out of tune sometimes. Or she would demand that he play a passage 100 times." The 15-year-old Rabin once summoned the courage to tell an interviewer that Jeanne Rabin was not only his musical mentor, but also his "musical tormentor." His fears redoubled. He became irrationally obsessed with the idea that he would fall off the stage. He withdrew at the last minute from the gala concert that marked the opening of Lincoln Center in 1962. The recordings stopped, the reviews soured, and the fees diminished. He spent most of the 1960s virtually friendless, riding a pharmacological roller coaster of tranquilizers and stimulants. Slowly, he began to take hold of himself and rebuild his career. And then, in 1972, at the age of 35, he did indeed fall -- not onstage but in his Manhattan apartment, where he fractured his skull and died on the floor.
It is a ghastly story, and it has been told sorrowfully but unflinchingly by Feinstein. The book has sent me back to my Rabin records, to marvel once more at his Olympian technical command, his unerring pitch, his sweetly lustrous tone and his matchless charm.
Was it all worth it? Grateful listeners will be inclined to say yes, but I can't help wondering whether some hypothetical "other" Michael Rabin -- a parallel man who didn't play the violin quite so well but lived to be happy, settled and (in 2005) almost 70 years old, in good health and blessed anonymity -- would necessarily have agreed with them.
Joseph Horowitz knows how to tell a story, too, and his new book, Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall (Norton, $39.95), is full of good ones. Horowitz, who doubles as an unusually venturesome artistic administrator, has written a half-dozen other books, including Understanding Toscanini and Conversations with Arrau (which must be the only analysis of a pianist's life and art that is more interesting than most of the subject's own playing). He describes sounds wonderfully -- Aaron Copland's "Piano Variations" is indeed "skyscraper music of steel and concrete" -- and when he informs us that each new tempo in a certain recorded performance of "Don Giovanni" seems a "surprise," it is an exact, elegant diagnosis of acute interpretive disarray.
This is a curious book, though, and ultimately rather less than the sum of its parts. In many ways, it seems an outgrowth of Understanding Toscanini, with similar attacks on the puffery, hype and general inanity that have long surrounded the promotion of classical music (and not just in America, by the way). Horowitz suggests that a sort of colonial mummification set into our musical culture over the past century, leading to an emphasis on "star" performances of tried-and-true European warhorses instead of creative exploration of new and "homegrown" material.
He's right, of course (turn on virtually any classical radio station for some proof), but he states his arguments in a hectoring, disorganized manner that is, paradoxically, both over-elaborate and simplistic. He sets up and then returns again and again to a bizarre Boston-New York dichotomy, as though these cities were the only ones that mattered -- a sort of latter-day Athens and Sparta, at war for the American soul. He veers perilously close to the dread Ken Burns fallacy of judging works of art by their democratic inclusiveness (Dvorak earns points for his interest in spirituals and Indian themes, while Gershwin scores big with jazz). Strangest of all is his obsession with a 19th-century Metropolitan Opera conductor named Anton Seidl, who specialized in the works of Wagner, died young and left no recordings.
"Could the twentieth-century decline of classical music have been cushioned, postponed or deflected?" Horowitz muses. "What if Anton Seidl had lived a normal span of years?" To which one can only mumble -- well, that's a thought. Still, many readers will find Classical Music in America worthwhile for its anecdotes, its vigor, its engaged, privileged vantage point on the passing parade.
All Together Now
Michael Steinberg moved from daily music criticism (at the Boston Globe) into a varied career as lecturer, program annotator and teacher. His invaluable overviews of the standard orchestral repertory -- The Symphony and The Concerto -- have now been augmented by Choral Masterworks: A Listener's Guide (Oxford Univ., $30), a study of pieces for chorus and orchestra ranging from hardy perennials (the Bach Passion settings, "Messiah," "Carmina Burana") to relative obscurities (Franz Schmidt's "The Book With Seven Seals," Roger Sessions's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and contemporary works by Charles Wuorinen and John Adams).
What sets Steinberg's writing apart is its appealing mixture of impregnable authority (he knows this music) and purely personal asides (by the end of the book, we know this man). Choral Masterworks can be read by anybody, from a professional musician to any young listener newly braced by the stoic pessimism of the Brahms "German Requiem."
Singers on Records
To borrow one of Ned Rorem's felicitous phrases, Victoria Etnier Villamil was a "smart singer of smart music" -- a soprano whose performances of contemporary American works were both musically and intellectually interesting. From Johnson's Kids to Lemonade Opera: The American Classical Singer Comes of Age (Northeastern Univ., $40) is Villamil's lively and absorbing study of an earlier generation of vocalists, who struggled to be taken seriously in an era when third-rate Europeans were generally valued more highly than first-class native talent. (Bronx-bred soprano Rise Stevens called her autobiography Subway to the Met, and the very title was once considered shockingly brassy.) Villamil's book explores the critical period in our history (1935-50) when that all began to change.
Finally, Mark Katz's Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (Univ. of California; paperback, $19.95) is a creative and highly original examination of the countless ways in which recordings, whether preserved on wax cylinder or the Internet, have transformed our understanding of what we listen to and for. Katz is at home in every musical genre, and he discusses the work of Jascha Heifetz, Jimi Hendrix, Glenn Gould, the Beatles and the rap group Public Enemy with equal acuity. A good companion volume would be Evan Eisenberg's The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa, originally published in 1987 and now available in a newly revised edition from Yale University Press. *
Tim Page is The Washington Post's music critic.