When the Music Stops

These days classical music no longer has the cachet it did when I was growing up. In that era when the tenor Mario Lanza was in top form, when Toscanini was conducting -- on prime time TV -- his famous NBC Orchestra, when classical pianists like José Iturbi and Oscar Levant were appearing in Hollywood films, when Leonard Bernstein (Lenny!) was at the height of his celebrity with his entertaining television series, "Young People's Concerts" -- that was when classical music in America had reached its popular zenith. It was also the age when I just beginning to become passionately interested in classical music, which has never ebbed.

Of course, that's still another thing that makes me something of an old-fogy, one of those graybeards who now, apart from young Asians, make up the preponderance of audiences for symphony concerts. But, as I say, it was very different when I was young and enthralled by the spell that that kind of music had over me.

Perhaps because I am now old, I have lately been thinking a lot about that period in music and recently found myself writing about it, too. And perhaps just because I am old, one of the things that has struck me is how many of the most celebrated composers and some of our greatest classical musicians died young. Think about all the great composers who died in their thirties: Mozart at 35, Weber at 39, Schubert at 31, Mendelssohn at 38, Chopin at 39, Bizet at 36, Gershwin at 38, and the greatest English composer until Handel (who was German of course) came along, Henry Purcell, who died at 36 of a chill he caught when his wife had locked him out their house. What an incalculable loss to music for them all to die so young!

These composers, of course, are long dead, but since I am not yet, I can still remember some of the instrumentalists -- among the most outstanding of their time -- who also died their thirties, all of them evoking a deep wave of anguish throughout the musical community in those years when the shocking news of their deaths became known. As it happens, all of these men were Jews, which is not surprising since during much of the twentieth century, it was largely Jews who dominated the field of classical music, but that is another story. And maybe it's not surprising that I found myself writing about these men and other Jewish musicians because I am nominally Jewish myself, still another story that I am happy to elide, at least for now. Which should make you happy, too.

But perhaps the stories you would find of interest concern some of these exceptional young musicians whose lives and careers were tragically aborted by their early deaths. They have never been forgotten, though their names may not be familiar to you. But at least this way, you will be able to learn why their deaths were so mourned at the time and why they are still revered today. Here are brief profiles of three of them.

Michael Rabin

Has there ever been a more precocious prodigy of the violin than Michael Rabin? The son of a Juilliard-trained pianist mother and a father who was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic, baby Michael could beat time perfectly with his feeding spoon by the time he was a year old. As soon as he could crawl, he would position himself under the piano, listening intently for hours while his parents played sonatas and, with their friends, trios and quartets. At three years of age, he gave evidence of perfect pitch. He was able to pick out on the piano the note corresponding to the sound of any grunt, steam whistle or automobile horn. He astonished his mother by memorizing when to turn the pages for a César Franck sonata after hearing it only once.

His mother began giving the boy piano lessons when he was five. Soon afterward, while visiting a doctor who was an amateur violinist, Michael noticed a tiny violin, began tuning it and playing it on his own, and burst into tears when an effort was made to separate him from it. The doctor allowed him to take it home. His father then began giving the boy lessons, and by the fourth lesson he had concluded that Michael's native talent was far superior to his own and managed to solicit guidance from the greatest violinist of his age, Jascha Heifetz.

After a lesson with the master, Heifetz was so impressed with the boy's obvious ability that he advised his father to have Michael study with Ivan Galamian, a renowned violin teacher, who later said that Michael had "no weaknesses, never."  Galamian, who would eventually teach such famous violinists as Itzhak Perlman and Pincus Zuckerman, also asserted that Michael was his most talented student "ever." After studying with Galamian, Michael continued at the Juilliard School. At the age of ten, he was ready to tackle the formidably difficult First Concerto of Wieniawski

His Carnegie Hall debut took place in January 1950, at the age of thirteen, as soloist in Vieuxtemps' Concerto No. 5, which had been a Heifetz specialty. Two years later he performed Paganini D major Concerto, with Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting the New York Philharmonic. Mitropoulos called him on that occasion, "the genius violinist of tomorrow, already equipped with all that is necessary to be a great artist." George Szell, the illustrious longtime conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, also raved about Rabin's playing, saying that he was the greatest violin talent that had come to his attention in the past thirty years. (Rabin's 1958 recording of Paganini concerto is considered by many to be this work's most definitive performance on disc.)

Perhaps Rabin's most famous and revered recording is of another Paganini work, his caprices. A musician friend was kind enough to burn a CD of these works for me some years ago, and I can attest to their magnificence. Rabin plays with a ravishingly pure tone. Another record connoisseur has recounted his first exposure to this performance with the following account:
When I put on the old LP and Rabin lit into the first caprice, I felt an influx of adrenaline. The playing had overwhelming verve. His tone ... was fiercely dramatic. I will never forget the final trill of the 24th caprice, a superb flourish to cap one of the best virtuoso performances of all time. Thereafter, I paid visits to the record archives The Tower Records cut-out bins -- anywhere I thought I might make contact with his spirit ... You can now obtain a separate disc of the Caprices ... an enduring testament to a marvelous talent.
Rabin went on to have a stellar career, playing in all the major cities in the United States, Europe, South America and Southern Africa -- at least for a while. But something was wrong. For reasons still not understood, by 1959, when he was still in his early twenties, he suddenly ceased recording. He did continue to perform publicly and apparently still with his accustomed superb artistry, but soon there were stories circulating about Rabin's emotional instability and a troubled personal life. It seems that he had a difficult time adjusting to the change from a child prodigy to performing as an adult virtuoso. And more disturbing stories began to make the rounds in the late '60s when there were rumors of Rabin's chronic drug use. He also displayed some puzzling neuroses during this time including a fear of falling off the stage.

But there seems to have been a reason for Rabin's phobia of falling. It appears that he had developed some kind of neurological disorder, which could well have been epilepsy. It was ironic that it was at the very site where he had had such a tremendously successful debut, Carnegie Hall, that in the early 1970s, during a recital, he suddenly lost his balance and fell forward. Not long afterward he died from a fall in his New York apartment when, during what seems to have been an epileptic convulsion, he slipped on a rug and struck his head on a table.

Rabin was only thirty-five years old (Mozart's age when he died). The coroner found barbiturates in his blood afterward.  Such a tragic end to what had been a brilliant career, and another instance of how early genius can sometimes exact a terrible toll on a musician's life.

William Kapell

Among Jewish pianists, too, there is one whose early death was especially devastating and was a grievous blow to the world of music. The death of William Kapell at 31 sent shock waves of heartbreak throughout the classical music community and occasioned deep and anguished mourning at the time of his death in 1953. He had been widely predicted to become and perhaps already was the greatest pianist of his generation -- and then, in an instant, he was gone.

His brief life can be easily summarized.

Kapell was born in New York in 1922 into a family of Polish-Russian Jews; his parents ran a bookshop on Lexington Avenue. The boy won his first competition at the age of ten; his prize, a turkey dinner with the pianist José Iturbi. And he would go on to win every competition in sight. In 1941, Kapell won the Philadelphia Orchestra's youth competition as well as the prestigious Naumburg Award. The following year, the Naumburg Foundation sponsored the 19-year-old pianist's New York début in Carnegie Hall, a recital which won him the Town Hall Award for the year's outstanding concert by a musician under 30. He was immediately signed to an exclusive recording contract with RCA Victor.

He was already being touted "as the best American pianist of his generation." He went on to play with many of the foremost conductors of his time, including Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski, Fritz Reiner, Serge Koussevitzky and Guido Cantelli (who, ironically, would suffer the same fate as Kapell few years after the latter's death, when at 36, he, too died in a plane crash). Kapell also played chamber music with the best -- Jascha Heifetz, William Primrose, Pablo Casals, Rudolf Serkin and Artur Schnabel (with whom he had previously studied).  

Incidentally, when Kapell had earlier approached Vladimir Horowitz for lessons, the legendary pianist demurred, saying that there was nothing he could teach him.

After this death, one music critic gave his brief assessment of Kapell's artistry:
During a professional career of barely 12 years Kapell emerged as the most prodigiously gifted and exciting American pianist of his generation. In his artistry it was impossible to separate awesome technique from fierce integrity and deep insight. Every note mattered in a Kapell performance. His pianism uncannily balanced contrasting qualities. It was impetuous yet sensitive, white hot yet poetic, cogent yet instinctive, assured yet intense. And on the concert stage his brooding good looks added to the allure.
"His playing had that indefinable thing known as command," the critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote in his book "The Great Pianists", adding that before his death Kapell was "well on his way to being one of the century's important pianists."

Another commentator provided this account of Kapell's dedication to his performances:
Early on, there was a tendency to typecast Kapell as a performer of technically difficult repertoire. While his technique was exceptional, he was a deep and versatile musician, and was memorably impatient with what he considered shallow or sloppy music making. His own repertoire was very diverse, encompassing works from Bach to Copland, who so admired Kapell's performances of his Piano Sonata that he was writing a new work for him at the time of the pianist's death. Kapell practiced up to eight hours a day, keeping track of his sessions with a notebook and clock.
I have also read several appreciative commentaries on Kapell's discography, which was actually fairly extensive and diverse, given his short life, but I think I have provided enough accolades already to establish what a gifted and dedicated a pianist he was.  He appears to have given as much close attention to his recording life as he did to his live performances.

In August of 1953 Kapell traveled to Australia for an extended tour. Over 14 weeks he played 37 concerts, both solo recitals and concertos. Kapell played the final concert of his Australian tour in Geelong, Victoria, on October 22 in a recital which, in a macabre prefiguration of what was to come, included a performance of Chopin's "Funeral March" Sonata. He left Australia seven days later. On his return trip to New York, where his wife of five years and their young son and daughter were awaiting him, the DC-6 Kapell was flying in, attempting to land in a heavy fog, clipped a forested mountain 35 miles south of San Francisco, plunged into a ridge and fell apart in flames. Everyone on board perished.

The aftermath of Kapell's death was summarized in this Wikipedia entry about him:
The fascination with Kapell's playing has continued in the decades since his death. Pianists including Eugene Istomin, Gary Graffman, Leon Fleisher and Van Cliburn, and many others have acknowledged Kapell's influence. Fleisher stated that Kapell was "the greatest pianistic talent that this country has ever produced."
Kapell's estate sued BCPA, Qantas, (which had taken over BCPA in 1954), and BOAC (which was alleged to have sold Kapell the ticket).  In 1964, more than ten years after the crash, Kapell's widow and two children were awarded US$924,396 in damages. The award was overturned on appeal in 1965.
As Rabin was to violinists, so Kapell was to pianists -- a meteoric talent of unsurpassed excellence that had far too brief a span in which to soar but whose place is secure in the pantheon of pianistic immortals.

Emmanuel Feuermann

When fleeing from the Cossacks during a pogrom, Jews could always carry a fiddle, but it was more difficult to tote along a cello, which might be one reason that there are far more outstanding Jewish violinists than cellists. Nevertheless, even though the cello doesn't have the glamor of the violin, just as contraltos must often play second fiddle (sorry!) to sopranos, there are still quite a few very gifted and famous Jewish cellists, and here you will get to know a little about perhaps the greatest cellist who ever lived.

"This is murder!" Toscanini shouted.

Had Emmanuel Feuermann, the greatest cellist of his generation, greater even than Pablo Casals, many musicians said, actually been killed?

Well, only in a manner of speaking, though for Toscanini, the cause of his death, at the age of only thirty-nine, was tantamount to murder. Feuermann had gone into the hospital for what was to have been a routine operation, simply to remove a hemorrhoid, but the procedure had not only been botched, but wasn't even carried out by a surgeon. Feuermann never should have died, but now he was most certainly certifiably dead, and Toscanini and others who knew and revered Feuermann were distraught. Like Michael Rabin some years later, a brilliant career had been prematurely ended by a freak, absurd accident.

His tragic early death was a grievous loss to the world of music, as is attested by the many tributes Feuermann received afterward.  

The legendary cello teacher Julius Klengel with whom Feuermann studied as a young teenager wrote of him after learning of his death, "Of all those who have been entrusted to my guardianship, there has never been such a talent ... our divinely favored artist and lovable young man." Jascha Heifetz with whom Feuermann famously collaborated for several years declared that talent like Feuermann's comes once every one hundred years. Indeed, after Feuermann's untimely death it took seven years for Heifetz to collaborate with another cellist, Gregor Piatigorsky.  

Artur Rubinstein was equally emphatic: "He became for me the greatest cellist of all times, because I did hear Pablo Casals at his best. He (Casals) had everything in the world, but he never reached the musicianship of Feuermann. And this is a declaration." During his first tour of the United States in 1935-36, Feuermann reaped enthusiastic reviews from music critics. After a 1938 Proms performance in London, critic Reid Steward of The Strad wrote "I do not think there can any longer be doubt that Feuermann is the greatest living cellist, Casals alone excepted ..." Even Casals himself extolled Feuermann: "What a great artist Feuermann was! His early death was a great loss to music."

The stature of the pall-bearers at Feuermann's funeral, who included some of the greatest musicians of the time, attest to the esteem in which this beloved cellist was held. Besides Toscanini, they were conductors George Szell and Eugene Ormandy; pianists Rudolf Serkin and Artur Schnabel; and violinists Mischa Elman and Bronislaw Huberman. A quartet including Erica Morini and Frank Miller played the slow movement of the Beethoven string quartet, Op. 74. I wonder if there was ever another funeral of a musician where so many musical eminences were gathered to honor one of their own peers.   

So much for Feuermann in death. Who was he during his short life and where did he come from?

Feuermann was born in 1902 in Galicia, Poland, into an extremely musical family. A brother, Zigmund, was a child prodigy on the violin and his sister, Sophie, was also a prodigy at the piano. Feuermann's father played both the cello and the violin, and when young Emmanuel started playing the violin, he insisted on holding it vertically like a cello, and for the cello he was made. His epiphany came when he was ten years old when he heard Casals play. He demanded his mother buy the music Casals had performed so that he could learn it and began to practice it with intense concentration. By the very next year, at age eleven, he was ready to make his debut, and he started at the top, with the Vienna Philharmonic under Felix Weingartner, when he played a Haydn cello concerto to great acclaim. He thus started at the top and he stayed there for the rest of his life.

I will not bother to trace Feuermann's career in any detail, but just mention a few highlights and salient facts of about his life and importance as a musician.

Feuermann's early career took place in Europe where he played and taught, eventually becoming a professor at the Berlin Conservatory in 1929 where he taught until 1933. You can guess what happened then. Once the Nazis took power, he was summarily dismissed because of his Jewish heritage. Feuermann was then forced to move to London and eventually came to the United States where in 1935 he made his very successful American debut, wowing the critics. However, he made the mistake of returning to Vienna at the time of the Anschluss in 1938. The violinist Bronislaw Huberman had to help Feuermann and his family (he was then married with one child) escape to Palestine from whence they were able to return to the United States where Feuermann was to remain until his death. He then taught at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and in summers settled in Los Angeles, where he gave master classes. There he could be close to and collaborate with Jascha Heifetz and Artur Rubinstein, making up assuredly the greatest piano trio ensemble of all time.  Even though eventually the distinguished Gregor Piatigorsky would take Feuermann's place, Heifetz later professed that for him, it was Feuermann who was incomparable.

Feuremann's importance to music does not merely reside in his fabulous career. He was also instrumental in establishing fundamental changes in cellist technique. For example, he worked hard to eliminate the nasal tone that had been thought to be a part of the natural sound of the instrument. And he seemed even to extend its register. It was even said that he could play the Mendelssohn violin concerto on the cello! And he stressed the role of the entire body in playing the instrument. Finally, along with his idol, Pablo Casals, Feuermann is credited with having established the cello as a solo instrument. Today, you can hear cellists like Yo-Yo Ma because of Feuermann's lasting influence on the importance of the cello.

Although Feuermann died in 1942, he still lives of course on YouTube where you can, for example, hear how he plays the upper register of the cello with incredibly nimble fingers in a super-fast recording of the Dvorak cello concerto that had to be played that way because of the constraints of the 78 records which was all that was available in Feuermann's day. You can also hear him play with Heifetz and Rubinstein.  

And there are some priceless photographs of him, too, one of which shows him in a relaxed pose with Rubinstein and Heifetz who is seen laughing -- the only time, apparently, that Heifetz was ever photographed laughing. But my favorite one of Feuermann must have been taken not long before his death in his late thirties. There you see him with his cello, looking very composed in his natty suit, a cigarette dangling insouciantly from his lips. That's how I like to remember him, the cellist who will never be forgotten as long as classical music endures.

So these are a few of the finest artists in classical music who ever lived whose young lives were cruelly snuffed out while in the prime of their careers. At least we have some of their recordings to remind us of their extraordinary gifts, but, really, that is small consolation. Sorry to end on such a downer, but if I have managed to evoke at least a scintilla of interest in the world of classical music in you -- in case this was not already a domain you were very familiar with -- I would be happy to regale you with some really amusing stories about some zany Jews who were very important in the history of classical music, not for performing it, but for their patronage. And one of them was perhaps the most highly regarded philosopher of the first half of the twentieth century, and certainly the strangest.

Have I intrigued you? Would you like to have some more stories from a vanished world before both it and I disappear? Let me know....