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Turning away from the spotlight

When the Music Stopped: Discovering My Mother
By Thomas J. Cottle
State University of New York, 279 pp., illustrated, $20.50

The prototypical prodigy is a child, usually male, who astounds the adult world by the precocity of his skill in music, mathematics, painting, or chess. Many prodigies grow up to become competent experts in their chosen domains; a very few, like Mozart or Picasso, become creative geniuses; and a few, like members of J. D. Salinger's Glass family, crash spectacularly. We know little about those prodigies who, like chess player Bobby Fischer, quit abruptly in their prime, and next to nothing about how this abrogation affects those closest to the onetime prodigy.

The case of Gitta Gradova provides the opportunity to unravel these mysteries. Born Gertrude Weinstock in Chicago in 1904, the daughter of Jews who had immigrated to the United States from Russia, Gitta was a prodigy on the piano. She debuted in New York's Town Hall at the age of 19. By the age of 30 she had performed with major orchestras throughout America and Europe. Perhaps the only wrinkle on her meteoric rise was the fact that some critics called her the best "woman" pianist of the day.

Even after she married and had two children, Gradova continued to tour. At the age of 37 she ceased to perform publicly. Until her death at 81, she restricted her piano playing to giving lessons, accompanying friends at home, and practicing by herself. In her 70s did she give a single, intimate recital with a cellist friend. Her death occurred just three months before she was to come out of retirement to perform the Rachmaninoff First Piano Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of James Levine.

To outsiders, it appeared that Gradova coped well after she stopped playing in public. As described by her son Thomas Cottle in "When the Music Stopped," she became a leading hostess in Chicago. She befriended legendary musicians of the day -- especially those with Russian roots. The regular guests to her mansion included numerous classical giants -- composer Sergei Rachmaninoff; violinists Nathan Millstein, Isaac Stern, and Jascha Heifetz; cellist Gregor Piatigorsky; and most especially pianist Vladimir Horowitz. She lived for a time in the New York home of composer Serge Prokofiev, and also knew composer Igor Stravinsky, conductor Arturo Toscanini, singer Marian Anderson, and actor Paul Robeson. She and her family summered in Switzerland with the Rachmaninoff and Horowitz families. Because Gradova gave a series of lengthy interviews in the last years of her life, and because she was an inveterate clipper of articles, her experiences among these musical giants have been preserved.

But Cottle's portrait of his mother is pervaded by darkness. In his view, Gradova made an enormous mistake in cutting off her career. While she stated publicly that she wanted to be with her husband and children, Cottle is uncertain. Contributing factors may have been a dislike of travel, lingering traces of a severe automobile accident, bouts of stage fright, or the unwillingness to be anything but the best performer in the world. Gradova is described as depressed and perhaps suicidal. She got along well enough with friends, but had a terrible relationship with her children, and especially Cottle. And while relations improved after Cottle married and raised a family, he suggests that it was not just the music that stopped -- a full and satisfying life ceased as well.

Cottle, a social scientist deeply immersed in the psychoanalytic perspective, provides an extraordinarily sensitive portrait of what it is like to possess -- or to be possessed by -- an enormous musical talent, virtually from birth. While some prodigies move on to less tumultuous, more balanced adult lives, most of the musical giants that Cottle has observed must succumb to the Circean call of their talent. The decision to stop performing may represent a desperate attempt to have a normal life, but Cottle believes that such a move is destined to fail.

It is clear -- and confirmed by Cottle -- that he identifies strongly with his mother, their similarities and differences. This identification makes Gradova come vividly to life as a human being. So do several other major and walk-on characters.

Yet, the book suffers from two astonishing omissions. First, Cottle tells us almost nothing directly about his own life. Unless one reads the brief biographical note, one would not know that he is an accomplished scholar and author of over 30 books. Thus the relationships between Cottle's own achievements and adult persona, and those of his mother (and father and sister), are left unexplored.

The second omission concerns the central nonfamilial relationship of Gradova's life, a decades-long friendship with Horowitz, by most accounts the outstanding piano virtuoso of the 20th century. While their careers obviously diverged, Horowitz also withdrew periodically from the stage, once for a legendary 12 years. Horowitz and Gradova were incredibly close. Says Cottle: "I know she loved Volodja [Horowitz], admired him as much as one can admire another person . . . [The relationship was] as thrilling as any relationship between two human beings in the history of the world." By all reports, Horowitz was a homosexual tormented throughout his life by his sexual identity. Yet except for one half sentence, Cottle neither discusses his mother's sexuality nor, inexplicably, touches on the benefits, frustrations, and sublimations involved in the most important relationship in her life.

Cottle's book provides ample rewards for anyone interested in the personal and familial pains of being a prodigy. There are likely to be frustrations for those who want to understand better the central friendship of Gradova's life, as well as her ultimate effect on her children. Just as Gradova's music stopped prematurely, so does Cottle's book.

Howard Gardner teaches psychology at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His most recent book is "Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People's Minds."

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