Anton Grigorevich Rubinstein (Антóн Григóрьевич Рубинштéйн) (November 28, 1829 – November 20, 1894) was a Russian pianist, composer and conductor. As a pianist he was regarded as a rival of Franz Liszt, and he ranks amongst the great keyboard virtuosos. He also founded the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, which, together with Moscow Conservatory founded by his brother Nikolai Rubinstein, helped establish a reputation for musical skill among the subjects of the czar of Russia.
Rubinstein, brought up as a Christian at least in name, lived in a household where three languages were spoken—Yiddish, Russian and German. Much later, when his musical "Russianness" was called into question by musical nationalist Mily Balakirev and others in The Five, Rubinstein might have been thinking of this part of his childhood, among other things, when he wrote of himself in his notebooks,
“Russians call me German, Germans call me Russian, Jews call me a Christian, Christians a Jew. Pianists call me a composer, composers call me a pianist. The classicists think me a futurist, and the futurists call me a reactionary. My conclusion is that I am neither fish nor fowl – a pitiful individual”.
Conversion allowed the Rubinsteins to travel freely, something not permitted for Jews in Russia at the time. Rubinstein's father opened a pencil factory in Moscow. His mother, a competent musician, began giving him piano lessons at five. He apparently progressed rapidly. Within a year and a half Alexander Villoing, a leading Moscow piano teacher, heard and accepted Rubinstein as a non-paying student. Rubinstein made his first public appearance, a charity benefit concert, in Moscow's Petrovsky Park at the age of nine. Later that year Rubinstein's mother sent him, accompanied by Villoing, to enroll at the Paris Conservatoire. Director Luigi Cherubini, however, refused even an audition to Rubinstein, due to the many young prodigies who had flooded the Paris musical scene.
Rubinstein and Villoing remained in Paris a year. In December 1840, Rubinstein played in the Salle Erard for an audience that included Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt. Chopin invited Rubinstein to his studio and played for him. Liszt acclaimed the young Rubinstein as his successor but advised Villoing to take him to Germany to study composition. Instead of following Liszt's advice, Villoing took Rubinstein on an extended concert tour of Europe and Western Russia. They finally returned to Moscow in June 1843, after an absence of three and a half years. Shortly before the pair returned, Liszt had played in Saint Petersburg and reiterated to Rubinstein's mother the advice he had given Villoing. Determined to follow Liszt's advice, she wanted a thorough grounding in musical theory for both Rubinstein and his younger brother Nikolai. To raise money for this, she sent Rubinstein and Villoing on a tour of Russia. When the tour ended, Rubinstein and Nikolai were dispatched by themselves to Saint Petersburg to play for Tsar Nicholas I and the Imperial family at the Winter Palace. Rubinstein was 14 years old; Nikolai was eight.
Word came in the summer of 1846 that Rubinstein's father was gravely ill. Rubinstein was left in Berlin while his mother, sister and brother returned to Russia. At first he continued his studies with Dehn, then with Adolf Bernhard Marx, while composing in earnest. Now 17, he knew he could no longer pass as a child prodigy. He sought out Liszt in Vienna, hoping Liszt would accept him as a pupil.
Liszt's reaction to Rubinstein in Vienna was surprising and, for the ever-generous Liszt, extremely unusual. After Rubinstein had played his audition, Liszt said, very coldly, "A talented man must win the goal of his ambition by his own unassisted efforts." At this point, Rubinstein was living in acute poverty. Liszt did nothing to help him. Other calls Rubinstein made to potential patrons came to no avail.
Rubinstein began giving piano lessons, continued composing, even wrote literary, philosophical and critical essays. After a year in Vienna he gave a concert in the Bösendörfersaal. It did not go well; months of composition had severely reduced his time practicing the piano. Together with a flautist he embarked on a concert tour of Hungary, then returned to Berlin and continued giving lessons.
In 1854 Rubinstein began a four-year concert tour of Europe. This was his first major concert tour in a decade. Now 24, he felt ready to offer himself to the public as a fully developed pianist as well as a composer of worth. He very shortly reestablished his reputation as a virtuoso. Ignaz Moscheles wrote in 1855 what would become a widespread opinion about Rubinstein: "In power and execution he is inferior to no one.
Rubinstein spent one tour break, in the winter of 1856-7, with Elena Pavlovna and much of the Imperial royal family at Nice. These three months would become crucial ones. Rubinstein had already noted both his patroness's great intelligence and her great influence in terms of reform over her brother Nicholas I. (She would exercise a similar influence over her nephew, Alexander II, resulting in, among other things, the freeing of the serfs.) Now patroness and artist, with others present, began discussing plans to raise the level of musical education in their homeland. These discussions bore fruit at first in the founding of the Russian Musical Society (RMS) in 1859. The opening of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, the first music school in Russia and an outgrowth of the RMS, followed in 1862. Rubinstein not only founded it and was its first director but also recruited an imposing pool of talent for its faculty.
Some in Russian society were surprised that a Russian music school would actually attempt to be Russian. One "fashionable lady," when told by Rubinstein that classes would be taught in Russian and not a foreign language, exclaimed, "What, music in Russian! That is an original idea!" Rubinstein adds, "And surely it was surprising that the theory of Music was to be taught for the first time in the Russian language at our Conservatory.... Hitherto, if any one wished to study it, he was obliged to take lessons from a foreigner, or to go to Germany."
There were also those who feared the school would not be Russian enough. Rubinstein drew a tremendous amount of criticism from the Russian nationalist music group known as The Five. Mikhail Zetlin, in his book on The Five, writes, "The very idea of a conservatory implied, it is true, a spirit of academism which could easily turn it into a stronghold of routine, but then the same could be said of conservatories all over the world. Actually the Conservatory did raise the level of musical culture in Russia. The unconventional way chosen by Balakirev and his friends was not necessarily the right one for everybody else."
By 1867, ongoing tensions with the Balakirev camp, along with related matters, led to intense dissension within the Conservatory's faculty. Rubinstein resigned and returned to touring.
Rubinstein wrote of his American experience, "May Heaven preserve us from such slavery! Under these conditions there is no chance for art—one simply grows into an automaton, performing mechanical work; no dignity remains to the artist; he is lost.... The receipts and the success were invariably gratifying, but it was all so tedious that I began to despise myself and my art. So profound was my dissatisfact that when several years later I was asked to repeat my American tour, I refused pointblank...."
Despite his misery, Rubinstein made enough money from his American tour to give him financial security for the rest of his life. Upon his return to Russia, he "hastened to invest in real estate", purchasing a dacha in Peterhof, not far from Saint Petersburg, for himself and his family.
Rubinstein also coached a few pianists and taught his only private piano student, Josef Hofmann. Hofmann would become one of the finest keyboard artists of the 20th century.
Despite his sentiments on ethnic politics in Russia, Rubinstein returned there occasionally to visit friends and family. He gave his final concert in Saint Petersburg on January 14, 1894. With his health failing rapidly, Rubinstein moved back to Peterhof in the summer of 1894. He died there on November 28 of that year, having suffered from heart disease for some time.
The former Troitskaya street in Saint Petersburg where he lived is now named after him.
Rubinstein's own piano students were held just as accountable: he wanted them to think about the music they were playing, matching the tone to the piece and the phrase. His manner with them was a combination of raw, sometimes violent criticism and good humor. Hofmann wrote of one such lesson:
Once I played a Liszt rhapsody pretty badly. After a little of it, Rubinstein said, "The way you play this piece would be all right for Auntie or Mamma." Then rising and coming toward me, he said, "Now let us see how we play such things."
I began again, but I had not played more than a few measures when Rubinstein said loudly, "Have you begun?" "Yes, Master, I certainly have." "Oh," said Rubinstein vaguely, "I didn't notice." ...
Rubinstein did not so much instruct me. Merely he let me learn from him ... If a student, by his own study and mental force, reached the desired point which the musician's wizardry had made him see, he gained reliance in his own strength, knowing he would always find that point again even though he should lose his way once or twice, as everyone with an honest aspiration is liable to do''.
Rubinstein's insistence on absolute fidelity to the printed note surprised Hofmann, since he had heard his teacher take liberties himself in his concerts. When he asked Rubinstein to reconcile this paradox, Rubinstein answered, as many teachers have through the ages, "When you are as old as I am, you may do as I do." Then Rubinstein added, "If you can."
Nor did Rubinstein adjust the tenor of his comments for those of high rank. After Rubinstein had reassumed the directorship of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, Tsar Alexander III donated the dilapidated old Bolshoi Theater as the Conservatory's new home—without the funds needed to restore and restructure the facility. At a reception given in the monarch's honor, the Tsar asked Rubinstein if he was pleased with this gift. Rubinstein replied bluntly, to the crowd's horror, "Your Imperial Majesty, if I gave you a beautiful cannon, all mounted and embossed, with no ammunition, would you like it?"
This resemblance to Beethoven was also felt to be in Rubinstein's keyboard playing. Under his hands, it was said, the piano erupted volcanically. Audience members wrote of going home limp after one of his recitals, knowing they had witnessed a force of nature.
Sometimes Rubinstein's playing was too much for listeners to handle. American pianist Amy Fay, who wrote extensively on the European classical music scene, admitted that while Rubinstein "has a gigantic spirit in him, and is extremely poetic and original ... for an entire evening he is too much. Give me Rubinstein for a few pieces, but Tausig for a whole evening." She heard Rubinstein play "a terrific piece by Schubert," reportedly the Wanderer Fantasie. The performance gave her such a violent headache that the rest of the recital was ruined for her.
Clara Schumann proved especially vehement. After she heard him play the Mendelssohn C minor Trio in 1857, she wrote that "he so rattled it off that I did not know how to control myself ... and often he so annihilated fiddle and cello that I ... could hear nothing of them." Nor had things improved in Clara's view a few years later, when Rubinstein gave a concert in Breslau. She noted her disapproval in her diary: "I was furious, for he no longer plays. Either there is a perfectly wild noise or else a whisper with the soft pedal down. And a would-be cultured audience puts up with a performance like that!"
It was the first time I had heard this greast artist play. He was most amiable at the rehearsal.... To this day I can recall how Rubinstein sat down at the piano, his leonine head thrown back slightly, and began the five opening measures of the principal theme.... It seemed to me I had never before heard the piano really played. The grandeur of style with which Rubinstein presented those five measures, the beauty of tone his softness of touch secured, the art with which he manipulated the pedal, are indescribable....
Violinist and composer Henri Vieuxtemps adds:
His power over the piano is something undrempt of; he transports you into another world; all that is mechanical in the instrument is forgotten. I am still under the influence of the all-embracing harmony, the scintillating passages and thunder of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 57 [Appassionata], which Rubinstein executed for us with unimagined mastery.
Viennese music critic Eduard Hanslick expressed what Schonberg calls "the majority point of view" in an 1884 review. After complaining of the over-three-hour length of Rubinstein's recital, Hanslick admits that the sensual element of the pianist's playing gives pleasure to listeners. Both Rubinstein's virtues and flaws, Hanslick commented, spring from an untapped natural strength and elemental freshness. "Yes, he plays like a god," Hanslick writes in closing, "and we do not take it amiss if, from time to time, he changes, like Jupiter, into a bull."
Sergei Rachmaninov's fellow piano student Matvey Pressman adds, "He enthralled you by his power, and he captivated you by the elegance and grace of his playing, by his tempestuous, fiery temperament and by his warmth and charm. His crescendo had no limits to the growth of the power of its sonority; his diminuendo reached an unbelievable pianissimo, sounding in the most distant corners of a huge hall. In playing, Rubinstein created, and he created inimitably and with genius. He often treated the same program absolutely differently when he played it the second time, but, more astoundingly still, everything came out wonderfully on both occasions."
Rubinstein was also adept at improvisation—a practice at which Beethoven had excelled but by Rubinstein's time was on the wane. Composer Karl Goldmark wrote of one recital where Rubinstein improvised on a motive from the last movement of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony:
"He counterpointed it in the bass; then developed it first as a canon, next as a four-voiced fugue, and again transformed it into a tender song. He then returned to Beethoven's original form, later changing it to a gay Viennese waltz, with its own peculiar harmonies, and finally dashed into cascades of brilliant passages, a perfect storm of sound in which the original theme was still unmistakable. It was superb."
In his book The Great Pianists, former New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg describes Rubinstein's playing as that "of extraordinary breadth, virility and vitality, immense sonority and technical grandeur in which all too often technical sloppiness asserted itself." When caught up in the moment of performance, Rubinstein did not seem to care how many wrong notes he played as long as his conception of the piece he was playing came through. Rubinstein himself admitted, after a concert in Berlin in 1875, "If I could gather up all the notes that I let fall under the piano, I could give a second concert with them.
Part of the problem might have been the sheer size of Rubinstein's hands. They were gargantuan, and many observers commented on them. Josef Hofmann commented that Rubinstein's fifth finger "was as thick as my thumb—think of it! Then his fingers were square at the ends, with cushions on them. It was a wonderful hand.. Pianist Josef Lhevinne described them as "fat, pudgy ... with fingers so broad at the finger-tips that he often had difficulty in not striking two notes at once." Equally outsized was what Rubinstein did with those hands. German piano teacher Ludwig Deppe advised American pianist Amy Fay to watch carefully how Rubinstein struck his chords: "Nothing cramped about him! He spreads his hands as if he were going to take in the universe, and takes them up with the greatest freedom and abandon!
Because of the slap-dash moments in Rubinstein's playing, some more academic, polished players, especially German-trained ones, seriously questioned Rubinstein's greatness. Those who valued interpretation as much or more than pure technique found much to praise. Pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow, who had his pedantic moments himself, nevertheless called Rubinstein "the Michelangelo of music." The German critic Ludwig Rellstab called him "the Hercules of the piano; the Jupiter Tonans of the instrument.
Pressman attested to the singing quality of Rubinstein's playing, and much more: "His tone was strikingly full and deep. With him the piano sounded like a whole orchestra, not only as far as the power of sound was concerned but in the variety of timbres. With him, the piano sang as Patti sang, as Rubini sang."
Rubinstein told the young Rachmaninov how he achieved that tone. "Just press upon the keys until the blood oozes from your fingertips". When he wanted to, Rubinstein could play with extreme lightness, grace and delicacy. He rarely displayed that side of his nature, however. He had learned quickly that audiences came to hear him thunder, so he accommodated them. Rubinstein's forceful playing and powerful temperament made an especially strong impression during his American tour, where playing of this kind had never been heard before. During this tour, Rubinstein received more press attention than any other figure until the appearance of Ignacy Jan Paderewski a generation later.
Rubinstein was most famous for his series of historical recitals—seven consecutive concerts covering the history of piano music. Each of these programs was enormous. The second, devoted to Beethoven sonatas, consisted of the Moonlight, D minor, Waldstein, Appassionata, E minor, A major (Op. 101), E major (Op. 109) and C minor (Op. 111). Again, this was all included in one recital. The fourth concert, devoted to Schumann, contained the Fantasy in C, Kreisleriana, Études symphoniques, Sonata in F sharp minor, a set of short pieces and Carnival. This did not include encores, which Rubinstein sprayed liberally at every concert.
Rubinstein concluded his American tour with this series, playing the seven recitals over a nine-day period in New York in May 1873.
Rubinstein played this series of historical recitals in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe. In Moscow he gave this series on consecutive Tuesday evenings in the Hall of the Nobility, repeating each concert the following morning in the German Club for the benefit of students, free of charge.
Rachmaninoff explained to von Riesemann, "It was not so much his magnificent technique that held one spellbound as the profound, spiritually refined musicianship, which spoke from every note and every bar he played and singled him out as the most original and unequalled pianist in the world."
Rachmaninoff's detailed description to von Riesemann is of interest:
Once he repeated the whole finale of [Chopin's] Sonata in B minor, perhaps he had not succeeded in the short crescendo at the end as he would have wished. One listened entranced, and could have heard the passage over and over again, so unique was the beauty of tone.... I have never heard the virtuoso piece Islamey by Balakirev, as Rubinstein played it, and his interpretation of Schumann's little fantasy The Bird as Prophet was inimitable in poetic refinement: to describe the dimuendo of the pianissimo at the end of the "fluttering away of the little bird" would be hopelessly inadequate. Inimitable, too, was the soul-stirring imagery in the Kreisleriana, the last (G minor) passage of which I have never heard anyone play in the same manner. One of Rubinstein's greatest secrets was his use of the pedal. He himself very happily expressed his ideas on the subject when he said, "The pedal is the soul of the piano." No pianist should ever forget this.
Rachmaninoff biographer Barrie Martyn suggests that it might not have been by chance that the two pieces Rachmaninoff singled out for praise from Rubinstein's concerts—Beethoven's Appassionata and Chopin's "Funeral March" Sonata—both became cornerstones of Rachmaninoff's own recital programs. Martyn also maintains that Rachmaninoff may have based his interpretation of the Chopin sonata on Rubinstein's traversal, pointing out similarities between written accounts of Rubinstein's version and Rachmaninov's audio recording of the work.
Rachmaninoff admitted that Rubinstein was not note-perfect at these concerts, remembering a memory lapse during Balakirev's Islamey, where Rubinstein improvised in the style of the piece until remembering the rest of it four minutes later. In Rubinstein's defense, however, Rachmaninoff said that "for every possible mistake [Rubinstein] may have made, he gave, in return, ideas and musical tone pictures that would have made up for a million mistakes."
Rubinstein conducted the Russian Musical Society programs from the organization's inception in 1859 until his resignation from it and the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1867. He also did his share of guest conducting both before and after his tenure with the RMS. Rubinstein at the podium was as temperamental as when ast the keyboard, provoking mixed reactions amongst both orchestral musicians and audiences..
Rubinstein was a prolific composer, writing no less than twenty operas (notably The Demon, written after Lermontov's Romantic poem), five piano concertos, six symphonies and a large number of solo piano works along with a substantial output of works for chamber ensemble, two concertos for cello and one for violin, free-standing orchestral works and tone poems (including one entitled Don Quixote).
Rubinstein and Mikhail Glinka, considered the first important Russian classical composer, had both studied in Berlin with pedagogue Sigfried Dehn. Glinka, as Dehn's student 12 years before Rubinstein, used the opportunity to amass greater reserves of compositional skill that he could use to open up a whole new territory of Russian music. Rubinstein, conversely, chose to exercise his compositional talents within the German styles illustrated in Dehn's teaching. Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn were the strongest influences on Rubinstein's music..
Consequently, Rubinstein's music demonstrates none of the nationalism of The Five. He spoke out against Russian nationalism, leading to arguments with Mily Balakirev and others who felt that his establishment of a Conservatory in Saint Petersburg would damage Russian musical traditions. Nonetheless, it is Rubinstein's pupil Tchaikovsky who has become perhaps most popularly identified with Russian music.
Following Rubinstein's death, his works began to be ignored, although his piano concerti remained in the repertoire in Europe until the First World War, and his principal works have retained a toehold in the Russian concert repertoire. Perhaps somewhat lacking in individuality, Rubinstein's music was unable to compete either with the established classics or with the new Russian style of Stravinsky and Prokofiev.
Over recent years, his work has been performed a little more often both in Russia and abroad, and has often met with positive criticism. Amongst his better known works are the opera The Demon, his Piano Concerto No. 4, and his Symphony No. 2, known as The Ocean.