Anton G. Rubinstein

rubinsteinNovember 28, 1829 – November 20, 1894

Best known works: Operas, Dimitri, Donskoi, Feramors, etc. Piano concerto in D Minor, and many smaller pieces including Melody in F and Kammernoi Ostrow.

Written by Aubertine Woodward Moore (1920) It was always a matter of interest to me that the first public concert of importance given by Anton Rubinstein took place in 1841, the year of my birth. He was twelve years old, for, according to his own statement, he was born in 1829, not in 1830, the usual date given. It was at this concert in Paris; among the celebrities present was Franz Liszt, who, folding the boy in his arms after the performance, exclaimed: “He is the heir of my playing.”

The earliest teacher of young Anton was his mother, a woman of broad culture and an accomplished pianist. She started him at the piano when he was about five, and took great pains with him. A musical friend of the family, referring to the young prodigy in his eighth year, wrote; “He was a charming child, and astonished everyone with the precocity of his talent.”

The teaching of this mother, as recorded later by her son, was strict and well-grounded; but she soon felt that in view of his great musical endowment, the boy needed more training than she was able to give him. A guide to this she found in Alexander Villoing, the best pianoforte teacher in Moscow at that time, who, because he loved to mold genius, undertook the gifted child’s education free of charge. Correct Hand Position

In his autobiography Rubinstein says; “Villoing devoted much time to the correct position of my hands. He was most particular in this regard, as well as in the care he bestowed on the production of a good tone. To him, and to no one else, am I indebted for a thorough, firm foundation in technic, a foundation which could never be shaken. In all my life I have not met a better teacher. He insisted on certain details which proved of the utmost importance to me as a student of the piano. A patient, although strict master – the latter quality noless essential than the former – Villoing was soon on such intimate terms with me that he seemed like a friend or second father. He was indefatigible in his instructions. I cannot call them lessons – they were a musical education.”

This master had accompanied his pupil to Paris, in view of placing him in the Conservatoire, but being reluctant to part with the budding genius, whom he regarded as his own creation, he never entered him there. Villoing remained the young Anton’s only teacher ofthe piano, although he also studied with Dehn, the famous master of harmony and counterpoint, and Marks, the well known theorist.

But genius appropriates from every conceivable source, and Rubinstein never ceased to learn from his own intuitions and from the artists he met at home and abroad. One of the most powerful influences exercised over him came from the Italian tenor, Rubini, whom he early heard in St. Petersburg. Of this great artist he says: “The charm ofhis voice was quite beyond description, and his power of overcoming difficulties was marvelous. He took his listeners by storm. Rubini’s singing produced so powerful an effect on my senses that I strove to imitate the sound in my playing.”

Personal Memories

In my much-prized interview with Rubinstein, during the period of his concerts in Philadelphia, in the season of 1872-1873, he spoke of Rubini, and told me how he had passed hours in listening to this Italian tenor’s voice, with its purity, sweetness and power, and in trying to reproduce its timbre in his playing. “It is only with labor and tears bitter as death that the true artist is developed,” he said. “Few realize this, consequently there are few artists.”

The radiant splendor of the tone Rubinstein succeeded in producing, its infinitely varied nuances, from the softest whisper of the human voice to  the fullness of big orchestral effects; the combined flexibility and strength of his touch, never can be forgotten by those into whose consciousness these qualities have once entered. “I play as a musician, not as a virtuoso,” he once said, and every note he sounded made the sympathetic listener recognize the musician, “by the grace of God.”

He had phenomenal hands, with perfectly trained muscles, and employed them to give utterance to his lofty inspiration, controlled by ta titanic will and intellect. In his marvelous crescendos and other dazzling effects he was aided wonderfully by his artistic use of the pedals.

His magic tones, of which I had not thought the piano capable, rang in my inner ear, as they still ring, when I met this wizard of the keyboard and talked with him. His Bach performances had peculiarly taken possession of me, forhe examplified in them what my teacher, Carl Gaertner, had endeavored to impress upon me – the romantic Bach. Imagine my consternation when the great, much-revered Rubinstein actually compelled me to play for him the Bach Prelude and Fugue from the Well Tempered Clavichord, Book 1, No. 15. Although I played my worst rather than my best, he was gracious enough to say I had the right idea of Bach, and he would now show me how the idea might be expressed.

Taking his seat at the piano, he indeed presented to my eager senses the romantic Bach. The merry children, whom I had tried so hard to make frolic through the sunlit garden of the Prelude, became at his touch pulsating, eager youngsters. The invigorating voices of the delightful group, conversing so cheerfully and politely together in the Fugue, became life-giving as a draught from the Fountain of Youth. Through a long life I have endeavored to play this composition as Rubinstein did, and although my efforts naturally have been in vain, I have had great joy in them.

Rubinstein had a large experience with life, and long before his triumphs came he had known disappointment, deprivation and even hunger. All had served to strengthen his character and enrich his genius, and because he felt deeply himself, he was able to make others feel. No Piano artist ever touched the popular heart as he touched it, and yet he never descended to the level of a crude andience, but rather lifted it to his level.

Rubinstein belonged to the class of beings whose outward appearance is a revelation of the divine fire within. You would pick him out anywhere as a personality. His lofty brow, brooding eye and majestic head, with its shaggy hair, recalled Beethoven; and yet his impressive, powerful form had that striking individuality which gave him a distinction all his own. He was indeed a superman.

Huneker on Rubinstein

Other views on Rubinstein are those of the brilliant adn original critic of art and letters, James Huneker. In his essay on “The Grand Manner in Piano Playing,” he pronounces Rubinstein the greatest pianist in his long and varied list, and declares that no one could forget the music one heard when the great Russian’s lion-like, velvet paws “caressed the keyboard.”

Referring to Rubinstein’s delivery of the theme at the opening of Beethoven’s G Major Concerto and the last page of Chopin’s Barcarolle, he compared it to the sound of distant waters, or horns from elfland. He considers Rubinstein the “supreme stylist,” and writes:

“It was in 1873 I heard him, but I was too young to understand him. Fifteen years later he gave his Seven Historical Recitals in Paris, and I attended the series, not once, but twice. He played many composers, but for me, he seemed to be playing the Book of Job, the Apocalypse and the Scarlet Sarafan. He had a ductile tone like a golden French horn (Joseffy’s comparison), and the power and passion of the man have never been equaled.”

“Anton Rubinstein played every school with consummate skill, from the iron certitudes of Bach’s polyphony to the magic murmurs of Chopin and the romantic rustling of the moonlit garden of Schumann. Beethoven, too, he interpreted with intellectual and emotional vigor.”

Opinions of Others

The Russian critic, Levenstein, says that the playing of Rubinstein creates an impression not unlike that produced by some magnificent display of the elements. He considers the spontaneity of this man of genius, combined with technical methods that are entirely his own, one secret of the deep impress he leaves on his hearers.

Rubinstein’s manner of playing the octave accompaniment in the Schubert-Liszt Erl-King is thus described: “He curves the middle fingers and raises the wrist, so that the fingers which play the octaves instead of falling sideways on the keys, strike with their tips as with a hammer. By this method the octaves are played with ease and freedom.”

The highly regarded Hanslick says: “We always follow Rubinstein’s playing with a sense of delight. His youthful, untiring vigor, his unequaled skill in bringing out the melody, his perfection of touch in the torrents of passion, as well as in the tender, long-drawn notes of pathos, his wonderful memory, and his energy that knows no fatigue – these are the qualities which amaze us in Rubinstein’s playing.”

Sayings of Rubinstein

In a little volume entitled “Music and Its Masters,” many gems from the musical creed of Rubinstein are preserved. He has often been called the subjective artist, and of this he said to his interviewer, “I do not know what people mean by the objective in performing. Every performance, if it be rendered by a person and not by a machine, is ,within itself, subjective. To do justice to the object (the composition) is for every performer a duty, but, of course, each in his own manner, and hence subjectively. How is anything else conceivable?”

“No two persons have the same character, the same nervous system, the same physical constitution. The differences of touch in the pianist, of tone in the violinist or violoncellist, the quality of voice in the singer, the difference of character and disposition in the orchestra conductor, necessitate subjectivity in performance. If the conception of a composition should be objective, there could be but one correct way, and all performers would have to adhere to it. Is there only one correct way of impersonating Hamlet or King Lear? And is it necessary that every actor should ape one Hamlet or King Lear in order to do justice to the object? Therefore I can sanction only subjective performances of music.”

Bach (Johann Sebastian) represented to Rubinstein a high ideal in music. In the Well-Tempered Clavichord he found the epitome of that master’s greatness. “Its fugues,” he said, “are of a religious melancholy, sublime, serious, humorous, pastoral and dramatic character. In one respect are they all alike, and that is in beauty. And then the Preludes! Their charm, variety, perfections and splendor are absolutely entrancing!”

Of Beethoven also, he spoke with reverence, and declared that the most marvelous ofhis master’s works dated from the period of his deafness. “His absolute concentration, his imagery, his tuneful soul, his complaining never before expressed in music, his tragic earnestness, this bound Prometheus can be explained only by his deafness. It is true he produced beautiful unrivaled works before this period, but the highest and most wonderful of his works date from his deafness. Just as the seer can be imagined blind, that is, blind to his surroundings and seeing only with the soul’s perception, so the hearer can be imagined deaf to all his surroundings and hearing ony with the soul’s perception.”

Schubert, he pronounced a remarkable personage in music, whose productiveness in a short life he ascribed to the fact that the man “sang as the birds sing, always and incessantly from a full heart, simply voicing his inspiration.”

His tribute to Chopin is most illuminating and should be read complete. He says, in part: “Chopin is the bard of the pianoforte, the rhapsodist, the spirit and the soul of it. I do not know whether this instrument inspired him, or he the instrument. But only a thorough identification of both could produce his compositions.”

Every student of the pianoforte and its literature should read this book, which overflows with helpful suggestions and descriptions. Rubinstein, the man of warm, sympathetic heart and great intellect, seems to have been absolutely free from narrow prejudices and petty jealousies.

This giant of tonal art, this Russian patriot, philanthropist and musician, wielded a mighty influence in the musical world of both Europe and the United States. To this day students of the piano owe him a great debt of gratitude. The value of the impulse he gave to music in Russia cannot be estimated.

When he returned to the homeland, in 1849, after his several years of association with music-makers and performers abroad, he found so little conception of the worth of musical art that his music manuscripts, the fruits of long and conscientious toil, were confiscated at the frontier for fear that what purported to be notes might contain some dangerous secret code. Here and there he encountered groups of excellent musical amateurs, but music as a profession held so low a status that even Glinka, considered at the time Russia’s greatest musical genius, owed his standing in his native country to being a member of the nobility and a public office-holder, rather than as a musician.

Young as Rubinstein then was, he resolved to employ his best powers in effecting a change. By the season of 1858-1859, having continually enlarged his knowledge and experience at home and abroad, he had succeeded, with the aid of the Grand Duchess Helena and a few other enlightened people, in establishing the Russian Music Society, which resulted n having music schools established in St. Peteresburg, Moscow and Kiev.

By 1852 the music school at St. Petersburg had developed into a full-fledged conservatory of music. Rubinstein was appointed its first director, and held the office for five consecutive years, resuming it again, for a time, after a long period of absence devoted to concerts.

Among the earliest teachers in this conservatory were Leschetizky, later the well-known piano pedagogue of Vienna; Mm. Nissen-Salomon, the Swedish singer, a pupil of Manuel Garcia, and Wieniawski, who later accompanied Rubinstein to America, and whose wonderful violin-tone rang out with Rubinstein’s piano-tone as though both were produce by one spirit.

In the first graduating class were Tscaikowsky, the great Russian composer, and the favorite pianist, Mm. Essipov, a pupil and later the wife of Leschetizky. The degree of Bachelor of Music was conferred upon the graduates, and the Russian musician acquired the same social position that had for a century belonged to the Russian painter.

The life of Rubinstein was truly consecrated to music, and through music to his fellow-creatures. His benefactions were enormous. He accumulated a large fortune; gave away an equally large fortune for charities and various good works. During his retirement in his beautiful villa, Peterhof, he continued to shed his light afar until his death, November 20, 1894, and its glow is not yet extinguished.

His last appearance on the concert platform, January, 1894, was in Moscow, where he had given his first child concert. As he made his final bow after the performance, the grand piano was closed and locked, and with a pathetic gesture of farewell he disappeared from view.

One of the most valuable legacies he left to musicians is the advice in regard to musical education and music schools, which is to be found in his autobiography.