The Real Anton Rubinstein 1830 1894
The three dynasties of Russian monarchs who ruled over the vast country immediately prior to the birth of Rubinstein made a powerful impression upon the life and manners of the somber territory washing by the waters of three oceans. Catharine (1762-1796), cruelest of tyrants since the terrible Ivan, was nevertheless a woman of tremendous ability, filled with a progressive spirit which enabled her to compensate in a measure for her dissolute habits.
She furthered education, commerce, industries and even personal liberty. Her son, Paul I, who succeeded her, inherited all his mother’s faults and very little of her personal force or intellectual strength. He fostered countless intrigues until his assassination by persons high in his own court came as a natural consequence to his reign of oppression. His successor was Alexander I, who although he employed drastic means to carry out many of the policies of his father and his grandmother, possessed other qualities which made him one of the foremost Czars of all time. With the northern winter as an ally, he drove the redoubtable Napoleon, drunk with ceaseless triumphs, back to France.
When Alexander died in 1825 he was unwillingly succeeded by his younger brother Nicholas, who became an absolute monarch in all that the Russian meaning of the word implies. Restrictions were placed upon any intellectual effort that gave the least possible suggestion of connection with the constant political eruptions breaking out in all parts of the country.
The icy road to Siberia was worn with the bleeding feet of exiles, some guilty, some innocent. Not even this imperial cruelty could paralyze the master minds who were fighting for the larger cultural field that was to come to them in the following reigns.
It was not until the death of Nicholas I and the succession of Alexander II that the intellectual awakening of Russia became possible. In 1855 a new spirit of reform arose, leading to the freeing of twenty three million serfs in 1861. Since then Russia has been a land of continual progress.
It may be seen, however, that during Rubinstein’s youth, which he fortunately spent in part away from his homeland, Russia was hardly the land in which to propagate a new musical art. The case of Glinka is a remarkable exception, indicating the power of a great original genius to rise above adverse conditions. However, it is likely that even his success would not have been possible had he not lived for some time in Italy and Germany. During the reign of Alexander II the Russians were able to enjoy the home life to which they are beautifully devoted. The whole land has in fact been undergoing a great intellectual renaissance.
Popular Russian educational advancement has been very striking in many ways. For instance, when the first volumes of the philosophy of Herbert Spencer reached the country, they were read by family groups and then given to a horseman who would ride to distant groups, so that in a short time hundreds had the best thoughts from one book. It was in such an atmosphere and such a land that Rubinstein spent his boyhood days and later years.
Rubinstein was of Jewish ancestry. His father, Gregori Romanovich, was a Russian subject who settled in Bessorabia, that little section of Southern Russia which adjoins Roumania. There he established a pencil factory and secured a fairly good living as a merchant. Rubinstein’s mother, Kateria Christoforovna Rubinstein (born Levenstein), was well educated, especially in music. The family included six children,and the home life must have been happy despite the unsettled disposition of the father, who in search of a fortune moved several times to distant cities.
Rubinstein was born November 28, 1830, at Wechwotynetz (sometimes spelled Vichvatijnetz), Russia. The date of his birth is variously given as the 16th, 18th and 30th of the month, these differences being due to the method of reckoning the calendar in the modern style and in the old style. (Old style November 16th corresponds to modern style November 28th.) In 1834 or 1835 the entire Rubinstein family moved to Moscow where Anton was brought up, and where the father established a pin and pencil factory.
Rubinstein’s Early Training
Anton’s first lessons were received from his mother, who taught both him and his brother Nicholas, later destined to found a school of music in Moscow similar to that which Anton founded in St. Petersburg. The mother had no idea of making great musicians of her sons but taught them music simply as a part of their education. Rubinstein tells of his youthful repertoire which included many works of Hummel, Hertz, Moscheles, Kalkbrenner, Czerny, Diabelli, Clementi and other famous composers of the day.
The Rubinstein’s shortly acquired an extremely musical neighbor in the person of Mme. Barbara Brunberg. Her daughter Julia was a fine performer, and her progress incited Anton to higher accomplishments.
Rubinstein’s mother, at that time in less prosperous circumstances, sought the leading teacher in Moscow, Alexander Villowing, and told him that her means would not permit her to pay his full rate, but that she hoped that her son’s talent would warrant him taking the boy as a pupil at a reduced rate. He accepted the boy without any tuition fee and became his sole teacher.
Rubinstein never forgot his debt of gratitude to Villowing, and spoke of him as a kind of “second father.” Villowing played but very little himself but was a most excellent teacher. Rubinstein was everlastingly grateful to him for giving him a thorough, firm foundation in technic, “a foundation which could never be shaken.” So little is known of Villowing that the sparse mention of him in standard reference works does not tell who is own teachers were. When he died in St. Petersburg at the age of seventy, his sole fortune consisted of a few coins and a few old fiddles.
Rubinstein’s Early Appearances
Rubinstein’s first appearance was made in his tenth year in Moscow when he played pieces by Hummel, Thalberg, Field and Henselt. Accompanied by his teacher he traveled all over Europe giving concerts. These he describes as being real fun to him. Indeed he looked upon the concerts as a child does upon his playthings. The only things he rebelled against were the strenuous methods of education, which in those days were emphasized by the use of frequent punches and slaps, to say nothing of the ever-ready ferule.
In 1840 Rubinstein spent the better part of the year in Paris, jealously guarded by his teacher who was afraid that he might fall into other hands. He gave numerous concerts, and at one both Chopin and Liszt were present. Liszt took a particular interest in the boy and advised him to tour through Germany while completing his musical education. It was a day of infant prodigies but Rubinstein was obviously the greatest of all. In England he was welcomed by the music loving Queen Victoria, then in the prime of her youth.
In 1843 he returned to St. Petersburg, where he was richly received. He admits of mimicking Liszt at that time, and also tells of the wonderful effect upon him made by the Italian tenor Rubini, whose charming voice he strove to imitate upon the keyboard. The Emperor Nicholas was an amateur musician, and took great interest in the boy, calling him jokingly “Your Excellency.”
Upon returning to Moscow, Rubinstein found himself laden with rich presents from crowned heads but without other funds. As they were very poor these presents were all pawned at the government pawn shop (collateral bank). In 1844 they family removed to Berliln where the boy studied harmony and counterpoint under Dehn. Here he also studied the Russian language and the Greeks religion under Father Dormidont. He also studied modern langauges at the same time. He also received instruction from Marx upon the advice of Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer.
Rubinstein in Vienna
In Vienna Rubinstein lived in an attic and gave lessons for very cheap rates. Indeed, he was so poor that he was obliged to go without meals for two and three days at a time. Liszt finally rescued him from his penury after a year and a half of literal starving. In 1848 Rubinstein returned to Berlin and “threatened” to go to America. In 1849 he returned to Russia and had great difficulty in entering the country owing to the fact that he did not have a passport. His compositions were seized and later sold as waste paper.
In St. Petersburg Rubinstein spent most of his time in composing and in teaching. His opera Dmitri Douskof was first produced in 1852. From 1854 to 1858, Rubinstein toured musical Europe with the greatest success. In 1854 Rubinstein lived with Liszt for some six months at Weimar, practically as a member of the latter’s family.
The Foundation of a Great Conservatory
In 1858 Rubinstein returned to St. Petersburg crowned with the laurels from Western Europe. With the assistance of some friends he was successful in founding the Russian Musical Society in 1859 (now Imperial Musical Society). In 1862 he founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Leschetizky as Pofessor of Piano and Wieniawski as head of the violin department. Rubinstein himself was director. Musical culture had been at a comparatively low ebb in Russia.
There were many able amateurs but few professional musicians of ability. Once after Rubinstein had been to confession at the Kazan Cathedral he was questioned as to his profession, and when he told them that he was an artist, a professional musician, the deacon refused to recognize such a vocation and put him down as “the son of a merchant of the second guild.” Actors and painters had long been recognized as members of useful professions, but it was not until 1860, when the graduates of the conservatory were permitted to assume a title (Bachelors of Music), that their standing was acknowledged. The Conservatory met with all manner of opposition, but the worst epithet hurled against it was that the teachers were “a set of German professional pedants.” A similar conservatory was founded in Moscow by Nicholas Rubinstein, and to these two institutions much of the musical greatness of Russia today is really due.
Rubinstein’s own account of the difficulties he encountered in establishing the conservatory makes very interesting reading. In the first place the instruction was to be given in Russian, and since there were almost no text books on music in that language, the teachers had to prepare their own works in some cases. Again, the school was regarded by many as a place where children unfit for anything else might be trained. Repeatedly mothers came with feeble-minded sons, convinced that they might do something in music despite their lack of intelligence.
Rubinstein’s American Tour
Rubinstein was too much of an iconoclast to remain long at the head of a permanent institution. IN 1867 he left the conservatory through a disagreement with the professors, owing as, he admits, to his hasty temper. In 1872, together with Henri Wieniawski, Rubinstein arranged to tour American, receiving two hundred thousand francs. He appeared two hundred times, giving two and three concerts in the same cities on one day. No wonder that he declared that “it became so tedious that I began to despise myself,” and refused to accept an offer of one half a million made to him later. He admitted, however, that the receipts from his American tour laid the foundation of his prosperity. In 1865 Rubinstein married Mmle. Viere Tchekuanov. He had three children, Jacob, Anna and Alexander. In 1887 Rubinstein resumed management of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, advocating widespread plans for the spread of musical learning in Russia. In 1889 Rubinstein celebrated his jubilee and published his autobiography. He died November 20, 1894, at Peterhof.
Rubinstein’s appearance was very striking. His hair was very thick and he never affected a beard or moustache. One critic said of him, “He had the head of an inspired sphinx, upon whose face not even the paroxysms of enthusiasm call forth a smile. Did not the color of life illumine it, it might be of stone.” Dr. Hugo Reimann said of him, “Rubinstein’s gloomy countenance, seldom lighted by a smile, was not a mask, but the natural expression of the attuning of his soul, and when he mourned or grieved at the piano it was not merely artistic expression, but dead earnest.”
Rubinstein as a Pianist
During his lifetime Rubinstein was so great that his playing was never compared with that of any other pianist but the great Liszt. Indeed, there are those who counted that in many ways he was even greater than Liszt. His technic was incomparable and his interpretations were characterized by emotional and brilliant attributes which few have ever equaled.
It was said of him that “he composed each piece as he played it.” In his youth his memory was remarkably fine, and he apparently knew the entire literature of the instrument by heart. However, in later years he complained of lapses, and it is a fact that his recitals were often marked by wild irregularities which his friends attributed to failing memory.
Eduard Hanslick said of his playing, “It is a delight to listen to him, in the highest and most sincere sense of the word. The merits of Rubinstein’s playing are sought principally in his elementary powers, and from the same source spring likewise many of his faults. Rubinstein’s temperament is of such compelling force that exhausted Europe yields submissively to his will.”
Rubinstein as a Composer
Great as was Rubinstein’s fame as a virtuoso, it was not as a virtuoso that he wished to be known to posterity, but as a composer. It is difficult to reach a right appreciation of his works because of the fact that they have been judged by the works of modern Russian composers who have written in a totally different and much more rugged style. By many he has been likened to Mendelssohn and indeed the comparison is not an inappropriate one, although he failed to produce works which have had the comprehensive grasp upon the musical public that have marked the compositions of Mendelssohn.
His operatic works are little known outside of Russia, and only a very few of his numerous compositions for piano are played this day. His works to which opus numbers have been given include one hundred and nineteen compositions. He has been widely criticized for his failure to write less and produce compositions marked by more labor, more careful revision.
He cultivated an acid hatred for the works of the “ultra” composers of his time, particularly Wagner. Rubinstein produced seven Russian operas “The Demon” and others, six German operas (Nero, The Maccabees, Feramoors, etc.) and five “sacred operas” (Paradise Lost, The Tower of Babel, Moses, etc.). He also wrote cantatas, an orchestral suite, concert overtures, six symphonies, a violin concerto, two ’cello concertos, five pianoforte concertos, quartets, quintets, an octet, a sextet, much chamber music, numerous excellent pianoforte pieces and one hundred songs, some of which are models of the beautiful in the art songs. His D minor Concerto is one of the greatest compositions for the pianoforte.
A list of Rubinstein’s works can be found at Wikipedia.