Arthur Rubinstein: the favourite of inspiration

rubinsteinThis outstanding Polish-Russian pianist of Jewish origin was born in 1887 in the city of Lodz in Poland. His father was a factory owner (a rather nominal businessman, however, who took much more interest in learning languages and philosophy). Poland was part of Russia at the time, so Russian was one of Arthur’s mother tongues.

He displayed notable musical talent in his early childhood – as sung in one of ABBA’s songs, he “began to sing long before he could talk”. He became even more determined, when watching his elder sister’s music studies. First, he was offered to learn to play the violin, but he resisted it rather violently and decisively chose the piano. He started his own formal musical schooling in Warsaw. From 1897 on, Rubinstein continued his education in Berlin.

When Arthur was 11, his father went bankrupt, so playing music became for the young pianist a business to make a living from. He never happened to receive systematic education, particularly in music, although he dreamed of being a pupil of T.Leszeticki or F. Busoni. In 1900, the young Rubinstein’s first recital took place with the Berlin philharmonic orchestra accompanying. His debut proved a success, after which he would perform in various cities of Germany and Poland. In parallel, Rubinstein perfected himself in piano mastery with K. H. Barth, a pupil of H. von Bülow. Thus, Rubinstein became a heir to the great piano school of Beethoven, Czerny, and Liszt.

In 1904, Rubinstein went on tour to Paris. There, he met with many well-known composers, including the “impressionist” M. Ravel and “the last classic” C. Saint-Saëns.

In 1906, Rubinstein’s debut in Carnegie Hall took place, which proved not to be successful. Still, his tour of the USA went on. Having travelled all over the country, he resumed his concert appearances in Europe. When in Poland, he joined “The Young Poland in Music” society, where among others, the composer K. Szymanowski was a member. He also repeatedly visited Russia. Among his Russian acquaintance were composers A. Skriabin, S. Rachmaninoff, I. Stravinky, and S. Prokofiev, and the pianist H. Neuhaus was his friend.

Not everything was running smoothly for the young pianist. Time after time, misfortune would befall him. Not just once would he fall victim to intrigue, for example, at the 5th competition named after his no less famous namesake Anton Rubinstein held in 1910 in St. Petersburg. Sometimes he would find himself completely destitute and having to hide from creditors. One day, in a fit of desperation, triggered by unshared love, he even tried to commit a suicide. Luckily, the attempt failed, and subsequently the musician was distinguished for enviable love of life. “I have found that if you love life, life will love you back”, – he wrote.

During the 1st World War, Rubinstein stayed in London, where he helped forge victory over the enemy, working as an interpreter (he had a good command of several languages) and also performing in front of the soldiers, including as an accompanist to the French violinist E. Ysaÿe.

After the war, Rubinstein toured Spain, then South America. At that time, he became keen on music by the composers of the Spain-Portuguese school and popularized this music heavily thereafter.  In the sequel, he would basically stay in Paris, giving concerts in European countries.

Rubinstein’s popularity was growing. He earned heaps of money and spent it on luxury events, best restaurants, most expensive Havana cigars, stylish suits, games of chance, and dazzling ladies. He was noted for his refined manners, and was always the life and soul of the party. Thomas Mann, who was also among Rubinstein’s acquaintances, wrote: “It was just a pleasure to watch the life of this virtuoso and favourite of fortune. A talent evoking rapture and admiration everywhere and coping with any problems with a wet finger, a thriving house, exuberant health, oodles of money, the ability to find spiritual and sensual joy in his collections, paintings, and valuable books – all this, combined, makes him one of the happiest people I have ever met.”

In 1932, Rubinstein married a Polish ballerina, Nela Mlynarska. Then he interrupted his concert activities for several years. But not only family concerns were the cause of this break. At the time, Rubinstein concentrated on improving his piano technique and performance accuracy. In this way, he wanted to catch up with missed things. He realized that in his younger years he had neglected systematic practicing, largely relying on his talent and inspiration, for which reason nearly half of the notes he had been supposed to produce would sometimes find themselves “under the piano”. Also at about that time, the pianist started to take a great interest in F. Chopin, eventually becoming one of his best interpreters.

Nevertheless, music for Rubinstein was never a matter of technique or well-prepared templates. When appearing on the concert platform, he never knew how he was going to play. “At every recital, – he confessed, – I leave much to chance. I need to have something unexpected and unforeseen. I need risk, I need to be bold. Therefore, I myself often am surprised at what I’ve turned out to produce and, perhaps, I get from it more enjoyment than the listeners. But this is the only way for music to come alive and blossom. It’s like love, which is as old as the world, but every time it comes as a revelation.” And yet, such an approach may not be always justified, and sometimes a lack of logic may be noticed in Rubinstein’s playing.

In 1937, Rubinstein returned to active concertizing. His guest performances in the USA proved triumphant this time around. Critics, who had previously pointed to the immaturity of his skills, now called him one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century.

During the 2nd World War, the pianist lived in the USA. He now paid considerable attention to ensemble playing. Among his partners at podium were the violinists Ya. Heifets and H. Szeryng, and cellists G. Pyatigorsky and P. Casals.

After the war, Rubinstein continued his concert tours all over the world. At about that time, his close ties were being forged with his “historical homeland,” the young State of Israel. For a cosmopolitan artist, whom the artist had always seemed to be, this “call of land and blood” can possibly be accounted for by Rubinstein’s resentment against Europe which yielded so easily to the temptation of Nazism – his brothers and sisters died in Auschwitz. For all that, he would never forget Russia, which he toured in 1964 for the last time. Then he had a chance to visit in hospital his dying friend, H. Neuhaus.

Rubinstein gave his last recital in London, when he was 89.

He died on December 20th, 1982 in Geneva at the age of 95. He wished that his ashes be scattered in Israel, over the Jerusalem forest. But, due to legal issues, the urn containing his ashes was eventually buried near the place.

Arthur Rubinstein was one of the most graphic embodiments of Artist as Such. Moreover, it was an Artist yearning to be understood. What was always important to him was not only the moment of his own creativity, but also a feedback, a response on the part of the perceivers of his art. This is how his dislike for working in a studio could largely be accounted for.  He would be inspired most by a full house, by people sitting in the isles, even on the concert platform.

The pianist remains unchallenged as a performer of works by Chopin. Possibly, his Polish background makes itself felt here. His playing is noted for undisputable nobleness, an unobtrusive rubato, the naturalness of breathing, a rich, singing sound, a delicate way of treating each note, even in the most ornate passages. A mediocre pianist, to fit within the designated timeframe, will dash off Chopin’s passages or use them just to demonstrate his or her technical skills. Rubinstein, however, manages to subordinate “physical time” to the purposes of artistic performance, as a result of which Chopin’s passage comes off “safe and sound.” At the same time, the artist relentlessly stresses the “classicism” of Chopin’s music. “To understand Chopin, – Rubinstein would point out, one should take it into account that the composer was a pupil of J. S. Bach and W.     A. Mozart, the pupil of strictness and harmony.”

The above “devices” serve the single objective of conveying genuine feelings rooted in the pieces by the Polish genius, of revealing his famous “żal”. Therefore, it would be insufficient to say that Rubinstein just “sings” each note; rather, he “lives through” them. It may be said that reflected in his rendition of Chopin is the fate of the entire European culture, with its empyrean rise and miserable wreckage:

The pleasure was not only listening to him playing, but also watching him playing. Noble posture, classical finger training, maximum concentration, a sublime expression on his face – all these “observations” would not distract the listener, but only contribute to disclosing the artistic image to the full.

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