EXPLORING MUSIC

A Nineteenth Century Superstar

Author

by David M. Greene

Publication

MHS Review 214 Vol. 1, No. XVI
December 19, 1977

Listen

The Americans, who had in the 1870s not yet acquired a proper awe of genius or a proper knowledge of outlandish tongues, called him, affectionately and accurately, "Ruby." Anton Rubinstein--no relation to Artur--was the first simon-pure, uncontested, unabashed, top-grade virtuoso superstar most of them had ever encountered, though there had been such people as Henri Herz, the self-styled "Lion Pianist" Leopold de Meyer, who threw himself all over the keyboard, and, of course, the home-grown Gottschalk. In point of fame, Ruby was second only to Liszt himself--who, early in his career, apparently rejected Rubinstein as a pupil. During 1871-2 Rubinstein played 215 concerts across the face of America, together with Henryk Wieniawski, a violin virtuoso who found himself playing second fiddle. Rumpled, stocky, pugnacious­ looking (said to resemble Beethoven), Ruby made the piano bellow, scream, moan, and say "uncle" in a way that drove his audiences into a frenzy; few noticed or cared that he, as the old saw has it, left out enough notes to play another concert. He went home with more than $40,000 in gold coin (he did not trust paper money), which was a fortune by today's standards--and worth heaven knows how much on today's gold market!

 

When Anton Grigoryevitch, the son of a Jewish farmer, was still a baby, he was one of sixty-odd Rubinstein's to undergo a mass Christian baptism to avoid the consequences of a brutal military conscription act aimed specifically at the Jews (but in his heyday his Jewish background often set up unexpected obstacles.) Shortly afterwards the family moved to Moscow where Grigori became a small-time manufacturer and Anton became a child prodigy. Backed by his mother, trained by one Villoing, and looking like Little Lord Fauntleroy, he made his concert debut a few month's short of his tenth birthday (ninth according to Grove's and Harold Schonberg, who are on the Old Calendar), and blew the roof off. He went on to become the intimate of virtuosi and potentates and a power in the musical world. He and his brother inaugurated and ran the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the first modern one in Russia, and set up the prestigious Rubinstein International Concourse for young pianists. He also presented a historical survey of piano music over seven consecutive evenings, running from the Elizabethans to Rimsky­Korsakov. And he conducted and taught.

 

Rubinstein also composed, and preferred to think of himself as a composer. His tastes were both conservative and German, and he was not held in high esteem by the determinedly Russian school of "the Mighty Five" (actually Cui wasn't so mighty). He wrote ambitious operas, symphonies, and concerti, as well as many works in small forms. For years, however, he has been remembered (if at all) only by such pretty trifles as the Melody in F, the Romance in E-flat, and the last of the "Kamenoy-Ostrov" pieces. The annotators of this record speak hopefully of a revival. To be sure, the ubiquitous Michael Ponti and others (Oscar Levant!) have recorded some of the concerti, and one of the versions of the "Ocean" Symphony is to be had, but Rubinstein's was a pleasant rather than a unique talent, and only a sheerly desperate need for novelty is likely to exhune the whole vast corpus of his work. (Still and all, I'd love to hear the "Wilhelm Meister" songs!) But for those who, like myself, like the velour and horsehair of the nineteenth century salon world, the second 'cello sonata, once a repertory staple, is worth bringing up out of the dustbin. (Note: Catherine Drinker Bowen, in her 1939 biography, speaks of "the ever-popular F Major 'cello sonata." Since there are only two such sonatas, and the other is in D, I assume that it is this one that was still popular then.)

 

A Nineteenth Century Superstar

Author

by David M. Greene

Publication

MHS Review 214 Vol. 1, No. XVI
December 19, 1977

Listen

The Americans, who had in the 1870s not yet acquired a proper awe of genius or a proper knowledge of outlandish tongues, called him, affectionately and accurately, "Ruby." Anton Rubinstein--no relation to Artur--was the first simon-pure, uncontested, unabashed, top-grade virtuoso superstar most of them had ever encountered, though there had been such people as Henri Herz, the self-styled "Lion Pianist" Leopold de Meyer, who threw himself all over the keyboard, and, of course, the home-grown Gottschalk. In point of fame, Ruby was second only to Liszt himself--who, early in his career, apparently rejected Rubinstein as a pupil. During 1871-2 Rubinstein played 215 concerts across the face of America, together with Henryk Wieniawski, a violin virtuoso who found himself playing second fiddle. Rumpled, stocky, pugnacious­ looking (said to resemble Beethoven), Ruby made the piano bellow, scream, moan, and say "uncle" in a way that drove his audiences into a frenzy; few noticed or cared that he, as the old saw has it, left out enough notes to play another concert. He went home with more than $40,000 in gold coin (he did not trust paper money), which was a fortune by today's standards--and worth heaven knows how much on today's gold market!

 

When Anton Grigoryevitch, the son of a Jewish farmer, was still a baby, he was one of sixty-odd Rubinstein's to undergo a mass Christian baptism to avoid the consequences of a brutal military conscription act aimed specifically at the Jews (but in his heyday his Jewish background often set up unexpected obstacles.) Shortly afterwards the family moved to Moscow where Grigori became a small-time manufacturer and Anton became a child prodigy. Backed by his mother, trained by one Villoing, and looking like Little Lord Fauntleroy, he made his concert debut a few month's short of his tenth birthday (ninth according to Grove's and Harold Schonberg, who are on the Old Calendar), and blew the roof off. He went on to become the intimate of virtuosi and potentates and a power in the musical world. He and his brother inaugurated and ran the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the first modern one in Russia, and set up the prestigious Rubinstein International Concourse for young pianists. He also presented a historical survey of piano music over seven consecutive evenings, running from the Elizabethans to Rimsky­Korsakov. And he conducted and taught.

 

Rubinstein also composed, and preferred to think of himself as a composer. His tastes were both conservative and German, and he was not held in high esteem by the determinedly Russian school of "the Mighty Five" (actually Cui wasn't so mighty). He wrote ambitious operas, symphonies, and concerti, as well as many works in small forms. For years, however, he has been remembered (if at all) only by such pretty trifles as the Melody in F, the Romance in E-flat, and the last of the "Kamenoy-Ostrov" pieces. The annotators of this record speak hopefully of a revival. To be sure, the ubiquitous Michael Ponti and others (Oscar Levant!) have recorded some of the concerti, and one of the versions of the "Ocean" Symphony is to be had, but Rubinstein's was a pleasant rather than a unique talent, and only a sheerly desperate need for novelty is likely to exhune the whole vast corpus of his work. (Still and all, I'd love to hear the "Wilhelm Meister" songs!) But for those who, like myself, like the velour and horsehair of the nineteenth century salon world, the second 'cello sonata, once a repertory staple, is worth bringing up out of the dustbin. (Note: Catherine Drinker Bowen, in her 1939 biography, speaks of "the ever-popular F Major 'cello sonata." Since there are only two such sonatas, and the other is in D, I assume that it is this one that was still popular then.)

 

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