EXPLORING MUSIC

A Restless Soul

Author

David M. Greene

Publication

MHS Review 325 Vol.7, No.18 , 1984

Listen

A Restless Soul

 

One day in 1831 60 or so Rubinsteins, including the infant Anton, converged on the town of Berdichev in the Ukraine, there officially to exchange their Judaism for at least nominal Christianity. Though God is said to move in mysterious ways, probably none of them felt they had heard The Call; their chief motivation, as they saw it, was to save their children from harsh anti-Jewish laws, including a military draft on terms that virtually assured the destruction of those subject to it.


That Anton was a Rubinstein his parents had no doubt, though in maturity, owing to his pianistic prowess and a face with a permanent scowl, he did little to discourage the gossip that had him a bastard son of Beethoven. His mother Kalerya, nee Klara, had come from Prussia; his father Grigori was Russian-born. At the time Anton first saw the light, Grigori was trying to make a go of it as a Ukrainian farmer, but in 1834, having lost his land in a lawsuit, he and his brothers packed their families into wagons and went to Moscow, where they opened a pencil factory - equally doomed to failure, as the family discovered when Grigori suddenly died in 1846.

In the meantime, however, Kalerya had undertaken to give her eldest piano lessons. When in three years she found he had things to teach her, she turned him over to a French­descended teacher named Alexandre Villoing. Villoing realized he had a prodigy on his hands and took him on a concert tour of Europe, capped by a command performance before their Imperial Russian Majesties.


But after the elder Rubinstein died, Anton, at 17, found himself out of fashion, led a hand-to-mouth existence for a couple of years, and let his playing lapse. Back in Russia in 1848, he rebuilt his technique. Meanwhile, however, he was composing seriously. He caught the fancy of the Grand Duchess Helena, sister-in-law to the Tsar, who made him her Kapellmeister (she was German by birth), backed productions of his operas, and, around 1860, financed for him the St. Petersburg Conservatory, for whose faculty he hired the very best musicians in Russia.


But Rubinstein was a restless soul. When he was running the school, he yearned to compose. When he was composing, he itched to hit the concert trail. In 1854 he undertook a four-year European tour, on which he struck on the novel expedient of digging up music of past masters (notably Beethoven) to play. In 1867, the year the conservatory graduated its first class, he resigned for another long tour. In 1871-72 he settled in Vienna as conductor of the Philharmonic, but at the end of the season he and the violinist Henryk Wieniawski set forth on an alarmingly nauseous sea voyage to America.


Frankly Rubinstein, a big spender, needed the money, which he insisted be paid him in gold pieces until it became so heavy that he yielded to suggestions that paper currency was more convenient. In mid-tour he and Wieniawski quarreled and split up.


Rubinstein was regarded by the Americans as a natural wonder (so awesome was his playing that no one noticed the notoriously dropped notes or the broken piano strings) and in a little over seven months he gave 215 concerts, including the novelty of one-man recitals eschewing guest artists. The comic monologist George Bagby summed up the experience in his Jud Brownin Hears Ruby Play, which ends "With that bang! he lifted himself bodily into the air, and he came down with his knees, fingers, toes, elbows, and his nose, striking every single silitary key on the pianner at the same time ... .I knowed no more that evening."


Rubinstein would have preferred to have been remembered as a composer, to which end he wrote prodigiously. But his admitted conservatism did not please the progressives of his own day, and most of his 19 operas, six symphonies, and other ambitious works appear, apart from a few piano salon pieces and songs, deader than King Tut. (Please! No Egyptian letters protesting "Tut Lives!") But of the 11 sonatas of various kinds, W.S. Newman (The Sonata Since Beethoven) speaks in favorable terms, noting in some of them anticipations of such late-romantics as Grieg and Brahms.

 



 

A Restless Soul

Author

David M. Greene

Publication

MHS Review 325 Vol.7, No.18 , 1984

Listen

A Restless Soul

 

One day in 1831 60 or so Rubinsteins, including the infant Anton, converged on the town of Berdichev in the Ukraine, there officially to exchange their Judaism for at least nominal Christianity. Though God is said to move in mysterious ways, probably none of them felt they had heard The Call; their chief motivation, as they saw it, was to save their children from harsh anti-Jewish laws, including a military draft on terms that virtually assured the destruction of those subject to it.


That Anton was a Rubinstein his parents had no doubt, though in maturity, owing to his pianistic prowess and a face with a permanent scowl, he did little to discourage the gossip that had him a bastard son of Beethoven. His mother Kalerya, nee Klara, had come from Prussia; his father Grigori was Russian-born. At the time Anton first saw the light, Grigori was trying to make a go of it as a Ukrainian farmer, but in 1834, having lost his land in a lawsuit, he and his brothers packed their families into wagons and went to Moscow, where they opened a pencil factory - equally doomed to failure, as the family discovered when Grigori suddenly died in 1846.

In the meantime, however, Kalerya had undertaken to give her eldest piano lessons. When in three years she found he had things to teach her, she turned him over to a French­descended teacher named Alexandre Villoing. Villoing realized he had a prodigy on his hands and took him on a concert tour of Europe, capped by a command performance before their Imperial Russian Majesties.


But after the elder Rubinstein died, Anton, at 17, found himself out of fashion, led a hand-to-mouth existence for a couple of years, and let his playing lapse. Back in Russia in 1848, he rebuilt his technique. Meanwhile, however, he was composing seriously. He caught the fancy of the Grand Duchess Helena, sister-in-law to the Tsar, who made him her Kapellmeister (she was German by birth), backed productions of his operas, and, around 1860, financed for him the St. Petersburg Conservatory, for whose faculty he hired the very best musicians in Russia.


But Rubinstein was a restless soul. When he was running the school, he yearned to compose. When he was composing, he itched to hit the concert trail. In 1854 he undertook a four-year European tour, on which he struck on the novel expedient of digging up music of past masters (notably Beethoven) to play. In 1867, the year the conservatory graduated its first class, he resigned for another long tour. In 1871-72 he settled in Vienna as conductor of the Philharmonic, but at the end of the season he and the violinist Henryk Wieniawski set forth on an alarmingly nauseous sea voyage to America.


Frankly Rubinstein, a big spender, needed the money, which he insisted be paid him in gold pieces until it became so heavy that he yielded to suggestions that paper currency was more convenient. In mid-tour he and Wieniawski quarreled and split up.


Rubinstein was regarded by the Americans as a natural wonder (so awesome was his playing that no one noticed the notoriously dropped notes or the broken piano strings) and in a little over seven months he gave 215 concerts, including the novelty of one-man recitals eschewing guest artists. The comic monologist George Bagby summed up the experience in his Jud Brownin Hears Ruby Play, which ends "With that bang! he lifted himself bodily into the air, and he came down with his knees, fingers, toes, elbows, and his nose, striking every single silitary key on the pianner at the same time ... .I knowed no more that evening."


Rubinstein would have preferred to have been remembered as a composer, to which end he wrote prodigiously. But his admitted conservatism did not please the progressives of his own day, and most of his 19 operas, six symphonies, and other ambitious works appear, apart from a few piano salon pieces and songs, deader than King Tut. (Please! No Egyptian letters protesting "Tut Lives!") But of the 11 sonatas of various kinds, W.S. Newman (The Sonata Since Beethoven) speaks in favorable terms, noting in some of them anticipations of such late-romantics as Grieg and Brahms.

 



 

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