Commentary Magazine


Whatever Happened to Arthur Rubinstein

Arthur Rubinstein was born in 1887 and died in 1982, six years after making his last recordings for RCA and giving his farewell concert at London’s Wigmore Hall. He played in public for eight decades, marking perhaps the longest career of any performing musician. Throughout the second half of that career, he was, after Vladimir Horowitz, the most famous pianist in the world. And in old age he added considerably to his fame by appearing on TV and publishing two chatty volumes of reminiscence, My Young Years (1972) and My Many Years (1980); the first, in an unprecedented honor for a classical musician, was chosen as a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

Rubinstein was more than just a crowd-pleasing virtuoso with a knack for self-promotion. He was admired by some of the most thoughtful listeners of his time. In 1949, the distinguished composer and critic Virgil Thomson reviewed a Rubinstein recital in extravagant terms:

Others may be regularly more flashy, though few can dazzle so dependably; and none can match him for power and refinement. He plays very loudly and very beautifully, very softly and thoroughly clean, straightforwardly, elegantly and with a care for both the amenities of musical discourse and the clear transmission of musical thought. He is a master pianist and a master musician. There has not been his like since [Ferruccio] Busoni [1866-1924].

But today, Arthur Rubinstein is, if not completely forgotten, certainly not well remembered, save by those old enough to have heard him in concert. Although many of his records remain available fourteen years after his death, they have failed to seize the attention of a new generation of music-lovers captivated by the legendary pianists of the prewar (and pre-Horowitz) era: Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Hofmann, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Artur Schnabel, Edwin Fischer, Percy Grainger, Alfred Cortot. Next to these, Rubinstein is strictly an also-ran.

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What caused so beloved an artist to vanish so quickly from the collective consciousness of the musical world? In trying to answer this question we are immeasurably aided by Harvey Sachs’s Rubinstein: A Life,1 a biography written with the full cooperation of the Rubinstein family as well as of Annabelle Whitestone (now Lady Weidenfeld), with whom Rubinstein was romantically involved during the last twelve years of his life. Sachs is an ex-conductor turned music historian whose previous books include the standard biography of Arturo Toscanini and an important study of music in Fascist Italy. In Rubinstein: A Life, he has successfully untangled the errors of fact, sins of omission, and self-contradictions with which the pianist’s memoirs are riddled; though he writes as an admirer, he also deals honestly with his subject’s faults, both moral and artistic. The result is one of the finest musical biographies to be published in recent memory, a book that is at once readable and responsible.

Much of its readability, of course, is due to the fact that Arthur Rubinstein led a life that was unusually eventful, even by the standards of a world-famous musician. The eldest son of a cloth manufacturer from the large Jewish community of Lodz, Poland, Rubinstein began playing the piano before the age of three. At four, he performed for Joseph Joachim, the great 19th-century German violinist, who subsequently took charge of his artistic development; at ten, he went to Berlin to study piano. He made his professional debut with the Berlin Philharmonic at the age of thirteen; four years later, he moved to Paris and launched his career in earnest.

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Casual readers of My Young Years and My Many Years may be forgiven for thinking that Rubinstein’s life from his arrival in Paris in 1904 to his marriage in 1932 was one long party, with concerts interspersed. But in fact Rubinstein’s young years were also a time of serious artistic endeavor. He performed throughout Europe and the Americas, winning particular success in Spain and South America; he was closely associated with several prominent composers whose piano music he introduced, including Igor Stravinsky, Manuel de Falla, Heitor Villa-Lobos, and Karol Szymanowski. And at the end of the 20’s he began to make records for HMV and, later, RCA, eventually recording virtually all of his working repertoire.

As Sachs tells it, however, Rubinstein himself was deeply ambivalent about the course of his youthful career, torn between his taste for high living and his commitment to music. A natural pianist with a big (though not transcendental) technique, he practiced as little as possible, learning new pieces quickly and without sufficient attention to textual detail, relying on his personal charm to conceal the lack of finish in his playing. As a result, he failed to break into the front ranks of the piano virtuosos of the early 20th century, and prior to the mid-30’s his career, though impressive by ordinary standards, was nothing like what had been predicted for him by his earliest critics.

Sachs suggests, to my mind convincingly, that Rubinstein’s failure fully to realize his early potential was related to his unsettled feelings about German musical culture. On the one hand, his artistic personality showed unmistakable signs of its German training, including a sound, unshowy technique, a passion for the music of Mozart, Schubert, and Brahms, and an interest in chamber music unusual among virtuoso pianists of his generation.2 On the other hand, Rubinstein did not play in Germany after 1914, and throughout his life he expressed contempt for such echt-German pianists as Schnabel and Fischer. It seems probable that Rubinstein’s inability to break into the first tier left him with something of an inferiority complex when it came to German music and musicians, and that this was one of the reasons he chose not to play for German audiences between the wars.

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By his own account, Rubinstein’s attitude toward his playing changed after his marriage: “I didn’t want my kids to grow up thinking of their father as either a second-string pianist or a has-been.” Embarrassed by the technical sloppiness of his earliest recordings, he began in the summer of 1934 to restudy his entire repertoire. “I buckled down to work—six hours, eight hours, nine hours a day,” he recalled in 1958. “And a strange thing happened. . . . I’d begun to discover new meanings, new qualities, new possibilities in music that I’d been playing regularly for more than 30 years.”

The effects of this period of study were immediately apparent. The complete sets of Chopin mazurkas, nocturnes, and polonaises that established Rubinstein’s reputation as a Chopin specialist were all recorded after the summer of 1934, and they are technically far more exact than his earlier recordings. When he began playing regularly in the United States in 1937, he finally won recognition as one of the world’s outstanding piano virtuosos. Rubinstein spent World War II in this country; by the time the war was over, his popularity with American audiences was solidly established, and he retained it for the rest of his life.

World War II marked another line of demarcation in Rubinstein’s life. Most of his family died in the Holocaust, and his Paris home was looted during the German occupation. Although from adolescence onward he had been devoid of religious belief, and indifferent toward Judaism, now he not only continued to refuse to play in Germany but chose not to work with artists who, like the conductor Herbert von Karajan, had had Nazi ties. In 1949, Rubinstein and other prominent musicians (including Horowitz and Heifetz) announced that they would not appear with the Chicago Symphony if it engaged the conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, who had remained in Germany during the war. “I refuse,” he wrote in a letter to the orchestra’s board of directors,

to be associated with anyone who sympathized with Hitler, Goering, or Goebbels. Had Furtwängler been a good democrat, he would have turned his back on Germany. . . . It is said that Furtwängler rescued some people from the Nazis’ clutches. This has not been confirmed. At present, he is seeking dollars and prestige in America, and he deserves neither.3

While the Holocaust failed to turn Rubinstein into an observant Jew, it clearly played a significant part in his fervent support of the state of Israel—and, later, of Menachem Begin and the Likud party. Most musicians, Jewish and otherwise, tend in any given political circumstance to hew to the leftmost position available, and so this latter affiliation astonished and dismayed many of Rubinstein’s colleagues. But the pianist, undeterred, robustly stuck to his guns to the very end of his life, once going so far as to attack Yehudi Menuhin in public for (as Sachs puts it) “the violinist’s soft stand vis-à-vis UNESCO’s censure of Israel.” (Rubinstein characterized Menuhin’s attitude toward Israel as “un-Jewish.”)

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Sachs also discusses numerous other personal matters of interest, most notably Rubinstein’s compulsive promiscuity. In his own memoirs the pianist specifically mentions some three dozen women, ranging from countesses to common prostitutes, with whom he had sexual relations prior to his marriage—starting, at the age of fifteen, with his Berlin landlady. And there were plenty of others, both before and after: Rubinstein was first unfaithful to his wife on the afternoon of their wedding, and thereafter his extramarital activities continued without interruption until, at the age of ninety, he left her to live with Annabelle Whitestone.

The pianist Emanuel Ax, one of Rubinstein’s greatest admirers, was profoundly disappointed by reading My Many Years. “Until then,” he told Sachs, “I had idolized Rubinstein—I had wanted to have a life like his. The book changed all that.” Many readers of Rubinstein: A Life may react similarly.

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But there is another, more important Rubinstein “biography” to be considered, and that is the one that lies in his records.

Most of Rubinstein’s prewar recordings for HMV are now available on CD, and the very first one, a version of the Chopin Barcarolle made in 1928, is in certain ways the most revealing musical statement he ever made.4 Though there is no mistaking the underlying soundness of Rubinstein’s technique, this slapdash performance contains not only accidental wrong notes but blatant misreadings of the musical text—startling in a piece Rubinstein referred to on more than one occasion as his favorite work by Chopin.

Just as startling is the absence of a distinctive musical personality. While his performance here is not as “straight” as those he would record after the war—some of the tempos are extremely wayward—it is nonetheless lacking in character. So, indeed, are most of Rubinstein’s other prewar recordings, few of which sound the intensely personal note characteristic of golden-age piano virtuosos.

What was true of the young Rubinstein is doubly true of the older, more cautious artist who rerecorded most of his repertoire for RCA after the war. Some of these later discs, especially of his favorite concertos, are musically quite satisfying.5 But, though beautifully played, even the best ones are rarely individual, at least not in the way that a recording by Rachmaninoff or Horowitz is individual.

It is true that Rubinstein was not typical of his generation of pianists. Aside from the fact that his training was exclusively German, his musical tastes, as Sachs points out, were “thoroughly modern.” He disliked the idiosyncratic, even eccentric styles of pianists like Horowitz, Cortot, Ignace Jan Paderewski, and Leopold Godowsky (though he did admire Rachmaninoff). His own preference, especially in the music of Chopin, was for a simpler, less inflected style of playing, which he believed truer to Chopin’s spirit than the prevailing approach of the day.

Sachs, who admires this style, describes it in terms intended to suggest its continuity with the German school:

Rubinstein’s playing was Romantic, but it did not have the self-absorbed and self-indulgent characteristics that this adjective has also come to represent. In this sense, although in few others, he was closer to his German-school contemporaries Schnabel, Fischer, and [Wilhelm] Kempff than to such Eastern European contemporaries (albeit somewhat older contemporaries) as Rachmaninoff and Hofmann, let alone to Horowitz, who was seventeen years younger than Rubinstein but stylistically closer to the old-timers. . . . His playing had strong individual character, but his goal was not to do “something different” at any cost.

But by comparison with Rachmaninoff and Hofmann—not to mention Schnabel and Fischer, both of whom were in their own ways decidedly eccentric artists—Rubinstein’s straightforward approach is likely to strike present-day listeners as largely devoid of the “strong individual character” Sachs detects. And this is a great paradox in a pianist who, by his own admission, got by on charm throughout the first half of his career, and who consistently came across in concert as a pianist of flamboyance and panache.

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Whether or not Rubinstein’s recordings tell a truer tale than contemporary accounts of his playing cannot be settled by those (like me) who did not see him perform live.6 In his case as in others, however, records are now all we have, and in the end, they must be taken at face value—even though the “evidence” they present not infrequently contradicts the impressions a living artist makes on a living audience. For better or for worse, the only kind of artistic personality that can be captured for posterity by the microphone is the kind whose merits are embodied in the act of musical performance alone: in the recording studio, an artist’s stage presence is meaningless. Rubinstein’s personality, apparently a function of his physical presence, is simply not a factor in his recordings, which document the playing of a talented pianist of no great individuality. As the saying goes, you had to be there.

Nor is the case of Rubinstein unique. For the most part, the performers of the past who are remembered today are (in the broadest sense of the word) the musical eccentrics, the Rachmaninoffs and Horowitzes and Leopold Stokowskis. It is the “centrics” who have been forgotten. Who now, for example, listens to the recordings of the eminently “centric” soprano Renata Tebaldi, other than those opera buffs who saw her on stage? In the 50’s and early 60’s, Tebaldi and Maria Callas were the fiercest of rivals. But now that Callas is dead and Tebaldi retired, there is no longer any contest: Callas is a legend, Tebaldi a footnote.

This suggests the possibility that our current canons of good musical taste, forged in the refiner’s fire of modernity, may well be unequal to the special demands of the age of mechanical reproduction. When a pianist today plays the Chopin Barcarolle, he is “competing” not only with his contemporaries but with the dozens of other pianists, including Rubinstein, who have recorded the same work since the turn of the 20th century. Such comparisons may be invidious, but they are also inevitable, and they may well account for the growing public interest in those prewar artists for whom romanticism was not a word vaguely suggestive of vulgarity, but a way of life.

The implications for the future of classical music in live performance are as yet unclear, but one thing can already be said with confidence: musicians who, like Arthur Rubinstein, rely on extramusical factors to impress the listening public are doomed to posthumous obscurity. That this may yet lead to a revival of musical individuality—even full-blown romanticism—is merely another reminder that in the postmodern era, all cultural bets are off.


Footnotes

1 Grove Press, 525 pp., $27.50.

2 Several of Rubinstein's most memorable recordings are of chamber music, among them a 1937 performance with Jascha Heifetz of the Franck Violin Sonata (Biddulph LAB 025) and a famous series of recordings made in 1941 with Heifetz and the cellist Emanuel Feuermann, including the Beethoven “Archduke” and Schubert B-Flat Trios (RCA 09026-60926-2) and the Brahms B-Major Trio (Biddulph LAB 086).

3 For a full discussion of this very complicated case, see Samuel Lipman's “Furtwängler and the Nazis” in the March 1993 COMMENTARY.

4 The performance is available on EMI ZDHC 7 64697 2, a three-disc set which also contains Rubinstein's prewar recordings of the complete mazurkas, polonaises, and scherzos of Chopin. Also of interest is Rubinstein Fireworks (Grammofono 2000 AB 78539), featuring pre-1934 recordings of shorter pieces by Albeniz, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Falla, Ravel, and Schubert.

5 Rubinstein's 1958 recordings of the Saint-Saens G-Minor Concerto and the Franck Symphonic Variations, accompanied by Alfred Wallenstein and the Symphony of the Air, are especially vivid specimens of his postwar playing (RCA 09026-61496-2). And RCA 60046-2-RG contains superb performances of two works by composers Rubinstein knew well, Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain and Szymanowski's Symphonie Concertante.

6 The most readily available visual record of Rubinstein in concert, The Last Recital for Israel (RCA 09026-61160-3), is, alas, a very late performance (videotaped in 1975), though it does illustrate “the dignified bearing, the absence of extraneous body movement and facial contortions, [and] the absorption in the music” described by Sachs.

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.




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