Commentary Magazine


The Legacy of Arthur Rubinstein

Earlier this month, The Juilliard School announced that the family of the pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1887–1982) donated 71 music manuscripts and other documents that had been seized by the Nazis from Rubinstein’s Paris apartment in 1940, and restored to his family by the German government only last year. This collection includes hand-written scores by Villa-Lobos, George Antheil, and other composers. The Dutch musicologist Willem de Vries’s 1996 study, Sonderstab Musik: Music Confiscations by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg under the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe, details how in 1940, Nazi official Alfred Rosenberg founded the “Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg” (ERR, or Operations Staff of Reich Director Rosenberg) in order to accomplish what de Vries terms the “greatest systematic theft of art and culture in history.”

Renowned German musicologists Wolfgang Boetticher and Karl Gustav Fellerer helped to identify Jewish collections to be looted in Nazi-occupied Europe, and among those plundered were world-famous artists, forced to flee to America because of their Jewish origins, like the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and composer Darius Milhaud. Most of the collections involved are still lost, or perhaps more frustrating, in Russia, where some were shipped after 1945 as Soviet war booty. In an exceptional move, Rubinstein’s 71 items were sent back to East Berlin around 1958, as a Soviet gesture to repatriate so-called “German cultural assets.” More of Rubinstein’s property still remains in Russia, but in 2002, the Russian parliament voted to block any further such restitutions.

That Juilliard should have wound up with anything at all may be ascribed at least in part to Rubinstein’s amazing luck and talent for survival. Rather than feeling bitter that the majority of his collection probably never will be restituted, Rubinstein himself would doubtless have rejoiced at his family’s beneficence to Juilliard. The quintessential glass-half-full personality, Rubinstein sometimes put off some listeners with his strenuously expressed “love of life” credo (the delightful 1969 French documentary Arthur Rubinstein: L’Amour de la vie is long overdue for DVD transfer).

The French author Roland Barthes dismissed Rubinstein’s hearty sense of psychological well-being, preferring an overtly neurotic pianist like Glenn Gould, although Gould himself worshiped Arthur Rubinstein. I well recall attending Rubinstein’s Carnegie Hall farewell recital in 1976 (70 years after his New York debut in 1906) when, after a full program and three encores, in the final piece—Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat major, Op. 53—descending octaves were played with such force that the balcony floor shook, as the 89-year-old pianist’s aureole of white hair glowed brightly.

A recently available DVD from Deutsche Grammophon filmed in 1975 captures Rubinstein near that time, playing concertos by Grieg, Saint-Saëns, and Chopin with verve and panache. The magnificent complete Sony/BMG Rubinstein edition on CD fortunately still is available, including live concerts with music by his friend Villa-Lobos as well as music from Spain; France; and even Norway. These lasting delights remind us of the international range of this performer, whose musical legacy triumphs over the injustices he suffered during the Nazi regime.

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