When Arthur Rubinstein died last December at the age of ninety-five, there was remarkably little feeling of loss in the…
When Arthur Rubinstein died last December at the age of ninety-five, there was remarkably little feeling of loss in the musical community. As had been the case with his life, Rubinstein’s death too seemed natural, another fulfillment of the kind which appeared (at least to onlookers) always to have been his lot.
Rubinstein enjoyed a long and splendid career. Born in 1887, he was before the public from the 1890’s to the 1970’s, a period beginning with the vigorous manhood of Claude Debussy and ending with the old age of John Cage. Despite this almost unparalleled longevity as a performer, he was never, even during the years of his phenomenal success, perceived as the world’s greatest pianist. During the 1920’s, for example, this title was shared by Josef Hofmann and Sergei Rachmaninoff; from the mid-1930’s to the present day, the undisputed champion has been Vladimir Horowitz. And if the applicable title were to be not the world’s greatest pianist but the world’s greatest musician-pianist, the names of Artur Schnabel, Alfred Cortot, and Edwin Fischer would seem, for most music lovers, beyond compare.
Hofmann, Rachmaninoff, and Horowitz all belong to the class of virtuosi, those who astound by feats of dexterity, lightness, and elegantly applied force. Schnabel, Cortot, and Fischer are regarded as thinkers, those whose musical ideas are always prior to, and more interesting than, mere mechanical execution. Rubinstein, by contrast, did not astonish with his fingers, and he did not inspire with his mind. He did both less and more: he gave pleasure, he made his listeners happy—in a word, he entertained. Not only was this his claim to fame and riches, it is now his claim to our admiration.
The story of Rubinstein’s life is to be found, no doubt often highly embroidered, in two marvelous volumes of memoirs, written in the 1970’s when his failing eyesight and strength made further piano playing difficult.1 These more than one thousand pages tell of a Jewish prodigy from Poland who managed, at the age of three, to impress the great violinist Joachim, friend and adviser to Brahms. From the age of ten, Rubinstein (under Joachim’s guidance) studied in Berlin: piano with Heinrich Barth and theory with Max Bruch. He worked a bit with Paderewski, and, perhaps more important, received a notable éducation sentimentale from numerous women who were only too charmed by his extreme youth and passionate eagerness to please.
Almost out of his teens, Rubinstein began to concertize extensively, though not yet profitably. In 1906 he toured the United States, giving 75 concerts, not very successful, under the sponsorship of the Knabe Piano Company. Residence in Paris brought him into contact with the jeunesse dorée, and some of its aristocratic elders as well. Great names of society and music whizzed in and out of his life; he dined out much more often and more regularly than he practiced the piano. When he visited Poland, he hardly saw his family, choosing instead to pass the time in the great world of Warsaw. And wherever he lived, he was on a kind of dole.
Such a state of affairs was hardly tenable. In 1908, this creature, who had so clearly been born to gladden hearts, attempted suicide in Berlin, the scene of his dreary student days. The attempt itself—at least as he himself describes it—was farcical, but in his memoirs he adds bathos to farce as he tells what happened next:
Then, half-consciously, I staggered to the piano and cried myself out in music. Music, my beloved music, the dear companion of all my emotions, who can stir us to fight, who can inflame in us love and passion, and who can soothe our pains and bring peace to our hearts—you are the one who, on that ignominious day, brought me back to life.
Beyond the self-indulgence, something important had happened. From this day forward, Rubinstein was the man we have always known: “. . . I discovered the secret of happiness and I still cherish it: Love life for better for worse, without conditions.”
Though worldly success was still a few years off, Rubinstein was now ready to receive it. His musical reputation grew, as did his contacts with such famous artists as Leopold Godowsky, Pablo Casals, and Eugène Ysaye. In London, just before and during World War I, he laid the foundation for his later English triumphs. Indeed, it was in London in 1915 that Rubinstein received a concert offer which was to mark the beginning of fame and fortune: an invitation to play the Brahms D minor Concerto in San Sebastián.
Rubinstein came to Spain and conquered. In his memoirs he is characteristically frank in describing what happened in San Sebastián:
The concert was not well attended; the theater was only half-filled. But my personal success, after this monumental and sober work, was absolutely sensational. No Saint-Saëns, no Liszt, no Chopin, had ever excited a public to that extent.
During the 1916-17 season he gave more than a hundred concerts in Spain. With this kind of success, it was hardly surprising that he soon received an invitation to Argentina. There, and in the rest of South America, he scored a success even greater than in Spain.
For Rubinstein, the 1920’s marked an extraordinary period in which he combined the life of an artist with that of a boulevardier. He immersed himself in the currents of modern art; he was a friend of the French Les Six and of Jean Cocteau, the major influence upon that group. He associated with, and played the music of, Karol Szymanowski, Poland’s greatest 20th-century composer. He performed widely a piano transcription of Stravinsky’s Petrushka which the composer himself had written for him. He became close to Manuel de Falla in Spain and to Heitor Villa-Lobos in Brazil, and he played their works all over the world. De Falla’s “Ritual Fire Dance” from El amor brujo and, to a lesser extent, Villa-Lobos’s short Polichinelle became Rubinstein’s ubiquitous musical signature.
The 1920’s also saw the beginnings of Rubinstein’s prolific career as a maker of phonograph records.2 In a remarkable display of constancy in this age of shifting commercial arrangements, the pianist spent more than a half-century with just two recording companies: first His Master’s Voice in England, then passing on to its affiliate RCA when he became an American resident in the 1940’s. It was his work in the recording studio, combined with the advent of Vladimir Horowitz as a virtuoso technician, that convinced Rubinstein that in performance he needed to do more than just give the spirit of a composition, letting the exact notes fall (as he always had) where they might.
In his personal life, too, Rubinstein was now ready to settle down. In 1932, this confirmed bachelor married a woman half his age. Aniela Mlynarska was the daughter of Emil Mlynarski, the foremost Polish conductor of the day. She provided Rubinstein with a family—they eventually had four children—and the kind of social stability he craved. The ensuing fifty years were a whirlwind of concerts and tours, of elegant homes on both coasts of the United States and in Paris, of endless supplies of wine, song, and lobster, if not (as before) women.
Rubinstein continued to play almost into his nineties. Indeed, it seemed that his appetite for playing, and his strength to indulge the appetite, grew as he himself grew older. In the mid-1950’s, for instance, in a series of five concerts repeated in Paris, London, and New York, he played again seventeen of the concertos he had done over the years: works by Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Schumann, Mozart, Liszt, Saint-Saëns, Rachmaninoff, Franck, Grieg, and de Falla. In just a single concert he would do both Brahms concertos or three Beethoven concertos. In 1961, he gave a series of ten solo recitals in New York, playing different pieces on each program.
His last concert was a benefit at Wigmore Hall in London in April 1976. Once again, his memoirs sum up both the moment and his retrospective feelings about it:
As for myself, it was a symbolic gesture; it was in this hall that I had given my first recital in London [in 1912] and playing there for the last time in my life made me think of my whole career in the form of a sonata. The first movement represented the struggles of my youth, the following andante [stood] for the beginning of a more serious aspect of my talent, a scherzo represented well the unexpected great success, and the finale turned out to be a wonderful moving end.
Now that Rubinstein is dead, it is at last possible to assess his achievement as an artist. No one will dispute that his audiences enjoyed his concerts. But there is a deeper question to be answered: just how well did Rubinstein play?
Perhaps the best place to begin is with some of the numerous and widely available stereo LP recordings Rubinstein made for RCA during the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s. There are something like one hundred of them, and they cover, with few exceptions, the repertory he played during his lifetime. Here are most of the great romantic concertos and many of the classical works for piano and orchestra; here too are almost all the solo works of Chopin, several of the most popular Beethoven sonatas, some of the most important solo works of Schumann, and a smattering of the earlier 20th-century music Rubinstein played not out of duty but out of liking. And there are numerous examples here of chamber music for piano and strings, a genre which Rubinstein cultivated even at the times of his busiest concert activity.
Listening to these records en masse does make clear just what—in addition to Rubinstein’s infectiously ebullient stage personality—gave his audiences so much pleasure. In his records, one always hears clearly articulated melodies, proudly carried high above their pianistic background. Yet these records also bear out Rubinstein’s reputation among musicians: rarely do the performances seem unique documents either of pure piano-playing or of compelling cerebration.
The records are at their weakest, it seems to me, in performances of pre-Romantic music. Rubinstein’s approach to Mozart, as demonstrated in his concerto recordings, is heavy, often wayward in articulation, and immensely dutiful. It is of some significance, too, that the orchestral background (most likely at Rubinstein’s choice) is romantically sweet and overly full of feeling, rather than classically energetic and astringent as is required if the solo part is to be heard in proper context.
As for Rubinstein’s recordings of the Beethoven concertos, of which the 1960’s set with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston Symphony and the 1970’s set with Daniel Barenboim and the London Philharmonic are both currently available, they offer clear examples of how far a pianist can go by knowing how the music ought to sound, even if the physical ability necessary to implement this conception is rapidly waning. Not surprisingly, the earlier set, made when the pianist was “only” in his mid-seventies, seems somewhat fresher and less tenuous; the latter, made more than a decade later, suggests the “shipwreck” that Charles de Gaulle called old age. These are painful documents, not least because of the listener’s constant awareness of an intensely captivating personality here defeated by infirmity.
On records as in concert, Rubinstein shied away from the late Beethoven sonatas (though in his much younger days he did play the Sonata in B flat major, opus 106, the “Hammerklavier”). But he did often play such earlier works as the Pathétique (C minor, opus 13) and the “Appassionata” (F minor, opus 57). His early 1960’s recordings of these works, though technically adequate, seem cautious by comparison both with his reputation as a firebrand and with his 1950’s recordings of the same works. For those used to the performances of Beethoven specialists, Rubinstein’s approach will inevitably seem decorative, as if he were bemused by the local beauties of the music rather than concerned to communicate the strong bones of Beethoven’s structures.
Rubinstein was renowned during his American heyday as a Brahms interpreter, and those fortunate enough to have heard him play the B flat Concerto in concert as late as 1960 will recall the magisterial approach he brought to this work, A 1959 recording with Josef Krips and the RCA Symphony Orchestra and a 1960 concert recording with Witold Rowicki and the Warsaw Philharmonic demonstrate not only how completely Rubinstein identified with this style, at once knotty and luxuriantly romantic, but also how well its technical problems were under his control even as he grew older. By contrast, his last recording of the piece, with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra about 1970, though pianistically vastly superior to his final Beethoven concerto efforts, can be no more than a souvenir for those who remember the artist in earlier and better days.
One of the most attractive features of Rubinstein’s Brahms playing was his characteristically rich, deep tone, simultaneously tender and strong. In his concerts, this tone was always in the forefront; though it did not always survive in reproduction on modern records, it can be heard in the numerous short solo pieces of Brahms recorded by Rubinstein in the early days of stereo. The same tone remains in evidence in the pianist’s discs of Schumann, which include the famous A minor Concerto (with Carlo Maria Giulini and the Chicago Symphony) and such solo pieces as the Carneval, the Fantasiestücke opus 12, and the Symphonic Etudes. Here, on 1960’s stereo issues, there is much to admire in sensitivity and the sheer ability to make melodies and harmonies easily discernible by the listener; yet these performances too seem to suffer from a certain digital lethargy, as if the pianist were having trouble getting his fingers and hands up from the keys quickly enough to provide the necessary space between the notes.
Throughout his American career, Rubinstein was most famous as a Chopinist. His Chopin repertory was enormous, and he drew on it often in his recitals. He recorded Chopin in quantity three times: first on 78-RPM for HMV in England during the 1930’s, then for RCA on mono LP in the 1950’s, and then finally on stereo (again for RCA) in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Many of these last records, including the Barcarolle, the Ballades, both Concertos, the Mazurkas, the Nocturnes, the Polonaises, both major Sonatas, and the Waltzes, are still easily available; together they give a coherent picture of Rubinstein’s Chopin playing at the end of his career.
That picture is essentially ruminative, gentle, often introverted, and also often backward in rhythmic impetus. The Chopin presented by the later Rubinstein is a poet rather than a virtuoso, a self-reflecting musician rather than the heroic lion of the keyboard. This essentially miniaturist approach, in Rubinstein’s hands, is capable of producing many felicities; on occasion, as in the Impromptus and the Berceuse, or in the quieter Mazurkas and Nocturnes, it is decidedly effective. But when the music is itself on a larger canvas, as in the Barcarolle and the Polonaises, we are reminded all too often that what we are hearing is an old man’s Chopin, a musical suit cut to fit the cloth of necessary caution.
Even where Rubinstein evidently decides to gamble, to push his fingers beyond their comfortable competence, as in the later recordings of the two Chopin concertos, the result is forced and artificially brilliant; the whole somehow suggests those reproductions of paintings in which special care has been taken to make the colors seem bright and compelling. There is a great difference between this kind of straining after survival and the true art of concerto playing which properly consists in the soloist’s constantly shaping the entire performance, including that of often unresponsive orchestras and conductors. To do this requires a kind of forcefulness Rubinstein clearly no longer possessed.
Enough has been said here to paint the essential outlines of the Rubinstein we can now hear in stereo. His recordings of later music, including the Rachmaninoff C minor Concerto, the Paganini Rhapsody, and the Tchaikowsky B flat major Concerto, are still in the catalogues. The late recording of the Rachmaninoff C minor with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia is notey and tame, altogether inferior to the earlier stereo version (still available) with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago. The Paganini Rhapsody (again with Reiner and the Chicago) is a not very satisfactory account of a score Rubinstein learned relatively late in his life and with which he always had technical trouble. The Tchaikowsky, with Erich Leinsdorf and the Boston, is a routine account of a work which Rubinstein’s arch-rival Vladimir Horowitz made peculiarly his own (in recordings with Toscanini).
If the 1960 performance of the Brahms B flat Concerto is a magisterial document, then one side of a disc containing excerpts from the ten-concert series in New York in 1961 is a document both of the intimate Rubinstein and of Rubinstein the performer of 20th-century music. On this record, no longer available, the pianist plays twelve Visions Fugitives (from opus 22) of Prokofiev and the Próle do Bébé Suite (1918) by Villa-Lobos. His playing treats every note with seriousness, commitment, and, above all, with a plentiful fancy; the result is delectable, and sad too, in its way: still more evidence, if more were needed, of the fundamentally wrong road taken by piano music sometime after the 1920’s.
It goes without saying that in the last two decades of his life Arthur Rubinstein played magnificently for a man of his age; it also goes without saying that his audiences, to the very end, were conscious of receiving full value. If such factors were all that were relevant in the making of musical judgments, then Rubinstein’s career could now be seen as having reached its greatest triumph at its close.
But more is involved than an audience memory of Arthur Rubinstein, even though that memory is one of pleasure. Although there once was a time when all that was left of an artist’s reputation after his death lay secreted in the fading and inaccurate memories of concert-goers, now everything is different. Proof of that difference has been the very fact that I have been able to examine Rubinstein’s playing not just memory by memory, but by listening to note after note. It is the phenomenon of sound recording which has made this difference; and it is the enormously prestigious Rubinstein recorded archive which requires us to take his playing seriously.
For these recordings are now widely taken as imperishable documents of an authentic tradition; as such, they will continue to shape the expectations and perceptions of audiences. Because this is the way such music is supposed to sound, this is the way audiences will want it to sound. As far as young performers (and their teachers) are concerned, it can be put crassly: here is what succeeded. With this model as a guide, others too may find fame and fortune at the keyboard.
Lest this seem cynical, consider the extent to which today’s pianists, regardless of age, sound old; indeed, the present generation of musicians has turned the adage “wise beyond one’s years” into anything but a compliment. Among pianists, outbursts of brilliance are too often seen as proof of immaturity and unmusicality; every fast tempo and forceful dynamic scheme is taken as a sign of insensitivity. What is the antidote to these artistic shortcomings? Listen to the great, students are told.
Given the synthetic character of creative musical life today, it would be quixotic to ask that audiences and musicians cease listening to recordings. And as for music criticism, whatever else it might or might not be able to do, it can hardly be expected to inspire originality. Critics have little choice but to make distinctions, to point out better and worse. Fortunately, such an act of discrimination is possible in the case of Arthur Rubinstein, for in addition to the records I have been discussing, there is another kind of playing to be heard from this pianist.
I refer to Rubinstein’s earlier recordings. By earlier I do not, for the most part, mean his mono LP discs, or even the many 78’s he made in this country during the 1940’s. Despite the presence among those recordings of several excellent performances—in particular chamber music with Heifetz and Feuermann (later Piatigorsky) and both the Symphonie Concertante and the first four Mazurkas of Szymanowski—Rubinstein’s playing on them often sounds hard and brittle, as if he were attempting to give a perfect performance for the microphone.
Such, indeed, may well have been the case. Much has been made, correctly, of the chilling effect that the meteoric rise of Vladimir Horowitz had on Rubinstein’s perception of his own technical abilities; too little has been said in this connection of the pianist’s own thoughts on the impact of the phenomenon of recording. In the second volume of his memoirs, describing his life in Paris just before the outbreak of World War II, Rubinstein writes:
My readers will certainly be astonished that now I seem to barely mention my music making and my concerts, but to describe long tours, concert by concert with detailed programs, is utterly impossible. All I can say now is that my playing improved considerably, mainly due to the fact that the American public was more demanding than any other, and also to my recordings, which had to be note-perfect and inspired. The result was that I learned to love practicing and to discover new meanings in the works I performed.
But did Rubinstein’s playing improve? The answer—coming, as it can only come, from recordings of this period—must be no. For a reasonably large body exists of Rubinstein recordings made at a still earlier moment, on European if not on American labels; and this body of recordings from before the late 1930’s provides eloquent testimony that Arthur Rubinstein was once a supremely great pianist, with a supremely interesting and exciting personal approach to music.
Perhaps the earliest of Rubinstein’s HMV records was a disc he made in 1928 of the Schubert Impromptu in A flat major (D. 899, 4) and the Chopin Waltz, again in A flat major, opus 34, no. 1.3 The Schubert is searchingly musical and pianistically magnificent; comparison with the later and now standard recordings of Fischer and Schnabel suggests that only Schnabel was in Rubinstein’s league as a Schubert player. The Chopin is by turns tender, gay, and brilliant; the technical mastery Rubinstein possessed at this time is made startlingly clear in his ability to play difficult decorative figures at extreme speed and with exemplary clarity.
The next record in the HMV numbering series is the Chopin Barcarolle.4 Not only is this performance distinguished by a piano tone beautiful even for Rubinstein (in his memoirs, we are told that it was done on a Blüthner rather than the more likely Steinway or Bech-stein); it also brings together, on a large scale, the same combination of insight and virtuosity the pianist shows in the Schubert and Chopin “miniatures.” Here, in the grandest romatic music, is freedom elevated to the rank of order. And on a purely mechanical level, informed ears will hear on this disc remarkable trills, octaves, and runs.
The next year Rubinstein made a record of his—and his audience’s—beloved Spanish music.5 Navarra and Sevilla of Albeniz are authentic crowd pleasers, and they are also tests both of a pianist’s rhythmic sense and of his ability to play dense chordal masses at great speed without heaviness. Rubinstein succeeds magnificently, and one’s pleasure in the gorgeous color and ease he brings to this music is hardly diminished by the liberties he takes in the Navarra with the exact text Albeniz prescribed.
On the next record of Rubinstein issued by HMV at this time,6 we find an unlikely combination: the Brahms Capriccio in B minor, opus 76, no. 2, and the Debussy Prelude from Book I, La Cathédrale engloutie. Each performance is completely in the character of the music it presents, and one scarcely knows which to admire more, the yoking of a serious approach with a light piano tone in the Brahms or the bell-like clarity of the sonorities in the Debussy.
Because Rubinstein had made no prior recordings with orchestra, perhaps the greatest interest attaches to his discs of the Brahms B flat Concerto made in 1929 (or 1930: the memoirs are unclear on the matter).7 He seems to have been uncomfortable during the recording sessions, because he was physically separated from the conductor, Albert Coates, with whom in any case he had had no chance to rehearse. Rubinstein wanted the takes destroyed, and one can understand his reasons: he plays wrong notes galore, and the orchestra (the London Symphony) is hardly first-class. But the performance is still extraordinary; Rubinstein plays without caution, as if in full confidence of his ability to get the keys down properly without taking individual aim at each one. There is no point in looking to this recording for the ultimate in realized perfection; there is every reason to cite it as an example of that pianistic attitude of risk and force which must underlie concerto playing.
Much has been written about Rubinstein’s 1931 recording of the Chopin F minor Concerto with John Barbirolli and the London Symphony Orchestra;8 it is enough here to remark that, for those fortunate to own the original 78’s or to have access to the LP reissue, it still sets the standard for richness of tone and intimate force of conception. The recording, probably made the next year, of the Brahms Sonata in D minor for violin and piano, in which Rubinstein appears with his Polish compatriot Paul Kochanski,9 is an extraordinary example of chamber-music playing. Kochanski, sadly an under-recorded violinist, plays beautifully; Rubinstein is able to make soft piano phrases clear without drowning his partner out.
Rubinstein’s recording of the Triana of Albeniz (again, as with the Navarra, in his own version)10 maintains the caliber of his achievement in Spanish music; three Villa-Lobos pieces on the other side of this disc document not just wonderfully attractive music, but also the incredible hand coordination Rubinstein deployed at this time. It is difficult to praise too highly his 1932 recording of all the Chopin Scherzos11 and the 1934-35 discs of the complete Polonaises.12 In their combination of power and beauty they are unrivalled. Exceptional among these performances are those of the B minor Scherzo and the two famous Polonaises, the so-called “Military” in A major and the “Heroic” in Aflat major. Whether one fastens upon the passage work, the repeated chords, the rapid left-hand octaves, or just the sustained cantilena, here is a summit of Chopin playing and of piano playing altogether.
One recording from this period remains to be mentioned. As I suggested earlier, we have grown to associate the Tchaikowsky Concerto in B flat minor with the name of Horowitz; his supercharged performances with Toscanini seem about as far as human capacities can go in the direction of icy brilliance, breakneck excitement, and the extremes of strength and speed. Rubinstein, however, made a recording of this work almost a decade before Horowitz;13 done with Barbirolli and the London Symphony, it was a great seller before (though not after) the first Horowitz album appeared in 1941.
Rubinstein’s performance of the Tchaikowsky on this early recording is lighter than Horowitz’s. Only a little, if at all, slower, it is not so relentlessly driven, and it is a good deal more “romantic.” Indeed, instead of the Horowitz excitement, Rubinstein supplies sentiment. Today, after a generation of pianistic attempts to imitate Horowitz’s daggerlike fingers, it would seem that Rubinstein’s more luxuriant approach wears rather better.
These early records, taken together, go a long way toward explaining Rubinstein’s success in the concert hall. He provided technique, daring, emotion, tenderness, power, all in about equal measure. Fortunately, evidence of just what he did supply in concert (rather than in the studio) can be found on recordings made live without subsequent editing. In this regard, two performances from the 1940’s stand out. They are both of concertos: one, from 1944, of the Beethoven C minor with Toscanini and the NBC Symphony,14 and the other, from 1947, of the Chopin E minor with Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic.15
Here, collaborating with great conductors and orchestras, Rubinstein does indeed prove himself the supreme entertainer among pianists—not because he was a show-off in the manner of a Pavarotti, but because he brought the culture of a great musician to the pleasurable re-creation of the greatest art. Though he gladly accepted the love and homage of the audience, he gave in return an authentic experience of the highest culture of the 19th century. That he did this for so many, and for so many years, is proof enough that in calling him an entertainer one is not denigrating him, but rather raising him far above the pack of applause-mongers whom music-lovers know today as “stars.”
1 My Young Years (1973) and My Many Years (1980).
2 Material has recently come to light, through a letter by James Methuen-Camp-bell in the April 1983 Gramophone, suggesting that Rubinstein made at least one disc for a Polish company around 1910. This record, of the Liszt Twelfth Rhapsody and the Strauss Blue Danube Waltz, is in the possession of the Polish Radio, whence it will doubtless emerge on some appropriate state occasion.
3 DB 1160; currently available on LP as EMI Electrola 1C 151-03 244/5.
4 DB 1161; available during the 1960's as EMI Odeon QALP 10363 (Italy).
5 DB 1257; EMI Electrola 1C 151-03 244/5.
6 DB 1258; available on EMI Electrola IC 151-03 244/45.
7 D 1746/60; available on Supraphon 1010 2856.
8 DB 1494/7; available on EMI Dacapo IC 053-10172.
9 DB 1728/30.
10 DB 1762; available on EMI Odeon QALP 10363 (Italy).
11 DB 1915/8; available on EMI Electrola IC 187-50 357/8.
12 DB 2493/500; available on EMI Electrola IC 187-50 357/8.
13 DB 1731/4.
14 RCA DM 1016 (78 RPM).
15 Bruno Walter Society BWS 740 (private recording).
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Rubinstein the Great Entertainer
Must-Reads from Magazine
Charles Krauthammer made people understand their own thoughts. It was Charles who collated the various strands of Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy and codified them as the Reagan Doctrine in a Time Magazine essay in 1983. He did the same with the Bush Doctrine 16 years later—and his codification here played a role in how Bush himself came to formulate an approach to the world following 9/11. And in 2009, he codified the Obama Doctrine as well, although not by that name this time, in a speech he turned into one of the great articles of our time, “Decline Is a Choice.” I was there when he delivered that speech, and rushed up to him to ask that he allow me to publish it in COMMENTARY, but I was too late; he had already promised it to The Weekly Standard.
I had known Charles for more than a decade when he agreed to join the t the originating team
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Last Friday, the New York Times revealed that a lawsuit targeting Harvard University claims the school has systematically discriminated against minorities. That is, one particular minority. The school, it was alleged, has handicapped Asian-American students. Otherwise, they’d have to accept too many qualified Asian-Americans. For a peculiar type of activist for social equality, this was the good kind of prejudice–the kind that privileges accidents of birth over individual merit and achievement. Or, in the soft, docile Newspeak that suffices to comfort the enlightened elites charged with keeping the deserving down: “racial balancing.”
Harvard has objected to the allegations and provided statistics that purport to show that no negative racial discrimination exists. But many of those who you might expect to defend this elite institution are, in fact, comfortable with negative discrimination, even if the victims of that process are minorities themselves.
That’s the logic evinced by Minh-Ha T. Pham, a media studies professor at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and, as her bio prominently notes, a parent of a student in New York City’s school system. That note is important—more important than her background as a scholar of Asian-American studies because her argument in the New York Times is that her child deserves to be disadvantaged in the name of social leveling.
You see, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has introduced a plan to depopulate the city’s most prestigious high schools of the disproportionately high number of Asian students in the hopes of privileging more black and Latino students who otherwise cannot compete. Asian-American parents are, quite understandably, outraged by the naked effort to punish their hard work and rob their offspring of all the opportunities their work should, by rights, afford them. Not Professor Pham, though. Her eyes are wide open.
Pham argues that de Blasio’s plan to reserve seats at prestigious high schools for students who score below the threshold for admittance on a standardized test—and, ultimately, to eliminate the test altogether—“isn’t anti-Asian, it’s anti-racist.” But she appears to conflate racism with interclass disparities. Pham even notes that success on standardized testing can be a reflection of the resources some parents are or are not able to devote to their children’s’ study. For some on the left, the distinctions between racism and classism are fairly blurred, so Prof. Pham may not see the confusion her argument inspires among the uninitiated. Nor does she tackle a 2016 mayor’s office report, which found that New York City’s Asian-American population has the city’s highest poverty rate. Whether it’s Harvard University or Stuyvesant High School, these are often first-generation students who have seen what they’ve worked for stolen from them because they were simply too successful in the endeavor.
Pham goes on to preen about how all schools in New York City should be “elite schools,” a fluffy sentiment that, in practice, renders all the institutions she’s disparaging equally bad. She adds that Asian-Americans have not suffered from the kind of racism that black Americans have historically endured and with which they still struggle. “[T]oo many Asians have chosen to preserve the status quo by buying into racism against blacks and the white supremacist system built on it,” Pham laments. Therefore, she concludes, Asian Americans should commit to “fighting” the system, even if that means passively accepting the back seat on the bus.
At this point, we need to be reminded that the controversy here isn’t over whether American minorities deserve to benefit from positive social leveling but whether qualified Asian-Americans are benefiting too much from meritocracy. Professor Pham has managed to erect an elaborate intellectual construct to convince her of the righteousness of her view, but she will probably find it hard to get support beyond her overeducated peer group. If her problem is that students acculturated in Asian immigrant households are simply better prepared for standardized tests, and that eliminating those tests might help level the playing field, that’s one thing. But Pham’s argument sprawls and contains attacks on all disparities. From racial disparities to economic disparities to qualitative disparities; her problem doesn’t seem to be inequality of opportunity but the fact that tiered and hierarchical societal institutions exist in the first place.
Pham is not just arguing against the ethos at the heart of the American idea; as the outraged Chinatown-based activist Karlin Chan said, de Blasio’s plan “attacks the immigrants’ dream of bettering their children.” She is arguing against human nature itself. “[S]ome Asian-American parents in New York are protesting this proposal,” Pham laments. “They are on the wrong side of this educational fight.” One of biology’s most powerful overriding genetic imperatives is the desire to create the most optimal conditions for one’s offspring. Not everyone can reason themselves into believing that depriving their children of the opportunities that may be their due is a necessary sacrifice to the arbitrary diktats of social justice. Where would this country be if they could?
For the last 300 years or so, the most fundamental distinction among Western political factions has been between those who think that mankind can be perfected and those who do not. Professor Pham believes that reason should trump biology, in this case, even if it leaves her progeny worse off. There is a reason that those who believed in humanity’s perfectibility—from the Jacobins to the Bolsheviks—all resorted to the compelling power of the state to impose their dogma. They have rationalized themselves into an entirely irrational position.
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Podcast: Battles at the border and in the UN.
Is the crisis the Trump administration inaugurated over the separation of children from their border-crossing families over? Or will the press and Democrats pursue this story even after at the risk of exposing the systemic flaws in the country’s immigration system? Also, the U.S. withdraws from the United Nations Human Rights Council, and good riddance.
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Radicalism and self-injury.
As a candidate, Donald Trump promised to be uncompromising when it came to immigration. For the most part, he has delivered. An executive order that restricted refugee intake and access to temporary visas in the first days of his administration sparked a wave of popular unrest, but the outrage subsided as Trump’s assaults on America’s permissive immigration regime became routinized. Only when Trump began breaking up the families of asylum seekers did the powerful public aversion we saw with the introduction of the “travel ban” again overtake the national consciousness. The abuse was so grotesque, the victims so sympathetic, and the administration’s insecurity so apparent that it broke the routine.
Opponents of this administration’s “zero tolerance policy” for border crossers and some asylum seekers currently have the upper hand. But as the debate over what to do next heads to Congress, where the mundanities of a legislative fix will come to dominate the national conversation, the liberal-activist wing risks sacrificing its sympathy. Such activists have convinced themselves that this is an extreme situation that requires extreme measures in response. Down that road lies marginalization and, ultimately, defeat.
On Tuesday night, Homeland Security Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen went out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant, and it was deemed by activists and reporters to be a galling provocation that could not stand. Activists descended on the restaurant, shouting “If kids don’t eat in peace, you don’t eat in peace!” Reporters marveled at Nielsen’s gauche “optics,” and even speculated that her choice of venue was a subtle effort by the White House to bait their opponents into an overreaction (as if baiting were necessary). Nielsen was forced to leave the restaurant.
This is the kind of mania that can only afflict those hysterical enough to disregard the fact that Mexicans no longer make up the majority of the illegal population in America, and that most border crossers travel north from violence-plagued “Northern Triangle,” which consists of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. That kind of reaction from activists in and out of journalism is understandable—a policy that amounts to state-sponsored child abuse is a terrible injustice—but it is also self-defeating.
The logic that led to Nielsen’s ordeal is the same logic that has convinced some on the radical left to endorse the outing of otherwise anonymous U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in public fora. Activists on Tuesday night trolled through the online professional network LinkedIn to identify ICE officers, track where they live, and direct the most aggrieved of protesters to make their lives miserable. Online administrators had the presence of mind to suspend these users and scrub the web of their work, but those who want that information know where to get it. And this may not be a harmless activity. A popular activist Twitter account promoting the defunct leftist protest movement “Occupy Wall Street” posted an infographic on Tuesday glamorizing the murder of ICE agents for its more than 200,000 followers. Anyone of sound mind would ignore these incitements to radicalism, but it only takes one.
Those who are attracted to these tactics justify them as a necessarily extreme response to extremism. That might be explicable if the same tactics were not used to make Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s life miserable when the left became convinced that a two-year-old supervisory regulation allowing Internet service providers to privilege content providers was a blow to the foundations of the republic.
In January, when the FCC approved a plan to phase out “Net Neutrality” regulations, the left determined that the only reasonable response was unreasonableness. HBO’s John Oliver mobilized his viewers to bombard the FCC’s website with comments. Some of those commenting took it upon themselves to threaten the murder of the chairman’s family. “Resistance” groups began putting literature up around Pai’s neighborhood accusing him of criminal abuses. They held vigils in his driveway, held up signs invoking his children by name, bombarded his house with pizza deliveries he never ordered, and phoned in bomb threats that cleared out the FCC’s offices. They “come up to our front windows and take photographs of the inside of the house,” Pai told the Wall Street Journal last May. “My kids are 5 and 3. It’s not pleasant.”
It seems as if conflating the conduct of public and private life holds greater and greater appeal for a certain segment of the left. The attention it generates ensures that it will become a regular feature of protest movements in the Trump era. What’s more, the targets of this tactic suggest that the left will make no distinction between irritants that offend liberal sensibilities and those things that are truly obscene. That’s a slippery slope, and traveling down it sap the left of the sympathy it needs from the general public. In making Trump appointees and their families the targets of personal harassment, Trump’s opponents are discrediting themselves more than they are shaming anyone in the White House.
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A dangerous idea makes a comeback.
The word “ethics” appears prominently in the biographies of the authors who co-wrote a recent Washington Post op-ed lamenting the “taboo” associated with “talking about overpopulation.” Frances Kissling is the president of the Center for Health, Ethics, and Social Policy. Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University. Only Jotham Musinguzi, the “director general of Uganda’s National Population Council,” doesn’t mention “ethics” in the bio. That’s good because the Malthusian views promulgated in the piece are anything but ethical.
Inauspiciously, the authors begin by applying a coat of gloss over Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, which they note had a “major impact” on public policy but that “spurred a backlash” rendering the discussion of its thesis “radioactive.” Indeed, that’s only just. Ehrlich’s claims were dead wrong.
Ehrlich claimed that the Earth had a finite “carrying capacity,” and its limits were about to be tested. He claimed that mass starvation was imminent; hundreds of millions would die. Neither the first nor the third world would be spared; the average American lifespan would decline to just 42 by 1980. Ehrlich continued to make apocalyptic predictions after his book became a sensation. “Most of the people who are going to die in the greatest cataclysm in the history of man have already been born,” he wrote in 1969. A year later: “The death rate will increase until at least 100-200 million people per year will be starving to death during the next ten years.” Between 1980 and 1989, most of the Earth’s population, including over one-third of all Americans, would die or be murdered what he grimly dubbed “the Great Die-Off.” As recently as this year, Ehrlich—who still teaches at Stanford University—said that civilizational collapse remains a likely prospect and the chief shortcoming of his most famous book was that it failed to invoke the modern progressive Trinity: feminism, anti-racism, and inequality.
Our WaPo ethicists don’t tackle any of this. Indeed, they favorably observe that Ehrlich’s warnings render family planning in the developed world a necessity to stave off the unfortunate circumstances that would force wealthy nations to withhold food aid from the developing world to induce “necessary and justifiable” chaos and starvation. Seriously.
Because population control is not a problem in the developed world, where birthrates are declining below even replacement rates, population controllers tend to fixate on sexual habits in the developing world. The authors of this op-ed are no exception. They draw an almost always fallacious straight-line projection to conclude that—in the unlikely event that nothing changes between today and 2100—a population crisis should afflict a variety of Sub-Saharan African nations. To avert this crisis, they advocate promoting and supporting proper sexual hygiene, to which almost no one would object. But their authors’ core agenda isn’t the distribution of prophylactics. They seek to de-stigmatize abortion in the equatorial world, which is controversial for reasons that have nothing to do with faith. After all, it was The Population Bomb and its progenitors that lent renewed legitimacy to old arguments that inevitably result in targeting black and brown populations with sterilization and eugenics.
The title of Ehrlich’s book was lifted from a 1954 pamphlet issued by Gen. William Draper’s Population Crisis Committee, and it arguably inaugurated the overpopulation fad toward which pop intellectuals were drawn in the 20th Century. The effects this mania had on public policy were terrible. In the United States, population control hysteria led, in part, to the sterilization of “up to one-quarter” of the Native American women of childbearing age by 1977, according to Angela Franks’ 2005 book, Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy. “The large number of sterilizations began in earnest in 1966, when Medicaid came into existence and funded the operation for low-income people.” Thousands of Native American women in the early to mid-1970s were sterilized after signing consent forms that failed to comply with regulations.
With the assistance of the U.S. government and the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Puerto Rican government operated a program of voluntary female sterilization for decades, but it was “voluntary” in the most perverse sense. Pressure from employers and public incentives united to “liberate” women from the drudgery of childbearing, leaving many women without much of a choice in the matter. A 1965 survey of Puerto Rican women found that one-third of women in prime child-bearing years admitted to undergoing sterilization.
America’s minority populations were, however, a secondary concern to population controllers. It was, as ever, the so-called underdeveloped world that preoccupies the technocrats. Toward supposedly enlightened ends, the World Bank, working in quiet concert with the U.S. government, helped to advance Washington’s unstated goal of keeping population levels in the developing world down. “In some cases, strong direction has involved incentives such as payment to acceptors for sterilization, or disincentives such as giving low priorities in the allocation of housing or schooling to those with larger families,” a triumphant 1974 National Security Council memorandum read. As part of this campaign, American philanthropic institutions working with USAID reportedly distributed unsafe and untested contraceptive devices in the developing world. “USAID has been able to put some distance between itself and many of the more objectionable elements of its population agenda,” Population Research Institute’s James A. Miller wrote in a 1996 exposé.
For decades, a pseudoscientific religion that justified coercion and eugenics to achieve “optimal” population ratios quietly guided the development of Western public policy. In a comprehensive 2012 essay in The New Atlantis, Robert Zubrin demonstrated conclusively that 20th Century population control programs were “dictatorial,” “dishonest,” “coercive,” “medically irresponsible and negligent,” “cruel, callous, and abusive of human dignity and human rights,” and, perhaps most of all, “racist.” It was, in fact, their “neocolonial” aspects that led to a left-wing revolt against population controllers in the 1970s. But the left will never be able to entirely divorce itself from the logic that led to population control because they are Malthusians at heart. From peak Earth to peak oil, the left is possessed of a boundless pessimism. Theirs is an ideology that is founded upon the belief that life is a zero-sum game; all commodities are finite and can only be distributed fairly by enlightened elites. They will always underestimate humanity’s capacity to engineer itself out of a jam.
So, yes, overpopulation is a “taboo” subject because it has justified one of the most grotesque campaigns of industrialized human rights abuses the world has ever seen. In making a veiled argument in favor of abortion, our ethicists have inadvertently made their opponents’ case for them: reproductive controls targeting women in the developing world inevitably legitimize condescension, imperialism, and dehumanization. “The conversation about ethics, population and reproduction needs to shift from the perspective of white donor countries,” the authors conclude. And yet, as was ever the case, the “perspective of white donor countries” seems always to be the place from which dangerous ideas about the undesirable procreative habits of women in the equatorial world spring. Fifty years after the publication of a book that helped to legitimize the sterilization of millions in the developing world, that kind of noxious chauvinism remains a prominent feature of the population control movement.