Influential People: Anton Rubinstein

I started including this information in tomorrow’s music post, but it got a little long, so I decided I’d make it a separate thing ahead of the discussion of the first work in our Russian symphony series. 

Rubinstein on the podium as portrayed by Ilya Repin.
In great contrast with the piece we’ll be discussing next week, Rubinstein was quite a traditionalist, a composer whose music was Russian, but who was not as vehemently opposed to German tradition and therefore also not hellbent on extricating it from all Russian music. This is something we’ll talk about later, but suffice it to say that Rubinstein was a traditionalist, very respectful of the history and tradition of classical music. Mendelssohn was one of his mentors, and recognized his talent, Meyerbeer another. Surprisingly not a mentor or supporter of the young, very talented and now poor Rubinstein (after his father’s death) was Franz Liszt, whom Rubinstein tracked down in Vienna when he was 17 and could no longer pass as a child prodigy. You may have read the article a few weeks ago about Liszt and his benevolence, but apparently he was not moved this time. He is reported to have said, “A talented man must win the goal of his ambition by his own unassisted efforts.” This seems out of character for the otherwise helpful man, who did nothing to help the young composer/performer, and apparently nor did anyone else, so he went back to Berlin to teach there.
After returning to Russia, at the age of 24 he returned to Europe for a four year concert tour, which was apparently a huge success. As was customary at the time, he performed mostly his own works, and while his compositions didn’t necessarily inspire great admiration, his talents as a pianist were undeniable. A highlight of this tour was performing today’s piece, the ‘Ocean symphony’ with the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra on November 16, 1854.
Two other significant highlights of his career were opening the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the first music school in Russia. Despite being the first school in Russia to teach music in Russian, he had detractors (who we will speak about next week) who were concerned that the school would not be “Russian enough.” These folks represented a far more… modern stance on music in Russia, and would continue to cause trouble with and for Rubinstein. He eventually resigned from the conservatory he had founded and staffed as a result of this tension, and went to America for a tour at the request of Steinway & Sons. Unlike his European tour, this one featured more compositions from other composers than his own. Incredibly, he was to give 200 concerts at the never-before-seen rate of US$200 per concert, all expenses paid. This fee, mind you, was to be paid in gold, as Rubinstein didn’t trust the American dollar or bank system). He ended up giving 215 concerts in 239 days, sometimes, as Wikipedia says, two or three concerts in as many cities in one day. While he was vocal about how miserable and tired he was during this long period, it made him financially stable for the entire rest of his life.
Perhaps as a result of the success of these tours he took through Europe and America, he is more often recognized or thought of as a pianist than a composer, but his compositional output was enormous. He wrote:

  • Six symphonies
  • Six piano concertos (among a few other concertante works with piano)
  • A violin concerto
  • Two cello concertos
  • Dozens of Lieder
  • A few dozen operas
  • A dozen string quartets among other chamber works, including cello and violin sonatas
as well as many works for solo piano, obviously. Interestingly, he says of his career, and life in general:

Russians call me German, Germans call me Russian, Jews call me a Christian, Christians a Jew. Pianists call me a composer, composers call me a pianist. The classicists think me a futurist, and the futurists call me a reactionary. My conclusion is that I am neither fish nor fowl—a pitiful individual.

Anton Rubinstein, Gedankenkorb (1897)

This position as a solitary figure stuck between opposing camps may have been “pitiful,” but he was ultimately successful, and it seems many times that struggle and suffering and experience tend to allow or inspire an individual to produce great art. Rubinstein might not be among names like Bruckner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc. as one of the more enduring composers of the 19th century, but he certainly had great success in his lifetime, and many of the great artists of his day acknowledged him as one of the greatest pianists of the century.
Perhaps unfortunately, we are not at this time going to be discussing any of his piano works, arguably his best or most well-known aside from a few of his operas, but his second symphony. It was originally published in 1851 and revised twice, in 1863 and 1880, but we will be addressing its earliest conception, not what it later became. That’s all for tomorrow though. See you then.
I should also perhaps say that this small history of Rubinstein as a traditional, more German classicist (as he was of German and Jewish descent) becomes more significant in the context of next week’s articles!)

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One thought on “Influential People: Anton Rubinstein

  1. I know that Rubinstein came to Weimar several times, so Liszt certainly helped him in some way, Liszt was generous,

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