Anton Rubinstein

1829 1894

Anton Rubinstein



Rubinstein was a Russian composer and one of the greatest pianists of his time. His principle successes as a composer came from a period during his forties and fifties. This period started with Piano concerto No. 4 in D and had its closure with the operaThe Demon. Rubinstein was underappreciated as a composer for a long time until a rebirth of his works, which occurred in the twentieth century. Besides all his work as an artist, he made an important mark on musical education by founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory. Though he gained most of his international fame as a pianist, he was a very productive composer as well, writing dozens of operas, piano concertos, symphonies and more.

Rubinstein was born to Jewish parents in Russia. Rubinstein’s mother, herself a competent musician, began teaching Rubinstein the piano at the age of five. After a short while, a piano teacher called A.I. Villoing took over his piano lessons. It was Villoing who took Rubinstein on tour as his apprentice. At the time child virtuosos were very much in fashion. Rubinstein was only ten years old at that time and would be touring for over three years across Europe. During this period he attracted the attention ofChopin and Liszt. He settled in Berlin for some time around his fifteenth birthday. This was the period in which he started to study composition, counterpoint and harmony. He pursued lessons from Siegfried Dehn and later on from Adolf Bernhard Marx.

As he came of age, Rubinstein could no longer carry the name of child prodigy and had to make a living for himself. He spent the following years in Vienna in great poverty, struggling as a musician while he survived primarily through teaching the piano. After he went back to Russia (probably forced by the Revolution of 1848 and the death of his father), he spent his time performing and teaching at the Imperial Court. Although he had studied composition in Berlin and had been composing all of his life, he was primarily known as a performing pianist. He decided to turn the tables and bring more focus to himself as a composer.

Rubinstein’s style would be strongly influenced by the German style he had learned from Dehn in Berlin. His strongest influence came fromRobert Schumann , which was unusual for a Russian composer at the time. These were the years in which ‘The Mighty Handful’ composers, consisting ofMily Balakirev, César Cui <>, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin, were considered pioneers in music by fusing Russian nationalism with classical music. 

Nevertheless he had some major successes. The Demon (1871), was more popular than any other opera. It was based on a narrative poem and was performed at least a hundred times following its premiere. To this day it is still performed often in Russia.

Although his music was substantial, what it lacks is strong individual character. It possesses some influences from various composers, among them Tchaikovsky and Schumann, but can also frequently resort to tired clichés. It is said that he did not have the necessary concentration and patience needed to be composer.

It was in that time when Rubinstein also developed some major ideas to improve the musical education system in Russia. In 1859 he founded the Russian Musical Society, which featured a concert series with Rubinstein himself conducting. Eventually Rubinstein founded the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where he not only taught be was also director and recruiter of new talent. Rubinstein seemed to admire and prefer teachers from Western Europe, which garnered both criticism and disappointment from his fellow Russian musicians. This did not dissuade him. The conservatory was able to lift the bar and deliver musicians on a level that was unimaginable before that time, mostly as a result of its talented faculty. One of the best-known graduates of the St. Petersburg Conservatory was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who would go on to revolutionize Russian music in his own way.

Later in life, Rubinstein would hit the road again as a conductor and pianist. During a tour to America he gave over two hundred concerts, although funnily enough he seemed to actively dislike the touring life. While Rubinstein loved playing the piano, the constant travel demanded so much energy from him that he felt unable to express himself in an artistic way and became disconnected from himself as a composer. Years later, fellow Russian pianistVladimir Horowitz would express a similar sentiment.

After his death, Rubinstein’s work decreased in popularity, probably because of the afore-mentioned lack of individualism. He soon became overshadowed by the other great Russian composers of his time. Rubinstein favoured the tempo moderato, which for many people makes his music ‘moderate’ or ‘characterless.’ Another ironic pitfall might have been the difficulty of his piano pieces. Since Rubinstein was one of the greatest piano players of his time, his pieces often incorporated very advances techniques, while at the same time his suggestions for the interpretation are sometimes hard to find in his compositions. Nevertheless, he left the world with several great compositions which are nowadays performed mainly in Russia.

Images courtesy of Tchaikovsky Research and public domain