The Polish-born American pianist Arthur Rubinstein was one of the leading piano personalities of the first half of the 20th century. He won audiences over with his charming, extroverted and witty personality and stage presence. Rubinstein valued musical expression above all else, and sometimes this led to the virtuoso’s sloppy execution of passages. His own musical ideals were quite different than the established Romantic pianists of his time, who were often pupils ofLiszt and Leschetizky, whereas Rubinstein sought a beautiful sound and a daring approach, discarding the remaining elements of the Romantic piano style. His interpretations ofChopin’s works are especially treasured.
Rubinstein was born on 28 January 1887 in Łódź, Poland. He began playing piano at a very young age, and had already played forJoseph Joachim in Berlin by the age of three. Joachim was impressed by his promising young talent. Rubinstein received lessons in both Łódź and Warsaw before his debut concert in Łódź at the age of seven. Several years later, in 1897, Rubinstein went to Berlin to study. Joachim organised and supervised the boy’s studies, which were given by Heinrich Barth (piano) andMax Bruch and Robert Kahn (theory).
Under Joachim in 1900, Rubinstein gave his debut performance in Berlin, with Mozart’s Concerto K488, solos from Schumann and Chopin and the Concerto in G minor fromSaint-Saëns. From this moment on, the Saint-Saëns would be an essential piece in his repertoire. Performances followed throughout Germany and Poland before his 1904 debut in Paris, all to great acclaim. Two years later, Rubinstein made his American debut at Carnegie Hall with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1906. This was a pivotal moment for Rubinstein, as his performance was not well-received. Critics were not impressed by his immature and undisciplined performance.
Due to his busy concert schedule and generally positive reception, Rubinstein had stopped receiving piano lessons, though he would later spend some time studying with Paderewski in Switzerland. Instead, Rubinstein relied heavily on his natural talent and instinct, which were certainly great. He vastly expanded his repertoire without any further instruction and was competent in orchestral transcription, accompaniment and sight-reading. Furthermore, his charming personality won him many fans. They appreciated his youthfulness and wit. Later in life, Rubinstein admitted that his personality allowed him to give many under-prepared concerts. After his cool American reception, Rubinstein continued on to Austria, Italy and Russia before making his London debut in 1912.
During World War I, Rubinstein remained active as a pianist, but also served a military interpreter, as he spoke eight different languages fluently. During this time, he served as the regular accompanist ofEugene Ysaÿe. He also developed a love for the music ofGranados, Albéniz, Villa-Lobos and Falla during his visits to Spain and South America from 1916 to 1917.
After marrying Aniela Mlynarski in 1932, Rubinstein withdrew from the public eye. It was at this point that he began to restudy his repertoire and improve his technique. After much musical contemplation, he returned to the concert stage. During his 1937 tour of America, the same critics that had criticized him years earlier, praised his worthiness as a pianist. It is also worth mentioning that by the time Rubinstein had matured as a musician, the careers of the great pianists Josef Hofmann and Sergei Rachmaninoff were coming to an end. Rubinstein matured at a time when the public was looking for a replacement for these Romantic virtuosos. Other pianists of this calibre at the time included Benno Moiseiwtisch and Vladimir Horowitz.
Rubinstein once said of the new generation that they are much too cautious, claiming:
‘I will take a chance. There has to be an element of daring in great music-making…. They [other young pianists] take the music out of their pockets instead of out of their hearts. And they know little about pedaling or tone production’.
He also spent the World War II years in America, becoming an American citizen in 1946. After the war, he continued his international tours, giving energetic concerts into his 80s. He was also known to perform intense programmes, even into his old age, such as both Brahms’ concertos or three concertos from Beethoven. He was also active as a chamber musician, working with other virtuosos such as Heifetz, Fuermann, Piatigorsky, Paul Kochanski, Henryk Szeryng and the Guarneri Quartet.
Rubinstein’s repertoire was large and included many of the 19th-century Romantics, along with Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. He also championed the works of many contemporary composers such as Szymanowski, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc, Prokofiev and the previously mentioned composers of Spain and South America. His interpretations of the Romantic works was very different than those of his peers. He preferred a direct approach, with limited rhythmic distortion. For a long time, the works of Brahms brought out Rubinstein’s greatest playing, though this later became Chopin. His performances of Chopin’s works would solidify his reputation as one of the leading pianist of the 20th century. His interpretations, while not always technically flawless, are ‘warmly outgoing’ and feature the a lyricism that is ‘expressed in tones of richest and most gorgeous hue’.
Rubinstein was also an active recording artist, making more than 200 recordings during his lifetime, among them the complete piano works of Chopin and three versions of the complete Beethoven concertos. Early recordings include Liszt’s Rhapsody no. 10 and Albéniz’s Navarra. Other notable recordings include the Tchaikovsky Concerto in B-flat minor and his recordings of Chopin’s works.
In 1974, the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition was founded in Israel in honour of the brilliant pianist. Throughout his career, but especially in his later years, Rubinstein was very encouraging toward young pianists, among them François-René Duchable and Krystian Zimerman. He also pushed for the development of music education in Israel.
Rubinstein retired from the concert stage in 1976, two years after his competition was founded. This same year, he was awarded the prestigious United States Medal of Freedom. Rubinstein also wrote an autobiography, which he published in two volumes—My Young Years (1973, London) and My Many Years (1980).