The Iron Man

Could Beethoven have had a younger sibling or an illegitimate child? Anton Rubinstein was absolutely a Beethoven like figure, making the piano erupted volcanically, always played the wrong notes and broke the strings. The Russian with thick ugly hands and thickly padded fingers was recognized as the greatest pianist after Liszt. His pinky was a thick as Josef Hoffman’s thumb.


Nobody had a more sensuous piano tone than Rubinstein and he had explained to Rachmaninoff how to achieve this sensuous tone: press upon the keys until blood oozes from the finger tips. One of his pupils, Alexander McArthur described Rubinstein as ‘like a madmen let loose’. He was also known for being a womanizer and a gambler.


Rubinstein studied in Moscow under Alexander Villoing and made his debut in 1839. Villoing took him to Paris. In the early days, Rubinstein imitated Liszt, trying to lift and hold his hands as high as possible and used the same hand position. He was not the only ten-year-old pianist who toured Europe. At 13, he studied under Siegfried Dehn in Berlin and in 1846, he performed some concerts and lived in Vienna for a while.

He never studied with Liszt although some writers gave an impression on that. He was part of Liszt’s circle and may have picked things up from them. He did play for Liszt in 1846 but Liszt refused to accept him as his student and said very coldly: ‘A talented man must win the goal of his ambition by his own unassisted efforts.’ Was this comment because Liszt to sense a rivalry or was it down to personality clash?

Rubinstein never had a famous teacher as he never needed one. Josef Hoffman, his greatest pupil claimed that Rubinstein was a ‘born genius’. He alternated between concert and teaching. In 1854, he began a four-year concert tour in Europe and met Saint Saëns. Both collaborated playing in public. When they were not concertizing, they made music playing four-hands music at home.

Clara Schumann gave an account of Rubinstein:

‘He has a gigantic spirit and was extremely poetic and original but for an entire concert, he was too much. He doesn’t care how many notes he missed providing he can vividly bring out the concept. On the other hand, Tausig brought out the exactness and every rigid detail to the point that his perfection makes him a little cold.’

Rubinstein’s program was too long – three hours and with as many than twenty pieces. Nonetheless, his playing played gave pleasure because of its sensual elements. He had a robust health and provided a kind of sensuality to the listener. Hence, to many of his listeners, the wrong notes were of little importance. Rafael Josef compared his tone to that of a ‘golden French Horn’ – warm and mellow.

Rubinstein could play delicately and with grace and lightness when he wanted to. It is true that he seldom displayed that side of his nature. He learned early in life that people pay to hear his thunder not the delicate patter of raindrops. He was expected to bring thunder. He was an iron man with a colossal repertoire and an equally colossal memory. In his fiftieth year, he started to have memory lapses and was required to play with music. Paderewski heard him play towards the end and remembered it was full of great moments alternating between memory slips and chaos.

Right up until his last years, he ran a program of formidable length. His series of historical recital were famous – seven consecutive concerts covering the history of piano music. An example of his second program consists of Sonatas of Beethoven – the Moonlight, Waldstein, Appasionata, Op.101, 109, and the 111. The fourth concert dedicated to SchumannFantasy in C, Kreisleriana, Étude Symphoniques, Sonata in F sharp minor and a group of short Carnaval not included encores. He played every piece with a repeat. As an encore, he played Chopin’s B Flat Minor Sonata. The audience roared the ‘Old Lion’ with delights.

The Steinway piano firm invited Rubinstein to give a cross-country tour in the 1872-1873 season. He wanted to be paid in gold as he distrusted the American paper notes in the banks. The contract sets out two hundred concerts for two hundreds dollars for each concert and he delivered them all! He was in America for 239 days and gave 215 concerts topping with seven farewell recitals in New York for his farewell recitals in nine days. He was an iron man and never felt the strain:

‘May heaven preserve us from slavery! Under these conditions there is no chance for art- one simply grows into an automaton, performing mechanical work and ‘no dignity remains to the artist’ he is lost’.

Several years later, Rubinstein was again asked to repeat such recital. He refused point-blank. He received more attention from the press than any other figure until the arrival of Paderewski in 1891.

One of the things that was closest to Rubinstein’s heart from 1861 onwards was the St. Petersburg Conservatory of Music, the first one in Russia. In competition against Rubinstein’s conservatory in St. Petersburg, Balakriev founded a competitive Free School. However, it was both the St. Petersburg and Moscow Conservatory that was founded by Rubinstein’s younger brother, Nicholas in 1866 and had thrived. Nicholas, a pupil of Kullak himself was a splendid pianist. He did not do much concert work but was reputed by his famous brother, Rubinstein. Had Nicholas worked hard, he could have been a better pianist of the two.

Emil von Sauer, one of Liszt’s best pupils wrote a comparison of the two:

It is difficult to say who was a better pianist. In every way as different as the brothers were in personal appearance – the one dark and the other very fair – so different was their playing. The playing of Nicholas was more like that of Tausig, only warmer and more impulsive. Perhaps Anton Rubinstein was the more inspired performer of the two, but he was unequaled. Nicholas never varied; his playing both in private and in public was always the same and kept up the same standard of excellence.’

Nicholas remained the head of the Moscow Conservatory until his death in 1881. Rubinstein left St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1867. After twenty years of concertizing, composing, and conducting he returned to it in 1887 until he finally ceased to do it in 1891. During his last four years, he resumed his historical recitals for the benefit of his students. For thirty-two weeks on every Sunday, he gave different recitals and lectured. His last concert took place at St. Petersburg on 14 January 1894, and he died on November 28 of that year.

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