Arthur Rubinstein and the music of Chopin

By December 16, 2012Books, History, Music, Society

Music has been an important part of my life from the beginning. My mother sang and accompanied herself on the piano, and I was picking out tunes on the piano when barely able to sit on the piano stool. I became a piano-player rather than a pianist, but the music for the piano (and songs for the soprano) have always been important to me. There was a moment in my life when I thought the best way to recover from a personal crisis was to immerse myself in music and learn to play properly, and I chose the Preludes of Chopin. I would study each one, and commit them to memory. My problem was that I had never learned to read music well, and relied on my ear. To help me in this quest, I bought a CD of the Preludes played by Arthur Rubinstein, and played them again and again.

I recovered from the crisis before I had learned more than a few of the slower Preludes, but Rubinstein’s playing led me to buy the rest of his Chopin, which is just about everything except the Etudes. In time it led me to buy his autobiographies, My Young Years and My Many Years. I greatly enjoyed those books, recommended them others, and finally loaned them. Of course, I forgot to whom I had lent them, and they never returned. The magic of the Internet and the possibility to buy any book on line caused me to buy a further copy of each, both pre-loved but in good condition and cheap. And I re-read them with great pleasure.

The first volume is better than the second, but both are great reading, because he is knowledgeable, retentive and funny. And he lived to a great age (95) with his abilities intact until the very end. He was born in Lodz, in Poland, in 1887, and displayed perfect pitch and an astonishing memory when very young. He was mentored by the violinist Joachim, accompanied another great violinist Eugene Ysaye. In the time of his youth, the Belle Epoque, he met just about everyone who was important in music — Ravel, Dukas, Debussy, Kreisler, Casals, Stravinsky and many others. Picasso was a friend. He is probably responsible for the popularity of South American composers like Villa Lobos, and the Spaniard Granados, whose music he championed, and who dedicated works to him. He had a special feeling for chamber music throughout his life, and made great recordings with great colleagues.

His technique was natural, and his feeling for music intuitive. He believed that he understood exactly what the composer had in mind when he read the score, and could photograph it in his mind, playing what the composer meant with great feeling, but with not a few missing or wrong notes. He had devoted audiences, and in later life his concerts were sold out as soon as tickets went on sale.

Rubinstein was not interested in teaching until later in life, and once told a nervous student, who had worried that she might have got a note wrong, that she would never be a good pianist until she could make mistakes. But that was at the end of his career as a concert artist. In his forties he decided that he should return to study, withdrew from performance, and went back to the scores again, correcting his technique and his understanding, and in doing so discovering new possibilities and nuances in pieces that were central to his repertoire.

I never heard him live, though he came to Australia at least twice. The first time was in the early years of the second world war, and his funny account of Australian musical life then is consistent with other stories from that time. He could play symphonies and operas on the piano from memory and through simply having once read the score, and would do so as a party trick.

He was jealous of other great pianists, but did his best to appreciate their strengths. Horowitz was his main rival, and Rubinstein thought that Horowitz had better technique and more brilliance, but less feeling for music. Rachmaninov and Rubinstein had  mutual respect, but to the best of my knowledge Rubinstein never played any of the Russian’s music while the latter was alive. He did record some of the concertos later, however.

The books are those of a happy egoist, artless in what they reveal, his poverty, his splashing of what today would be ten thousand dollars on a dinner, and being penniless the next day, his falling in and out of love, his countless affairs (though he does not tell of any after his marriage to his great love, Nela, though they occurred), the nobs and names who came to his dinners, his honours, his strong likes and equally strong dislikes, and his funny stories, of which there are so many. He disapproved of Germany’s entering the Great War, and did not ever play there again after 1914. He lost most of his Polish family in the Holocaust, and became an ardent supporter of the new state of Israel.

What is left? The two books, which anyone interested in the last century of music for the piano can read with interest and enjoyment. And the recorded music. His favourite composer was Brahms, and his favourite work the the second of his piano concertos, in B Flat Major. But he recorded, and re-recorded, a great deal, mostly in the classical mainstream. The discography runs to 158 issues, virtually all of them on EMI/RCA Victor. But it is his Chopin that I love best, even better, I think, than Claudio Arrau’s treatment.

There is no pianist today, I think, who can match Rubinstein in the breadth of his life, his acquaintance with the good and great in music, and his sheer beauty as a pianist. Oh, and he appeared on stage for more than eighty years!


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