Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Arthur Rubinstein: Playing From the Heart

Great Artists

To be alive, to be able to see, to walk, to have houses, music, paintings - it's all a miracle. I have adopted the technique of living life miracle to miracle.
Arthur Rubinstein

I'm passionately involved in life: I love its change, its color, its movement.
Arthur Rubinstein

Sometimes when I sit down to practice and there is no one else in the room, I have to stifle an impulse to ring for the elevator man and offer him money to come in and hear me.
Arthur Rubinstein

Arthur Rubinstein [1886-1982] around the age of 20: "It took great courage to ask a beautiful young woman to marry me. Believe me, it is easier to play the whole Petrushka on the piano."
Photo Credit: circa 1906.
US Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div.
When you see Arthur Rubinstein play you view not only a great technical performance, but perhaps more important, a man whose interpretation of the music makes it so much more personal and enjoyable. There is more to music than playing the notes correctly, which many concerts pianists today do so proficiently. There is the personality of the musician, which younger musicians would be wise to emulate. But it cannot be artificial or contrived; it must come naturally, from the heart.

That ability, to charm the audience, has made Rubinstein one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century. He continues to charm today through his many recordings. Some notable ones are the Beethoven Piano Concertos with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim (1975), the Schumann Fantasiestücke (1962) and, of course, the Chopin Nocturnes, Waltzes and Polonaises, which can be found in various remastered  collections put out recently.  Rubinstein played from the heart, and that meant that he took chances, which highlighted his humanity all the more so. This is revealed in an insight from the website dedicated to the Arthur Rubinstein International Music Society, which says:
"On stage," Rubinstein told in an interview with Harold C. Shonberg in 1964, "I will take a chance. There has to be an element of daring in great music-making. These younger ones, they are too cautious. They take the music out of their pockets instead out of their hearts. And they know little about pedalling or tone production. " Rubinstein’s remark about "playing from the heart" was characteristic. He always played from the heart. Music was nothing if not an emotional expression.

In his long life he saw interpretation pass from Romanticism to the percussionism of Bartok and Prokofiev, and then to the literalism brought in by the anti-Romantic movement, in which young pianists were trained to observe only the printed note, keeping themselves out of music. Rubinstein did not like what he heard. He realized, as all great artists do, that music means nothing until brought to life by an imaginative, sympathetic player. He knew that it was the function of the interpreter to refract the message of the composer through the prism of his own mind. Otherwise a robot could do the job as well.
But Rubinstein was no Romantic musician; his was more a fusion of Romanticism and Classical. (Although by today's standards of musicians playing note perfect, but without emotion, he might be considered a Romantic.) Chopin was his specialty, The New York Times said, "and it was a Chopinist that he was considered by many without peer." It has been said that Rubinstein played Frédéric Chopin's music so well that the Polish composer might have had Rubinstein in mind when he wrote. Never mind that Rubinstein was two generations removed from Chopin. Rubinstein and Chopin shared the same country of birth—Poland—and their affinity for it, and the music reveals as much.

He also had an ideal physique for a pianist: five foot eight with a short muscular torso, long arms and extraordinary fingers. There is an iconic image of Rubinstein, his back erect, attired in formal wear, tails draped over the bench and his face formed like a mask in perfect concentration. And then came the music, which seemed in stark contrast to his pose. And so it must be for a man who loved life and was a self-proclaimed extrovert. Even his lighting a cigar was a performance.

Rubinstein, who was fluent in eight languages— English, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Russian, German, and Portuguese— also enjoyed being in the company of women, notably early in his career. ''It is said of me that when I was young I divided my time impartially among wine, women and song,'' he said. ''I deny this categorically. Ninety percent of my interests were women.'' These romantic affairs were not distractions, but formed an integral part of Rubinstein's personality.

Rubinstein: At age 50. "People are always setting conditions for happiness... I love life without condition."
Photo Credit: Carl Van Vechten [1880-1964];  November 30, 1937
Source: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division

Early Years in Poland

Arthur Rubinstein was born to Izaak Rubinstein and Blima Feiga Rubinstein (nee Heiman) on January 28, 1887, in Lodz, Poland. He was the youngest, by almost seven years, of seven children, born into a mercantile family of assimilated Jews. His parents, Izaak and Blima (Felicja in Polish) married in March 1870, when Izaak was 21 and Felicja was 17. (see Rubinsten: a life).

The Rubinsteins lived in a spacious sunny apartment, part of a nice three-storey house, on a main thoroughfare, Piotrowska ulica, in Lodz. The family purchased an upright piano when Arthur was 2½, but not for him, but for his older sisters who were expected to learn such things. But it was the young boy, Arthur, who became the piano's chief friend, so to speak.

The young Rubinstein knew his vocation early on, at age three, which made it unnecessary for him to think of what he would do with his life. In Rubinstein: a life (1995), Harvey Sachs writes:
"When I was three years old I was a musician," the aged Rubinstein told an interviewer. "In fact I could play four hands with my sister then. She played very badly, but I played the four-hand things quite well. . . . There are lots of people who at twenty can't decide if they want to be jewellers or doctors or engineers. I knew at the age of three that I was going to be a musician."
Until the age of eight he was a student at the Warsaw Conservatory of Music, and afterward was sent to perform for Joseph Joachim, the famed Hungarian-Jewish violinist based in Berlin. Joachim, who was friends with Schumann and Brahms, was duly impressed and assumed responsibility for Rubinstein's study. At the young Rubinstein's Berlin debut, age 11, Joachim was the conductor. Recitals in Dresden, Hamburg, and Warsaw soon followed. By then, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the well-known Polish pianist and conductor, took him under his wing and became a major influence.

Rubinstein made a number of tours, including an unsuccessful tour of America, before establishing himself first in Spain, in 1916, and then South America, where audiences responded to his passionate playing. By then he was residing in Paris and was often found on the French Riviera in the company of Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso.

Although he enjoyed life and its many beautiful offerings, Rubinstein became more serious about his career and the direction that it would take after he met and married Aniela ("Nela") Mlynarski, the youngest daughter of the Polish conductor Emil Młynarski, in London, England, on July 27, 1932—he was 45 and she was almost 24. Rubinstein began to think more seriously about his place in the pantheon of music, and equally important what his children would think of their father. "I didn't want my kids to grow up thinking of their father as either a second-string pianist or as a has-been,'' he said. The couple remained married for fifty years until his death. They had four children: Eva, Paul, Alina A. and John A., all whom resided in Manhattan at the time of their father's death.

Acceptance in America

So, when Rubinstein made his third appearance at Carnegie Hall in New York City on November 21, 1937, at age 50, he showed maturity as an artist. (Previous appearances in 1906 and 1919 were not successful). And America embraced him and loved him. It was the right time. During the Second World War, he moved his family from Paris to Beverly Hills, California. Rubinstein became a U.S. citizen in 1946. The Rubinsteins then moved to New York City in the 1950s.

He began touring the world and playing to appreciative audiences. By then Rubinstein was established and adored. On his return to his native Poland in 1958, after being absent 20 years, his concert in Warsaw had 10 encores. Chopin's Heroic Polonaise, opus 53, in A flat was a natural hit, precipitating the encores. He said that had a deep affection for Poland, his country of birth.

Rubinstein's discography is extensive, a total of 107 hours of music. Since he began to record for RCA Victor, in 1928, he has put out solos, concertos and chamber music works. The earlier recordings have been remastered and are now available on CDS.

Later Years

During the mid 1970s his eyesight deteriorated, and he retired from the stage at age 89 in May 1976, giving his last concert at London's Wigmore Hall, where he had first played nearly 70 years before. Toward the end of his life, in 1974, Rubinstein gave his name to a piano competition in Tel Aviv, Israel.  Arthur Rubinstein died quietly in his sleep in Geneva, Switzerland, on December 20, 1982. He was 95.

In accordance to his wishes, he was cremated. On the first anniversary of his death, an urn holding his ashes was buried in Jerusalem in a dedicated plot called the Arthur Rubinstein Panorama and also dubbed the “Rubinstein Forest” overlooking the Jerusalem Forest and Judean Hills.