Anton Grigoryevich Rubinstein (1829-1894)
Rubinstein was a child prodigy who toured Europe when he was ten. In his maturity, he was considered along with Liszt to be the world’s greatest pianist. Rubinstein established the conservatory system of music education in Russia. He was an arch-typical representative of the pan-European tradition in Russian music, as demonstrated by the staggering number of compositions that flowed from his pen.
Rubinstein came from a well-to-do Jewish family. Most Jews within the Russian Empire were not allowed to live outside the so called settlement zone (the “Pale of Settlement”), yet since Rubinstein’s father, a pencil manufacturer, was a merchant of the first guild (a businessman with substantial capital) the family was allowed to reside in Moscow. His paternal grandfather forced the entire family to convert to Christianity while Rubinstein was still a young child, no doubt to solidify its financial gains and social position. The composer had an uneasy relationship with his ethnic and religious heritage his entire life, as well as ambiguous feelings about many other things. He once said “Russians call me German, Germans call me Russian, Jews call me a Christian, Christians a Jew. Pianists call me a composer, composers call me a pianist. The classicists think me a futurist, and the futurists call me a reactionary. My conclusion is that I am neither fish nor fowl – a pitiful individual.”
He first studied piano with a French pianist, A. I. Villoing, who eventually took him on an extended tour of Europe in 1839-1843. He traveled though Germany, Austria, France and England, meeting Liszt, Chopin and Queen Victoria along the way. A highlight of his tour was a meeting with the Russian imperial family in the Netherlands.
Rubinstein lived in Berlin from 1844 to 1846, where he studied harmony and counterpoint with Siegfried Dehn, also Glinka’s instructor. Rubinstein toured Europe with enormous success in 1854. He established the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862 with the help of his patron, the Grand Duchess Yelena Pavlovna. He became its first artistic director as well as a professor of piano. One of his first students there was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with whom he maintained a stormy but very close relationship until Tchaikovsky’s death. Tchaikovsky considered him his mentor. Rubinstein resigned from the conservatory in 1867 and embarked on yet another tour of Europe. He crossed the United States during 1872 and 1873, giving over 200 concerts. Rubinstein was re-appointed director of the Conservatory in 1887. He died of a heart attack in 1894.
Rubinstein composed prolifically throughout his career. Yet his compositional output is largely forgotten. Out of 13 operas only one, The Demon, based on the poem by Mikhail Lermontov, survived in the repertoire. There are 6 symphonies and numerous compositions for piano. Rubinstein wrote the art songs throughout his career, yet very few of them achieved popularity and success. Some of these works, Pushkin’s Night for example, were originally conceived as solo piano pieces and only later “fitted” to poetry. Many of his songs were originally written in German, including The Persian Songs, a song cycle on the Friedrich von Bodenstedt’s (1819-1892) translation’s of Azerbaijani poet of Mirzə Şəfi Vazeh (1794-1852). These songs became quite popular in Russian translation by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovksy.