the Jews I'm a Christian, to the Christians a Jew; to the Russians I'm a German,
to the Germans a Russian; to the classicists I'm an innovator, to the innovators
I'm a reactionary, and so on. Conclusion: neither fish nor fowl, a pathetic
declines from adoration and respect have been as spectacular as that of the
composer and pianist Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894). From his modest beginnings
in a family of merchants and part-time smugglers in remote Berdichev (now
in the Ukraine), he became the first pianist who could be said to have conquered
the world – not only Europe but also America in his triumphant if exhausting
tour in the 1880s. His leonine countenance, which caused Liszt to nickname
him 'Ludwig II' (after Beethoven), and his fiery temperament, made him the
very model of a piano virtuoso in the decades after Liszt himself retired
from the concert platform after 1848. His operas, symphonies and concertos
were performed to acclaim. Until his death he remained an unfailing draw for
the concert-going public. But nowadays we remember only his Melody in F, and
even that as a Palm Court joke; or else he is confused with the pianist Arthur
Rubinstein (no relation).
profile by the way is still perfectly preserved in the face of his great-grandson
the conductor Anton Sharoyev, whom I had the pleasure of meeting during the
events in St. Petersburg celebrating the 175th anniversary of the composer's
birth. Mr Sharoyev is understandably devoted to his ancestor and has even
conducted and recorded a goodly chunk of what Rubinstein considered one of
his masterworks, the religious opera Christus (1888). Rubinstein himself would
perhaps contemplate the near extinction of his musical legacy with the sardonic
philosophical resignation displayed by the quotation prefacing this article.
fact his greatest contribution to music still survives, although his name
has been rudely stripped from it. It is the St. Petersburg Conservatoire itself.
Anton, and his pianist brother Nikolai, who founded the Moscow Conservatoire,
by their dedication to musical education transformed Russian music, until
then largely dominated by the enormous but dissipated and rather xenophobic
talents of Borodin, Mussorgsky and Balakirev. Anton, at the age of 12, had
been made to forgo the chance of studying at the Paris Conservatoire, at the
time the only state music school in the world open to pupils entirely on the
basis of their musical talent. Having had to survive near-starvation before
he could forge his fame and career, Anton was determined to establish similar
foundations in Russia and against all the odds, he and his brother succeeded.
Every single great name in Russian music since then, from Tchaikovsky onwards,
has owed a debt to their vision, even though the Russian regime of the 1940s
renamed the St. Petersburg institution after Rimsky-Korsakov and the Moscow
one after Tchaikovsky himself. Anton and Nikolai between them undoubtedly
transformed the history of Russian music, virtually double-handed.
opera The Demon still appears on Russian stages, and some of his pleasantly
Mendelssohnian chamber music is (theoretically) available on recent recordings,
but opportunities of hearing his music live remain scarce even in his home
country, so two concerts arranged to celebrate his anniversary offered a rare
opportunity for evaluation.
a complete performance of the oratorio Das verlorene Paradies ('Paradise Lost'),
was certainly a bold step. This work, completely unknown to modern ears, was
written when the composer was 28 and is the first in a line of Biblical works
which extended through his life, all to German libretti, all equally forgotten.
First performed under the baton of Franz Liszt in Weimar in 1858, it is scored
for massive forces – double choir (for the Heavenly Host and the Rebel
Angels), huge orchestra and soloists. My attendance, which I initially feared
might be a call of duty, turned out to be a pleasure, albeit slightly qualified.
music is basically Mendelssohn plus some chromatic harmony, with the odd touches
here and there of Berlioz, Meyerbeer, and Liszt. There is plenty of variety
and colour – but there is an absence of hummable melodies you can take
away with you. Partly this is because none of the solo roles – God,
Satan, Adam or Eve – have much in the way of arias, expressing themselves
largely through accompanied recitatives. Although Satan, boldly – indeed,
brazenly - sung by Evgeny Ulanov (bass) certainly had the best part, far more
interesting than the rather smug and self-satisfied lines of God (Mikhail
Aleksandrov, baritone), he cannot therefore be said to have the best tunes.
The Heavenly Host, similarly, have nothing much more to do than to say how
wonderful God is, whereas at least the inhabitants of Hell can indulge in
some high-power wailing, moaning and threats of revenge. The choral writing
in these passages is highly enjoyable: the inventive orchestration and harmony,
especially during the Creation passages, compare not unfavourably with Haydn's
benchmark efforts in this sphere. Overall therefore, to adapt Dr Johnson,
worth hearing but perhaps not worth going to hear. But it is no worse than
many other works by more famous names which are revived only on the strength
of their reputations, and which seem to crop up fairly regularly in the concert
hall – for example, Dvorák's deeply boring Te Deum.
the concert given by the Conservatoire's own orchestra, once again the honours
went to the dark forces, in this case to the first movement of Rubinstein's
tumultuous Fourth Piano Concerto (soloist Pavel Raikerus), and to an excerpt
from the opera The Demon, with Vladimir Stepanov singing the title role and
the statuesque Veronica Dzhoieva as his annoyingly virtuous inamorata, Tamara,
in an electric confrontation. The concerto, which a hundred years was a concert-hall
regular, really deserves resurrection – it has all the melodic and virtuosic
qualities of Rachmaninoff, without any of his musical incompetence. I wish
I could argue for a similar resuscitation in the West of The Demon, but for
all its excellent parts, as a whole the opera founders on its religiously
sentimental book – rather, in fact, as does Das verlorene Paradies.
I am pleased to report that the concert also included the egregious Melody
in F, in a highly appropriate arrangement for string orchestra and trombone
quartet. This great institution was prepared to salute all aspects of its
titanic founder, from the sublime to the (almost) ridiculous.
(1) Commentaries about
the concerts celebrated in St. Petersburg (November/2004)
* Anton Rubinstein: Das verlorene Paradies (Paradise Lost - text after John
Milton) St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra conductor Nikolai Kornyev
Philharmonic Hall, St. Petersburg 16th November 2004
* Anton Rubinstein
Celebration Concert Glazunov Hall, St. Petersburg Conservatoire 18th November
want today to briefly consider how Rubinstein's early contacts in his career
may have reflected or been connected with his Jewish origins.
We must first consider to what extent, if at all, Rubinstein may be considered
as Jewish. He at no time practised the Jewish religion. 1n 1831, when Anton
was 2 years old, and following anti-Jewish disturbances in the region of his
birth, his grandfather arranged for all the family to be converted to the
Russian Orthodox Church, so presumably Anton's parents were marred in synagogue
- although I know of no documentary evidence for this.
And yet, Anton Rubenstein was very conscious of his 'otherness'.
Not least, we can note that Rubinstein's early career was closely linked with
other musicians of Jewish origin, who influenced or supported him, and with
many of whom he formed friendships or alliances which lasted for many years
after their first meetings.
There is nothing in fact very surprising about this if one considers two important
socio-economic factors of the period. One is the dramatic expansion of music
as an industry in the first half of the nineteenth century, with an explosion
of demand for entertainment, operas, pianos, sheet music and everything musical
from the growing and increasingly wealthy urban bourgeois of Western Europe.
The other is that following the Napoleonic Wars and the end of the ghettoes
in Western Europe, Jews were now free to adopt careers in areas which had
previously been closed to them. Up to the end of the eighteenth century, the
patrons of music had been the aristocracy and the church, and Jews had no
access to musical education. Now all that had changed. Jewish families who
had reached a certain social level, like Rubinstein's family, were able to
educate their children to with all the social graces. Those who had aptitude
in music were then able to find careers in the new dynamic music industry.
And, like the Jewish traders in Europe for the past few centuries, they naturally
called upon fellow Jews in the cities they visited to assist them.
An illustration of this process is in the archives of the Glinka State Central
Museum of Musical Culture in Moscow, a few square centimetres of white pasteboard,
on the front of which is printed just the two words `Giacomo Meyerbeer'. On
the back the composer has written in pencil in French,
Monsieur Rubinstein, a young pianist of great talent, requests the honour
of paying his respects to Miss Jenny Lind.
This tiny document links three of the greatest names in 19th century music.
It is undated but must I think date from January 1845 when all three were
in Berlin while Meyerbeer was rehearsing Lind in Weber's `Euryanthe'.
It is a very typical gesture of Meyerbeer to help the unknown 15 year old
to such an important introduction. In the 1840s Meyerbeer's influence on the
musical world was enormous and based on the sensational successes of his operas
`Robert le Diable' and `Les Huguenots' and the hopes for his long-awaited
`Le Prophète'. And yet he consistently made himself available to young
talents, Jewish and non-Jewish, and his diaries and notebooks are full of
meetings and introductions. His help was not only given to musicians, by the
way - amongst the recipients of his generosity was Karl Marx for his magazine
But to Anton Rubinstein and his brother Nikolai, Meyerbeer paid particular
attention. In 1845/6, following Anton's second concert tour and at the proposal
of their formidable mother Klara, who took advice form Mendelsohn and Meyerbeer
the brothers undertook musical studies at Berlin to develop their careers.
One of the results of this period of study was a testimonial by Meyerbeer
to the brothers' abilities, which is also preserved at the Glinka Museum.
Dated 23rd March 1846, it notes how well they have studied under the theorist
Dehn for 15 months and accurately foresees for them
a glittering musical future which will bring great honour to their Russian
fatherland [...] It is greatly to be regretted that their financial circumstances
do not allow them to study a further 6 months under Herr Dehn [….] It
is greatly to be hoped that these young and talented artists will find in
their Fatherland a patron who will provide them with the means of extending
their studies […]
No doubt Klara Rubinstein was hoping that perhaps Meyerbeer himself would
come up with the necessary money: if so she was disappointed. The Rubinsteins
risked extreme poverty until Anton found favour with the Grand Duchess Elena
Pavlovna on his return to Russia in 1849. Nonetheless Rubinstein remembered
Meyerbeer in a number of musical arrangements - indeed one of his first works
to be written in Russia was the `Duo Concertante' for violin and piano, written
jointly with the virtuoso Henri Vieuxtemps, on themes from the opera `Le Prophète'
Although we lack documentation about them, Rubinstein's contacts with Mendelssohn
were of greater significance to his musical development. Echoes of Mendelssohn
abound in Anton's piano music and chamber music, and the example of `Elijah'
and `St. Paul' were certainly in his mind in composing his biblical operas.
Rubinstein, who had played Mendelssohn's music since his childhood, had met
with the composer during his first European tour, and would have absorbed
the Mendelssohnian tastes and style still further during his Sunday afternoon
visits to the composer during his Berlin studies. Throughout his life Rubinstein
included music by Mendelssohn in his concerts, especially the `Songs Without
Mendelssohn like Meyerbeer came from an élite and wealthy Jewish background.
But many of the Jewish musicians with whom Anton came into contact were from
much more modest backgrounds, like his own. One of these was the pianist and
composer, and close friend of Mendelssohn, Ignaz Moscheles, born in 1794 and
like, Anton, having been forced to make his own way when his parents' finances
had failed. Moscheles heard Anton during his London concerts in 1842, when
This Russian boy has fingers light as feathers, and with them the strength
of a man.
Later, in 1856, when Moscheles was director of the Conservatoire in Leipzig,
Rubinstein conducted there a performance of his `Ocean' Symphony. Moscheles
was not convinced:
The boisterous elements became so incomprehensible that my thoughts could
find no anchorage in their unfathomable depths. I fully recognise however
in Rubinstein a pre-eminent talent for composition […] I delight in
his simplicity and sincerity; he is always a welcome visitor at our house.
The friendship of Moscheles and Rubinstein extended to the next generation.
Moscheles died in 1870. In 1881 Julius Rodenberg writes to Ferdinand Hiller:
On my last evening in London at a soirée of Rubinstein I met with young
Moscheles [i.e. Felix , the son of Ignaz] and his wife, both known to me from
This little extract shows how close were the circles of acquaintance involved.
Rodenberg, who was born Julius Levi in 1831, was the librettist for Rubinstein's
biblical operas. Rubinstein had met him in London in 1858. He was a reasonable
poet, (having translated all the Psalms into German), but was significantly
also an influential publisher, having founded in 1874 the `Deutscher Rundschau',
the leading German cultural magazine of its time.
Ferdinand Hiller, like Moscheles and Rubinstein, was also born to a Jewish
merchant family, in 1811. He is now entirely forgotten as a composer and perhaps
only remembered as the dedicatee of Schumann's Piano Concerto. But he knew
everybody; he was a childhood friend of Mendelssohn, he saw Beethoven on his
deathbed, he was friendly with Berlioz, Chopin, Liszt, Meyerbeer and Halévy
in Paris of the 1830s, he argued with Wagner in Dresden in the 1840s, and
from 1850 was the Kapellmeister in Köln. He left behind a vast archive
of diaries and correspondence which is invaluable for 19th century musical
There are many references to Rubinstein throughout this archive. The two met
in Rotterdam in 1854, where Liszt was also present. Rubinstein spent two weeks
with Hiller in Feburary 1855, leaving in a rage after a misunderstanding.
In 1857, Ferdinand David writes to Hiller about Rubinstein's latest compositions,
which, apart from the piano trio, he does not rate very highly. And so on.
In 1869 /1870 Hiller undertook a concert tour to St. Petersburg where he met
again with Rubinstein as well as with Serov, Davidoff and others. In 1872
Hiller's friend Therese Hoffmann, the wife of the creator of the famous children's
book `Struwwelpeter', gives a rare critical view of Rubinstein's personality:
I can't understand why hearts fall for him. The base and bitter Slavic form
of his mouth: and the coarse peacock pride he continually expresses. In short,
at the first glance I was half against him; after the first eight bars of
his piano trio, completely so […]
There are many other Jewish figures who can be said to have played an important
part in Rubinstein's artistic development. His first publisher, Schlesinger,
who issued his piano piece `Undine' in Berlin, was closely linked with Meyerbeer:
Maurice Schlesinger, who ran the firm's branch in Paris, also published the
leading musical magazine there, the `Révue et Gazette Musicale'. Then
there is the great French actress, Rachel, for whom Rubinstein felt such a
passion during her visit to St. Petersburg in 1853/54. And let us not forget
Alkan, to whom Rubinstein dedicated his 5th Piano Concerto and who often mentions
Rubinstein in his correspondence with Hiller.
I have already quoted Rubinstein's doubts about his identity - he continued
them by writing:
....The classicists think me a futurist, and the futurists call me a reactionary.
Conclusion: neither fish nor fowl, a pathetic individual
On his 175th birthday, I think that we can all agree that he was being far
too harsh in his self-assessment. What I hope to have suggested here is that
whilst Rubinstein's Jewish origins may not be `important' in any musical sense,
they did help to shape his career and his network of contacts, and that in
this he also showed characteristics shared by many other musicians of similar
origin who were taking the opportunity, for the first time, to venture into
the world of the arts. This perspective of the social history of music is
just one additional way of considering this most remarkable of musicians.
from a talk given at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire in November 2004, during
celebrations of the composer's 175th birthday.