Courtesy: David Conway (1)
“To 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 individual.”
Few 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).
Rubinstein’s 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.
In 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.
Rubinstein’s 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.
Programming 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.
The 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.
At 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 2004
Networking Rubinstein (2)
….I 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 `Vorwärts’.
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 Words’.
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 he wrote
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 Berlin.
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 history.
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.
(2) Extracts from a talk given at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire in November 2004, during celebrations of the composer’s 175th birthday.