By Ted Rajchel
Arthur Rubinstein received international acclaim for his performances of the music written by a variety of composers. He was described by the New York Times as one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century. He was also regarded by many as the greatest Chopin interpreter of the 20th Century. He played in public for eight decades.
Born Arthur Rubinstein, January 28, 1887, in Lodz, Poland to a Jewish family, he was the youngest of seven children, the son of Ignace (a factory owner) and Felicia Heyman Rubinstein. He began playing the piano at the age of three and made his first public performance when he was just seven. At the age of two Rubinstein demonstrated perfect pitch and a fascination with the piano, matching his elder sister’s piano lessons. By the age of four, he was recognized as a child prodigy. The Hungarian violinist, Joseph Joachim, on hearing the four-year-old child play, was greatly impressed, telling Arthur’s family, “This boy may become a very great musician. He certainly has the talent for it. When the time comes for serious study, bring him to me, and I shall be glad to supervise his artistic education.” On December 14, 1894, seven-year-old Arthur Rubinstein had his debut with pieces by Mozart, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. At the age of ten, he moved to Berlin to continue his studies and gave his first performance with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1900, at the age of thirteen. Joseph Joachim recommended Karl Heinrich Barth as the boy’s piano teacher. Barth was himself a pupil of Liszt, who had in turn been a pupil of Beethoven. He studied piano with Karl Heinrich Bath and music theory and composition with Max Bruch and Robert Kahn in Berlin, beginning in 1894. Rubinstein’s pianism was of the Romantic school of the first half of the 20th Century, a style that infused the music with drama and emotion, a style that eventually fell out of favor. Rubinstein was in a class by himself. He performed most of the repertory popular in mid-century: The music of Chopin, whose work was his specialty, Rachmaninoff, Schuman, and Brahms. He was also the performer to champion Spanish music.
American Debut at Carnegie Hall
His official United States debut was at Carnegie Hall in New York City in 1906. He was not well received. In 1932 he married Aniela Mlynarski, who was nearly half his age. Their relationship inspired him to settle down and take himself seriously as an artist. After the birth of their first child, Rubinstein began practicing from 12 to 16 hours per day. In 1937 he returned to Carnegie Hall. This time audiences embraced him. He was heralded as a genius for his interpretation of Chopin’s work, which critics saw as a creative revolution.
As World War II began, Rubinstein moved his family to Los Angeles, California. In 1946 he became an American citizen. He toured to the world, and his performances in Warsaw garnered a unanimous ovation, the second ever in Polish history. Rubinstein lost his family in Lodz, Poland during the war. While in
California, Rubinstein provided the piano soundtrack for many films, including “Song of Love” with Katherine Hepburn. He appeared as himself in the films ”Carnegie Hall” and “Of Men and Music”. In 1969 Arthur Rubinstein’s “The Love of Life” was released. It won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. A TV special, “Rubinstein at 90”, indicated that he had been playing for people for eight decades.
Throughout his life, Rubinstein was deeply attached to Poland. At the inauguration of the United Nations in 1945, Rubinstein showed his Polish patriotism at a concert for the delegates. He began the concert by stating his deep disappointment that the conference did not have a delegation from Poland. Rubinstein later described becoming overwhelmed by a blind fury and angrily pointing out to the public the absence of the Polish flag. He then sat down at the piano and played the Polish National Anthem loudly and slowly, repeating the final part in a great thunderous forte. When he had finished, the public rose to their feet and gave him a great ovation.
Rubinstein was active in supporting charities throughout his life. He performed charity concerts to raise donations for numerous organizations, which interested him. In 1961 he performed ten recitals in Carnegie Hall to raise roughly $100,000 for charities including Big Brothers, United Jewish Appeal, Polish Assistance, Musicians Emergency Fund, The National Association for Mental Health, and the Legal Defense Fund of the National Advancement of Colored People.
Chopin Music A Specialty
When Rubinstein plays Chopin, you are carried away into another world, of course. There was an image as well as musical reality. He confessed to a special love for Chopin. He recorded virtually all of Chopin, and even though his plans for the complete etudes were never realized, his sets of the Mazurkas, Polonaises, Nocturnes, and Scherzos of 1930-1939 are beyond price, a legacy where patrician elegance combines with a heroic virtuosity—and an endearing touch of recklessness—to confirm Rubinstein an arguably the greatest of all Chopin pianists. Chopin was a force of nature for Rubinstein, a man of fire and ice, a fellow patriot who wrote the tragic history of Poland in music. He turned more and more to Chopin, his fellow Pole, whose compositions of delicate expression called for an artist who could make the piano breathe. Rubinstein toured the world—North Africa, China, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, and Europe. He was fluent in eight languages. In 1958 he returned to Warsaw after an absence of 20 years. The audience cheered and applauded and brought him back from the wings 10 times after he played Chopin’s “Polonaise in A Flat”. “He is considered on all levels a great pianist and a great Pole,” An American in Warsaw reported recently.” The Poles pay him the great compliment of considering him one of theirs.
Idolized All Over the World
Mr. Rubinstein’s place is assured as one of the Titans. With his remarkable technique, golden tone, and
Musical logic, with his natural unforced and unflurried style, he was unique—as indeed, every great artist is! What Mr. Rubinstein offered, above all others, was the ability to transmit the joy of music. “I have found that if you love life, life will love you back.” “People are always setting conditions for happiness…I love life without condition.” Rubinstein once noted “it is simply my life–music. I live it, breathe it, talk with it, I am almost unconscious of it. No, I do not mean I take it for granted—one should never take for granted any of the gifts of God, but it is like an arm, leg, part of me. On the other hand, books and paintings and languages and people are passions with me, always to be cultivated. Travel too. I am a lucky man to have a business which allows me to be on the road so much–on the train, the plane, and to have time to read. I am a lucky man to be a pianist. A splendid instrument, the piano, just the right size so that you cannot take it with you. Instead of practicing, I can read. A fortunate fellow, am not?” His American audience had a chance to enjoy Rubinstein, the man, and the musician once more when he was interviewed on a 90-minute television special, as part of the “Great Performances” series entitled “Rubinstein at 90.”
Arthur Rubinstein died in his sleep at his home in Geneva, Switzerland on December 20, 1982, at the age of 95. His body was cremated. On the first anniversary of his death, an urn holding his ashes was buried in Jerusalem—as specified in his will—in a dedicated plot now dubbed “Rubinstein Forest”—overlooking the Jerusalem Forest.
Honors and Awards Received
During his lifetime, he received the following honors and awards: The Sonning Award in 1971 from Denmark, on April 1, 1978, the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Gerald Ford, in 1977 he was made an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE); he received the Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour. In 1978 he received the Kennedy Center Honors. From Poland, he received officer’s Cross (Krzys Oficerski) of the Order of Polonia Restituta and from Italy, Commander of the Merit of the Italian Republic and member of the Civil Order of Alfonso X, the Wise, and Officer of the Order of Leopold of Belgium. He was voted into Gramophone’s Hall of Fame in 2012.
1. Arthur Rubinstein Biography
3. Arthur Rubinstein—The Greatest Chopin Pianist on Record?
4. Arthur Rubinstein—Wikipedia
5. Arthur Rubinstein Dies in Geneva at 95