Arthur Rubinstein1 (28 January, 1887-20 December, 1982) was a talented pianist, recording artist and author whose fame spanned the globe. His autobiography2 is rich with anecdotes and this Entry aims to give a flavour of his life as he saw it.
I have noticed through experience and through my own observations that Providence, Nature, God or what I would call the Power of Creation seems to favour human beings who accept and love life unconditionally. And I am certainly one who does, with all my heart. So I have discovered as a result of what I can only call miracles that whenever my inner self desires something subconsciously, life will somehow grant it to me.3
Arthur Rubinstein was the youngest of his parents' seven children and he was born in Lodz, a Jewish settlement in Poland. He first encountered a piano at the age of three, when one of his sisters started taking lessons. He quickly learned to play by ear, but turned the pages of the sheet music to pretend he was reading the notes.
His father had hoped to send his son to study with the composer Anton Rubinstein at the Imperial Conservatory in Moscow, but his namesake (no relation) died when Arthur was seven. Instead, Arthur attended a local school and took piano lessons at home. He made his concert debut at the age of eight, at a local charity event.
Backed by sponsors, he went to Berlin when he was about 10 years old and immersed himself in modern music by Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Richard Strauss, among others, as well as developing a fascination with Brahms' work. He found he had a great talent for languages and adored philosophy. On the other hand, he was not at all interested in mathematics and had no aptitude for it, so was never entered to take his High School examinations because his tutor knew he would fail.
He thought his early concerts were extremely successful, because people were amazed by his skills as a child prodigy, but they were less well received after he turned 14, when he was allowed to wear long trousers and began to be viewed as an adult. He decided to leave his tutors and the support of his sponsors and take his future into his own hands.
Part of his problem at that time was because of love. He became involved in a relationship with his landlady but was also in love with Basia, the sister of his friend Frederic Harman, a composer.
As a result, he spent much time with the Harmans and soon started an affair with Frederic's mother Magdalena. On several occasions, he met Frederic's other sister Pola and eventually fell in love with her, too. She was married with children, so when the news of their relationship leaked out, there was a scandal and her husband sent Arthur a threatening letter. In response, Arthur challenged him to a duel. A doctor was summoned, pistols selected and they paced out the distance. Pola's husband was given one last chance to withdraw the threat and he agreed, to everyone's relief.
The event was reported in newspapers and subsequently made Arthur's concerts more successful, because everyone wanted to see the pianist who had caused so much trouble.
In Berlin, after the scandal had died down, Arthur had no concerts arranged and began to run out of money so he wrote to a friend asking for help. He attended free concerts while waiting for a response, and hardly ate anything as he had so little money for food. Most of his time was spent sleeping, when he enjoyed vivid and exciting dreams, much better than the misery of his waking hours.
After two weeks without receiving a reply4, he was struggling to survive and decided on suicide. He used his dressing gown belt as a noose and stood on a chair in his bathroom, but as he fell the belt broke, so he landed alive on the floor. After crying for a while, Arthur sat at his piano and played until the music soothed him and he saw the world in a new way. From that moment on, he resolved to 'love life unconditionally'.
During the interval of a concert in 1926, Arthur met two of the daughters of Emil Mlynarski, the Polish conductor. Arthur instantly fell in love with Nela and knew he wanted to marry her, even though he was 39, she was just 18, and he never thought he would ever want to make such a commitment. To demonstrate his worth to her, he decided to earn a million francs before proposing.
The easiest way he could earn money was to tour South America. Unlike in the past, when he spent all his income on luxurious hotels, fine food and extravagant gifts, he lived frugally, saving as much of his earnings as he could. He was halfway to his target when the news reached him that Nela had married someone else. In despair, he travelled to Paris, went to a casino, and gambled away all of the 500,000 francs he had collected.
In 1931, he toured Poland and attended other concerts in between his own engagements. At one recital he met Nela, there without her husband. They sat together during the performance, then went dancing, and when Arthur escorted her to her parents' apartment, they kissed. Nela invited him to join her and her friends on holiday in a ski resort for the New Year and Arthur agreed, even though he had never learned to ski. Apart from one accident on the slopes, he enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with her.
Nela was granted a divorce in 1932 and travelled with Arthur to London for their wedding, because divorcées were made to wait longer in Poland or France before being allowed to remarry. In spite of the troubled start to their relationship, they were married for the rest of his life and had four children. His womanising ways never quite left him, though - in the late 1970s he left Nela and spent his final years with Annabelle Whitestone, a concert promoter who was also working as his secretary.
Arthur managed to avoid military service in Poland by obtaining medical exemptions from friendly doctors (and occasionally lying about his age when travelling abroad) but when war was declared in 1914, he wanted to enlist in the army. However, the military officer he approached refused to allow him to join up, because he had heard Arthur's musical talents and knew that fighting would have been bad for his hands. Instead, Arthur took a job translating letters. He continued to travel around the world giving concerts to help boost allied countries' morale, as he thought few other musicians were willing to give concerts under those circumstances.
In World War II, because of antisemitism in France, Arthur and his family fled to America, leaving all his beloved books and music scores behind. He was then too old for military service, but supported the war effort by giving concerts across the USA, Canada and South America, in venues of various sizes including the Hollywood Bowl. He eventually returned to his house in France and his hometown in Poland, and discovered that most of his remaining family had perished in the holocaust (his parents had died in the 1920s).
HealthArthur enjoyed relatively good health during his long life and had a reputation for being reliable. For example, he once trapped his thumb between two of the piano keys during a recital and the wound bled profusely, but he finished the piece before leaving the stage for treatment. On his return, he felt that the audience applauded him with extra enthusiasm as they had seen all the blood and thought he would be unable to continue playing. He hardly ever cancelled a concert, even when he felt unwell, because once he started playing the piano, the music usually restored him.
He retired in 1976 only because he developed age-related macular degeneration (AMD)5 and had reached the point where he was unable to see well enough to do justice to the pieces he was playing. His final concert took place in Wigmore Hall, London, which was where he made his London debut more than 60 years earlier.
The AMD meant that he was also unable to read any of the books in his huge collection, so instead he listened to the radio and to gramophone records, which he thoroughly enjoyed as he had had relatively little time to hear other artistes' performances when he had been busy touring and performing himself. At the age of 92 he was still 'the happiest man I have ever known'6. He died three years later.
His Music and Legacy
While not always technically perfect7, Arthur's aim was to play pieces with feeling, and as close as he could make them to the spirit intended by the composer. He believed he played best when filled with emotion, pouring his heart into the music.
He enjoyed travelling, and never liked to stay in one place for a long time, so he willingly took part in concert tours at venues around the world including Australia, Japan, South Africa and Israel. However, he did claim the record for the greatest number of concerts in one town in one year by playing 21 times in Warsaw during 1908.
In Spain in 1916 he met Rosina, the widow of the composer Isaac Albéniz. He had toured Spain before, but avoided Spanish pieces in case he played with a 'foreign accent'. After playing for Rosina and discussing Albéniz's style with her, he saw himself as an excellent interpreter of Spanish music.
Initially unimpressed by the new recording technology, Arthur refused to play on early records but he did make some rolls for pianolas - pianos that played by themselves. Some years later, one of his friends persuaded him to do a test recording, and Arthur found he was pleased with the results so agreed to a contract. By the time he retired, he had made over 200 recordings, including most of Chopin's pieces and much of Brahms' work. He played more conscientiously in the studio than in a concert hall, as any mistakes or missed notes would be permanently registered, but he still aimed to retain a spark of inspiration.
In later years, he was involved with more new technology - cinema and television. He played on the soundtrack of a film about Carnegie Hall and appeared in two television programmes discussing his music and home life. Some of his concerts were also filmed, but he generally made sure to approve everything that was released, only allowing the least flawed pieces to be issued for all to hear. However, his 1975 concert in aid of Israel was released without his authorisation and with all its imperfections and passion intact.
It took him 25 years to complete My Young Years, the first volume of his autobiography, but it was on the bestseller list for three months, and he had to dictate his memories for his second book, My Many Years, because his eyesight was too poor for him to write them down himself. His name lives on through the Arthur Rubinstein Competition, held every three years since 1974 in Israel, but his great character lives on through these books. Through turbulent relationships, financial hardship and prosperous times, he loved life unconditionally.