Meeting Anton Rubinstein in Dresden

Anton Rubinstein lived and composed in St. Petersburg and in Dresden. © Charles Thibo
Anton Rubinstein lived and composed in St. Petersburg and in Dresden. © Charles Thibo

Those Russians! They are incredible. Incredibly in many respects, but especially when it comes to piano music. Enters the stage Anton Rubinstein. Born in 1829, he gave his first public concert barely ten years old: In Moscow he played pieces composed by Johann Nepomuk Hummel and Franz Liszt.  He had taken piano lessons with his mother initially, than with a personal teacher and composed his first piece at the age of five. As a child virtuoso he travelled to Paris, where he met Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt and participated in a concert at the prestigious Salle Pleyel in 1841. His journey took him to the Netherlands, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Poland and Germany.

In 1844 his parents settled down in Berlin, where Anton underwent training in counterpoint and met Felix Mendelssohn, of Jewish origin like the Rubinsteins. Over the years, he would become an acclaimed pianist, composer and conductor touring Europe and the United States and giving giant concerts lasting up to four hours. In 1857, the French composer Camille de Saint-Saëns attended a concert given by Rubinstein and summed up: “If Liszt is an eagle, Rubinstein is a lion. Those who have seen the soft paw of this wild animal descending on the keyboard with a powerful stroke, will never forget this experience!”

Founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory

I stumbled over the name of Rubinstein when I delved into a pile of books about Russian music and the different composers having influenced Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Anton Rubinstein was Tchaikovsky’s teacher in St. Petersburg and was greatly admired by young Pyotr. Nikolai Rubinstein, Anton’s brother, gave Tchaikovsky his first teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory and remained a lifelong friend.

Anton Rubinstein’s importance can’t be underestimated. He gave an important impulse to the professionalization of Russia’s music education. With the backing of his patron, the Russian Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, he helped establishing the Russian Music Society in 1859 and the St. Petersburg Conservatory in 1862, the first of its kind in Russia. Unsurprisingly, Rubinstein became its first director. In 1867, he left St. Petersburg and embarked on a successful tour as a pianist in Western Europe which lasted some 20 years. Parallel to this career, he composed a vast number of pieces: operas, oratorios, symphonies, choral works, piano, violin and cello concertos and chamber music.

Despite his achievements, he remained a controversial person in Russia during his lifetime. He met the opposition of the “Mighty Five”, a group of composers that set out to write purely Russian music and despised both his German-Jewish origin and his ideas on music teaching. At the center of the dispute was the question whether composers should get a solid musical education (in a conservatory) or whether amateurism would be more likely to stimulate creativity, as the “Mighty Five argued. It looks like at least this question has been settled by now and Rubinstein’s position has been vindicated.

Artist in residence in Dresden

The one piece that I would like to highlight today, is the piano cycle “Souvenir de Dresde”, Op. 118, written in 1894, the year of his death. Rubinstein stayed in the German town of Dresden on several occasions and had an official residence there in 1893/94. However, since his health was deteriorating, he moved to his estate close to St. Petersburg on the shore of the Baltic Sea, and that is where he composed the piano cycle. It relates the nostalgia that he felt for Dresden, a town intimately linked to his life. The general director of the Saxonian Royal Theatre, Otto von Koenneritz, was one of Rubinstein’s longtime supporters and promoted the premiere of Rubinstein’s opera “Feramors” in Dresden in 1863. Rubinstein’s music opened the door to the Russian music style to the public in Saxony and exposed it to a different style of composing and instrumentation. The composer met considerable success in the town and had many of his works performed in Dresden.

Op. 118 strikes me because of the remarkable beauty of some of the six pieces, like No. 4 Caprice and No. 6 Polonaise, a synthesis of Liszt, Mendelssohn and Chopin. Rubinstein dedicated No. 6 to his pupil Josef Hofmann, who would later become a famous pianist himself. The recording I have has been published by the label Naxos and features the American pianist Joseph Banowetz, who has recorded all of Rubinstein’s piano works and has served on the jury of the Arthur Rubinstein Master Piano Competition (Israel).

© Charles Thibo

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