Saturday, February 12, 2000
F A C T   F I L E

Artur Rubinstein
By Illa Vij

A gypsy at heart

WORLD-famous pianist Artur Rubinstein gave his first public performance at a charity concert, at the age of four. "At the age of 80, when most people have long retired, his enthusiasm continued to grow. Even at that age, he mused: "At every concert I want to risk, to dare. I want to be surprised by what comes out. I want to enjoy it more than the audience. That way music can bloom anew." Rubinstein became famous for his interpretations of music by Fredrick Chopin. He excelled in French impressionistic and modern Spanish music. When he was more than 80, he could perform in eight major concerts within a period of eight days.

Artur was born in 1886 (some sources say 1887) in a poor industrial town of Lodz in Poland. His father owned a factory. He studied in Berlin and Warsaw. At the age of 11, he played Mozart’s concertos, with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra.

  In 1906, Rubinstein made a tour of the USA but since he played more with enthusiasm than with accuracy, his performance was declared a flop. Dejected he returned to Europe, and spent the next four years in despair. He even tried to commit suicide but the frayed belt that he used gave way. When he went out on the street he realised how foolish he had been. The people, the flowers and the very fact that he could walk, see, speak — all gave him a sudden desire to live. He learned that happiness is not merely smiling or having money or good health, although they are conditions worth having. He felt that happiness is only living, taking life on its own terms.

Finally Rubinstein went to London and became a favourite with the masses. He took a tour of Latin America. In Mexico, his admirers carried him through the streets on their shoulders. By 1920, Rubinstein was a rich man with a fine reputation. His companions included the dukes, princesses and Picasso. He even cultivated a taste for rare books, rich food and expressionist paintings. In 1925, when he was 39 years old he met 17-year-old Aniela. They got married in 1932. Artur knew that there was still much to learn, much to practice before he could feel contented. He took his family to south-eastern France. There he rented an old piano and began his rigorous schedule of playing it — often by candle-light. At the age of 50 when he toured America everyone clamoured for him. He moved to Hollywood and became very popular. He held numerous concerts, sold over 5 millions copies of his albums. He earned more money and attracted a wider population than any classical instrumentalist did during his time. At the age of four, he had distributed visiting cards that stated: Artur The Great Piano Virtuso. The visiting card was truly prophetic. Artur died in 1982, leaving behind the audience that never got tired of him, that clamoured for more and more. He wrote two autobiographies — My Young Years and My Many Years.


A gypsy at heart

THE seventh and youngest child in the family, he remembers at the age of one hearing his sisters practise piano, and wanting to play himself

He had a phenomenal memory and learned quickly. Later, he said, "When I was young, I was lazy. I had talent, but there were many things in life more important than practising. Good food, good cigars, great wines, women…"

Rubinstein went on to say that audiences in England and America felt cheated: "….because they paid their money they were entitled to hear all of the notes. I dropped many notes in those days, maybe 30 per cent."

In the 1930s he engaged in a period of soul-searching, and began working intensively, adding discipline to temperament, technique and colour. "Now I work," he said later, "but at heart I am still a gypsy. Music is in myblood, and it is more important to me than my piano-playing." Piano playing is a dangerous life. If you don’t lose five pounds and 10 drops of blood, you haven’t played a concert!"

During his long life Rubinstein met many of the world’s most famous musicians: Paderewski, Ravel, Stravinsky, and many others

He championed the music of Debussy and Ravel when it was new, ofAlbeniz and Manuel de Falla, of his friend and compatriot Szymanowski. In South America Rubinstein discovered Villa-Lobos and added his music to his repertoire. Even so, Rubinstein is most often associated with the music of Chopin, which he played without the overt sentimentality popular in the early years of this century.

Artur Rubinstein played his last concert in June, 1976. He was 89 years old.