Anton Grigorevich Rubinstein (November 28, 1829 – November 20, 1894) was a Russian pianist, composer and conductor who was a pivotal figure in Russian musical culture. Rubinstein was born to Jewish parents in the village of Vikhvatinets in the district of Podolsk, Russia, now known as Ofatinţi in Transnistria, Republic of Moldova, on the Dniestr River, about 150 kilometers northwest of Odessa. Before he was 5 years old, his paternal grandfather ordered all members of the Rubinstein family to convert from Judaism to Russian Orthodoxy.
Rubinstein’s father opened a pencil factory in Moscow. His mother, a competent musician, began giving him piano lessons at five, until the teacher Alexander Villoing heard and accepted Rubinstein as a non-paying student. Rubinstein made his first public appearance at a charity benefit concert at the age of nine. Later that year Rubinstein’s mother sent him, accompanied by Villoing, to Paris where he sought unsuccessfully to enroll at the Paris Conservatoire.
Rubinstein and Villoing remained in Paris for a year. In December 1840, Rubinstein played in the Salle Érard for an audience that included Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt. Chopin invited Rubinstein to his studio and played for him. Liszt advised Villoing to take him to Germany to study composition; however, Villoing took Rubinstein on an extended concert tour of Europe. They finally returned to Moscow in June 1843. Determined to raise money to further the musical careers of both Anton and his younger brother Nikolai, their mother sent Anton and Villoing on a tour of Russia, following which the two brothers were dispatched to Saint Petersburg to play for Tsar Nicholas I and the Imperial family at the Winter Palace. Anton was 14 years old.
In the spring of 1844, Anton, Nikolai, their mother, and their sister Luba travelled to Berlin, were they met with, and were supported by, Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer. Mendelssohn, who had heard Rubinstein when he had toured with Villoing, said he needed no further piano study but sent Nikolai to Theodor Kullak for instruction. Meyerbeer directed both boys to Siegfried Dehn for work in composition and theory.
In the summer of 1846, Rubinstein’s father became gravely ill. Anton was left in Berlin while his mother, sister and brother returned to Russia. At first he continued his studies with Dehn, then with Adolf Bernhard Marx, while composing in earnest. He sought out Liszt in Vienna, hoping Liszt would accept him as a pupil. However, after Rubinstein had played his audition, Liszt is reported to have said, “A talented man must win the goal of his ambition by his own unassisted efforts.” After an unsuccessful year in Vienna and a concert tour of Hungary, he returned to Berlin and continued giving lessons.
The Revolution of 1848 brought Rubinstein back to Russia. Spending the next five years mainly in Saint Petersburg, Rubinstein taught, gave concerts and performed frequently at the Imperial court. By 1852, he had become a leading figure in Saint Petersburg’s musical life, performing as a soloist and collaborating with some of the outstanding instrumentalists and vocalists who came to the Russian capital. He also composed. His first opera, Dmitry Donskoy (now lost except for the overture), was performed at the Bolshoy Theater in St. Petersburg in 1852. Three one-act operas followed. He also played and conducted several of his works, including the Ocean Symphony in its original four-movement form, his Second Piano Concerto and several solo works.
In 1854 Rubinstein began a four-year concert tour of Europe and reestablished his reputation as a virtuoso. As was the common practice at the time, much of what Rubinstein played were his own compositions. At several concerts, Rubinstein alternated between conducting his orchestral works and playing as soloist in one of his piano concertos. Although reviews were mixed about Rubinstein’s merits as a composer, they were more favorable about him as a performer. Rubinstein spent one tour break, in the winter of 1856-7, at Nice. On his return to Russia, he participated in the founding of the Russian Musical Society (RMS) in 1859.
The opening of the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, the first music school in Russia and a development from the RMS per its charter, followed in 1862. Rubinstein not only founded it and was its first director but also recruited an imposing pool of talent for its faculty. His was the younger brother Nikolai later founded the Moscow Conservatory. During this period Rubinstein drew his greatest success as a composer, beginning with his Fourth Piano Concerto in 1864 and culminating with his opera The Demon in 1871. Between these two works are the orchestral works Don Quixote, and the opera Ivan IV Grozniy.”
In 1867, due to dissension within the Conservatory’s faculty, Rubinstein resigned and returned to touring throughout Europe. At the behest of the Steinway & Sons piano company, Rubinstein toured the United States during the 1872-3 season. He made enough money from his American tour to give him financial security for the rest of his life, and upon his return to Russia, he purchased a dacha in Peterhof, not far from Saint Petersburg.
Rubinstein continued to make tours as a pianist and give appearances as a conductor. In 1887, he returned to the Saint Petersburg Conservatory with the goal of improving overall standards, but after the 1889-90 academic year he resigned again and left Russia due to imperial persecution of Jews, resettling in Dresden and giving concerts again in Germany and Austria. Despite his sentiments on ethnic politics in Russia, Rubinstein returned there occasionally to visit friends and family. He gave his final concert in Saint Petersburg on January 14, 1894. With his health failing rapidly, Rubinstein moved back to Peterhof in the summer of 1894. He died there on November 20 of that year, having suffered from heart disease for some time.
As a pianist, Rubinstein ranks amongst the great 19th-century keyboard virtuosos. Although best remembered as a pianist and educator, he was also a prolific composer throughout much of his life. He wrote 20 operas, the best known of which is The Demon. He also composed a large number of other works, including five piano concertos, six symphonies and a large number of solo piano works along with a substantial output of works for chamber ensemble. Rubinstein chose to write in an early-Romantic Germanic style and did not exploit the native characteristics of Russian music in his work.
He once wrote, “Russians call me German, Germans call me Russian, Jews call me a Christian, Christians a Jew. Pianists call me a composer, composers call me a pianist. The classicists think me a futurist, and the futurists call me a reactionary. My conclusion is that I am neither fish nor fowl—a pitiful individual.” He was not related to the later Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982).
Of his piano concertos, perhaps the best known is:
Piano Concerto No. 3, op. 45 (1854).
Another well known work for piano and orchestra is:
Caprice Russe, op. 102 (c. 1870’s).