Arthur Rubinstein was a Polish-American pianist, who was hugely famous during his long and productive life.
His charming personality, love of life, and strong, beautiful playing have made him a piano legend.
He was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1887. His father wanted him to be violinist. But young Arthur trampled his violin to pieces, demonstrating his lack of enthusiasm for the instrument. So his father gave up and let him study piano instead.
His skills improved and he began touring as a young adult (usually on fake passports). His first American tour didn't go very well, but he managed to start a small career as a performer around Europe. During the First World War he worked as a translator in London.
Afterwards, he became somewhat famous in Europe and South America, and began his extravagant lifestyle of travel and socializing.
When he was in his 40s, he stopped touring for a while to work on his playing. He hadn't really practiced thoroughly enough when he was young, and cracks were showing in his keyboard technique.
So he shut himself away and studied music scores, working on his art until he got even better.
Let that be a lesson to all the young pianists out there - you can fix your mistakes after you become a world-famous concert performer!
Rubinstein sensed the upcoming war in Europe in 1939 and escaped to the United States. He arrived there at a good time, when the best pianists of the day were finishing up their careers.
By filling the gap they left Arthur Rubinstein started earning a reputation as the "greatest" (a term he hated) pianist in the world.
Unusually for a "blockbuster" pianist, he hardly taught at all. Sure, he helped up-and-coming pianists out a few times and gave the odd masterclass. But he spent his whole life recording and performing, until only his failing eyesight at the age of 89 stopped him. What a passion!
He lived a glamorous life floating in the highest circles of society. His spectacular playing and charming, old-world personality made him a fascinating, popular socialite.
Arthur Rubinstein was a sophisticated man of the world, well-traveled and well-read, fluent in nine languages. He knew Picasso, Einstein, Stravinsky, Hemingway, and a boatload of other kings, aristocrats, industrialists, and intellectuals.
He was a complete optimist with an unconditional love of life. He once said "Happiness is never a matter of conditions. It comes from the ability to be happy. We must live life fully, and enjoy life." Good advice!
He thought that a piano virtuoso should also be an interesting character (like Franz Liszt) - he certainly lived up to this ideal!
Arthur Rubinstein eventually died in Geneva in 1982. He was 95 years old.
He didn't really care though - he didn't like trying to be too perfect. His goal was to bring to life the composer's ideas using his own joyous personality as the means.
When playing live, he would give a dazzling performance.
Not only were his interpretations exciting, but he would bounce his hands off the keyboard, raise them high above his head, and almost entertain the eyes as much as the ears and heart.
He also looked the part of the eccentric virtuoso, with a fuzzy head of gray hair and a trance-like expression after he finished playing.
His earlier playing is more fun and light-hearted than his later recordings, where he was more careful not to make mistakes.
But at whatever time in his life he played, he communicated his love of music to his listeners. He made the piano sound vibrant, breathtaking, colorfully rounded, melancholy, and grand.
His interpretations of Chopin's music were also highly esteemed. Rubinstein was Polish and extremely patriotic, like Chopin himself. I think this similarity allowed Rubinstein to give thoughtful and intelligent performances of Chopin's music which capture the composer's feelings about his homeland.
There are actually quite a few really great historical recordings from the 1930s of Rubinstein playing Chopin Mazurkas and Scherzos. I'd recommend you take a look at them if you want to hear Rubinstein in his joyous prime.
Here are two Rubinstein performances I really like. I hope you enjoy them! Further below there's also a fascinating interview with Arthur Rubinstein, recorded when he was 90 years old.
Chopin etude Opus 25 No. 1:
Franz Liszt's Funerailles, a dark and gloomy piece. Listen to how Rubinstein paints dozens of mournful colors using the keyboard:
Interview Part 1:
Interview Part 2
A good introduction to Rubsintein's playing is this collection of Chopin recordings:
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