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8.223277 - RUBINSTEIN : Symphony No. 1
Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894)
It was Gustav Mahler who described himself as three times homeless: a Bohemian in Austria; an Austrian among Germans; a Jew throughout the whole world. The nineteenth century provided chances for Jewish assimilation into a Gentile world. The Jewish poet Heine described baptism as a ticket into European culture, and it was a course chosen by some, such as the Mendelssohn family and in Russia by the Rubinsteins. Nevertheless, as Jewish fortunes prospered, anti-Semitism became more overt. There is no doubt that Anton Rubinstein’s reputation suffered because of his racial origins, much as it suffered among Russian nationalists as a result of his obviously cosmopolitan or German musical proclivities.
Anton Rubinstein was born at Vikhvatinets in the Podolsk district of the Russian Empire, on the borders of Moldavia, in 1829. A few years later his family moved to Moscow, and after early instruction on the piano from his mother he took lessons from a teacher there, a certain Villoing, later to be the teacher of his brother Nikolay. He gave his first public concert in Moscow at the age of ten. There followed four years of touring as a child virtuoso, years that took him to Paris, to Scandinavia, Austria and Germany, and to London, where he played for Queen Victoria. In 1844 the family settled in Berlin, where Rubinstein took lessons in harmony and counterpoint from Glinka’s former teacher, the Prussian royal music librarian Siegfried Dehn.
In 1846 Rubinstein’s father died and the rest of the family returned to Russia, while he remained abroad in Vienna and in Pressburg (the modern Bratislava), earning a living as he could by teaching and cynical about the support that the ever-generous Liszt had seemed to offer, which took the form of a visit to his garret, with his entourage of disciples. As a pianist Rubinstein was to rival Liszt in fame, and the latter speaks of him with grudging respect as a composer and player, a clever fellow, but unduly influenced by the classicism of Mendelssohn, adding a less charitable description of him as the pseudo-musician of the future on the occasion of a visit to Weimar in 1854 for the first performance of his opera The Siberian Huntsman.
Rubinstein’s fortunes had changed as a result of a meeting with members of the Russian Imperial family during the course of an earlier visit to Paris. On his return to Russia in the winter of 1848 he found support from the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, a German princess and sister-in-law of the Tsar, and with her active encouragement he established in 1859 the Russian Musical Society and three years later the St. Petersburg Conservatory. His brother Nikolay, whose childhood prowess as a pianist had had similar exposure, founded similar organisations in Moscow. Tchaikovsky was to be among the first pupils at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and among the first teachers on the staff of its humbler counterpart in Moscow.
The new Conservatory aroused immediate enmity, in particular from the nationalist group of composers, bullied into collaboration by the eccentric Balakirev. Rubinstein had opened battle by attacking the whole notion of national opera, pointing to the alleged failure of Glinka’s work. Balakirev, self-taught as a composer, objected to formal German musical training, and it was left to following generations to benefit from a profitable synthesis of the primitive nationalism of the Five and the cosmopolitan sophistication of the Conservatories. Rubinstein, however, coupled technical assurance with a less overtly Russian approach, although by the time of his death in 1894 he had come to a better understanding of Russian nationalism in music, while a younger generation had come to understand the necessity of professional musical training.
Rubinstein remained director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory until 1867, when he also gave up the directorship of the Russian Music Society concerts, which now fell to Balakirev. He returned to direct the Conservatory once more in 1887, towards the end of a career that had established him as one of the greatest contemporary pianists and as a conductor of significant ability. As a composer he was prolific, leading his younger brother Nikolay, when asked about his own compositions, to reply that Anton had written enough for both of them. By the end of his life, however, he had lost the respect of the younger generation, so that his name had become synonymous with kitsch—“c’est du Rubinstein” had become a familiar jibe. It is only now, with hindsight, that we can begin to reassess his very remarkable and substantial achievement in opera, orchestral and chamber music, and in his writing for the piano, so long remembered invidiously only by the notorious Melody in F.
Rubinstein wrote his Symphony No. 1 in F major, Opus 40, in 1850. The work is, therefore, a product of the time of productive study in St. Petersburg as Chamber Virtuoso to the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, a period during which he had rejected overtly Russian influences, that were to make a relatively mild appearance later in his life. The symphony opens in fine Mendelssohnian mood, belying any suggestion of careless haste, a charge later levelled at him. It was presumably among the forty or fifty compositions he showed to Liszt in Weimar four years later. For Liszt the formal symphony must have seemed a defunct genre, much as for Balakirev and his group a musical idiom of such classical purity must have been anathema. The symphony is, in fact, pure Mendelssohn, and written, it may be recalled, only three years after that composer’s early death. The second movement provides a contrast of mood, inevitably recalling the work of the earlier master of the Scherzo, much as the slow movement suggests from time to time the ominous marching progress of pilgrims, whether Italian or not. Cheerful thematic material, with an occasional touch of the Hebrides, brings the necessary happy ending to a symphony that combines technical competence with considerable charm.
The musical portrait, Ivan the Terrible, is based on the work of Lev Alexandrovich Mey, the literary source of four of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas and of numerous songs by the Five and by Tchaikovsky. In particular Rimsky-Korsakov’s first opera, generally known as the Maid of Pskov, which bears the alternative title Ivan the Terrible, is derived from a play by Mey recounting the story of the Tsar’s attack on Novgorod, leading to the death of Tucha and his beloved Olga, the latter turning out to be the Tsar’s daughter. Mey’s drama serves as the source of Rubinstein’s musical portrait, written in 1869, and arranged for piano duet by Tchaikovsky in the same year. Five years earlier Rubinstein had written a musical portrait of Goethe’s hero, Faust and in 1870 there followed his musical picture after Cervantes, Don Quixote. Here was some concession, at least, to the extra-musical preoccupations espoused by Liszt in his symphonic poems, copies of some of which he had sent to Rubinstein in 1856. At the same time Ivan the Terrible does contain overtly Russian elements, although it may lack the crude inspiration of the untutored nationalists.
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