Edited by Alex Davydovich (MGBH)
It’s been over thirty years since one of the most interesting pianists of the 20th Century has left this world, but there will always be those curious about him not only as a pianist, but also as a human being – his personality and his character. This edited and abridged interview is comprised of questions from various sources and is designed to provide a reader with insights into the heart and soul of the master. With our Winter Issue coming out both around the date of his birth – January 28th – and the date of his passing – December 20th – we decided to dedicate this feature to Arthur Rubinstein (OBM).
Interviewer: Tell us about your family. What was your childhood like?
Arthur Rubinstein (AR) (OBM): The name Rubinstein is terribly common like the name of Jones or Brown. My mother pretended that I even played before I was born, you know. You know, as a little boy I wouldn’t talk. I didn’t like to talk. I wanted to sing. I knew everything by a song. For instance, to get a piece of cheese, I would sing a Polish song about cheese. My father was a head of a little textile factory, but he was not a businessman. He was a very poor businessman. He was inclined to be a philosopher rather. He read books and studied languages. When he went bankrupt, he was honest. He paid all his debts. He didn’t make a fortune on his bankruptcy like others did. So, it disrupted the whole family, and my sisters and brother had to live somewhere else, and that was very sad.
I: Did anyone in your family play the piano?
AR: When I was less than 4 years old, I knew the pieces, which my elder my sisters played. They were 18-19 years old, and they played the piano very badly, and I knew their pieces. But knowing the pieces was not enough. My great pride was that I knew exactly when they turned the pages.
I: How did you get introduced to music?
AR: I was very lucky to have an uncle – a man who studied in Germany, who knew the German language very well. He had a great idea to write to Professor Yoachim (OBM), who was a violinist. He was the chief of the Academy of Music in Berlin. And Yoachim answered, and that was a wonderful beginning for me.
My mother had a chance to take me to him. I was four years old. He was very impressed, but, of course, he was hoping that I would be a violinist. So, when I returned home, my father gave me a tiny violin and a teacher, but I couldn’t stand it. I broke the violin in pieces and was spanked for it. I really couldn’t ever stand to be a violinist, because for me music was polyphony. I wanted to hear everything in music, the whole sound. Afterwards, Joseph Yoachim understood that I didn’t want to play the violin, and he supported me for my complete educational time in Berlin. He even paid part of my education fees.
So, when I returned home, my father gave me a tiny violin and a teacher, but I couldn’t stand it. I broke the violin in pieces and was spanked for it. I really couldn’t ever stand to be a violinist, because for me music was polyphony.
Q: When did you start playing in public?
AR: I started to play in public at the age of six at the charity concert in Lodz, but afterwards Joachim introduced me personally and I played with Berlin Philharmonic at the age of 12 in the Beethoven Hall. I played two concerts with orchestra and solo pieces. Mozart (OBM) was the first concert. At that time critics wrote that I was a born Mozart player. And years later people wanted only Tchaikovsky (OBM), Rachmaninov (OBM), and similar. Later on, only music of Spain, and later – only Chopin (OBM). My goodness! At age 60, I will play everything!
Q: What does music interpretation mean to you?
AR: When I play something, even the ritual fire dance, I am convinced that there is no other music in the world. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be an authentic pianist. An interpreter has to forget during his play that there exists other music. When I play a piece of Schumann (OBM), I believe for myself that he is the only composer in the world, and I don’t think of Chopin. Sitting at the discussion table where people talk about musical history, I will feel things differently. Then I will say to you that Bach (OBM) is much more important for the music history in comparison even to Beethoven (OBM), and even more so than Chopin. But judging the importance of piano music, Chopin embodies the first class – nobody has ever written so beautifully for the piano as him. He totally devoted himself to the piano and couldn’t compose for any other instruments.
I: For a pianist of your class, do you practice every morning?
AR: No, no. I will make it clear to you. Take a look at me. I should be punished for this. For the fact that I never practiced the piano enough. I was always satisfied with the least necessary, to play what spoke to my heart, but it was never elaborated. It was always missing something, which resulted in wrong notes, many inaccurate passages, many unclear details with regards to the sheets, cause I played too fast in front of the audience. You see that was always my biggest flaw, and I should be punished for it in my many years. But… what happens? The strangest thing in the world! When I married my wife, I started feeling more responsible. I felt that the approach “after me the deluge” doesn’t work any more. Now I have a wife and children, and I am responsible for them. After my death I don’t want anyone to be able to claim “your husband got a supreme talent, but never worked hard enough.” Then I started to work harder, you see, there this magical thing that happened. Where other pianists reach their peak at their 30s, e.g. Horowitz (OBM) or Richter (OBM) or Backhaus (OBM) or Gieseking (OBM) – they were accomplished pianists in their mid-thirties. Afterwards, when they got much older, they started to lose some quality. They have taken too many breaks or worked too hard, were worn off or a little tired, wanted to live another life. I, however, until today, can achieve simple technical progress. Sometimes, I start playing scales or passages, and half an hour later I feel a little progress in my technical skill. This cannot happen to Horowitz. He has achieved such technical peaks 10, 15, and 20 years ago, and there is no space left to improve, or… he destroys his hands.
I: Do you ever get tired after a concert?
AR: I am a strange pianist, you know. Many of my colleagues play very impressive programs and get heavily tired, begin to sweat, etc. For me, I am tired BEFORE the concert. The whole day before the concert I am tired. I start yawning like a lion. The whole day! My arm hurts or I am mentally tired. However, closer to the concert I feel great! After the concert, I am not only not tired any more; I can play the concert four times over again. That’s why I still play in public. At my age of 78, I should slow down and get ready to retire, but I cannot do it because I still feel the opportunities to improve, because it simply doesn’t make me tired. Travelling doesn’t make me tired. What makes me tired is boredom and boring people. Those things wear me off.
I am a strange pianist, you know. Many of my colleagues play very impressive programs and get heavily tired, begin to sweat, etc. For me, I am tired BEFORE the concert.
I: Have you ever composed your own music?
AR: You know I composed like every musical boy. I had talent for music, so I was composing, innocently. I wrote a sketch for a concerto, some sonata. I remember some love songs, which I showed off to some charming ladies. When I became 15-16, I discovered suddenly that I didn’t have the right inspiration, that it was not inspired, that it was borrowed from somebody – it was a little Brahms, a little Chopin, Mozart, a little this and that. I think that to write music, it must be absolutely necessary. It must be there. You can’t miss it any more. For instance, I can miss very well some unknown island, but I can’t imagine the world without Beethoven or without Mozart. You know, when I make music, it is so heavenly, I am in love with music.
I: What qualities are important to you in a person?
AR: Human beings are born without signing a contract. I always honor my signature. I have great respect for a promise given or my signed signature.
I: You are known to be a very happy person. What do you attribute your happiness to?
AR: I was very, very unhappy when I was twenty years old. You know, I was miserable. I was at zero point in my life. I was at the bottom. I was finished completely in my opinion. The woman I loved didn’t love me. I had no money. I had horrible debts everywhere. I owed my money to the hotel. They wanted to throw me out. I mean, it was terrible. It happened in Berlin. There was one thing – I was dreaming, funnily enough, that I was the richest man in the world, that I composed a symphony, which had a fantastic success. They applauded me, and everything went wonderfully well. And then, I woke up… There was again a letter under the door, “You owe me this much… If you don’t pay tonight…” and so on and so forth. And then I wanted to take my life. I didn’t succeed. (laughing) The cord broke, I went on the floor. But then after this, I was reborn again. So, suddenly, I saw the world with completely new eyes. It was absolutely fresh and new to me. I saw that what in heaven am I unhappy for? Why should I be unhappy? One can be happy miserable, one can be happy sick, one can be happy in a hospital. Even if you die, you can still be happy! It’s still life, you see. I was convinced of that. And that kept me going.
Why should I be unhappy? One can be happy miserable, one can be happy sick, one can be happy in a hospital. Even if you die, you can still be happy! It’s still life, you see. I was convinced of that. And that kept me going.
I: In your book “My Young Years” you say that you adopted very early in life a motto in Polish….
AR: The translation is very strong in Polish, but it means, “I will never give in.” And I learned it because I was present in Lodz, my birth town, during the pogroms with the Russian Cossacks made in the streets. I was very young. I was a school boy of around seven, and we would run away from the Cossacks who would beat up the population and make them bleed, and so on and so forth. We were terrified absolutely. And I learned something – that I must wake up courage in me. I tried to be courageous, not be afraid of anything. And I am not afraid of anything. I was never afraid of anything at all. Not afraid – I suffered about it, I took it in very much, I was unhappy about this or that…<…> but I was always rather courageous. And I found out that it probably belongs to my race, you see. I must tell you that since childhood I was a very proud Jew. And to remain Jews, I admired their courage that they had for 2000 years in exile. I admired the incredible character of the Jews to stick to their religion, to stick to their race. And they are the only old race that is preserved everywhere.
We were terrified absolutely. And I learned something – that I must wake up courage in me. I tried to be courageous, not be afraid of anything. And I am not afraid of anything.
I: Would you explain to me, to someone who is not a musician, how you produce the tone that you do?
AR: I can’t tell you that. I learned from a Czechoslovakian singer who was very famous. It was Emmy Destinn (OBM). Emmy Destinn struck me with her marvelous voice, which acted on me sensually, which made me cry by her sheer voice, the sound of voice, not the quality of the composition, but the quality of the voice that did something to me. She had that. And she had, of course, as all singers, to take a breath at the right moment. We have to take, in a way, a breath at the right moment when we speak. To make a phrase clear, we have to pay attention and stop and cut the phrase into the pieces, which make sense, isn’t it so? That same thing came to me as an idea when she sang. I started suddenly to feel a feeling that I needed to take a breath at the piano. I sometimes press my finger only, which means nothing, because there is a hammer, percussion hammer, nothing can change much in the piano (it’s a percussion instrument, isn’t it?), but it has a vibration. If you let the string stay without letting the hammer down on it, it vibrates in the air. You have the pedal to keep it a long while – if you want to, if you can. And there is a certain a certain pressure, which makes it being struck in a certain way – not hard, but just the way you want. And it sings in you. Well, I found it for myself that I couldn’t teach it for any money in the world. I tell you – young people sing, sing inside. You have no voice – it doesn’t matter. You have the best voice if you feel singing inside.
I: Do you believe in God?
AR: Of course, I believe in God, but my God is not a gentleman with a beard. It is a power, an incredibly extraordinary power. I was preoccupied all my life, and I still am, with one question that matters, one single question: what are we here for? Who made it? Who started it? I am glad to believe, but there must be a sign to show us why. People think that happiness is to laugh all the time or to enjoy a good cutlet or beefsteak, and they go to bed nicely, and win the game sometimes…. This is stupid. There is nothing in it. That’s not life. Life is biting into it. To take it absolutely as it is.
Of course, I believe in God, but my God is not a gentleman with a beard. It is a power, an incredibly extraordinary power.
I: Can I ask you this: what emotion do you feel when you contemplate that death is going to extinguish so rare a machine as you are? A computer with so much heart and so crammed with music and experience? What do you feel?
AR: You know, I didn’t give it much thought. There is such a thing, which I do believe, in a word, which is not ever clear to anybody, you know, we use the word “soul” easily in every language. Every language uses it, and we don’t know what it is really, where to place it. And I think this thing is in us, in metaphysical power somehow, which just emanates. You know I feel that always, as I told you before, in my concerts. We don’t give it much thought, but there is something floating, something unknown around us in here; and I think that has no place to disappear. And I think that after our death, if we had an amount of it in us somewhere, it’s around. By the way, it was once a very rainy day in London and I was with a great singer Emy Destinn. She asked me very innocently, “How did Chopin play?” I didn’t hear Chopin play at all, so I could only imagine something. I was just going to tell her, “Don’t ask me such silly questions.” But by some instinct I went to the piano and played a little piece of Chopin that I never played in concert. And it wasn’t me who played. I played the piece through, and we both got a little pale, you know? I wasn’t playing it myself. I wouldn’t have played it like that. Make what you want of it.
I: Can we talk about your music? When people say, as they do, that you are the greatest pianist of this century, do you believe them?
AR: Not only I don’t believe them, I get very angry when I hear that, because it is absolute sheer horrible nonsense. There isn’t such a thing as the greatest pianist of any time. Nothing in art can be the best. It is only… different. Let me tell you my theory about it. I think that an artist (whatever it is – a painter, sculptor, musician, performer, composer, whatever – somebody who has a title of being an artist) must have an uncompounded personality, must be the one and nobody else. There is Joe Smith and nobody else like that. For me, one says, “Oh, it’s the second Listz.” (OBM) A second is already wrong, you know? If he is a second, he is no good at all. He is an imitator. An artist in any way must be a world by himself. If I were questioning somebody, for instance, “Arthur, who is the greatest of all times: Leonardo Da Vinci (OBM), Rafael (OBM), Michael Angelo (OBM), Tizian (OBM), Velasquez (OBM), Rembrandt (OBM)?” What would you do? Each one of them is a world by itself. A world! <…> Look here. If I am a pianist, I am a pianist of my kind, which pleases so many people who like this kind of my playing. But then there are others who get emotional and get moved by other pianists – by this one, and that one, and that one. Who can say that this one is the greatest? It’s nonsense.
You know lately more than ever I am thinking, “What was the reason for any success I have had in my life?” Because I certainly don’t play the piano as well as most pianists. I never worked so much as they do. They play the piano too perfect. I know young people who play the piano, and one can’t play it better. But when I hear them play that way, I have my little question for them. I ask them, “When will you start to make music?” Make music, you see, that is something that pre-occupied me. To make music is something metaphysical. A painting is visible, a sculpture is visible, a poem is visible on the paper, well, (written) music is visible, but not audible. I mean it exists only because there are necessary to it the other types of musicians – the interpreters. I belong to this group. I call the interpreters good talent, the composers – geniuses, if they are the great composers. But what happened to me is something quite strange, which I observe very often, you see. I observed the fact that I come on stage for a concert, as a picture of what happens of the stage it is rather ridiculous because a little man like me appearing there in the evening dress <..> And the public fills the hall. They come out of their good dinner, the women look at each other, at the other women’s dresses. Men think mostly about some business or some games or sports or G-d knows what. And there I have this crowd – not entirely quite musical, not really knowers of music, but who like music, who love music. And that is a very difficult proposition – I have to hold them in attention by my emotion, nothing else. I can’t look at them. I can’t make faces. I have to play. Look there, straight ahead of me. But… there is a certain antenna there, there is a certain secret thing, which goes out, emanates, not from me – from my emotion, from the feeling. If you’d like to call it soul, this soul projects something, which I do feel that it’s doing it. It suddenly puts the audience into my hands, there is a moment where I feel them all here in my hands. I can hold them with one little note in the air, and they will not breathe because they wait what happens next. That is a great, great moment. Not always does it happen, but when it does happen, it’s a great moment of our lives.
It suddenly puts the audience into my hands, there is a moment where I feel them all here in my hands. I can hold them with one little note in the air, and they will not breathe because they wait what happens next. That is a great, great moment. Not always does it happen, but when it does happen, it’s a great moment of our lives.
(1) The Love Of Life Documentary.
(2) Arthur Rubinstein Interview at his home in Paris, 1965 (German with English Subtitles)
(3) Rubinstein at 90 Interview by Robert McNeal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFEsLdERZwI