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Anton Rubinstein
Anton Rubinstein

Anton Rubinstein and Raff

Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894) was probably the foremost pianist of the second half of the 19th. century. He was also highly regarded as a composer although his conservative idiom was to the taste of neither Russian nationalists nor progressive musicians generally. His ambivalent racial, religious and musical personality was graphically described by him: "For the Christians, I am a Jew and for the Jews, a Christian; for the Russians I am a German, for the Germans a Russian, for the futurists I am a classicist, for the classicists, a futurist... I am neither fish nor fowl, a deplorable creature"

Raff's great friend Hans von Bülow described Rubinstein rather extravagantly as "the Michelangelo of music" but there is no doubting his contribution to musical education in his homeland and his standing as one of the pillars of the musical establishment. Like Raff, his outwardly curmudgeonly character protected a generous heart. As with Raff, his towering reputation collapsed the moment he died to be replaced with derision and indifference.

The two were acquaintances rather than friends. They had met during Raff's Weimar period when the young piano prodigy began visiting Liszt and struck up a friendship based upon mutual regard as performers rather than as composers. Unlike Raff, by that time he was fully formed musically and had already written his first Symphony and two Piano Concertos. Rubinstein's muse was a more conventional one than Raff's however and he never belonged to Liszt's New-German school, aligning himself instead with the conservative school centred on Leipzig.

Whilst in Weimar, Rubinstein attended a performance of Wilhem Genast's play "Bernhard von Weimar", to which Raff had written an overture and some incidental music. Rubinstein commented to the playwright's sister Emilie (Raff's future sister-in-law) that he didn't know what to say about whether the music pleased him, but one thing he did know without doubt: Raff was a master of instrumentation!

Liszt accused the youthful Rubinstein of "fishing in Mendelssohnian waters" whilst justifying his own original approach to composition by saying that "new wine demands new bottles". Interestingly Raff was described in later years as wanting to pour "new wine into old bottles". The introduction of some of Rubinstein's orchestral music to New York audiences in the 1870s gives an interesting contemporary view of the composers' relative merits: "the name of Rubinstein was classed with Brahms and Raff - music not quite so disagreeable as Brahms' and not quite so pleasing as Raff's".

Raff himself did not have a particularly high opinion of the Russian's compositions. "Rubinstein is highly gifted," he said "but his music reminds one of his Russian homeland: the palaces stand unordered next to miserable huts; the connection is lacking". Rubinstein himself appeared to give credence to Raff's criticism when he told the musicologist Frederick Niecks that "he wrote on the spur of the moment, driven by an inner force; he could not... criticise, file and brood over his compositions. They were indeed improvisations and had the virtues and vices of improvisations."

Despite agreeing with this bleak, if accurate, self-assessment, Raff could not bear to see him disappointed by the unenthusiastic reception of his most famous symphony at a concert given by Rubinstein in Raff's home town. Raff's daughter Helene takes up the story: "When [Raff] lived in Wiesbaden, a Kurhaus concert took place in which Anton Rubinstein appeared first as pianist, then as director of his own Ocean Symphony, previously unheard there. The public raved enthusiastically at Rubinstein's playing. After the symphony, which was at the end of the programme and didn't please anyone too much, they wanted to distance themselves amidst lukewarm approval. Raff positioned himself before the exit near him and said seriously to those standing near: 'One does not dismiss without an encore a man who has asked so much of us!!'. The admonition of the tone poet, recognised by all residents of Wiesbaden, worked and the shamed audience did their duty."

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