Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Arthur Rubinstein: Fake It ‘Til You Make It

We mark the death on December 20, 1982 – 39 years ago today – of the Polish-born American pianist Arthur Rubinstein, at the age of 95.

A happy pianist: Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) in 1971
A happy pianist: Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) in 1971

Practicing the Piano

Question: does anyone really like to practice the piano?

Answer: believe it or not, yes. However, we’d observe that those good people who really like to practice are – frankly – in the minority. The vast minority.

Now, obviously, there is a galactic difference between the practice schedules of kids and adult hobbyists taking piano lessons and serious students of music and professional musicians. We would expect the latter – serious students and professionals – to be practice room junkies, addicted to practice and inseparable from their instruments. But this is not always the case.

Which brings us to the pianist Arthur (or Artur) Rubinstein (1887-1982).

Rubinstein in America, 1906

Rubinstein in 1906
Rubinstein in 1906

Rubinstein made his first concert tour of the United States in 1906, when he was 19 years old. It did not go particularly well. Rubinstein played his first solo recital in New York City. Henry Krehbiel (1854-1923), the famed music critic for The New York Tribune, was there and his review was scathing. How scathing I do not know, as the review itself is not to be found online. But here’s what Rubinstein wrote about the review in his autobiography, My Young Years (Knopf, 1973):

“Mr. Krehbiel condemned my performance mercilessly, betraying his obvious prejudice; he was to be for years my implacable enemy.”

(The “obvious prejudice” the Jewish Rubinstein refers to is unknown, because it could not have been anti-Semitism.  For our information, Krehbiel wrote extensively and sympathetically on Jewish folk music and cantorial chant; during his research he frequently attended synagogue services. Perhaps Krehbiel was merely prejudiced against wrong notes, of which the 19-year-old Rubinstein played no small number.)

Back to Rubinstein’s 1906 tour of the United States. Despite successful recitals in Chicago, Cincinnati, Columbus, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Providence, and Boston, Henry Krehbiel’s review circulated so widely that in each city he performed, Rubinstein first had to undo the damage the review caused before, hopefully, going on to make a favorable impression.…

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