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ClassicsOnline Home » RUBINSTEIN, A.: Symphony No. 5 / Dmitry Donskoy Overture / Faust (George Enescu Philharmonic, Andreescu)
Anton Rubinstein was one of the towering figures of nineteenth-century music, a great piano virtuoso, conductor and influential teacher. The fifth of his six Symphonies is thoroughly Russian in its melodies, and is often compared to his student Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony. The overture to Rubinstein’s first opera Dmitry Donsky is based on a similarly national Russian theme, while Faust, written in Leipzig in 1854, is the sole surviving movement of an abandoned Faust symphony. Rubinstein’s Symphonies Nos 3 and 4 can be heard on Naxos 8.555590 and 8.555979.
By David Denton
Anton Rubinstein (1829–1894)
Symphony No 5 in G minor, Op 107 • Dmitry Donskoy – Overture • Faust, Op 68
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 opportunities for Jewish assimilation into a Gentile world. The Jewish poet Heine described baptism as a ticket of admission 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 apparently generous Liszt seemed to offer, which took the form of a visit to his garret in Vienna, with his entourage of disciples. As a pianist Rubinstein rivalled Liszt in fame, and the latter spoke 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 Huntsmen.
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. 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 enjoyed similar exposure, founded a companion Conservatory in Moscow. Tchaikovsky was among the first students of the St Petersburg Conservatory and among the first teachers on the staff of its 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 relatively primitive nationalism of the Five and the cosmopolitan sophistication and technical accomplishment 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 appreciate 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 the fifth of his six symphonies in 1880. The first movement opens with a thoroughly Russian theme, entrusted to the woodwind, a section that also embarks on the second subject, a theme of less obvious national provenance. The material is treated with Rubinstein’s usual Mendelssohnian economy of means and technical competence according to established classical procedure. An equally Russian theme is passed from clarinet to oboe, to flute and to the violins, in the first theme of the second movement scherzo, with its contrasted minor trio section, dominated by more melancholy national sentiments. A solo French horn sets the mood of the slow movement, followed by the lively thematic material of the finale, brought together in a finely crafted conclusion. Modern writers have commented on the connection between this symphony and Tchaikovsky’s First Symphony, in the same key, a work written as a student of Rubinstein, and again very much under the influence of Mendelssohn. Yet Rubinstein’s Fifth Symphony is in no sense either merely derivative or a shadow of his pupil’s work. Dedicated to the memory of the Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, to whose support he owed his career, the symphony is Russian in its melodies, but lacks any of the crudity that can be found all too often in the contemporary work of the dilettante nationalist composers then in the ascendant.
Rubinstein’s first opera, Dmitry Donskoy, attempted a thoroughly national Russian theme. It was completed in 1850 and first staged in St Petersburg two years later. The subject of the opera, derived from the pseudo-classical drama of Vladislav Alexandrovich Ozerov, is the grand prince of Moscow who in the fourteenth century defeated the Tatars and established the supremacy of Muscovy. Prince Dmitry’s title, Donskoy, is a reference to the site of his second victory. The opera had little success, leading Rubinstein to declare nationalism in opera an impossibility, while accusing nationalist composers, with some justification, of dilettantism. It is of significance to notice that Rimsky-Korsakov, recalling in later life his early experience of opera in St Petersburg, mentions “somebody’s opera” Dmitry Donskoy.
Faust, written in 1864, originally formed part of a Faust symphony. The single movement that Rubinstein preserved was described as a musical picture after Goethe. In this respect the music speaks for itself, following something of the fortunes of Faust from the study to rejuvenation and later retribution, narrowly avoided.
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