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ClassicsOnline Home » RUBINSTEIN, A.: Symphony No. 4, "Dramatic" (Slovak State Philharmonic, Stankovsky)
Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894)
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 95 "Dramatic"
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, 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 semed 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 Sibirskiye okhotniki (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 tactlessly 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 was director of the St Petersburg Conservatory until 1867, when he also gave up the direction 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. As a symphonist he was regarded by Tchaikovsky as, with Joachim Raff, the leading exponent of the time, far superior to the mediocre Brahms, and to Wagner, who had perversely turned his back on the symphony.
By the end of his life, however, Rubinstein had lost the respect of the younger generation, so that his name had, for them, become synonymous with kitsch - ‘c’est du Rubinstein’ had become a familiar jibe. His name was jocularly changed to Tupinstein (dimwit) or Dubinstein (idiot) and Balakirev churlishly refused to attend the celebration of Rubinstein’s sixtieth birthday in 1889. It is only now, with hindsight, that we can begin to reassess his very remarkable and substantial achievement in opera, and in orchestral and chamber music, as well as in his writing for the piano, so long remembered invidiously only by the notorious Melody in F.
Rubinstein wrote his fourth symphony in 1874, the year of his eleventh opera, Die Makkabäer. He conducted a performance at the Crystal Palace in London during the course of a visit to England in 1877, when he also introduced to the English public his Ocean Symphony, pejoratively described by Mussorgsky as "a puddle". The first three movements of the Dramatic Symphony are scored, with all the clarity of Mendelssohn, for the normal classical orchestra, with pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, French horns and timpani and strings. The symphony opens with a slow and ominous introduction, a violin motif entering above the sinister motif entrusted to cello and double bass. A dramatic Allegro moderato, where both motifs are used gives way to a more lyrical theme and a third of heroic triumph. The movement is in the prescribed classical form, with a central development that introduces some new material, before the return of the original themes, the first of which ends the movement. The second movement Scherzo, again in D minor, includes passages of delightful interplay between pairs of wind instruments. There is a contrasting section with a solo violin, over an ostinato bass and a Trio in D major, before the return of the opening Scherzo. The F major Adagio opens with the strings playing a long-drawn melody. The woodwind at first predominate in a second theme, over a running violin accompaniment. Divided cellos and double bass introduce a flute solo and the woodwind return to the first theme before the end of the movement. Drama erupts again in the final movement, which opens with a slow introduction, to which trombones and piccolo are now added, before the unison strings embark on the Allegro con fuoco, with its angular opening theme. A second theme, in F major and marked Moderato assai, is ushered in by the first violins. There is a contrapuntal interlude for woodwind, based on an accompanying figure first heard in the opening bars of the symphony and an extended passage derived from the principal theme, before the return of the forceful theme itself. The second theme now returns in A major, played by the French horn. The symphony ends in heroic D major triumph.
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