Born on January 28th, 1887, the young Rubinstein was raised at Piotrkowska 78, apparently communicating in grunts and squeaks till the age of three; worrying some said, a mark of a genius said others. The youngest of eight children, he was the son of an affluent factory owner, and was originally encouraged by his parents to learn the violin – the volatile Artur didn’t agree, and one story tells how the temperamental toddler reacted to his father’s promptings by smashing his violin to smithereens. The tantrum did the trick, and following this outburst his parents ceded to Artur’s demands to learn piano.
From the start it was clear that he was in the possession of a rare, noble talent, and by the age of four he was hailed a child prodigy. His first public performance was held at age five, though the real watershed was to come in 1897. Having impressed the Hungarian violinist Josef Joachim, the young Rubinstein was entrusted in his guardianship and sent to Berlin to study piano under the tutelage of Heinrich Barth.
In 1900 Rubinstein made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, his performance assured enough to leave the critics gushing: ‘He played everything, not as a child prodigy, but as a mature, adult musician,’ wrote one convert. Over the next few years Rubinstein toured Europe, usually travelling on a fake passport, and earning rave write-ups in the process. His reputation in Europe was growing, but he was still a nobody in the US. Hoping to change that he organised a 75-concert tour in 1906. It was a washout, with an off-form Rubinstein winning a mixed bag of reviews.
He returned to Berlin with his tail between his legs, fending off creditors and living in flea-bitten hotels. Broke and slumming it Rubinstein saw the answer in death and made an attempt to hang himself. He failed, and in doing so had an epiphany: having stared down the Grim Reaper the pianist rediscovered his passion for life, claiming to have been ‘reborn’ with a complete and absolute love of living.
Ever the itinerant Rubinstein spent spells living in London (where he worked as a translator), Paris and Spain, often enjoying the extremes of life: skint one day, spendthrift the next. Reckless and irresponsible outside of the concert hall, it was his stint in Spain that saw him mature into the world-class pianist he is remembered as to this day. Rather than mimicking the pale, pallid sound of more traditional musicians, Rubinstein embraced a fiery, personal style that brought the music alive. The Spanish people loved it, and he played to sell-out audiences.
Life was good again, and he spent the next few years gallivanting round bars and living like a rogue. Drinking buddies included Picasso and Cocteau, his rep as a playboy cemented by conquests which included an Italian princess. In 1932 he married the Polish ballerina Ela Młynarska, and after her first pregnancy he threw himself into his work, renting a farmhouse and practising up to sixteen hours a day.
With his technique honed Rubinstein was ready to emerge from self-imposed exile and crack America. He played Carnegie Hall in 1937, and this time around the reaction was unanimous in praise – hailed as the planet’s finest pianist Rubinstein had hit the big time, and stood on top of his game. Even so, global events were about to overtake him; with the winds of war whistling across Europe the Jewish-raised Rubinstein chose to emigrate to LA, becoming a naturalised citizen in 1946. Yet while he was fortunate to escape the horrors of Hitler, his family in Łódź were not. They perished in the ghettos and gas chambers, prompting Rubinstein to declare he would never again play in Germany.
Rubenstein was invited to perform at the inauguration of the United Nations in 1945. He noted angrily that Poland was not represented at this gathering of the nations announcing 'In this hall, where the great nations have gathered to make this world a better place, I don't see the flag of Poland, on behalf of which this cruel war was waged and so now I will play the Polish national anthem.' He proceded to play the normally upbeat, marching tune loudly and slowly, as in the style of a funeral march, repeating the last part in a loud and thunderous forte. The performance was greeted with a standing ovation and loud applause.
Ever the globetrotter he kept residences in New York, LA, Paris and Geneva, and continued to impress international audiences with his masterful recitals. Blessed with a photographic memory he was fluent in nine languages, and once famously memorised Cesar Franck’s ‘Symphonic Variations’ while sat on a train. A self-confessed bon vivant he once admitted his life was based on a diet of ‘wine, women and song,’ though only twenty percent was set aside for wine and song.
Failing eyesight saw him play a farewell concert in London in 1976, and aside from womanising he spent the following years penning his memoirs and lecturing his fans. He finally passed away on December 20, 1982, his ashes scattered in Israel’s Rubinstein Forest one year after his death. The world had lost a legend, and Łódź its favourite son. Today, find him remembered outside his former home by way of a controversial monument. Artur Rubinstein, let Łódź salute you.
You might be interested to hear the great man interviewed on the BBC's Desert Island Discs in 1971 by going to their archive.