Nikolai Rubinstein

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Pianist Nikolai Rubinstein is one of those figures, not really tragic but certainly plentiful enough throughout the history of Western music, who had the bad fortune to be completely overshadowed by a…
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Pianist Nikolai Rubinstein is one of those figures, not really tragic but certainly plentiful enough throughout the history of Western music, who had the bad fortune to be completely overshadowed by a more prominent sibling. The legendary nineteenth-century piano virtuoso -- piano titan, really -- Anton Rubinstein was Nikolai's elder by half a decade. Nikolai did not, however, let his brother's shadow prevent him from building a more than respectable career: He performed around Europe, was widely admired as pianist and conductor, and -- perhaps most significantly -- founded the Moscow Conservatory, the eventual home base for countless brilliant musicians, including Sergey Taneyev and Rubinstein's own friend (and enemy, but more on that a little later) Pyotr Il'yich Tchaikovsky.

Nikolai Rubinstein was born in Moscow almost exactly halfway through 1835 and went as a young man to Berlin to take lessons from Theodor Kullak (himself a Czerny student). Returning to Russia in 1846, he applied to Alexander Villoing as a student, was accepted, and joined his new teacher on a concert tour. Upon returning to Russia once again, he entered Moscow University, taking a law degree in 1855. Although he at first had to support himself giving private lessons (while working as a minor government clerk), it didn't take Rubinstein long to become an integral part of Moscow's musical life. From 1859 on, he spent his time building up the presence of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow, mostly by conducting concerts in its name. His efforts were rewarded when his Moscow branch of the Society outgrew its origins and was renamed the Moscow Conservatory in 1866.

Nikolai and his brother Anton approached the piano in very different ways; that they were like fire and ice was well understood throughout Russia during their day. Anton Rubinstein performances were like tidal waves of passion. Nikolai, on the other hand, was rather more restrained when he sat down on the piano bench, a restraint that made his playing less immediately appealing to many laypersons and thus hindered him from building the kind of international reputation that Anton enjoyed. Anton, however, honestly considered Nikolai his equal and in many ways his better, and it seems as though there was never any real tension between the two.

Nikolai Rubinstein never taught Tchaikovsky (who actually studied with Anton Rubinstein over in St. Petersburg); but it was he who bolstered the composer's career by giving him a job at the Moscow Conservatory and by becoming the leading exponent of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky's famous Concerto did not, however, get off to such a great start: when the composer first ran through the piece with Rubinstein playing the solo part in 1874, Rubinstein exploded in a fit of invective that left Tchaikovsky feeling shattered and betrayed. The work was incompetent, unplayable, and aesthetically impeachable. Despite his restraint at the keyboard, Nikolai was a passionate man with an explosive temper and his students might have warned Tchaikovsky not to take such judgments too seriously (after all, Rubinstein might only have been frustrated by his own struggles with the piece -- which is, yes, quite difficult, even by today's standards). Tchaikovsky was not so warned, though, and a rift developed between composer and pianist that was only bridged when, a few years later, Rubinstein withdrew his criticism and presented the work at the Paris Exposition in 1878. Nikolai Rubinstein died in the spring of 1881 while in Paris. Tchaikovsky paid him tribute in his Piano Trio in A minor, Op. 50 ("to the memory of great artist").