Artur Rubinstein Plays Again

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

In 1960, when I was studying journalism at the University of Michigan, I managed to get an interview with the world-renowned pianist Artur Rubinstein when he came to Ann Arbor for a recital. The article I produced afterwards marked my debut as a professional (i.e., paid) reporter.

I had interviewed Van Cliburn two weeks earlier, but certainly wasn't accustomed to talking to famous people, so I was quite nervous. But meeting Mr. Rubinstein turned out to be like bumping into an old family friend. I captured almost every word of our conversation on a new, battery-operated miniature tape recorder. I say "almost" every word, because our conversation went on longer than I could have hoped for and, by the end, the batteries wore down, the tape passed through the machine more and more slowly, and our voices became lower and lower and more and more distorted on playback.

"Mr. Rubinstein," the tape begins, "I have several of your recordings which I enjoy very much and --"

"Some of them you should destroy," he interrupted, a response which I certainly didn't expect and didn't know how to handle.

"Which ones are those?" I asked.

"Which ones?," he replied, seeming a bit surprised by my question. "I'll tell you very frankly. Every time I make a record of course I'm thrilled that a machine can pick up my emotions. I like to play it for my family and friends. But, invariably, after about three months, I go forward, I change. I think I do better. But the recording remains the same. So we are divorced. Then I want to record it again. I get frightfully upset and I want to do it over immediately. That is why I remake so many of my records, even if they haven't been so bad."

I asked him if he had a favorite recording of the ones he had done.

"There isn't such a thing as 'favorites' or 'firsts' or 'bests' in art," he replied. "If I pin you down to some question like: Who do you think is a better painter -- Raphael, Michaelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt? -- what will you say?"

"I'd say that they are all great for different reasons," I answered, worrying a little that I would change from interviewer to interviewee if I wasn't careful.

"Each one is a great man," Rubinstein continued, answering his own question. "There are whole exhibits of each one. You go to each showing forgetting about the other man. This is true with the works I play, with pianists, conductors, composers -- it applies to all of us. If an artist is really an artist, then he must be unique in his way. He cannot be compared to anybody else. When I am asked what is my favorite work, I say none because if I had a favorite, all the others would be less favorite and I couldn't afford to live like that."

"I asked you this question because I have read that the Chopin FIrst Piano Concerto which you recorded is one of your favorites."

"It survived the three months. That's all I can say about it. But still, I will give you a secret: two days ago I signed up to remake it. That is not especially because I don't like it any more but simply because they need a stereo of it. I will make the Brahms First Concerto again also."

I changed the subject.

"There are many people who dream of being famous and who want to be recognized the world over," I said. "You have been well-known for such a long time. I wonder if you ever wish for obscurity?"

His reply was surprisingly self-effacing. It almost made me feel that I was not speaking to one of the supreme artists of our time, but to someone who personally knew some really great people.

"To be famous is something which lives in the minds of all the others but the one who is famous," he said. "I knew the most unbelievably famous man closely. I knew Paderewski very, very well. I'm an intimate friend of Picasso and Stravinsky. They are completely famous, historically famous. Well, they are completeluy alien to that thought. They are bothered by people in the street or they are attacked in a cafe by strangers who come up to their table and talk too much or want their autograph. Sometimes it flatters them. Particularly if it happens to be one of those very charming girls with the pretty smiles -- but that's a very rare occasion. Mostly we get some rather tiresome talkers. This is a part which doesn't mean much to us. It is not agreeable all the time to be well-known. One has little privacy. But the pleasure of it, the conscience of it, the existence of it doesn't touch us at all."

"Do you think that your fame has had any effect on your children?" I asked him next.

"Yes and no," he replied. "On one of my children -- there are four -- it had a counter-effect. He resented it. He always resented being asked in school if he was my son. He wanted to be himself. The other three children were affected much less. My other boy is still very young. He is 13. He enjoys it now -- I know this. The girls are devoted. You know girls cling to their fathers very much. So they are rather proud of me. It is a different thing, you see. I don't interfere with their personalities. But sons in general resent that a little bit. The father's overwhelming importance of name puts them in a shadow for too long."

I wondered if he felt the piano had interfered with his private life, that it had kept him away from his children and his wife.

"Yes, to a certain degree," he told me, "because we are a very devoted family. My children are exceptionally charming, I must say -- quite objectively." He smiled. "Don't think that I am one of those doting fathers. They are gifted in many things. They are good linguists, good intellects. It is great fun for me to talk to them. I miss them -- but don't forget that our lives give us much more opportunity to be with our families than the life of a bank executive or anybody who is always going to an office. A concert takes place in the evening. I can spend all day with my children."

But surely much of his day must be devoted to practicing, I said.

"I don't practice very much," he insisted. "I never play more than two or three hours a day. My children go to school. They are really the ones who abandon me!"

Finally, I asked the famous pianist, who was Jewish, whether he would ever play in Germany.

"No," he replied. "I gave up Germany at the First World War. I have never played there since. I receive bitter letters, sometimes very sweet letters from them asking me, begging me to come back, explaining how they've changed. I know that many Germans are noble-minded, otherwise they wouldn't have produced a Mozart or a Beethoven; some of them have been great friends of the Jews. But I cannot go to a country where there might be even one Nazi."

I quickly transcribed the tape I had made and took the typewritten version to the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper which had published my Van Cliburn interview. But the editor, Tom Hayden -- who later became famous himself as a 1960's activist, "Chicago Seven" defendant, a husband of Jane Fonda, and a California state senator -- had already made up the paper and wasn't willing to change things around to get in my piece. So I took it to the city's daily newspaper, the Ann Arbor News, which printed it the next morning and gave me $10 to boot.

I never wrote for the Michigan Daily again, and sold interviews with composer Aaron Copland, conductor Eugene Ormandy, and violinist Zino Francescatti to the Ann Arbor News in the months that followed.

Now, 37 years later, I realize that no one plays Chopin quite like Artur Rubinstein did, and I'm happy to have his recordings re-issued on compact discs. I particularly enjoy RCA's two-CD complete "Nocturnes" which, to me, are strong candidates for the most beautiful, sensitive and melodious piano music ever written.

If RCA can successfully repackage these old Rubinstein recordings, I told myself, why couldn't I repackage my old interview with him, too?

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