Anton Grigorevich Rubinstein ( November 28 [O.S. November 16] 1829 – November 20 [O.S. November 8] 1894) was a Russian pianist, composer and conductor who became a pivotal figure in Russian culture when he founded the Saint Petersburg Conservatory. He was the elder brother of Nikolai Rubinstein who founded the Moscow Conservatory.
As a pianist, Rubinstein ranks amongst the great 19th-century keyboard virtuosos. He became most famous for his series of historical recitals—seven enormous, consecutive concerts covering the history of piano music. Rubinstein played this series throughout Russia and Eastern Europe and in the United States when he toured there.
Although best remembered as a pianist and educator (most notably in the latter as the composition teacher of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky), Rubinstein was also a prolific composer throughout much of his life.
He wrote 20 operas, the best known of which is The Demon. He also composed a large number of other works, including five piano concertos, six symphonies and a large number of solo piano works along with a substantial output of works for chamber ensemble.
Rubinstein was born to Jewish parents in the village of Vikhvatinets in the district of Podolsk, Russia (now known as Ofatinți in Transnistria, Republic of Moldova), on the Dniestr River, about 150 kilometres (93 mi) northwest of Odessa. Before he was 5 years old, his paternal grandfather ordered all members of the Rubinstein family to convert from Judaism to Russian Orthodoxy. Although he was raised as a Christian, Rubinstein would later become a Christian atheist.
Rubinstein’s father opened a pencil factory in Moscow. His mother, a competent musician, began giving him piano lessons at five, until the teacher Alexander Villoing heard and accepted Rubinstein as a non-paying student. Rubinstein made his first public appearance at a charity benefit concert at the age of nine.
Later that year Rubinstein’s mother sent him, accompanied by Villoing, to Paris where he sought unsuccessfully to enroll at the Paris Conservatoire.
Rubinstein and Villoing remained in Paris for a year. In December 1840, Rubinstein played in the Salle Érard for an audience that included Frédéric Chopin and Franz Liszt. Chopin invited Rubinstein to his studio and played for him. Liszt advised Villoing to take him to Germany to study composition; however, Villoing took Rubinstein on an extended concert tour of Europe and Western Russia.
They finally returned to Moscow in June 1843. Determined to raise money to further the musical careers of both Anton and his younger brother Nikolai, their mother sent Rubinstein and Villoing on a tour of Russia, following which the brothers were dispatched to Saint Petersburg to play for Tsar Nicholas I and the Imperial family at the Winter Palace. Anton was 14 years old; Nikolai was eight.
In spring 1844, Rubinstein, Nikolai, his mother and his sister Luba travelled to Berlin. Here he met with, and was supported by, Felix Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer. Mendelssohn, who had heard Rubinstein when he had toured with Villoing, said he needed no further piano study but sent Nikolai to Theodor Kullak for instruction. Meyerbeer directed both boys to Siegfried Dehn for work in composition and theory.
Word came in the summer of 1846 that Rubinstein’s father was gravely ill. Rubinstein was left in Berlin while his mother, sister and brother returned to Russia. At first he continued his studies with Dehn, then with Adolf Bernhard Marx, while composing in earnest. Now 17, he knew he could no longer pass as a child prodigy. He sought out Liszt in Vienna, hoping Liszt would accept him as a pupil.
However, after Rubinstein had played his audition, Liszt is reported to have said, “A talented man must win the goal of his ambition by his own unassisted efforts.” At this point, Rubinstein was living in acute poverty.
Liszt did nothing to help him. Other calls Rubinstein made to potential patrons came to no avail. After an unsuccessful year in Vienna and a concert tour of Hungary, he returned to Berlin and continued giving lessons.