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Polished performers

Frederick Chopin 1810-1840

These two outstanding Polish musicians shared the same passionate love for the piano, delighting numerous audiences with their superb ability to interpret the heart and soul of music. However, there was little else that they shared in common.

Both men left their homeland as young men. Chopin settled in Paris and Rubinstein became an American citizen, but despite having a great love for their homeland, neither man returned to Poland to entertain his fellow countrymen.

A poor, unknown Chopin moved to Paris following a visit to Vienna, preferring not to return home when the revolution against the Russians began in 1830. In order to support himself, he became a piano teacher and was soon recognized as an outstanding performer and composer. "Hats off, gentlemen, a genius", is the famous remark Robert Schumann published in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung in 1831, after hearing Chopin play Variations on Là ci darem la mano by Mozart.

Chopin met Camille Pleyel, whose firm manufactured pianos, published music, and owned a concert hall called the Salle Pleyel; the two men became friends and business associates. Life for Chopin was looking up. Pleyel introduced him to many influential people including Baron Jacob Mayer Rothschild, whose continuous financial assistance and patronage brought him into contact with other aristocrats living in Paris, several of whom were also Polish and who subsequently invited Chopin to give piano recitals in their homes. Pleyel also arranged for Chopin to give his first public concert in his Salle Pleyel, which brought him to the notice of a wider public. Both Pleyel and Rothschild were Jewish and remained supportive, extremely helpful friends of Chopin throughout his short thirty-nine years of life.

Much has been written about Chopin's fashionable, somewhat snobbish way of life and the tuberculosis which troubled him earning him sympathy from all those around. His nine-y-ear relationship with the older, wealthy, successful author George Sand, the pen-name of Armandine-Aurore-Lucile Dudevant, had many ups and downs. It changed from being adoring lovers, when Chopin would spend the summer months at Sand's country home in Nohant, to her complaining bitterly that she had become his nursemaid and finally breaking---up over the marriage of Sand's daughter Solange, which Sand disapproved and Chopin supported.

The glowing reports of Chopin's compositions and his skill at playing the piano hide the darker, more unpleasant aspects of his depressive, self-centered personality. Letters to his publishers and friends reveal his virulent anti-Semitic feelings. In 1839, letters contain these sentences: "I did not think that Pleyel would play the Jew with me…..get 500 for the ballade from Probst and then take it to Schlessinger. If I have got to deal with Jews, let it at least be orthodox ones. Probst may swindle me even worse, for he is a sparrow whose tail you can't salt. Schlessinger has always cheated me but he has made a lot out of me and won't want to refuse another profit. Be polite to him because the Jew likes to pass for somebody…Good Lord, why must one have dealings with scoundrels? Well, I prefer to have dealings with a real Jew….I would rather sell my manuscripts for nothing as in the old days, than have to bow and scrape to such fools. And I'd rather be humiliated by one Jew than three scoundrels."

Poland was a hot-bed of anti-Semitism and doubtless influenced the young Chopin's attitude towards those Jews with whom he associated, nevertheless it did not prevent him from accepting their assistance and support, which he badly needed to maintain his lavish life-style…"Jews will be Jews and Huns will be Huns."

Arthur Rubinstein was a different man, a bon viveur, witty, socialite, and who was widely acclaimed as the greatest pianist of the 20th century. "I have found that if you love life, life will love you back." A comment which was well supported by his many love affairs throughout his life. In 1900 at the age of thirteen, having studied in Berlin, he gave his first public concert with the Berlin Philharmonic. After a brief stay in Paris, he moved to New York and made his debut in 1906 at Carnegie Hall, playing as he said 'crowd pleasers'. With maturity, however, he played more of Chopin's works, whose sublime compositions demanded an artist capable of making the piano sing revealing the very soul of the music. 

Just for the record ... albums by Rubinstein
Rubinstein became famous as the finest interpreter of Chopin's works: traveling widely throughout the United States, Austria, Italy, Russia, England, Spain, and South America. He was a proud Jew and great friend of Israel, which he visited several times, performing concerts with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and giving master classes at the Jerusalem Music Center. He remained antagonistic towards Germany after its behavior in World War 1, refusing to perform there and later announcing that he would not appear with the Chicago Symphony if it engaged the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, a supporter of the Nazi regime.
Just for the record ... albums by Chopin

Both Chopin and Rubinstein made requests about their burial in their wills.

Chopin died in Paris after a long, painful battle with tuberculosis. He was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, on the outskirts of Paris but his heart was cut out, placed in an urn and returned to Warsaw, where it was later sealed within a pillar of the Holy Cross Church, bearing an inscription: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Rubinstein died in his sleep at his home in Geneva, Switzerland; his body was cremated. On the first anniversary of his death, an urn holding his ashes was buried in Jerusalem in a dedicated plot now dubbed "Rubinstein Forest" overlooking the Jerusalem Forest. The memorial is a set of white marble piano keys. In 1974, the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition was established in his memory. It is held every three years in Israel and is intended to promote the careers of young and outstanding pianists.

What is so very remarkable is that the greatest interpreter of the anti-Semitic Chopin's works was Rubinstein, a Jew with a deep commitment to Zionism. Did Chopin ever understand the debt he would owe to his Jewish friends? 



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Monday, 22 July 2024

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