Listening Room: Rubinstein & Friends

On virtual tour with the legendary pianist, composer Villa-Lobos, artist Portinari, and a tantalizing side adventure on the way to Mt. Hood

In the 1920s, pianist Artur Rubinstein left Europe for a concert tour of the United States. One of his two West Coast engagements was to perform with orchestra in Portland. Rubinstein had agreed with the conductor that he would play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #4. Two weeks before the concert, Rubinstein received a telegram which read, “The committee would be grateful if you would agree to play the Rubinstein D minor concerto instead of the Beethoven.”  Artur Rubinstein had no family relationship to the composer of that concerto (Anton Rubinstein). Annoyed, the pianist sent back a telegram that read, “I would rather you called me Artur von Beethoven for the occasion.”

Despite the mild controversy, the concert took place as planned. Rubinstein relates the following anecdote in the second volume of his memoir, My Many Years: After the concert, a local businessman and his wife invited Rubinstein for dinner. Rubinstein invited the woman for lunch the next day, before he would catch an evening train to travel east. The woman accepted, and offered to drive him to their mountain house afterwards, noting the fabulous views. The steep climb followed a road with tall piles of snow on the sides. Oregonians would assume it was the road to Mt. Hood that today is part of U.S. 26.

In time the conversation became evocative, and Rubinstein leaned over and gave the woman a kiss. The distraction led to the car swerving and falling onto its side in a snow bank. They emerged from the car with difficulty to assess their predicament. The woman insisted that Rubinstein run down the hill on the snow-covered road to a gas station with a service garage to get help. (The service station perhaps was in Sandy). It was a three-hour ordeal, but the car was put back on the road, and they drove back into Portland in time for Rubinstein to catch his train, and the woman to make it home with reputation intact.

Rubinstein at the keyboard as a young man, ca. 1906. U.S. Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons

Rubinstein – born in 1887 in Lodz, Poland, when it was part of the Russian Empire, and settled in Paris by 1904 – generally is ranked among the greatest pianists of all time, and Portland was only one of many stops in his globe-trotting years. He noted at the beginning of My Many Years that the upheavals of World War I played a significant role in establishing his career. He was invited to San Sebastian, Spain, for an engagement to replace a French pianist who had enlisted in the war, and was still in Spain when sovereign borders in Europe closed due to the hostilities. That provided him the opportunity of many engagements when other pianists in Europe could not travel across national borders.

The reputation Rubinstein established in Spain eventually reached South America, where he was offered a lucrative contract to tour. In the early part of the 20th century, concert engagements in South America figured so prominently in Rubinstein’s initial financial success that he referred to Latin America in the table of contents of My Many Years as “The Promised Land.” With WWI slogging forward, and then the emergence of the deadly influenza pandemic of 1918, Rubinstein spent 1917 and 1918 in South America, becoming well-known on the continent, and performing in the major cities.

The performance fees he commanded in South America were significantly higher at that stage of his career than in North America or Europe, and so Rubinstein made several tours of Latin America in the early part of the 20th century. During one visit to Rio de Janeiro, two students of a local music conservatory spoke of a brilliant composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, who twice had been expelled from the conservatory for ignoring the guidance of his instructors. Rubinstein wrote in My Many Years that he met Villa-Lobos and heard his unconventional music, recognizing that he clearly had met a great composer.

On a subsequent visit to Rio, Rubinstein mentioned having dinner with Carlos Guinle, the wealthy owner of some hotels and a casino. Rubinstein proposed that the hotelier provide funding for Villa-Lobos to go to Paris for at least a year so that his music could become known. Mr. Guinle’s name would forever be etched into music history when Villa-Lobos became famous. The hotelier obliged, offering Villa-Lobos a substantial sum, enabling him to go to Paris, where his music was well-received.

Villa-Lobos was quite prolific, having composed more than 2,000 pieces. His guitar études and preludes are well-known, and today occupy a firm place in the classical guitar repertoire. His Bachianas Brasileiras suites are also fairly well-known. Villa-Lobos’s works for solo piano seem to be less familiar. Between 1921 and 1926, Villa-Lobos composed Rudepoema (savage poem), a large-scale piano work dedicated to Rubinstein, who played its world premiere in 1927. Rudepoema pushes the musical boundaries past the romantic and impressionistic paradigms without challenging our aesthetic sensibilities.

Candido Portinari, “Cana,” 1938. © Candido Portinari via WikiArt

In 1940 Rubinstein was again in South America, but having married, he was with his family, staying in Buenos Aires as a base, and traveling for concerts. Rubinstein wrote in My Many Years that while in Rio he and his family met Candido Portinari, the Brazilian artist, who painted portraits of Rubinstein and his wife, and made sketches of his children during the visit. The Rubinsteins viewed Portinari’s paintings, including those that chronicle the lives of Brazilians who descended from slaves brought to Brazil from Africa. (Some may even have been former slaves, as Brazil only outlawed slavery in 1888). This collection includes work that depicts the heavy burden that has been carried by descendants of African slaves in Brazil, for example the 1938 painting Cana of the sugar cane harvest.

Rubinstein described, again in My Many Years, how after returning to Buenos Aires he received a telegram from Nelson Rockefeller, who at the time was on the board of trustees of the Museum in Modern Art in New York. The telegram asked if Rubinstein would perform music of Villa-Lobos at a concert at MoMA as part of an exhibition of works by Portinari. Rubinstein agreed, and he and his family boarded a passenger ship for New York.

Rudepoema was representative of the time in which it was composed. Many European economies were damaged by WWI, and the influenza pandemic of 1918 had returned in some subsequent years. A recording of Rubinstein playing Rudepoema at the MoMA concert was made by NBC, and is available to stream, above. Unfortunately, it was cut off just before the end.

A recording of the piece in full by pianist Nelson Friere is also available online, below:

Readers who set aside about 20 minutes to listen to it attentively will be rewarded by its musical depth, power, and originality. Rubinstein regularly included works of Villa-Lobos on his recital programs. In this encore to a concert in Moscow in 1964, recorded in the video below, Rubinstein played O Polichinelo (The Clown Doll) from Villa-Lobos’s 1st A Prole do Bebe Suite:

Enjoy.

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