'My Young Years': Rubinstein's Enchanting Prelude

The classical pianist wrote the memoir of his early life when he was in his 80s.
The classical pianist wrote the memoir of his early life when he was in his 80s. (1967 Photo By Eddie Adams)
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Saturday, April 19, 2008

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

Midway through "My Young Years," his memoir of the first three decades of what turned out to be an exceptionally long life, the incomparable classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein recalls an anecdote about two cousins, one of them "the greatest Don Juan of his time," who became involved with the same beautiful woman but whose friendship managed to survive this rather extreme complication. Rubinstein tells the tale and then shrugs: "Even if it were only half-true, it was a good story."

That is exactly how I feel about "My Young Years." How much of it is true and how much mere invention no one now can say -- Rubinstein died a quarter-century ago at the age of 95, and all his contemporaries are long since gone -- but veracity in this case really matters less than the unflagging zest with which Rubinstein recalls those years between 1887, when he was born in Poland, and 1917, when his career as a concert pianist finally began to achieve the success that had been predicted for him since he was a boy. Published in 1973, and followed seven years later by the rather less interesting "My Many Years," "My Young Years" was an international bestseller. It now is out of print, a puzzling development when one considers that Rubinstein's recordings, especially of Chopin, continue to be played and admired.

Whatever the explanation for its disappearance from the bookstores, "My Young Years" remains a classic autobiography in the grand manner. Unlike the memoirs that now crowd the bookshelves, exercises in self-administered therapy in which narcissistic narrators of no apparent accomplishment whine ad nauseam about real or imagined angst, this is an exuberant account of what Rubinstein calls, in his brief foreword, "the struggles, the mistakes, the adventures, and . . . the miraculous beauty and happiness of my young years." His was a life lived to the full, with triumphs and disappointments galore, and by the time he reached his 80s and began to write this book, Rubinstein had such great stature that his story virtually commanded readers' attention.

It was written in English, one of several languages in which Rubinstein was fluent, and it is written remarkably well, with scarcely a trace of the diction of his native Polish or the other languages (Russian, German, French) he spoke during his youth. I first read it about 30 years ago -- my copy is the third printing of the 1973 paperback -- when I was in the midst of a Rubinstein binge, gobbling up his recordings of Chopin, his fellow Pole, one after the other. I make no claim to particular knowledge of classical music, but I was drawn then (as I am now) to the lyricism and abundant feeling of Rubinstein's Chopin, and I simply wanted to know more about the man who made the music. I was enchanted by the book then, and I remain enchanted by it today.

Rubinstein says, in the same foreword, "I have never kept a diary, and even if I had, it would have been lost with all the rest of my belongings in the two world wars. But, it is my good fortune to be endowed with an uncanny memory which allows me to trace my whole long life almost day by day." This is why the reader does well to approach the book with a certain amount of friendly skepticism, especially with regard to the author's accounts of his numerous youthful amours, but the overall impression it conveys is that veracity wins out over invention. No doubt the many conversations Rubinstein recalls fall considerably short of total accuracy, but they have the clear ring of truth, a sense that is heightened by Rubinstein's willingness to portray himself in an unflattering light when circumstances call for it and by the mixture of pride and self-deprecation with which he describes his formative years.

He was born in Lodz into a relatively prosperous family. His musical gifts became apparent when he was very young, and he was taken to Berlin to undergo the scrutiny of the celebrated violinist Joseph Joachim, who "took it upon himself to direct my musical and cultural education," not as his teacher but as his mentor. At the outset, "one important stipulation that Professor Joachim made was that my mother had to promise not to exploit me as a child prodigy" and he "insisted that I should get a full education until I was artistically mature." Rubinstein seems to have been less a supervised student than an autodidact whose learning was scattershot, but he became a deeply cultured man with passionate opinions across a broad range of subjects.

He had more than a little bit of a lazy streak -- he had a "capacity to work well only if there was something special to work for, like a concert, or, later, my recordings" -- and it became a problem as his musical education proceeded. By the time he was well into his 20s he had begun to accumulate a reputation in Europe and had made his first tour of the United States, but his "repertoire needed expansion." He writes:

"Two major Beethoven sonatas, short pieces by Brahms and Schumann, and the great B minor Sonata of Chopin were added to it in less than two weeks. As before, and as would prove true for many years after, the processes of my means of approach to the music at hand were made up of a peculiar combination: a clear conception of the structure of a composition and complete empathy with the composer's intentions were always within my reach, but because of my lazy habits, I would neglect to pay attention to detail and to a finished and articulate performance of difficult passages that I hated to practice. I used to put the whole weight on the inner message of the music."

Doubtless his laziness was aided and abetted by his sheer precocity. The piano came so naturally and easily to him that he could get by with half an effort where lesser performers would have had to practice endlessly and still would have come up short. He also, notwithstanding all the depth of his love for music, had a somewhat cynical attitude toward audiences: "I learned . . . that a loud, smashing performance, even the worst from a musical standpoint, will always get an enthusiastic reception by the uninitiated, unmusical part of the audience, and I exploited this knowledge, I admit it with shame, in many concerts to come." Beyond that, he was as much a born playboy as a born pianist. He began having affairs, mostly with older women, when he was barely out of short pants, and he was always good for a party, a game of pool or poker, a boisterous conversation into the smallest hours of the morning.

Not to mince words, he could be childish and irresponsible. He was "totally devoid of a sense of economy -- a failure that has proved fatal for most of my life" -- and seems to have felt a deep sense of entitlement where other people's money was concerned. Sometime early in the 20th century (he is not great about supplying dates), while still a teenager, he found himself down and out in Paris, living "the excruciating life of someone constantly short of money, constantly in debt," a period that "was typical of my life for many years, consisting as it did of the discrepancy between the daily struggle for survival and the frequent escapes into [the] most refined luxuries," escapes that were made possible by friends, of whom he had many, and by music lovers eager to be in his company.

He could be totally shameless. Once he persuaded a friend to tide him over with a large amount of money. When the friend agreed, Rubinstein immediately proposed that they blow it all on a trip to Paris, London and other stops on the glitterati trail, which is exactly what they did. He doesn't really seem to have been spoiled -- by the time he was in his teens, he was pretty much estranged from his family -- but was merely willful and self-indulgent. There are moments when one wants to wring his neck, but the candor with which he confesses his youthful misadventures is so free and unaffected that these moments soon pass. Obviously he was immensely likable. He had many friends who were, or would become, famous in musical and artistic circles -- Pablo Casals, Fyodor Chaliapin, Karol Szymanowski, Paul Dukas, Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Sergei Diaghilev -- but his accounts of these friendships never sound like mere name-dropping. These simply were the circles in which he traveled.

Much of his time in those early years was spent in the salons of the wealthy, the titled and the privileged. Hanging around with these sublimely boring people doesn't seem to have bothered him -- after all, they brought a fair amount of money his way -- but one of his best stories is at their expense. The great Polish pianist and patriot Ignace Jan Paderewski was asked to perform privately for an English duchess. He "demanded a very large sum of money which was readily granted." Then "he received a letter from the Duchess: 'Dear Maestro, accept my regrets for not inviting you to the dinner. As a professional artist, you will be more at ease in a nice room where you can rest before the concert. Yours, etc.' " Paderewski replied: "Dear Duchess: thanks for your letter. As you so kindly inform me that I am not obliged to be present at your dinner, I shall be satisfied with half of my fee. Yours, etc."

There are many other delicious stories in this book's nearly 500 pages. There is also a pervasive sense of the lost world of pre-World War I Europe, "the long era of the easy, peaceful intercourse between nations, of gracious living, of good taste, of good manners, of prosperity," a world that, with the war's onset, "was gone forever." Thus for all the happiness with which this book is imbued -- his "secret of happiness," Rubinstein writes, is, "Love life for better or for worse, without conditions" -- there is also an undercurrent of sadness, of grief not merely for the author's youth but for the world in which he lived it. All in all "My Young Years" is a lovely book, and it's a real pity that prospective readers must go hunting for it in used bookstores and libraries or buy it online.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address isyardleyj@washpost.com.

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