The late Arthur Rubinstein, who lived from 1887 until 1982, was one of the great classical musicians of the 20th century. Rubinstein was a Polish Jew, and in 1940, as the Nazis prepared to invade France, the pianist and his family fled their Paris home. The Nazis plundered the unique treasure Rubinstein left behind, which included a trove of musical manuscripts, many of which were signed by important composers and dedicated to Rubinstein.
Last year, those papers were finally returned to his family, and now, the Rubinstein children have donated the collection to the Juilliard School of Music in New York. VOA's Adam Phillips has more on the papers' long journey, and the powerful musical legacy they represent.
For nearly 50 years after Arthur Rubinstein left France, the whereabouts of the musical manuscript collection he left behind remained a mystery.
That mystery was finally solved by the Dutch musicologist Willem de Vries. He learned that the papers had been plundered by the Nazis, then seized by Soviet occupation forces after the war and shipped to Moscow. In the 1950s, the Soviet government returned the collection to then-communist East Germany as a token of "socialist friendship."
"But after the unification of East and West, it became automatically a West German possession," says de Vries, "and then it came into the open, so to say."
Rubinstein's Paris manuscripts remained in the Berlin State Library until 2006, when officials agreed to relinquish the 71 items to Rubinstein's four children. German officials described the move as "the first time that former Jewish property kept in the Berlin State Library has been restituted to the legal heirs."
Following a brief ceremony in New York in which Arthur Rubinstein's family formally donated the papers to the Juilliard, the school's Vice President for Library and Information Resources, Jane Gottlieb, stressed their many-layered significance.
"They are important for their provenance, for their incredible history," she says. "And the fact that they survived at all is in our view a tribute to the great pianist's legacy and his role as a cultural icon."
The collection is also important because of its many original music manuscripts. Pianists and scholars alike will now be able to see the actual writing of many composers on the page, including, for example, works by the Brazilian composer Stefan Wolpe.
Rubinstein himself, though he died a quarter-century ago, continues to inspire a new generation of concert pianists. "Arthur Rubinstein was for me actually the reason I started playing the piano," says Israeli-born Ran Dank, recipient of Juilliard's 2006 Arthur Rubinstein Prize.
Dank's love affair with the piano began at the age of four, when his mother gave him a recording of Rubinstein playing Chopin waltzes. "I was absolutely enraptured. And I just listened to that about 11 hours a day. My parents had to practically drag me to go to kindergarten! It was really such an inspiration that I wanted to try, too."
Asked to pinpoint just what he finds so brilliant about Rubinstein, Dank hesitates at first. "There is something intangible about his playing that you cannot really define. It's the way he plays so naturally, with no mannerisms whatsoever, just very sincerely and honestly. It's the most humane playing."
Rubinstein himself was the first to admit his own humanity. In a 1975 talk at the Juilliard School, the virtuoso admitted his actual technique could be flawed. He joked that there could be a second concert made from his "dropped notes." But he added that there were far more important factors to consider.
"You must bring something to the people which they will, not understand (intellectually), but feel," he said. "If you can touch them, they are moved to tears. If you can elate them, they go out of the hall happy. But don't let them go out and say simply 'Oh, he has such a colossal technique! What hands!' This is nothing!"
Rubinstein took firm political positions. He refused to return to Germany, where he had studied as a youth. The Nazis had murdered over 100 members of his family. Although Rubinstein became an American citizen in 1946, he was a staunch supporter of Israel, which named the forest where he is buried in his honor.
Rubinstein also remained an ardent and lifelong Polish patriot, and loved to perform the "Heroic" Polonaise by Frederic Chopin, a fellow Pole, to Polish audiences during the Cold War.
However, in family life, Rubinstein could be quite impolitic, often demanding a level of loyalty and attention that made it seem as if his children were an audience. "It had its high points — enormously high points — and it had its problems," muses his daughter, Eva Rubinstein. "I've always thought someone who has a huge talent is almost like growth, a tumor. It can be benign or it can be malignant. But, in either case, it displaces other things… And your own personality gets a little mashed-up in the process."
Yet Rubinstein was a master at musical partnership. He loved and was closely identified with the work of the 19th century composer Johannes Brahms, another famously "big" personality.
When it came to the geniuses of his art, Rubinstein himself was non-partisan. When asked to name his favorite composer, he always replied simply "whatever composer I happen to be playing at that moment." Ample proof of the diversity of his taste can be found in the musical manuscripts, which now have a permanent home in New York.