Anton Rubinstein Tours America

  • Dec 31, 2019
  • Marina Pustilnik

It may seem that international concert tours only became a thing in the twentieth century, with improvements in travel and the proliferation of musical recordings. Yet as early as the eighteenth century, Austrian musicians Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart were invited to England to give concerts. So, it should come as no surprise that trans-Atlantic concert tours were taking place by the second half of the nineteenth century.

Anton Rubinstein, a virtuoso pianist and the founder of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, was the first major Russian musician to tour the United States, in 1872-1873. Here are some facts about his tour.

  1. The tour lasted almost a year. The grueling tour was eight months (239 days) long. During this period, Rubinstein, along with virtuoso violinist Henryk Wieniawski, gave a total of 215 concerts, traveling up and down the East Coast.
  2. He was greeted like a rock star. According to eyewitness accounts, when Rubinstein landed in New York in the fall of 1872, a crowd of 2,000 well-wishers gathered outside the Clarendon Hotel where he was staying, while the New York Philharmonic Orchestra serenaded him the Russian virtuoso.
  3. And looked like a rock star. Americans dubbed Rubinstein a “shaggy maestro.” His unkempt hair was a source of fascination for admirers, as was his striking resemblance to Ludwig van Beethoven. 
  4. A gold standard. Rubinstein earned $200 for each concert. His contract stipulated that a deposit of $10,000 was to be made to his Viennese bank account before the tour commenced, and that the fee during the tour be paid in gold, as he did not trust American currency or American banks. He later waived the gold requirement, realizing its impracticality.
  5. Rubinstein became the first Steinway Artist. The man who organized Rubinstein’s tour, Jacob Grau, suffered a stroke soon after signing the tour contract and, partially paralyzed and unable to manage the tour himself, asked his nephew Maurice Grau to take over and to provide the deposit. The younger Grau, who didn’t have the necessary funds, approached American piano maker William Steinway and asked him for the necessary sum in exchange for valuable publicity. Steinway gladly agreed, and Rubinstein became the first of many famous musicians whose names were associated with the piano company. Steinway’s pianos were used for performances throughout the tour, although the Russian musician reserved the right to reject a certain piano if he didn’t like it.
  6. Like many musicians, Rubinstein had artistic burnout from the long tour. Rubinstein wrote in his diary that he often had to give two or three concerts a day, and in different towns. Despite the public’s infatuation with him and the critical acclaim he received, he wrote of his tour: “May Heaven preserve us from such slavery! Under these conditions there is no chance for art — one simply grows into an automaton, performing mechanical work; no dignity remains to the artist; he is lost.... The receipts and the success were invariably gratifying, but it was all so tedious that I began to despise myself and my art. So profound was my dissatisfaction that when, several years later, I was asked to repeat my American tour, I refused point blank…”
  7. Ironically, the tour enabled Rubinstein to pursue his art. The tour gave Rubinstein financial security for the rest of his life. He was able to quit his job and concentrate on writing music. He invested part of his earnings into real estate, buying a house in Peterhof, not far from St. Petersburg, for himself and his family. He died there in 1894, at the age of 65.
Rubinstein at the piano
Rubinstein at the piano.

What They’re Saying

"[The] American-Russian Festival Orchestra, featuring distinguished players from the Russian National Orchestra and a number of prominent American orchestras...[conveys] a vital message to our participants and observers, that by working together we can share our musical and historical cultures and increase our understanding of one another."

Athena T. Blackburn

Founding board member, Festival Napa Valley