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A chip falls off a musical dynasty

A friend rang to say that Harold Rubens has died, aged 92.

He was a piano prodigy from Cardiff who played the Beethoven G majpr concerto with George Szell when he was 10 but never made a big career.

His brother Cyril was a violinist in the London Symphony Orchestra. Sister Beryl (still alive) played viola at Welsh National Opera.

The family celebrity was novelist Bernice who won the Booker prize for The Elected Member and wrote a profoundly true story of music teaching, Madame Sousatzka, which was filmed with Shabana Azmi and Shirley Maclaine. Bernice, too, could play.

Harold used to drop in on friends and, if he felt like it, play their piano. One told me that when he finished, there were 50 people in the street outside listening intently, clamouring for more.

Here’s a BBC Wales link.

And here’s Harold with George Bernard Shaw, and his piano teacher, Madame Ledruskaya.

Another friend got in touch later to say that he died a year ago, but everyone’s thinking of him today, on the anniversary.

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Comments

  1. Norma Procter says:

    Harold Rubens died a year ago. His anniversary brought with it great sadness and many memories. His political contribution to the anti-apartheid movement was great. In his Memorial Lecture, Albie Sachs wrote: . I remember Harold Rubens the pianist. Brilliant, brilliant pianist – one of the world’s great pianists, a wonderful, complicated person. He played for the great African American singer Paul Robeson in the United States when Robeson was being persecuted by the FBI and others. Harold Rubens ended up in Cape Town, and played magnificent Beethoven in this hall, the most inspired performances of any music I think I have heard anywhwere. His artist wife Lisa would prowl behind the big wooden doors, listening through the cracks, because Harold was sure she gave him the evil eye if in the audience. What people did not know is that we were meeting in the underground in their cottage in Newlands. We would hear him practising the fourth Beethoven piano concerto, going over it and over and over again while we were doing our secret planning in the room next door. Happily the music was very loud, and if there were any bugs, all the security police would hear would be Beethoven and not us planning resistance to apartheid. Beethoven would have been happy. Such complex and mixed-up feelings in this simple building.

  2. Norma Procter says:

    Around and about: memoirs of a South African newspaperman
    By Michael Green
    Harold Rubens, a small dark Welshman, who taught at the college of music in the 1950s, was a brilliant pianist, who gave a performance in Capetown of the entire Iberia Suite by Isaac Albeniz, twelve piano pieces that are among the most difficult ever written for the keyboard. Like many concert artists, he was very highly strung ,and at one stage worked himself up into such a frenzy that he stopped playing for a while. It was only a temporary anxiety and he was soon back playing in the concert hall.

  3. Norma Procter says:

    Your readers may like to refresh their memories of Harold Rubens. For their interest, I am copying the piece below:

    HAROLD RUBENS
    16.7.1919 – 29.4.2010

    International Concert Pianist and Human Rights activist, Harold Rubens, born in Cardiff, in 1919, died at his London home on 29th April, three months before his 91st. birthday . A seven year old child prodigy from Wales, his rapid rise to celebrity brought with it a life of travel and separation from his family. He would make the train journey alone from Wales to London to study with Madame Levinskaya. Aged ten, he played Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra under conductor George Szell . The young Rubens was photographed with George Bernard Shaw; he played concerts to Royalty, and in concert halls across the world, ultimately, touring in America and playing at the Carnegie Hall to critical acclaim. The NY Times wrote of his ‘remarkable command of the instrument’, saying he was ‘a poet in his interpretations’ with ‘sensitivity, imagination and refinement’.

    By 1948, Rubens was exhausted by celebrity. His concert schedule was physically demanding. On tour in America, he was also working on his South African tour. In 1949, he wrote to his parents saying, ‘I leave for South Africa …… am looking for a quiet place where I can settle for two or three years, teach and perhaps try to compose, and above all, steep myself in music generally. I want to build up such a repertoire that I can be regarded as a musician and not a Carnegie Hall freak. The next time I play at Carnegie I want to come with four or five programs, any of which I can substitute at the last moment. With all this in mind, I am now in communication with the universities of Capetown and Stellenbosch, both of which hold out promise for the sort of post I am looking for. I have no objection to settling in London…….’

    The first born of Latvian parents, Eli and Dolly Reubens, Rubens had a pronounced feeling for Human Rights. His parents had actively helped refugees from Hitler’s Germany and the Rubens children shared their life with a refugee who came to live with them. A young man in South Africa, Harold Rubens rapidly became involved in Anti- Apartheid Movement. He refused to play to segregated audiences; during the ANC Treason Trial he played many high profile concerts to raise money for ANC defendants. His celebrity involved mixing with key political movers; Mandela was often in Ruben’s home, where they would have long conversations in the back garden. Before long, his cottage in Newlands, a suburb of Capetown, was a meeting place for those, who like Albie Sachs, worked for the Movement. Judge Albie Sachs spoke of this time in his 2005 Memorial Lecture, saying, ‘What people did not know is that we were meeting in the underground in his cottage in Newlands. We would hear him practising the fourth Beethoven piano concerto, going over it and over and over again while we were doing our secret planning in the room next door. Happily the music was very loud, and if there were any bugs, all the security police would hear would be Beethoven and not us planning resistance to apartheid. Beethoven would have been happy.’

    Open political involvement did not make for an easy life. In the USA Rubens was jostled and his car almost overturned when he played for African American singer Paul Robeson, at a time when Robeson was being persecuted by the FBI and others. In London, Rubens played the Wigmore Hall through bomb threats to his life, specific to his involvement in the SA Human Rights Movement.

    By the 1950s, Rubens had taken up the position with Capetown university and was teaching in the music department as well as concertising. In his book, Around and About: Memoirs of a South African newspaperman’, Michael Green refers to him as ‘ a small dark Welshman’, who was ‘a brilliant pianist, who gave a performance in Capetown of the entire Iberia Suite by Isaac Albeniz, twelve piano pieces that are among the most difficult ever written for the keyboard’. During his time in South Africa, Rubens met and married his artist wife, Liza. They had one son. The marriage did not last and by the time Rubens settled in London and took up a position at the RAM in 1963, he was divorced.

    Rubens was a lover of philosophy and poetry with a rare, truly vibrant personality which held audiences. He was a uniquely talented and moral man. Pianist John Humphreys remembers his lessons at the RAM as being, ‘Discussions of music, great literature and politics with a soupçon of actual playing and teaching’. Rubens’ sister, novelist Bernice Rubens, immortalised his study with Levinskaya in her book, Madame Sousatzka, which became a film. Judge Albie Sachs sums up Rubens’ life in the words, ‘Brilliant, brilliant pianist – one of the world’s great pianists, a wonderful, complicated person’ – a fitting and precise tribute to a man that entertained, loved and helped so many.

    Harold Rubens is survived by his son, Michael, daughter-in- law, Sharon and grandsons, Zack, Matty and Dylan. His sister, Beryl Rubens, who played viola in US orchestras and the WNO orchestra, now lives in New York. His siblings, sister Bernice Rubens, Booker Novelist and younger brother, Cyril Reuben, former violin player in the LSO, predeceased him.

  4. Alberto Portugheis says:

    :

    O B I T U A R Y

    HAROLD RUBENS
    1919 – 2010

    The great Beethoven interpreter, pianist HAROLD RUBENS, has died, two months short of his 91st birthday.
    .
    It was the music of Beethoven that helped Cardiff born Harold Rubens fight against Apartheid during his years in South Africa . Judge Albie Sachs once remarked: “the underground group that met in Rubens’ cottage in Newlands, could safely carry out their secret planning, without the risk of being heard by the security police, due to Harold Rubens practicing Beethoven in the room next door, loudly. Any bugging devices would have allowed the police to hear Beethoven and nothing else. Beethoven would have been very happy !!!!

    Born in 1919, Rubens’ life was more than his music. He contributed so much to society with his innate sense of justice. In South Africa , he was the first musician to refuse to play to segregated audiences. During the 1957-61 Treason Trial in South Africa , he gave high-profile fundraising concerts for ANC. Nelson Mandela spent time at his home. In the USA he was jostled and his car almost overturned when he played for African American singer Paul Robeson, while Robeson was being persecuted by the FBI and others. In London , he played at the Wigmore Hall through bomb threats to his life.

    Harold Rubens was the first born of Latvian parents, Eli and Dolly Reubens, who actively helped refugees from Hitler’s Germany . Aged seven, as a child prodigy, he travelled from Wales to London teacher, Madame Levinskaya. Aged ten, he played Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra under conductor George Szell Bernice Rubens immortalised his study with Levinskaya in her book, Madame Sousatzka, which became a film. .

    Rubens toured USA and his work, praised by the New York Times and other publications included concerts at the famous Carnegie Hall. Everybody admired his command of the instrument, the poetry in his interpretations, his sensitivity, imagination and refinement.

    It is particularly sad to me that a man of his musical and pianistic talent, who in New York performed Rachmanonov Piano Concerto No.3 and taught at The Juilliard School of Music and in London, was professor at the Royal Academy of Music, would gradually fade-out from the public eye, due to his modesty and self-effacing personality; also shunning recording companies

    Known to friends for his humour, Rubens was a lover of philosophy and poetry. He had a rare, truly vibrant personality which captivated audiences. He was a uniquely talented and moral man.

    I feel it is tragic for the music world that he did not leave a number of recordings for future generations to enjoy and learn.

    Younger sister, novelist Bernice Rubens, predeceased him, as did brother, Cyril, LSO violin player. Surviving sister, Beryl Rubens, viola player in America and WNO orchestra, lives in New York . Harold Rubens leaves a son, Michael, daughter-in-law Sharon and their three sons, Zack, Matty and Dylan.

    His funeral took place in London on Friday, May 7th.

    ALBERTO PORTUGHEIS

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