by Catherine Drinker Bowen
[Random House, $3.00]
AFTER having so thoroughly investigated Tchaikovsky’s life and milieu, it was only natural that Catherine Drinker Bowen should be attracted to the subject of the Rubinsteins. Anton and Nicholas headed the musical profession in Russia during their lifetime. Anton’s music may be so much dead wood today, but that does not alter the fact that he loomed large to his contemporaries. It is true that the public infinitely preferred him in the rôle of pianist, to his abiding regret. Nicholas never courted immortality by creative work; nor did he care for the laurels of the concert stage, choosing to remain the leader of music in Moscow, the head of the conservatory, and one of the most popular and sociable figures of the city.
It will be seen that Mrs. Bowen has undertaken a difficult task in bringing these brothers to life in a biography, for it is quite hard enough to write vividly about a composer or writer, whose works, and consequently an important part of whose personality, we can know; an actor, a pianist, a singer — these are much less easy to fix on paper. Anton Rubinstein was very likely the greatest pianist the world ever knew; but most of us today have to learn about his playing and his personality at second hand.
Fortunately that second hand is Mrs. Bowen’s book, Free Artist. The reason for that title, by the way, is to be found in the official social grading system used in Tsarist Russia. As in her Tchaikovsky book. Beloved Friend, the author takes the subjective approach that conveys a feeling of warmth and humanity to her pages rather than the cold narration of strictly ascertainable facts.
Some years ago Marcia Davenport did this type of biography for Mozart, and the result was not an unqualified success. The book read too much like fiction, and the invention of conversation and thoughts that could not by any possibility he verified was too pervasive. Mrs. Bowen is more skillful and plausible at this task. Many incidents, and more especially thoughts, must obviously be probable surmise. The point is: Do we believe the author? More racily, Do we string along with her? I think we do. Except for certain readers, who frankly cannot endure this kind of biography, I feel sure that anyone, whether musical or not, will find Mrs. Bowen’s Free Artist fascinating.
Her technique is better than in Beloved Friend, her ability to evoke the atmosphere of the times more convincing. She has also the advantage of covering a subject that is very much less familiar to the public. The Tchaikovsky story is, after all, common knowledge in its outlines to all those who frequent symphony concerts and consult their program notes. But Anton Rubinstein’s music is almost never played nowadays; yet his life and that of his brother are more significant than that of Tchaikovsky for arriving at a picture of musical life in Russia in the middle nineteenth century.
Mrs. Bowen is not one of those whose admiration for the subject of their book blinds them to a proper sense of proportion as to character and achievements. She is perfectly well aware that the nationalist crowd, who made such trouble for Anton when he was founding the conservatory at St. Petersburg, were much more important creatively. We place a higher value on the music of Moussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Balakirev than we do on that of Rubinstein. On the Other band, she gives a fair account of Anton’s side of the question, which, in the enthusiasm of writers for the nationalist movement, has been considerably distorted.
The most remarkable success of this book has been the manner by which Mrs. Bowen has conveyed to the reader Anton’s genius as a pianist. Since it is for this that his memory is cherished, it was vital to get the qualities of his pianism down on paper. This has been admirably done, to the envy and despair of the regular music critic, who must often try to do a similar job. There are moments when Mrs. Bowen’s narrative style becomes a little overblown. She has her facts well in her head, however, so that these moments are happily rare. With but little reserve, then, Free Artist may be recommended as a most readable example of biographical reconstruction. In addition to the text, the book contains illustrations, bibliography, catalogue, and index.