The Welsh Pianist Who Hid Nelson Mandela’s Plans of Activism
As the world continues to mourn Nelson Mandela , the role played by a renowned Welsh pianist, and Beethoven’s Number 4 in G piano concerto, during the turbulent anti-apartheid movement of the 1950s has also been remembered.
Harold Rubens, who was born in Cardiff in 1918, and died at his home in London three years ago, was the first musician to refuse to play to a segregated audience in South Africa.
Rubens was the first born of four children for Eli and Molly Reuben, practising Orthodox Zionist Jews who actively helped refugees from Hitler’s Germany.
By the age of seven, Rubens had followed in the musical footsteps of his sister Bernice, who went on to become a Booker Prize-winning novelist.
When he was just 10-years-old, he played Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra under conductor George Szell.
Much of his early career was performing in America.
The New York Times speaks of him at the age of 25 as having “remarkable command of the instrument,” saying he was “a poet in his interpretations.”
Writing on his blog, cultural commentator and author Norman Lebrecht said Rubens moved to South Africa when his career dried up.
It was there, while teaching at the College of Music in Cape Town that he refused to play to segregated audiences.
Norman Lebrecht said: “Harold became active in anti-apartheid activities.
“His home became a secret meeting place for Mandela and other leaders of the resistance.”
South African activist Albie Sachs, who eventually played a key role in drafting South Africa’s democratic constitution, and who was made a judge in the new constitutional court by Nelson Mandela has previously recalled how Rubens would bash out Beethoven’s fourth in order to drown out secret conversations.
Sachs said: “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 anywhere.
“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.”
During the ANC treason trial, when 156 people, including Nelson Mandela, were arrested in a raid and accused of treason in South Africa in 1956 Rubens played high profile concerts to raise money for ANC defendants.
During his 2005 Memorial Lecture Judge Albie Sachs again paid tribute to Ruben’s work in both music and the freedom movement.
“I remember Harold Rubens the pianist,” Sachs said.
“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.”
Rubens was known to his friends as an accomplished storyteller, a lover of philosophy, poetry and Jewish humour.
A great international pianist, he never forgot Cardiff, returning regularly to family and friends.
As well as his sister Bernice, Rubens has a younger brother, Cyril, a violin player and sister Beryl, who played in several American orchestras before settling in Cardiff where she was a viola player in the Welsh National Opera until her retirement.
Harold returned from South Africa to the UK in 1963, taking up a position teaching at the Royal Academy of Music
Norman Lebrecht added: “He’ll be playing G-major for Nelson right now, bless them.”