As a pianist, Rubinstein was one of the greatest virtuosos of the 19th century. His play was both impulsive and intense, making himself the only serious rival of Franz Liszt.
Rubinstein came from a jewish family from southern Podolia, but moved to Moscow at the age of 5 with his family. Three years later, he received his first music education from Alexander Villoing. Together with his brother, he was taught composition by Siegfried Dehn in Berlin from 1844 to 1847. One year later, he moved to St Petersburg where he laid the basis for a professional music practice in Russia: he was the founder of the Russian Musical Society and the Conservatory of St Petersburg, for which he attracted several renowned western teachers.
The nationalistic composers of the Mighty Five around Balakirev responded disappointed. They saw the admiration Rubinstein had for the German music tradition to be delusional and they distanced themselves from the Rubinstein institute. However, musically their difference were less obvious. For example, Tchaikovsky, who was the most famous composer that came from Rubinstein's conservatory, was influenced by both traditions.
Rubinstein wrote in a romantic, western style. His music remained largely neglected throughout the 20th century, but at the end of the 20th century his music revived with some new recordings made available. He composed five piano concertos. From his 19 operas, The Demon, became his best known work, along with his Melody in F op 3, no.1 for piano. Hans von Bülow called him 'the Michelangelo of music'.