Nelson Mandela’s classical pianist

Nelson Mandela’s classical pianist


norman lebrecht

December 06, 2013

One of Mandela’s close friends in the 1950s was the Welsh-born pianist Harold Rubens, who moved to South Africa when his prodigy career dried up (he is pictured below as a boy, playing for George Bernard Shaw).




A brother of the novelist Bernice Rubens and the hero of her novel, Madame Sousatzka, Harold became active in anti-apartheid activities. His home became a secret meeting place for Mandela and other leaders of the resistance. When confidential plans were discussed, Harold would sit at the piano and hammer out ffffs so the conversation could not be picked up on secret service microphones.

Albie Sachs recalled: ‘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.’

Harold refused to play before segregated audiences. He returned to London in 1963, taught at the Royal Academy and died in 2010.

He’ll be playing G-major for Nelson right now, bless them.

harold rubens1


  • Harold….my old teacher at the Royal Academy of Music and I wouldn’t be in music but for him (despite the fact that he was a lousy teacher!)

  • jean2371 says:

    A fascinating insight into the life and times of Nelson Mandela before he went to jail. In South Africa we remember Nelson Mandela with affection. I have never seen such an outpouring of grief, both here and in other parts of the world, since the death of Princess Diana.