Austrian-born pianist Artur Schnabel (1882–1951) was the first artist to record all of Beethoven's piano sonatas. Only modestly gifted technically, he was renowned for the depth of his interpretations.
Ashort man with a large moustache, Schnabel had little charisma. Indeed, he mistrusted the cult of personality that surrounded the world of classical piano, and according to his biographer, Cesar Saerchinger, he felt that the great traditions of piano playing amounted to little more than "a collection of bad habits." For Schnabel, by contrast, the intentions of the composer were paramount, and it was Beethoven who challenged him above all other composers. Audiences in turn venerated Schnabel as the supreme Beethoven interpreter. Harold C. Schonberg, in The Great Pianists , noted that "to many of the last generation, there was but one Beethoven pianist and his name was Artur Schnabel."
Schnabel was born on April 17, 1882, into a Jewish family in Lipnik, Austria. The village, now part of Poland, was described by Schnabel in My Life and Music as "tiny and rather poor"—a kind of suburb to a small town." His father, Isidor, was a salesman with a small textile company, and the family often traveled between their small home town and the Austrian capital of Vienna, gaining an awareness of its musical riches. Schnabel's piano career began at age six, when his sister's piano teacher noticed that he instantly mastered, without teaching, the lessons his sister had to practice. Schnabel quickly started lessons himself, with a teacher who would disappear through a door and return smelling of liquor. A year later he was sent to Vienna to study with the best teachers Austria had to offer. Anonymous well-off donors paid most of his bills; he boarded partly with his own family and partly in rented rooms. His first desire, later partially realized, was to become a com-
One of Schnabel's instructors, the virtuoso and famed teacher Teodor Leschetizky, realized the unique nature of his talent. "He said to me repeatedly throughout the years, and in the presence of many other people: 'You will never be a pianist. You are a musician,'" Schnabel recalled in My Life and Music . Leschetizky's statement has been taken to indicate that Schnabel's gifts lay in his ability to understand music rather than in his technical brilliance. Schnabel studied music theory as well as piano in Vienna; his teacher, Eusebius Mandyczewski, was a friend of the composer Johannes Brahms, and Schnabel met Brahms once on a nature outing. As a pianist, he would often tackle Brahms's dense piano works.
Schnabel made his public debut at age 11. By 1898 he was still studying piano in Vienna but was good enough to take on piano students himself; financially independent, if barely so, he headed for Berlin, Germany. In that city, as musically rich as Vienna, Schnabel managed to make a slender living. He had a bohemian lifestyle, often playing pool late into the night and not getting up until noon. Sometimes his diet consisted of bread rolls with mustard, which he could get free of charge at a bar after buying a beer. During this period Schnabel fathered an illegitimate daughter, learning about it only some years later.
Schnabel's career was slow to build, but after he gave a Berlin debut concert featuring the music of Franz Schubert, he acquired an agent and began to find intermittent concert engagements. One of those took him in the middle of winter to the small Prussian town of Rastenburg, where he was to accompany a singer named Therese Behr. Seeing a pair of large snow boots in the hall outside of her hotel room, Schnabel joked about them to a companion. The next morning at breakfast, Behr said to Schnabel (as he recalled in My Life and Music ), "I heard you talking about my big feet." Within a year the two were engaged, and in 1905 they married. (She was six feet tall, Schnabel just five feet four.) They raised two sons, one of whom, Karl Ulrich Schnabel, became a concert pianist.
After a series of performances as soloist with the renowned Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Schnabel became a recognized name in German musical life. In the years prior to World War I he toured most of the major European countries, including Russia. Monolingual up to that point, he began to learn foreign languages and mastered English in two months, after going on walks with a tutor who would correct him whenever he made a mistake. Schnabel kept his career going during the war with performances in neutral countries such as Sweden and Switzerland, where he later bought a summer home on Lake Como.
In 1921 Schnabel set sail for the United States, the last major classical music market he had not yet conquered. His first trip to the United States was a disagreeable experience, not helped along by Schnabel's own tart sense of humor—he wrote a letter (according to Saerchinger) saying that he was slated to play an afternoon concert for "the ladies who don't happen to be playing bridge." Turnouts for his concerts were moderate, although the cognoscenti who did attend realized his brilliance. His promoter, the legendary agent Sol Hurok, urged him to play a repertoire of a more popular type, but he refused. Schnabel returned to the United States in 1922 for another tour, with similar results.
Schnabel's refusal to meet his audiences halfway was characteristic. His repertoire ran straight up the middle of the intellectual Germanic tradition, seldom straying from that path. He favored music that seemed to hold profundities that would forever be just beyond his grasp, once saying, according to Saerchinger, "Now I am attracted only to music which I consider to be better than it can be performed." He loved the comparatively simple sonatas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, pointing out that "children are given Mozart because of the small quantity of the notes; grown-ups avoid Mozart because of the great quality of the notes."
The most important of the serious composers for Schnabel was Ludwig van Beethoven, especially the 32 piano sonatas that spanned most of his career. Schnabel edited a new edition of the sonatas in sheet music form in the late 1920s, and then, although he had thus far refused to make any recordings at all, he recorded all 32 sonatas between 1931 and 1935 for the His Master's Voice label. Many other pianists in the future would record the complete cycle, but Schnabel's was the first. The recordings were made on 78 rpm discs lasting slightly over three minutes each, meaning that the pianist had to stop every few minutes and then pick up from where he had left off. Sound quality was poor, but in spite of these technical limitations the Schnabel Beethoven sonata recordings have rarely been out of print since their release. New versions recorded on compact discs were issued in the late 1990s, with digital processes applied in order to reduce distortion and background noise.
Schnabel's recordings were prized by collectors in spite of the fact that in Beethoven's more difficult pieces (such as the Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major) his technique was clearly not up to the job. Schnabel considered errors incidental flaws in a performance, rather than major difficulties to be agonized over. Schonberg related a famous Schnabel story wherein the pianist suffered a memory lapse in the middle of a performance with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra—severe enough to cause the music to grind to a halt. Any other pianist would have been mortified, but Schnabel, Schonberg wrote, "merely grinned, shrugged his shoulders, got up from the piano, and walked over to the podium" to confer with the conductor, after which he began the music again. For Schnabel, what mattered was the communication of the meaning of the music to the audience, not a display of technical perfection.
For several years he avoided performing in the United States, but returned in 1930 as a soloist with the Boston Symphony. In 1936, performing his live cycle of the Beethoven sonatas at Carnegie Hall, he drew a crowd of 18,000 total listeners, and this softened his attitude toward what would become his adopted country. He felt more relaxed partly because he booked his own performances, rather than leaving his promotion in the hands of professional agents. He left Germany in 1933; after the Nazi takeover of the country, his concerts had been abruptly canceled, and he had quit his teaching job at the State Academy of Music as he noticed a hardening in the attitudes of his non-Jewish colleagues. For several years he and his family lived mostly at their villa in Switzerland. Schnabel visited his mother in Vienna in 1937 and never saw her again; she was arrested after Germany's annexation of Austria in 1938 and disappeared.
Schnabel was performing in a small town in Texas when he received word of the annexation. "It is a singular experience for a grown man to learn from the daily paper that he has lost his fatherland," he wrote to his wife, as quoted by Saerchinger. With a strong premonition of the anti-Semitic horrors to come, Schnabel decided that the United States was the best place for himself and his family. He took up residence in a New York City apartment hotel in 1939 and became a naturalized citizen during World War II. He lived for part of the year on a New Mexico ranch that he found congenial for composing, and he taught at the University of Michigan and other institutions. In 1945 he gave a series of autobiographical lectures that was posthumously published as My Life and Music . Schnabel wrote two other books, Reflections on Music (1933) and Music and the Line of Most Resistance (1942).
During his own lifetime, Schnabel's own music remained much less well known than his piano performances. In contrast to the conservative nature of his piano repertoire, which rarely, if ever, encompassed contemporary music, Schnabel as a composer was something of a radical, writing three massive symphonies that employed dissonant modern harmonies and, wrote Mark L. Lehman in the American Record Guide , "make grueling demands on performers and audiences." Schnabel also wrote chamber music (music for small ensembles) and a sonata for solo violin that lasted for nearly an hour. "Chances are that Schnabel's music has disappeared for good," Schonberg opined in the 1960s, but a series of new recordings of Schnabel's compositions beginning in the late 1990s cast doubt on that assessment.
Schnabel continued to live in the United States after World War II ended, but he often made return trips to Europe to perform and to spend time at his Swiss second home, where sympathetic neighbors had kept his possessions in good order during the many years he had been absent. His last concert was given in New York in January of 1951, by which time he was already suffering from heart problems. Schnabel died in Axelstein, Switzerland, on August 15, 1951. His playing, wrote Samuel Lipman in Commentary , had "the palpable aura of greatness."
American Decades , Gale, 1998.
Saerchinger, Cesar, Artur Schnabel: A Biography , Dodd, Mead, 1957.
Schnabel, Artur, My Life and Music , St. Martin's, 1963.
Schonberg, Harold C., The Great Pianists , rev. ed., Fireside, 1987.
American Record Guide , September-October 1996; November-December 1996.
Atlantic , October 1986.
Commentary , April 1994.
"Artur Schnabel," All Music Guide , http://www.allmusic.com (January 2, 2007).