October 2001

Artur Schnabel

Artur Schnabel: Pianist, Composer, Pedagogue, Mensch

A concert series-cum-exhibition in Berlin reveals several surprising facets of this legendary musician

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Artur Schnabel: Pianist, Composer, Pedagogue, Mensch

A concert series-cum-exhibition in Berlin reveals several surprising facets of this legendary musician

by Nancy Chapple
Fotos: Artur-Schnabel-Archiv, Stiftung Archiv der Akademie der Künste, Berlin

Arthur Schnabel

Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) lived, played piano and taught in Berlin for 35 years. Born in Galicia (now part of Poland), trained in Vienna as a young boy by the famous pedagogue Theodor Leschetitzky, he arrived in the German capital at the age of 16. His Berlin debut, before an invited audience, featured his own Piano Concerto in D minor; his "real" orchestral debut was with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in 1903, when he played both Brahms' 2nd Concerto and Paderewski's Concerto in A minor. In the 1910s and 1920s, he was the foremost soloist for conductors Bruno Walter, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Otto Klemperer; he accompanied many excellent singers and played in several chamber ensembles, particularly piano trios (often with violinist Carl Flesch).

Nonetheless, in early 1933, practically overnight, Schnabel went from being praised as the world's greatest pianist to having his playing declared "impure" by anti-Semitic music critics. He suffered the consequences, leaving Berlin for good in April of that year, never again to set foot on German soil. So there was nothing self-evident about Berlin's Akademie der Künste [Academy of the Arts] becoming the recipient of the documents and manuscripts that made up his vast archives ("12 meters of material").

The events staged this September around this "stroke of luck" for Berlin included an exhibition of items from the collection; a total of 15 concerts, each featuring at least one of Artur Schnabel's compositions (an aspect of his musical gifts relatively unknown to a wider audience); and a three-day symposium on musicological aspects of his life and work. Large audiences of 200 or more listeners attended each of the chamber events, obviously triggered by curiosity about the famous pianist's own works. Although music exhibitions don't usually get much of an audience, this one was a success, with an immediate link to the concerts (which were held in the same venue). Together, the performances and exhibits revealed many a fascinating aspect of this enormously influential musician.

Arthur Schnabel

Artur Schnabel as recording artist: "The most famous pianist in the world"

Between 1905 and 1922, Schnabel made "recordings" for the Welte-Mignon system using piano rolls. He played a different repertoire - small Chopin works and Schubert waltzes - than that for which he later became known. Given the opportunity to listen to several of the rolls on a restored Welte-Mignon grand belonging to Berlin's Musical Instrument Museum, one listener asked, "Did he really play like that? I can't believe it. He simply wouldn't have emphasized the secondary voices to such an extent." My companion, who listens only to Bach, was quite taken aback by the agogic, not to say drunken, rendition of the Gigue from the English Suite in D major.

The symposium provided numerous opportunities to get more of a sense of the man behind the legend. For example, about the sessions for his first recording (1932) of the 32 Beethoven sonatas, Schnabel said, "in four minutes you play perhaps 2,000 notes; in every take there are two notes wrong; then you make ten takes and choose the one with 20 wrong notes. It's like being married to death."

Artur Schnabel as editor and pedagogue: Carrying on the tradition

The exhibition includes a 1935 letter from Richard Simon of Schnabel's American publishing house, Simon and Schuster: "The thought of publishing Beethoven as played by you thrills our imagination." As Schnabel's Beethoven recordings are considered uniquely wonderful, his precise and carefully notated editions of the Beethoven sonatas (e.g., a series of footnotes describes exactly how long certain fermatas should be held) are taken very seriously. He applied highly detailed indications to bring about a changing tempo over the course of a movement. In both his Beethoven editions and his master classes, he particularly delighted in irregular phrasing, expressing the desire that all music be written without bar lines.

Many students from both North America and England came to Berlin to take lessons from Schnabel. The Schnabelian tradition became particularly influential in the Anglo-Saxon world, although he was hardly active there personally. His son Karl-Ulrich and his wife continued summer master classes in Tremezzo for several decades after Artur's death. Many of the major names in piano in the second half of the 20th century can claim a link to the Schnabel tradition, including Claude Frank, Claudio Arrau, Leon Fleisher and Leonard Shure.

Schnabel could not abide the hours his students would spend on the purely mechanical aspects of mastering piano technique, certain they were losing their lively sense of rhythm and sound in the rote repetitions. He himself hardly had to practice, thanks to his intensive early training, his quick intelligence, his innate technique and his excellent sightreading ability. He could spend his energy thinking about the music.

In a talk on playing as half of a piano duo with Karl-Ulrich (after his wife's death in 1974), Joan Rowland described how at any given moment he would say, "My father said ..." or once, "My old man said ..." - but that in fact they were Karl-Ulrich's ideas - "great ideas, but his own ideas." This made Artur's great-grandson, sitting in the row in front of me, smile.

Arthur Schnabel

Artur Schnabel as composer: Mostly for strings

A natural component of Artur Schnabel's musical education was working through harmony and counterpoint exercises. As an adult, he developed a desire to compose his own music in addition to his full performing and teaching schedule. Though he focused on performing the music of the titans of the Austro-German musical tradition through Brahms, Schnabel did not eschew atonality or dissonance in his compositions - on the contrary. However, he was not an advocate of his own compositions: he did not push for his works to be performed, as he did not want to be accused of abusing his fame as pianist to foist his creations on the public.

Schnabel composed several pieces for piano, including a piano quintet, in his thirties. When he cut down on concerts in the 1920s to focus exclusively on composing, he switched to writing more for strings, including several quartets, a trio, and solo sonatas for violin and cello. Although he had hoped to give up playing concerts completely when he turned 50 to dedicate himself to composing, the financial uncertainties of his forced emigration rendered his wish impossible. Nevertheless, towards the end of his life he did compose three symphonies.

Most of the 15 concert programs in this series consisted of one seldom-heard work by Schnabel and one or two other works - late Beethoven string quartets, for example, or works by Bartók and Kurtág; Schnabel's 2nd Symphony was paired with his friend and student Eduard Erdmann's Klavierstück.

Arthur Schnabel

Geoffrey Tozer, who played both the Tanzsuite and the Sonata (dating from the 1920s) during the first concert, writes that "the scores are literally covered with indications of how to perform the works, including details on different notes within chords. Not to mention metronome markings, footnotes, detailed dynamic and articulation marks, pedaling and the idiosyncratic Schnabelian fingerings."

Schnabel's first string quartet (1919) was the only one published in his lifetime (by Universal-Edition Wien) and did enter the quartet repertoire. Many of the swelling phrases are reminiscent of early Berg. The formal element of this work was not immediately apparent to a listener, despite a series of climaxes and an alternation of passages played solo with three accompanying instruments, two strings playing the same rhythmic lines in thirds and less harmonious intervals, and then unison passages.

The String Trio, Op. 30 (1925), offered some magical sounds based on close intervals. The second movement featured a particularly long ending, as if elements lingered on even as the music's mood had already died down. When the piece was over there, were laughs of delight all around - people seemed truly pleased to discover the work.

Schnabel's Cello Sonata (1931) was made up of wonderful fragments. It was both easy to listen to and hard to follow, as the overall form was not immediately clear. Each phrase, each musical idea seemed a surprise. The second movement was particularly impressive: rapid, almost continuous ostinato sixteenth notes. The cellist, Lucas Fels, was totally comfortable with himself, with his playing, with the piece.

Schnabel began his Second Symphony, his grandest orchestral composition, in 1941 and finished the orchestration in 1944. Unplayed for more than four decades, Paul Zukofsky conducted the first performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1988 and recorded a CD. Its first performance in Germany was on 16 September 2001, with Jürg Wyttenbach conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. The players were very alert, listening to each other and engaged with the conductor. The orchestration was lively and engaging: the cellos played long lines, the wind instruments passed the melody amongst themselves. As with Schnabel's other works, the Symphony's form is hard to follow: interesting short phrases build up to a climax in the whole orchestra, but the next idea seems neither related nor in strict contrast to the previous one. The Vivacissimo movement was bright and energetic, the sound shaped by celesta, triangle, lots of brass and flutes. The dissonances were never painful.

Arthur Schnabel

Artur Schnabel: Mensch

Evidence of the big celebration for the great pianist's 50th birthday in April 1932 abounds in the exhibition: many congratulatory telegrams and letters, from George Szell, Otto Klemperer, Bruno Walter, Edwin Fischer, Arnold Schoenberg and others. They make his rapid, irrevocable decision to leave Berlin in April of 1933, the day after the last concert in his second Berlin series of the complete Beethoven sonatas, all the more poignant. Schnabel and his family moved to Tremezzo on the Lago di Como, and, in the late 1930s, on to New York.

He did not find it easy to adapt to America, although he was thankful that most of his family had been saved by the generosity of the American government. Schnabel wrote in a draft of a 1941 article: "One of the many strange and striking features of the 'American Way' is - to me - the waste, squander, frustration and neglect of certain talents. Highly gifted persons are always expected, seduced or blackmailed - to be fair, mostly in vain - to come down from the level to which they have been assigned by nature. I am too old to adjust myself to the 'American Way' - though it is probably not a problem of age - and I am also not eager to become more adaptable."

Harris Goldsmith, an eloquent, eccentric New York pianist and critic who has been writing about Schnabel for many decades, also read from his critical writings at the symposium. His words helped impress upon the public the sense that Artur Schnabel was not just a great man, but quite a character. He has written: "Fifty years have passed, and for most people that would mean either 'sainthood or oblivion' - Schnabel remains a vital force in contemporary music-making." And on Schnabel as mensch: "he was much too rich in the stuff of humanity to be a saint."

(This article originally appeared at www.andante.com)