Artur Schnabel


A Biography and Assessment of “the World’s Greatest Pianist”

When Artur Schnabel was still young and concertizing in Germany and in his native Austria, he was sometimes billed as “the World’s Greatest Pianist”—this in a musically endowed society not usually given to ecstatic hyperbole over any one musician.

Artur Schnabel (April 17, 1882 – August 15, 1951) was a classical pianist, who also composed and taught. Schnabel was renowned for his seriousness as a musician, avoiding anything resembling pure technical bravura. He was said to have tended to disregard his own “technical limitations” in pursuit of his musical ideals. However, Schnabel is widely considered to be one of the greatest pianists, if not the greatest pianist, of the 20th century, whose vitality, profundity, and spiritual penetration in his playing of works by Beethoven and Schubert, in particular, have seldom if ever been surpassed.

Born in Lipnik, Austria, Artur Schnabel studied piano from the age of seven in Vienna under Theodor Leschetizky who said to him “You will never be a pianist. You are a musician.” Schnabel took these words to heart (although he confessed that he was always somewhat puzzled by them), and rather than playing virtuoso pieces by composers like Franz Liszt which were popular in the late 19th century, he chose to concentrate on the classics by Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. Later, Schnabel also studied composition under Eusebius Mandyczewski who was a friend and amanuensis of Johannes Brahms.

In 1900 Artur Schnabel moved to Berlin where he began his career as a professional pianist. He gained some fame thanks to orchestral concerts he gave under the conductor Artur Nikisch as well as playing in chamber music and accompanying his future wife, the contralto Therese Behr, in lieder.

Following World War I, Schnabel toured widely, visiting the United States, Russia and England. From 1925 he taught at the Berlin State Academy where his masterclasses brought him great renown.

Artur Schnabel was known for championing the then-neglected sonatas of Schubert and, even more so, Beethoven. At that time, Beethoven’s piano music was little played and largely unappreciated by the public. While on a tour of Spain, Schnabel wrote to his wife saying that during a performance of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations he had begun to feel sorry for the audience. “I am the only person here who is enjoying this, and I get the money; they pay and have to suffer,” he wrote. Schnabel did much to popularize Beethoven’s music, giving the first complete cycle of his piano sonatas and also making the first recording of them as a cycle, completing the set in 1935. This set of recordings has never been out of print, and is considered by many to be the touchstone of Beethoven sonata interpretations. He also recorded all the Beethoven concertos.

Despite his adherence in his performance repertory to the classical masterworks, almost all of his own compositions (none of which are in the active repertory) are of the ultramodernist genre.

Schnabel played with a number of famous musicians in chamber works, including the violinists Carl Flesch and Joseph Szigeti, the violist Paul Hindemith, and the cellists Pablo Casals and Pierre Fournier. Among his piano students were Leon Fleisher, Aube Tzerko, Clifford Curzon, Claude Frank, Leonard Shure, Guy Maier, and Konrad Wolff [this last wrote an important book on Schnabel’s technique, THE TEACHING OF ARTUR SCHNABEL]. Schnabel, being Jewish, left Germany in 1933 after Hitler and the Nazis came to power. He lived in England for a time while giving masterclasses at Tremezzo on Lake Como in Italy, before moving to America in 1939. In 1944, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. There he took a teaching post at the University of Michigan, returning to Europe at the end of World War II. He continued to give concerts until the end of his life and continued to compose, completing three symphonies, a piano concerto and five string quartets amongst various smaller works. He also made numerous recordings on vinyl 78rpm, most of which are available on CDs. Although he was never very fond of recording, his output ranks among the most priceless treasures of recorded music. Schnabel died in Axenstein, Switzerland in 1951.

[The above biographical sketch is derived largely from Wikipedia]

For more information on Artur Schnabel, Karl-Ulrich Schnabel, and the Schnabel legacy and family, please click on this link to the Schnabel Music Foundation.

[The following critique is by Richard Brodie]

Much has been made by Schnabel’s detractors of his “technical limitations”, this in reference to Schnabel’s occasional playing of wrong notes even in performance. This particular negative judgment, in my opinion, reflects not on Schnabel but on the pettiness of his critics. Schnabel himself frowned on a mindset that focuses only on avoiding the negative rather than of passionately giving one’s all to realizing the full dramatic potential of a given piece of music. “Safety last,” he would advise his students. The truth is that Schnabel’s technique was second to none, and there are stories of his astounding technical prowess at the keyboard that belie the critics just by virtue of the extraordinary nature of the stories themselves, without the need for corroborating witnesses.

One such story of the youthful Schnabel (as recounted in Cesar Saerchinger’s biography on Schnabel) takes place at the home of a wealthy Viennese family where Schnabel, then a twelve-year-old prodigy, was introduced by an adult friend. “Then, in order to ‘show what this child can do’, the friend placed before him a volume of pieces which he had never seen before. After looking at the first few pieces very intently the boy returned to the piano and played what he had just read from memory—without a hitch.”

Another such story tells of a public recital of lieder in which Schnabel was to accompany his wife-to-be, the famed contralto Therese Behr. Meeting her for the first time only hours before the recital, the young pianist, already smitten, insisted that they go on a sleigh ride rather than rehearse the program, much to the chagrin of the young singer. When they returned with only enough time for a quick run-through, Schnabel sight read the program “to her complete satisfaction”, and the two went on to give a performance that brought down the house.


The actual “proof” of Schnabel’s technical prowess is available to anyone who has access to his recordings and who has ears in his head. One has only to listen to his playing of pieces in fast tempo, such as Beethoven’s “Rage over a Lost Penny” or any of the piano sonata movements marked allegro vivace or presto, in which Schnabel renders the pieces with unforced freshness, spontaneity, and mastery—and at a tempo about forty percent faster than any other pianist on records. This ability must be juxaposed with his equally unique ability to play slow passages with such command that, at speeds slower than any other pianists would dare attempt, these passages hold together with a cohesion where, at times, time itself seems to stand still.

Far beyond excelling in the “measurable qualities” of technique, as Schnabel somewhat comtemptuously referred to such things as speed of octaves and the like, Schnabel, with his ability to make music speak with sublime meaning and emotion, demonstrated a control and mastery many multiples greater than that of “ordinary” masters of the instrument. This is because the goal of technique is not merely to play the notes perfectly, but to make the music come alive. This presupposes a control far beyond ordinary mastery, since the differences between a performance that is “merely perfect” and one that is “alive” are far too subtle to be measured, but they exist nonetheless, with the goal of making great music come alive putting infinitely greater demands on technique than the goal of mere technical perfection. This power to create music that lives and breathes was a power with which Artur Schnabel was endowed (his “technical limitations” notwithstanding!!) to a degree seen only once or twice in a century.


As for more “proof” of Schnabel’s technical prowess, for those who don’t trust the testimony of their own ears, perhaps the following eloquent testimony of one of his own students and personal assistants, Mary Homan Boxall Boyd, will be of interest:”Schnabel’s mastery of the keyboard was completely and always subservient to his own musical demands. A certain sublimated power in the tips of his fingers, wrists, and arms, placed him at a point of perfection of execution so easeful and accurate, that so-called technical problems did not exist for him. ‘As mightiest powers by deepest calms are fed,’ Schnabel seemed to ‘breathe’ into the keys only to release music; his performance taking place from within to the without—without labor on his part—a kind of amanuensis to which he himself was listening. One heard music—only music—spoken truly and nobly without boast or display, whether he was ‘speaking’ from the realm of the lyrical, the heroic, or the philosophical.”