A Master Class with Karl-Ulrich Schnabel

In the mid-1980s I had the good fortune to attend a master class taught by Karl-Ulrich Schnabel, the famous pedagogue and gifted pianist son of the legendary pianist, Artur Schnabel. This master class was held at one of the annual summer music festivals at Ravinia just north of Chicago.

After one of the sessions I had the opportunity to ask Mr Schnabel two questions. The first was if his father, Artur Schnabel, used the pedal when playing Bach. His answer: “My father always used the pedal very liberally, even when playing Bach. I know this because once I was with my father in the Swiss Alps listening to him play some Bach on an old upright piano with a squeaky pedal. The pedal was squeaking throughout the entire piece!” [Author’s note: this squeaking would occur when playing with partial pedal as well as with full pedal]. The second question I asked him was if his father had indeed switched from Bechstein to Steinway as his favorite piano, as was sometimes asserted. Karl-Ulrich Schnabel told me very emphatically that this was not the case, and that his father preferred Bechstein pianos above all others throughout his life.

The following are some random pieces of advice on piano playing that I wrote in my notebook during Karl-Ulrich Schnabel’s master class that may be of value to other pianists:

“Magic is our profession.

Don’t be civilized. Be daring to the nth degree with tempo, dynamics, etc.

Dynamic levels should be EXPRESSED, not just played. For example, the passages of Schubert marked piano or pianissimo should be SUNG SOFTLY, and not just played at a lower dynamic level!

Always trill with at least some pedal.

Don’t let the pedal catch wrong harmonies.

Avoid the insecure 3-4-5 sequence in fingering.

After a long held note, the next note must be softer to maintain a continuous effect. Otherwise the effect will be that of a crescendo.

All playing should be done from the key-surface level. Never slap the keys from above.

Time values [of notes?] should never be exact, but somewhere in between. [This puzzling piece of advice may refer to the importance of playing with flexibility in timing rather than mechanically].

In scale passages [that are part of the harmonic structure of the music], accentuate harmonically. Don’t inadvertently stress non-chordal notes.”


For more information on Artur Schnabel, Karl-Ulrich Schnabel, and on the Schnabel legacy and family, please click on this link for the The Schnabel Foundation