Artur Schnabel - Biography

Artur Schnabel's legendary status as a pianist rests on his recreations of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. But he also created some 70 works of his own, many of them of ambitious proportions in the traditional forms: sonata, string quartet, symphony. In this regard, Schnabel resembles his contemporary Charles Ives. Both enjoyed immensely successful careers and composed out of an inner necessity. Further, both began writing in a post-Brahmsian style and became dedicated modernists; the challenging works of their maturity were largely unknown to concert audiences in their lifetimes.

Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) began studying music in his native Austria at age seven and made his concert debut in Vienna in 1890. He moved to Berlin in 1900 and remained there until Hitler's rise to power forced him to emigrate in 1933. A self-taught composer, his early works, such as the Piano Concerto in D Minor (1901) are in a late romantic style. In 1905, Schnabel married the renowned Lieder contralto Therese Behr. His Notturno (1914) written for and performed with Behr, sets a text by Richard Dehmel, known for emotionally powerful lyrics that also appealed to composers such as Richard Strauss.

Schnabel played chamber music with many of the greatest string players of his day, such as Flesch, Casals, Feuermann, Fournier, Hindemith, Huberman, Szigeti and Primrose, and he took part in a performance of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire with the young Piatigorsky. A great deal of Schnabel's chamber music was for strings, often in combination with piano. Each of his Five String Quartets are substantial works: Ernst Krenek wrote that, beginning in 1920, "quartet writing became Schnabel's main creative concern for twenty years." The String Trio (1925) uses tight intervals to create a magical sound world. Its lingering second movement is particularly effective. Similarly, the four-movement Sonata for Solo Cello (1931) features surprising asymmetrical phrase structures, and the virtuosic second movement showcases almost continuous sixteenth notes. Writing about Schnabel's Sonata for Violin and Piano (1935), Lou Harrison claimed that "It is like no music I have heard before, almost completely polyphonic, yet with the large form kept clear."

All of Schnabel's orchestral works, three symphonies and a rhapsody, are in his mature, chromatic style. Dmitry Mitropoulos conducted the Symphony No. 1 with the Minneapolis Symphony in 1946. Reviewer John K. Sherman wrote in the Minneapolis Star and Journal, "To me, the work had vastly more gusto and humanity than some of the arid intellectual problems presented by the Schoenberg school….One felt it was a work that might logically follow Mahler, and before that, Wagner, for in it are traces of the heritage of both. The performance…was one of the triumphs of the season." Schnabel's Symphony No. 2 (1941-43), perhaps the most accessible of the three, reveals a brilliant orchestrator. Unusual and shifting instrumental doublings create timbral metamorphoses usually associated with much later composers. Schnabel reveled the organic nature of his composition in a description of Rhapsody for Orchestra (1946): "I tried…to produce out of purely musical imagination, without any extra-musical associations, a lively being, an individual with inter-dependent organs, developing, contrasting, conflicting, blending, yet always remaining coherent."

Schnabel wrote relatively few works for piano solo, though they reveal his stylistic developmen. The early, gracious Piano Concerto recalls Brahms. His Dance Suite (1921) is in a late romantic style, one movement without barlines. Ernst Krenek calls the Piano Sonata "a work of most impressive score, proud feeling, vast imagination, and pianistic brilliance. Here, Schnabel exercises his penchant for detailed comments on interpretation, which pianists know from his edition of the Beethoven sonatas. The final movement of the Sonata, Schnabel's only contribution to the form, has the heading "Fiery, bold, without stopping, but also without haste and excitement, entirely healthy, non legato, martellato, bon articulato, not harsh." And he described his later Piece in Seven Movements for piano (1936-37) as an "expressive, hot, glowing, agitated piece. More and more, I see that the contact with music has to be pure love affair."

Claude Frank wrote, Schnabel's recordings were devoted to "music which was better than it could be performed." His legacy as a teacher includes Clifford Curzon, Claude Frank, Leonard Shure, Lili Kraus, and Leon Fleisher. Schnabel's achievements as a composer, however, have been hidden until now. Schnabel often repeated his piano teacher Theodor Leschetizky's pronouncement, "You will never be a pianist; you are a musician." When his achievements as a composer are fully known, the truth of that statement will be more apparent than ever.