Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

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Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by Donald Isler » Tue Oct 27, 2009 11:24 am

Book Review
Music, Wit and Wisdom – The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel
Edited by Werner Grünzweig and Lynn Matheson
Wolke Verlag, Hofheim 2009

This is a wonderful book, the compilation of a series of twelve lectures, followed by question and answer periods held by Artur Schnabel with students at the University of Chicago between October 9th and November 1st, 1945. Schnabel, then 63 years old, was the first pianist to record all the Beethoven Sonatas, and was one of the all-time greatest performers of the piano works of Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart. Whether or not one agrees with his ideas and conclusions is, for me, not the point. He had such an interesting mind that, as I am always interested to hear his interpretation of any musical work, to get his viewpoint, I am likewise interested to know whatever he had to say about other matters.

Do not expect to find here a “courtly old world gentleman.” Schnabel was a very modern figure, willing to consider the good and bad aspects of the times he had lived in, and the people he had known. He was a great raconteur, with a wonderful sense of humor, and irony. Of course, the time of these interviews, just after the end of World War II, which had necessitated the Schnabel family’s move to America (his 84 year old mother was one of the victims of Hitler’s genocide) was a momentous time in history.

This book is actually the second published version of these interviews. Apparently, the original version, which I read years ago, was about 30% shorter, as much of what was discussed at the lectures, ie. his visits to the Soviet Union, and unfavorable comments he made about then living people, were edited out. All of this material has been reinstated here. While I can’t find my copy of the original book, to compare the two versions, I assume that less than enthusiastic comments about Stravinsky and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (“who we hoped would become a very great composer, did not develop in the expected direction, and is a rather unhappy man making much money writing music for Hollywood pictures”) are among those left out of the previous edition.

Schnabel grew up in Vienna, where he studied with the great piano pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky, student of Beethoven’s student, Carl Czerny, then lived in Berlin till 1933. His stories about how those two cities contrasted is fascinating. And, of course, he knew an incredible number of important musicians. As a youngster he took walks with a group of people that included Brahms, and he played chamber music with Brahms’ friend, Joseph Joachim, and Eugene Ysaye.

As the book is worth having, just to read about the important musicians he knew, so the book is worth having just to hear Schnabel tell, in his own words, some of his experiences about being a performing musician on the road.

One of my favorite stories, which I remember from the previous edition, is of an afternoon concert he played for a rather disinterested group of elderly people in Folkestone, England. On arrival at the hall he was asked how long his program would be, and replied it would last about two hours.

“What a nuisance! What a nuisance!” exclaimed the manager. So it was decided that Beethoven’s Sonata, Op. 110, or as they announced it “Item Two” would be eliminated from the program. Schnabel was told he could “kick off” at five o’clock, so at five PM he “kicked off!” However, when he concluded, there were thirteen minutes left before the “official” end of the concert, and Schnabel was told “We want to get our money’s worth!” so he practiced some pieces he had planned for another concert.

At the end of the recital the audience left, and Schnabel, knowing his train back to London would not be leaving for a few hours, took his time changing, and packing his bag. He then discovered himself locked into the building, unable to find any lights, or an exit. Fortunately he had some matches with him, which helped him wander through the building till he found another man who cheerfully told him that, if they hadn’t met, Schnabel would have remained locked in all night!

Schnabel was not an excessively modest man. Yet, he sometimes surprises, for instance in describing his correspondence with a man in England who studied the Beethoven Sonatas, bought tickets for Schnabel’s performances, then wrote to complain about Schnabel’s playing, his not following all the markings etc. Schnabel wrote him back to say he was very sorry, but he was trying his hardest, and this was the best he could do. (He apparently didn’t offer him a refund, though!)

Schnabel describes his last trip before World War II started, to Australia. He was supposed to return to America via Europe, but came back via the Pacific, because of the outbreak of war in Europe. One of his performances in Australia was one of two concerts which convinced an Australian teenager, Bruce Hungerford, that he too wanted a career as a pianist.

Schnabel would live another six years after these lectures. With the war over, he resumed playing concerts in Europe. He would also continue composing, an activity even more important to him than his work as a pianist. In 1947 he would write his last and, in the opinion of his son, Karl Ulrich Schnabel, finest piano work, the Seven Pieces, later recorded by, among other people, Helen Schnabel, wife of Karl Ulrich, and myself.

This book is a "must have" for all those interested in the life and times of Artur Schnabel.


Donald Isler
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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by Agnes Selby » Tue Oct 27, 2009 1:32 pm

Thank you for this great review. I will certainly get the book.

You might like to know that it was not only Bruce Hungerford
who heard Schnabel in Australia but also a young girl
who after hearing him, decided to become a pianist.
Her name was Nancy Salas. She became one of Australia's
greatest piano teachers. She died a few years ago.

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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by John F » Tue Oct 27, 2009 3:13 pm

For what it's worth, "My Life and Music," published in 1961, is 223 pages long, but also includes Schnabel's "Reflections on Music" (1933), a lecture, 14 pages long. How does that compare with the new version?

Each of the autobiographical talks ends with a transcribed q&a with the audience - I suppose these were edited. But from what you say, the lectures were edited for publication too - and since they first appeared 10 years after his death, presumably not by him but by the publisher. Indeed, Schnabel may not have intended that this material be published at all - but it's certainly a good thing that it was!

Korngold was no longer living, as he had died in 1957, so it's hard to see why the quotation you provide was not included. Schnabel is critical of some of Stravinsky's music (he liked "Petrushka") and quotes a putdown by Glazunov with something like relish; if he said even more in this line that was cut, I don't see how that could have caused any more trouble than what he did say.
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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by Lance » Wed Nov 04, 2009 5:52 pm

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My copy arrived today. I can hardly wait to get into the book! How wonderful that the Schnabel Music Foundation has made this book available once again, editing it and including information left out of a previous edition.
Lance G. Hill
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When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]

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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by Lance » Wed Nov 04, 2009 8:12 pm

As a concert piano technician, I was most fascinated to read every page referring to different pianos. As most know, Schnabel prefered the Bechstein piano; for him, it was the most "neutral" piano. In America, he played, first, the Knabe, which really didn't appeal to him even though he thought it was a quality-made instrument. (Personally, I never liked too many Knabes, even concert grands.) Steinway made it difficult for Artur Schnabel to use their pianos in the USA unless he used Steinway pianos even in Europe for solo recitals and concerto performances. Hence his primary reason for not returning to the USA to play between 1923 and 1930 ... music's loss simply because of a piano brand name! By 1933, Steinway had changed their philosophy and allowed Schnabel to use Steinway in the USA and Bechstein in Europe. Personally, I have found that Schnabel's recordings using the Bechstein piano (as it was made and "voiced" at that time) were amazingly beautiful instruments. [Clear, non-strident tones yet with plenty of colour and power.] You can hear this throughout his cycle of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas and his Schubert recordings. Schnabel felt, "it [the Steinway piano] had too much of a personality of its own." [p. 178]. (This is further explained on the same page.)

I also believe that when Schnabel recorded Beethoven's Fourth and Fifth piano concertos for RCA, and two solo sonatas in Chicago (Stock conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the concertos), Bechstein sent two concert grands to the USA. So in those recordings, it is not Steinway but Bechstein pianos, somewhat unusual for American recordings at the time.

I must say, at the time Schnabel so highly endorsed the Bechstein piano, those were probably the finest pianos Bechstein company ever made until the beginning of World War II. After the war, and their factories were reconstructed and the piano took on a much different character. (That is, more stridency ... still singing and lovely, nonetheless but with tonal characteristics more equated with the German Steinway piano.) Today, Schnabel would probably not like the Bechstein as it has taken on entirely different sonorities, is generally voiced much brighter, and sounds very much like today's Steinway instruments.
Lance G. Hill
Editor-in-Chief
______________________________________________________

When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]

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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by Donald Isler » Wed Nov 04, 2009 8:19 pm

Lance,

I think the concerto recordings with Stock were made in 1942, so it seems unlikely that Bechstein would have been able to send pianos to Chicago for these sessions.

Also, had Bechsteins changed to what they are now by the '60s and '70s already? I know Bruce Hungerford loved to play Bechsteins, too.
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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by Lance » Thu Nov 05, 2009 2:06 am

C. Bechstein went through considerable changes after the World War II when their factories were destroyed by American bombs. Baldwin bought Bechstein in 1963 but allowed Bechstein to operate fairly autonomously until the 1980s when the firm was sold to Karl Schultze. In 1992, the Bechstein Gruppe-Berlin was formed at which time they also manufactured W. Hoffmann and Zimmermann pianos. Baldwin also made some changes in their manufacturing procedures, doubtless garnering information from the great Bechstein firm. [Baldwin's "SD and SF" series was introduced making major strides in giving their pianos a new, distinctive, crispier and clearer sound with incredible resonance and bass and emmployed German Renner actions in their 7' and 9' instruments.]

No doubt the pianos played by Bruce Hungerford (he used a Bechstein for his two-LP album of Richard Wagner's solo piano music), was then under the ownership of Baldwin Piano. It was only after World War II, when Bechstein went back into operation, that their pianos changed in timbre and colour from those used by Artur Schnabel, Edwin Fischer, and others of that ilk, during most of their careers until World War II. They were still held in high esteem, as was Bösendorfer of Vienna. Bechstein was used by many of the world's most prominent pianists prior to World War II. When Helene Bechstein controlled the firm, she was personal friends with Adolf Hitler, supported his "efforts," entertained him, supplied money, automobiles and even Bechstein pianos to the scoundrel. Since many of Bechstein's artists were Jewish (Schnabel, and Rudolf Serkin, to name two), they were, understandably, hesitant to continue using/endorsing Bechsteins after the war. The preponderance of non-Jewish artists also refused to return to Bechstein. Most of the Europeans switched to German Steinway and some to Bösendorfer, but it was mostly Steinway & Sons who gained the most in the piano-making world in Europe, then the USA, with Mason & Hamlin and Baldwin rising to the top. (By then, Knabe, and Chickering no longer had the reputations that once had. Mason & Hamlin had considerable problems in keeping market share (though their Boston-made pianos—not those from East Rochester, NY—were exquisite), and then the battle continued for years between Steinway and Baldwin. Both had their "camps," but Steinway remained No. 1. Today, Baldwin is only a shadow of what they were reputation-wise, however, they are continuing to make very fine artist-quality pianos in the USA but I believe much has to be done to have Baldwin achieve the status they enjoyed at one time being the largest producer of top-quality pianos in the USA. Cheaper pianos under Baldwin's banner are made outside the USA and don't compare in quality to American-made instruments. The Japanese piano makers' [Kawai and Yamana] business cut deeply into piano making in the USA. Even the Japanese are now having their lower-priced pianos produced in Malaysia, China, or elsewhere all because of manufacturing costs. No doubt electronic pianos also cut into acoustic piano sales. [You shouldn't really get me talking about pianos! I never know when to stop! This is, obviously, more information than you wanted!]
Donald Isler wrote:Lance,

I think the concerto recordings with Stock were made in 1942, so it seems unlikely that Bechstein would have been able to send pianos to Chicago for these sessions.

Also, had Bechsteins changed to what they are now by the '60s and '70s already? I know Bruce Hungerford loved to play Bechsteins, too.
Lance G. Hill
Editor-in-Chief
______________________________________________________

When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]

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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by JackC » Thu Nov 05, 2009 10:40 am

I read My Live and Music, including Reflections on Music.

I agree that he was certainly no “courtly old world gentleman.” He was supremely self-confident. I remember him acknowledging that "I have never suffered from an inferiority complex." :lol:
What comes through is that he had an incredibly powerful intellect, and could speak on many issues with true insight and real force. When you hear him discuss things in the lectures, you are struck by how extremely clear and direct he is. You can easily imagine someone talking in the very manner in a lecture today.

I especially loved his attack on the "musical relativism" that you can't say anything is "better" than anything else, because it's all a matter would what people prefer or are moved by. He has no final answers, of course, and I loved his line - "there is no formula for wisdom."

It is also enjoyable to see his perspective on the changes the world and world culture went through from his childhood through WWII.

I look forward to getting this new book.

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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by Werner » Thu Nov 05, 2009 2:24 pm

Something I've found captivating - I've also read the first version of the lectures and am now in the midst of readng the new version - is his confession that English is not his native tongue, before he makes exquisite use of it in his remarks.
Werner Isler

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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by JackC » Thu Nov 05, 2009 2:46 pm

I like his mischievous smile. Too bad there are no movies of him playing.


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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by barney » Fri Nov 06, 2009 2:41 am

A true titan. Is his memoir as entertaining as Rubinstein's (partly a work of fiction, Ibelieve)?

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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by Ann Mottier » Tue Dec 21, 2010 10:32 am

Update December 2010: The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel has been offered on eBay (item 300506213242) at over 20% discount, just in time for a Christmas gift.

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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by Seán » Tue Dec 21, 2010 1:54 pm

I missed this thread when Don started it, Ann, thanks for reviving it. In November I acquired Schnabel's Beethoven piano cycle and it's very enjoyable. I must look into my getting a copy of his autobiography, it looks very interesting indeed.
Seán

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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by Chalkperson » Tue Dec 21, 2010 5:07 pm

Lance wrote:en though he thought it was a quality-made instrument. (Personally, I never liked too many Knabes, even concert grands.) Steinway made it difficult for Artur Schnabel to use their pianos in the USA unless he used Steinway pianos even in Europe for solo recitals and concerto performances. Hence his primary reason for not returning to the USA to play between 1923 and 1930 ... music's loss simply because of a piano brand name!
Personally I find Steinway's position to be more than a little irksome, the ego of some people/organizations/manufacturers completely outdoes the ego's of the (highly talented) performers themselves...
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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by fmnewyork » Sat Dec 25, 2010 2:09 pm

Ann Mottier wrote:Update December 2010: The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel has been offered on eBay (item 300506213242) at over 20% discount, just in time for a Christmas gift.
Thanks. I ordered it from ebay and received it yesterday.

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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by some guy » Mon Dec 27, 2010 1:20 pm

Does Schnabel not talk at all in this book about his own music?
"The public has got to stay in touch with the music of its time . . . for otherwise people will gradually come to mistrust music claimed to be the best."
--Viennese critic (1843)

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.
--Henry Miller

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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by Werner » Mon Dec 27, 2010 3:26 pm

As far as I remember, there is no mention of his own compositions in the book. I may be wrong, and if so pklease correct me. But I do know that, important as composition was to Artur Schnabel - equivalent if not outweighing his interpretive work - he drew a line between the two aspects of his musicianship. He did not perform or promote his own work - one reason why the intrinsic interest in his composition has taken so long to be known.
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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by some guy » Mon Dec 27, 2010 3:57 pm

Well, I understand the impulse, even as I deprecate it.

I lived in Redlands, CA for twenty three years (for my sins), and attended countless new music concerts at the University of Redlands, where Barney Childs taught. In none of those did Barney ever play any of his own music. At the memorial concert shortly after his death, many of us remarked the same thing, that we'd heard more of Barney's music in one weekend than we'd heard in our entire lives before.

Anyway, judging from the few Schnabel discs I have, I hope there's more to come.
"The public has got to stay in touch with the music of its time . . . for otherwise people will gradually come to mistrust music claimed to be the best."
--Viennese critic (1843)

Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.
--Henry Miller

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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by Donald Isler » Tue Dec 28, 2010 11:56 am

He does mention his own work as a composer briefly in the book, and in a very modest way, as if he doesn't expect much attention to paid to his compositions
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Re: Book Review - The Autobiography of Artur Schnabel

Post by JackC » Tue Dec 28, 2010 3:33 pm

As I recall, and it has been a while a since I read My Life and Music, he mentions on several occassions that of all his musical activties, he enjoyed composing the most. I think he said he did not care as much about the worth of his compositions as much as the enjoyment of the process of composing. He regarded composing as an activity that is part of being a complete professional musician - at least at his level!

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