A first hearing of Artur Schnabel


The agony of recording. Artur Schnabel disliked the idea and the reality was even worse when he began to sit before a microphone to document all of Beethoven’s Thirty-Two Piano Sonatas. After the first session he writes to his wife Therese Behr Schnabel:

“London, March 26, 1932
My dearest, a brief and necessary reprieve from work. This week was one long ordeal, sheer torture. “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” says Nietzsche. That’s hopefully (probably) true. But I didn’t imagine that making records would be as monstrous an undertaking as it turned out. Like slave drivers, they ordered me to work for six hours every day. I had to play pieces that we hadn’t agreed upon and with no time to prepare them. They thought I’d be capable of playing all of Beethoven’s sonatas and concertos at the drop of a hat. Instead of saying no to anything that wasn’t agreed, I let myself be talked into what they wanted, as I usually do, and now we’ve done 8 sonatas and 2 concertos. It’s insane. This amount of work is impossible. What’s more, I had a cracked nail and had to use a cap on my finger, which was a great hindrance. For 20 years I refused to be involved in “destruction through preservation”. (What cannot die has never lived.) I repeatedly justified this refusal with my own inadequacy and was always laughed at or thought of as fishing for compliments. I was right to trust my inner voice! Now I know that I cannot play well enough to remain on one spot. But I also know that I don’t want to play that well; I want to have something in front of me, not just behind me. Man’s constantly changing nature cannot be reconciled with the eternally unfeeling machine. (Human beings need their ingenuity for self-destruction and are their own worst enemies.) This idolized “technology”, by the way, is highly pitiful. The imperfection of the machine that man has created is chiefly responsible for the injustice it does him. For example, you can only play for 4 minutes. In those 4 minutes, you sometimes have to strike around 2000 keys or more. If 2 (two) of them are unsatisfactory, you have to repeat all 2000. And when you do that, the original mistakes are corrected but you make another two, so then it’s another 2000 to do over. This goes on ten times, always with a sword of Damocles hanging over your head. Finally, you give up and now leave in 20 mistakes. I’m both physically and mentally too weak for this ordeal. I was close to collapse, and began to sob when I was by myself on the street. Never before had I felt more alone. My conscience tormented me. A surrender to evil, a betrayal of life, objectification of the lifeblood, a marriage with death. It is absolutely nonsensical, absolutely unnatural. Debasement. It’s done onlybecause it’s possible. You use it because it is there. Somewhere up in the clouds and untouchable, know-nothings sit in front of fireproof safes and pocket whatever this nonsense, this artifice, this battlefield, transforms into money. The exploited, the poor victims, the slaves, and the slave drivers never set eyes on their true masters, the know-nothings. How did I become part of this fall of humankind? Why? For whom? How do I get out? I feel ashamed. And even if I had not left anything to posterity and had not lived on in the minds and consciousness of others, future generations, from now on I shall rightly and constantly be condemned because I took it upon myself to declare something finished that wasn’t, because I released something to be used that was not fit for purpose, which means I lied. Because I released as definitive something that is essentially always unfinished as long as it breathes, which means I lied. How deeply upsetting it is when almost everyone responds, as it were, to such expressions of discomfort with a wink, accompanied by a pat on the pants pocket. I was disgusted by myself. But I did not do it for the money. I know that for certain. I thought I could give it a try. I failed. –
We’ve made over 40 records. The company is thrilled. One of its representatives will arrive in Berlin with all these splendors in two weeks and spend a day playing this danse macabre for us. Until our heads are numb. I asked a music and record enthusiast (a peculiar talent) whether it bothered him if a musician makes small or even big mistakes in a concert. He replied with a smile, “No, not in the least, that doesn’t bother me at all.” What about if it happens on a recording, I asked. “Yes,” he admitted, “I’m quite strict about that and won’t accept any blunders, I’m critical in a different way.” The human being, the original, is forgotten. The mechanism of reproduction has erased him and sets its own conditions. How can you escape this nonsense?
I’m going to the country now. Need some comfort. . . .

Happy Easter Affectionately, Artur”  text courtesy of the Schnabel Music Foundation


Schnabel lived with the music and it was a transformative experience to reinterpret works as life progressed. After a 1951 recital he mentioned to his son Karl Ulrich that the Beethoven Sonata Op.90 he had played was the first time he understood it! New recordings were planned but with failing health, it became his last public performance. Equally important is the context in which Schnabel mastered Beethoven’s slow movements, their lyricism bearing a vocal art of phrasing and awareness of how the work coheres is in great part due to the advice Therese perpetually offered to her husband and son.
The legacy of the sonatas began as shellacs, usually noisy, so when vinyl technology appeared they were game for his label and a hefty box appeared. The quiet surfaces lacked any noise generated by the shellac and the material it was pressed from and also thanks to engineers who suppressed the grit but damaged Schnabel’s tone, projection, leaving one to hypothesize on obscured details. A painful listening experience that lasts unto this day, As an example of how poor restoration can effect perception of a performance we find a conversation with the pianist Murray Perahia focusing on the Hammerklavier Sonata (Op.106)’s slow movement. In all likelihood, their comments are the result of heavy filtering:





Perahia later mentions how this movement is a unique appearance of F-sharp minor among the sonatas, observing that Mozart too reserved it for his profound slow movement in his Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K. 488. To get an idea of what they and everyone else hears as Schnabel’s performance we have the opening minute of the Beethoven played by Schnabel on the official release:



Having had access to a decent copy, we can hear what was lost when the baby was thrown out with the bathwater as absent room tone eliminates the projection into whatever space Schnabel interacted with:



So, according to the musician eager to bring the work to life  and his savvy  detached interlocutor, Schnabel’s performance seemed to have taken 25 minutes! I’d say that to hear the poor sound on the commercial  excerpt  would seem like a day in jail or listening under torture.



Chinese water torture at Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York, circa 1860


No wonder historic recordings were long despised: you had to wrack your brains to reconstruct what was lost and in real time! Academia is shy about historic recordings favoring written data about performances of the past and using mechanical piano rolls that allegedly attest to how someone, otherwise unrecorded on disc, actually played. I often tell students to pretend we are studying Art History. Handing our black and white photocopies bearing numbers that are explained by an inset (#1-green, #2-red, etc.) is all that’s necessary and don’t bother to see the orighinals in museums: this is all you need! They find it an odd way to teach Art but I mention that most students are discouraged from hearing older performances, as they vary in sound and, with some composers, contradict their scores.


So after having heard Schnabel play the slow movement in 18’08”, how much time does Perahia need?



16’21”! So do the math: 18’08 – 16’21” = / or 25′ -16’21 =


Just saying that it’s time to bring back the dead, who were more alive than most of the living, removed from sonics that impress as having been recorded in abandoned underground subway stations or cramped bathrooms,  engulfed by the best of intentions, and set listeners on fire with musicianship that perennially exists outside of any chronological jail. Quiet vinyl sound + shellac origins = Cultural Death.

Allan Evans ©2019

Aside from the complete piano sonatas, Schnabel  playing two Beethoven Sonatas for violin and piano in concert with Joseph Szigeti exists and can be heard on a CD that we recently issued.




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