Karl Ulrich Schnabel

Although sixty years have passed since Artur Schnabel recorded the major part of Beethoven’s works, his influence is still present among us. Not only have his recordings, editions and writings preserved his view of Beethoven, but his octogenarian son Karl Ulrich Schnabel maintains a continuity through his extensive teaching activities and performing (piano four-hands). The following material is drawn from an interview Schnabel kindly granted in 1991, long before this project was planned. He touched on many facets of his musical life and that of his parents, leaving an important, portrait of their way of life and music-making.

Here is a visit with Karl Ulrich Schnabel from  3 June 1991 in two parts:





On growing up in Berlin : For music and theater, it was really incredible, something which since then does not exist. Actually for the quantity of music, New York and London now are having more. But what was so extremely unique about Berlin at that time was that the whole population felt that that was what gives the city its character. When you went in a taxi to one of the concert halls, they knew where it was, you didn’t have to explain. They were proud to bring someone to one of those places for which Berlin was most famous. The theater was just as important. Reinhardt was very important but was only the best known of all but by no means the only one or the best one. I saw one of Brecht’s productions.

The Volksbuhne : It was a very important place. As the word says, it was a theater for the people, for the working population. An average worker couldn’t go to the theater because it was too expensive and also he wouldn’t have felt happy there. It was founded in 1890 in the Eastern part of Berlin in the workingmen’s neighborhood. It was for us very far to get there but was a very big theater and they had regularly scheduled productions for the workers for cheap prices. And my father liked that idea so much and felt that it was something that should be supported that not only did he play a recital for them every year without ever taking any fee, but also for the very first time in 1927 on the 100th anniversary of Beethoven’s death, he played the 32 Sonatas in seven recitals, again without fee. They still consider my father as one of their big sponsors. He was never in the position to give them money or even attempt that but he gave his work which was worth more than plain money. He was quite famous by then and his fees would have been very high. Last year (1990) as it was their hundredth anniversary they planned a memorial concert for my father and as there are some people who knew of my existence, said that as long as there will be a memorial concert, you have to do two things; first- do some of his compositions, which for my father was the most important thing. What very few people know is that my father didn’t like to play in public. Of course, playing in public then was more bothersome than nowadays, the audiences were not too quiet, they were restless. In those days, playing was not cheerful joy, although in one sense, playing was more of a joy than now because the pianos were so better- wonderful pianos. We had a Bechstein at home, and my father played on it practically through his whole career. The second suggestion was ‘get someone from the family.’ So we played there: Schubert’s Variations in A flat, and a solo composition of my father’s played by a young German pianist named Litwin.

The end of Berlin as a musical center : For my father, composing was really the sense of his life even though during his lifetime his compositions were practically never performed. They were quite a bit ahead of their time, as was Sch=F6nberg, but he wasn’t performed too much. He did his composing mainly during his vacations. Lili Kraus was a very faithful pupil of my father’s, particularly during his last years in Berlin. They had a very nice villa at Lake Como and in 1932, just before Hitler came to power, they invited the whole family to that house, so we stayed for two weeks at Lake Como and liked it very much. In January of the following year, the Nazis were taking over and by March, April, it became obvious that there was no sense, in fact it would be foolish to stay there. So there was the question of where to go for the summer, because nobody thought that by Fall he would still be in power. Everyone took for granted that this madness couldn’t last more than three or four months. It did. As my father did all his teaching from June to September, I had the idea to rent a house at Lake Como, and in the Fall when Hitler was dead or something like that we could all return to Germany. Unfortunately he wasn’t dead so we had no idea of returning. We had to abandon the apartment but brought everything except large pieces of furniture. All the music got out and all the books and much else because it was in 1933 and still easy to move things. Also what helped us was that we were foreigners. My father was Austrian and you did not get the nationality of the country where you were born but that of your father. We were Austrian citizens. So we wouldn’t have been physically endangered before 1938 when Hitler took over Austria. But there was no thought of doing any work there and no desire to stay. I remember that the moment Hitler brought up anti-Semitism, the votes for him increased [tenfold], and was supported by the other countries who even became the Allies, including Mr. Henry Ford. Many people had the feeling of disaster, even though many hoped that it wouldn’t last long. But in the middle of the summer it was obvious that he wouldn’t be out.

There were many others who were not Jewish- the Busch brothers who were Christian and immediately left because they didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Not because they were by any means Communists, especially Fritz Busch who was on the far-Right, but not with these madmen. Actually the Rightists became their biggest enemies, especially during the War. I was quite amazed: I had one friend, a sort-of friend, who was very far right and we felt ashamed of being friends with her because she was so rightist. Her husband later on was one of those who tried to kill Hitler.

At that time my father was playing the Beethoven Sonatas at Philharmonic Hall, and during the fifth recital, Hitler took over and he still finished the series as we left only in May. But the moment he got into power, the radio was not allowed to broadcast these concerts.

The house [at Lake Como] we had before the war was rented, but again, all the stuff we had there was saved because there was a family of Italians we knew well and there was a German girl we always had in the house, a pupil of my mother’s, and she was Christian. So she brought the things into the mountains just about two months before the Germans came. This family immediately made a second wall in their cellar and when the Germans came and went through the house and cellar they didn’t see a thing. My mother was spending the whole year in Italy after 1933 and it was only when the war started that they had to get out. My father’s mother was killed in a concentration camp.

On musicians : My father was eighteen when he moved away from Vienna- that’s why he wasn’t liked there too much, because he moved away to Berlin. Busoni was a friend of my father’s. Petri I met very late, after the War, when we were judging a competition. A very nice person, great pianist of course; as so often with great people- very modest. A pupil of mine, when he was sixteen, had the great courage to go and visit Petri and wasn’t accepted because he was much too young. And he made a naive remark: “Mr. Petri, can you tell me what is really difficult for the piano?” And Petri gave the correct answer right away: “Difficult is what you can’t do.” That’s absolutely right.

I was in Russia in 1935 and 1937. At that time Fritz Stiedry was conducting the Leningrad orchestra and as we knew him very well, he invited me and those were my two visits in Russia. I met Shostakovich at that time, a young man, very depressed, extremely depressed. He was on, what one would call, a spiritual hunger-strike. He totally refused to write one note, he would not write anything because it was [considered] wrong and he was not allowed to compose that way. I couldn’t say a word to him, he spoke only Russian, but there was some translating. Then he was forced to compose or he wouldn’t have had anything to eat. I feel that after that his works were never as great as before. His best compositions were the very early ones. I had a very good friend there who was the nephew of Liebknecht [ a Communist revolutionary, colleague of Rosa Luxemburg] who fled to Moscow. But he had to flee again when the dictatorship became too strong. He left his family and went to Austria, where the Nazis killed him. There were a lot of terrible fates.

[Eduard] Erdmann used to play my father’s compositions a lot. I knew him very well and liked him very much. I heard a performance of the [Chopin] Polonaise-Fantasie by him which was the best performance of the piece I’ve ever heard. Just overwhelming. He played my father’s piano sonata in the 1925 Venice Festival. It takes more than forty-five minutes and created a scandal. The most contemporary music they gave there was Respighi; Brahms would have been a revolutionary there.

On writers and theater : I read Hauptmann, but like everyone who reads him, likes some things and hates others. I read Wedekind and Schnitzler later; during my teens it was forbidden, indecent. [My parents] had it in the library, and at that time I followed their advice but I read them later. I like Wedekind more than Schnitzler. Krauss’ magazine [The Torch] was very little known in Berlin. I was at the Berlin Volksbuhne at one of Krauss’ productions. You know that he would always do Offenbach operettas all by himself. He played the piano and would sing all the parts. The first five minutes seemed ridiculous. . . by the end of the first half you had totally forgotten that there was a single man on the stage. Just one piano and not singing very well, and you saw the whole operetta. I went more to the theater than I read books. These are from my teenage years, you see. Having this contact with the Volksbuhne, we got opening night tickets, and as my parents were constantly traveling, who got the tickets? Me. So I saw practically all their premiers and took part of the Berlin theater life, not so much the Reinhardt and fashionable things but through the Volksbuhne. I went to the cinema, even though it was strictly forbidden- my parents didn’t allow me to go. I made a film myself in 1931 and ’32, it was my great passion. A full length silent hour and a half 16 mm film, wrote and directed it, and I would have ended up in film instead of music if Hitler did not come.

On piano studies : I was thrown out of [Leonid] Kreutzer’s class- not of my own doing but because I was between him and my father. I learned a great deal from him. Kreutzer had already a number of well known pupils. In our house there was not only music done by my parents, but there was ping-pong. I was very interested in it and not bad, and we constantly had tournaments. I had friends over who were from the Hochschule [f=FCr Musik] and practically Kreutzer’s whole class came over to play. Now my father was teaching in the next room to the ping pong table so we couldn’t play while he was teaching, in the morning. Our playing was arranged for when he was finished. But my father was not a person who kept to a schedule so very often instead of finishing at 1:30 he finished at 3:00. So we had to wait and there was a drifting into his room as he had his own pupils listen [to the lessons]. And quite a few of Kreutzer’s pupils found it interesting and left him. I was a kind of Trojan horse- I came in and pulled his pupils away. Now I see that he was perfectly right- that was no situation, but I couldn’t see anything wrong because they came for ping pong and not for my father’s teaching. It was a problem. My father wanted me to go into conducting, which I wasn’t cut out for, as he realized how difficult it would be for me to make a career with his name. Therefore I tried to get into it but after two years my teachers talked to my father and asked him ‘Can’t you make him try to get back to the piano?’ I stopped with Kreutzer in 1926, with conducting in 1928, and from then on, whenever I needed advice on the piano, I went to my father.

On the [records of my mother] done with my father, she was only about fifty-five, at the beginning of Hitler and her voice was still much better [than a later recording she made with me]. It was from the last year in which she was singing in public.

On Chopin playing : Unfortunately while he did quite a few piano rolls, you can get [an idea] but there’s no Chopin. The Black Key Etude is fast, but doesn’t say much about his style of Chopin. He did play the 24 Preludes a lot and I feel that it was one of his best pieces. I believe in that type of Chopin. I believe that Chopin even more than, for instance, early Beethoven, should be played exactly as according to the text. I feel that a man like early-Beethoven who writes no ritard in a whole sonata, that if you take it in a few places, you can take it for granted that Beethoven did not want it to go on as a metronome all the time. Whereas when there is someone like Chopin where in one piece there are 25 ritards, I have the feeling that in the place where he doesn’t write the ritard, you shouldn’t do it! But that was the uphill fight of my father’s. He was never appreciated as a Chopin player by the critics. They always felt that was the wrong way of playing. I heard Pachmann in Berlin and unfortunately he didn’t make any jokes that day. He didn’t come often to Berlin, he was afraid of Berlin- it was the most serious place for music. He played a straight recital; some of it was very nice, very beautiful, but most of it rather dull, because his great stuff was when he started making all that fun. In Berlin he thought they would throw stones at him or something. I was very disappointed. I heard D’Albert too, but it was too late [for him], he was not good anymore. But even what I heard was a tremendous personality, there’s no denying that! It was absolutely wild. Another wild one was Edwin Fischer, who was younger than my father and who died early. That was rather hysterical playing. But his recording of the [Bach] Chromatic Fantasy & Fugue is marvelous. He had a beautiful tone. I was unjust towards him when I was fourteen or fifteen because it was so opposite of what my father was preaching.

On playing editions : Mikuli’s edition [of Chopin] is an edition in the way that it does not entirely follow the manuscript. Whenever he doesn’t follow it, he does it the way Chopin played it. Mikuli knew how Chopin played and I believe [that’s how] he got some of the ideas and solutions while I feel that some of the things in the Oxford edition are very unreliable. For Beethoven I like the Urtext- not the Breitkopf [complete edition] – the Kalmus is taken from the urtext. [I don’t like] the Schenker edition too much. Schenker is a genius but he’s too much of a Schenker genius. He made quite a few changes in these compositions without saying where these changes are. I want to know what Beethoven wrote and Schenker changes too much. I’m keeping away from musicology. I always say that the best thing to do is to look at the scores and to get the truth as much as you can from them.

© Allan Evans, 1996

A remarkable book on Schnabel’s teaching.