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Mr. Schnabel’s Beethoven


It behooves each of us, and especially the generation who have not grown up with pianists of the past, to listen to their recordings and divine their appeal to the audiences of their day. Listening to the rushed tempos, the scrunched-together sixteenths, and the distorted effect of Artur Schnabel’s Pathétique or his Op. 111 you no doubt will conclude that performance has come a long way. My teacher, José Echaniz – of blessed memory – once related a conversation with his wife in which she asked how someone who couldn’t play four sixteenth-notes straight could be called a Beethoven authority. Who called him a Beethoven authority in the first place? The answer: Schnabel.

What will not be suggested here is that one should imitate Mr. Schnabel note-wise in order to play Beethoven, even if that were possible. The man himself, I have been told, refused to hear again the same piece, so to avoid the student becoming a copycat. Whatever its distinguishing features, there is much to be learned from Schnabel’s playing, as an example, from his reading of the Beethoven Fourth Concerto. Listen to the second movement. It all but speaks, although, as Mendelssohn said, music is too definite for words. The character of the music that Schnabel grasped, or grasped him, was mystery, as though Beethoven’s thinking had been stilled musing about objects of thought one’s mind cannot surround, such as infinity or eternity.

There are also details in his playing on the recording that are disturbing to the pianist of a literal mind, such as the rhythmic figure beginning in m. 123, an eighth-note followed by two slurred sixteenths. Schnabel plays the first sixteenth as a grace note. Couldn’t he hear that this was incorrect? Or, as the Maestro of the local orchestra observed on my student’s comment sheet, “you have a rhythmic anomaly” [!] in the measures in question. Schnabel’s “rhythmic anomaly” however is precisely the same realization given by Czerny in his chapter on the correct performance of all of Beethoven’s works for piano. Whose thinking should be accorded greater credibility, Czerny, who retained Beethoven’s respect throughout life, or the aesthetic ideal of our day that recognizes only the outwardly perfect? The faculty committee or competition juror who is expected to mete out judgments determining the future of so many cannot consider mystery or historical divergence, just the absolutely secure, impeccable, and irreproachable.

There are nonetheless basic lessons for our calling to be mined from this disturbing manner of playing. Mr. Schnabel’s Beethoven represented total personal belief in the spirit of Beethoven as in his imagination he understood the artistic counterpart of the Word in John’s Gospel. What do we believe in? Is it one more cloned playing of this sonata or that concerto? We go to school much too long. Which will be ultimately more convincing, an interpretation that has been taught, tested and certified by an advanced degree or interpretation growing out of an insatiable desire to discover on one’s own the unexpected in the score? A certain brand of authority by prestige, however come by, offers one answer. Schnabel would have had another.

What greatly underestimated guide in the seeming disorder in Schnabel’s playing might one consult? Were we to be transported back in time and privileged to hear Beethoven in life our highly trained sensibilities would very likely feel assaulted. One reads that Beethoven played his works very capriciously. Schindler’s description of his playing of the Grave introduction to the Pathétique cannot be entirely unreliable – that he let the fp chords almost die away before continuing and that an even tempo began first in m. 5. Or Czerny’s remark that Beethoven’s playing was not “always exemplary” with respect to purity and clarity – think effect over clarity in Schnabel’s playing of fast movements. Perhaps all of this suggests that we need to take down the brick walls restraining our thinking and re-map new priorities. Does a sought-for perfection occupy higher ground than spontaneity? Does push-button reliability represent artistry?

Furthermore, how did an impetuous interpreter and “imperfect” pianist such as Schnabel develop a faithful following? Not simply that he called himself a Beethoven specialist, he was unafraid to play the kinship that he felt with a particular component of Beethoven’s nature. As a result the music played Schnabel as much as imagination played Beethoven. He sounded suo generis to the listener of his time, just as, and this is critical to our interpretations, Beethoven himself stood out in his day as unanticipated, one-of-a-kind. Schnabel’s playing counsels us that to play Beethoven we do not have to invent ourselves with persuasive devices of public relations or finding a way to out-perform another performer, perhaps by playing all 32 sonatas in twelve hours. All that is needed is to become absorbed in an unbiased, unrestrained search for identity with Beethoven’s musical decisions in the score. There is much with which to identify.


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