“You will never be a pianist, you are a musician,” the pianist Theodor Leschetizky reportedly told his student, a young Artur Schnabel. Born in a poor Moravian village in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Schnabel was sent to Vienna to study piano as a boy and moved to Berlin in 1900, where he established a reputation as one of the foremost interpreters of Beethoven’s piano works.
Leo Baeck Institute’s holdings include decades of correspondence between the legendary pianist Artur Schnabel, his wife Therese, a renowned contralto in her own right, and the Frankfurt composer and lawyer Max Kowalski.
Known more for his communicative and emotional playing than technical mastery, he eventually made recordings of all 32 Beethoven piano Sonatas which are still prized for their musicality despite inaccuracies. As a composer, he embraced a much more modern aesthetic, sometimes employing 12-tone serial techniques and very sparse lines, without ornamentation.
Forced to leave Berlin in 1933 because of his Jewish background, Schnabel spent time in England and Italy before settling in the United States, where he was already famous due to regular performances there since 1936.
Though Schnabel did eventually return to Europe for performances, in 1948 he declined an invitation extended by the Austrian Institute in New York to participate in a benefit concert to rebuild the Vienna Opera. “Bruno Walter’s suggestion, and your invitation as extended by him, is naturally a great honor for me,” he wrote the Institute’s director, Siegfried Altmann. “If I nevertheless decline, then it is only because for various reasons (perhaps mostly sentimental) I have not reached the point where I can take part in any public events that have to due with Austria or Germany.”