The Musical Life and Legacy of Artur Schnabel

Artur Schnabel, 1939, Box 11, Folder 5, Mary Virginia Foreman Le Garrec Collection of Artur Schnabel Materials, Music Division, Library of Congress

Renowned pianist Artur Schnabel is best known for his recordings of a complete cycle of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano sonatas, which he recorded from 1932-1935. His recording, the first ever made of the complete cycle of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas, to this day places him at the forefront of interpreting the composer’s piano works. Schnabel’s son gifted his father’s collection to the Music Division in 1981. To celebrate Schnabel’s achievements, this year, the Library of Congress selected the recording cycle to be placed in the National Recording Registry.

Schnabel’s views on music lean toward the positivist side. In using the term positivist, I mean Schnabel’s primary focus rested on the notes—the music itself—with less concern for social, political, and cultural circumstances that led to the creation of the specific works. To him, words were a tool, a means to an end, “but subsequently forgotten if the performer is to succeed musically.”[1] In the words of Lynn Matheson, Schnabel had the “uncanny ability to create verbal analogies and characterizations, conveying just enough information to guide the performer.”[2] He found that ability and success most prominently in the music of Beethoven and also Franz Schubert, whose then-neglected sonatas he championed. Schnabel continued to play Beethoven throughout his career; his final public performance exclusively featured Beethoven sonatas.

Program from Schnabel’s final public performance, Hunter College, New York, 20 January 1951, Box 10, Folder 4, Mary Virginia Foreman Le Garrec Collection of Artur Schnabel Materials, Music Division, Library of Congress

As two events at the Library this Thursday and Friday demonstrate, however, Schnabel’s artistic achievements were not limited to performance. On Thursday, November 29, as part of the Music Division’s concert series, the Library will screen the film, Artur Schnabel: No Place of Exile, which documents the preparation of a concert of all-Schnabel music compositions in 2016. The performance featured pianist Markus Pawlik, baritone Dietrich Henschel, and the Szymanowski String Quartet. The film traces Schnabel’s origins, with visits to the places in which he lived and traveled before fleeing the Nazi regime. Also featured are performances from the 2016 Haus des Rundfunks concert as well as interviews with a number of prominent musicians.

Schnabel, Pablo Casals, Paul Hindemith, and Bronislaw Huberman rehearsing at the Bristol Hotel in Vienna, c. 1935, Box 11, Folder 11, Mary Virginia Foreman Le Garrec Collection of Artur Schnabel Materials, Music Division, Library of Congress

The program on the following evening, November 30, features live performances of several Schnabel compositions: Drei Fantasiestücke (c.1897), Sonata for Piano, selections (1923), Sonata for Violin and Piano (1935), and several lieder.

Despite his performance concentration on Germanic composers—particularly the Viennese school—most of Schnabel’s music features an atonal harmonic language. Indeed, Schnabel himself was a close friend of Arnold Schoenberg, now famous for his own focus on atonality and subsequent development of twelve-tone music.

Both the Artur Schnabel Collection and Mary Virginia Foreman Le Garrec Collection of Artur Schnabel Materials are open for research in the Performing Arts Reading Room.


[1] Lynn Matheson, “Epilogue,” in Music and the Line of Most Resistance, Artur Schnabel, eds. Lynn Matheson and Ann Schnabel Mottier (Berlin: Akademie der Künste, 2007), 134.

[2] Ibid., 135.

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