Claudio Arrau was born in Chile in 1903. His gifts were evident at an early age, and his mother was his first teacher. With government aid, he went on to study in Berlin with the most enduring influence of his life – Martin Krause. Krause was the long-time pupil of Franz Liszt. Reported Arrau, “I inherited the Liszt tradition, and through Liszt, the Czerny and Beethoven traditions.” Krause nurtured Arrau and supervised his practice, taking him to concerts where he heard everything. After Krause’ death when Arrau was only 16 years old, Arrau did not want to work with another teacher.
During the next decade, Arrau slowly began the process of career-building, while constantly adding to his repertoire. When he won the Geneva prize, Arthur Rubenstein was one of the judges. By the 1930s, Arrau was performing world-wide, playing recitals of the complete keyboard works of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.
Arrau viewed art and music as sacred, mystical and spiritual. By temperament and education, his philosophy of art was not as a mere enjoyment, but a way of life. Stated Arrau, “All the talents one possesses should go into the personality as an artist and into the music the artist makes. Concentration should not be on music alone; to better understand music the artist must embrace the total universe.” “The true pianist,” he continued, “Must draw from all sources to develop his total personality. Not to do so is to remain narrow and incomplete as an artist.”
Of piano training, he reported that the Liszt method of playing trills was not as mere adornments to a work but as expressive purpose. The trills had to be played at different speeds to fit the mood of the work being performed, he commented. Some were fast, some slow, some loud, some were soft. The technique was determined by the character of the piece. In playing scales, arpeggios, and general passage work, Krause advised that the arms should “be like snakes, so that together with loose wrists there would be no interruption of the flow of movement anywhere.” The whole picture was one of fluidity and effortless playing, whether rendering a large chord or the smallest package of notes.
Arrau spent time working with broken chords. “To get a very rich sound, I learned to push the pedal down first before beginning the chord,” he said. “Practicing trills, scales, broken chords, and pedaling is only the means to realize and express all your musical vision.” He thought that technique was the means to the art of interpretation.
The pianist had one of the major musical careers of the 20th century. Arrau experimented with repertoire, playing huge amounts of Bach and Mozart. But Beethoven was the rudder that set him on his ultimate course. He first played the cycle of Beethoven sonatas in Mexico City in the 1930s, and ever after made the master of Bonn his main concern. During that period, Arrau emerged as a musical architect, with Fischer and Schnabel affecting him more deeply than any other pianists.
During and after the years of WWII, Arrau’s playing became more austere. There was more angularity in phrasing, more definition, less pedaling for color’s sake, and he became more objective in his conceptions. His playing is often bleak, such as Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy, selections from Albeniz’ Iberia, or the dry Chopin Etudes and Scherzos, and a wiry Debussy. This period lasted twenty years.
In the last quarter-century, Arrau’s art was crystallized. The bleakness of the postwar period was left behind; there was more optimism in his vision and his playing was imbued with lyrical sweep and monumental style.
Arrau returned to Mozart for rejuvenation, but, according to Dubal, the kind of graciousness Mozart demands was not an innate part of Arrau’s temperament. In Mozart, there is always a tear beneath the smile, but Arrau searched only for the tear. Debal found his recording of the C minor Sonata too strenuous, the A minor Rondo too tortured, and the D minor Fantasy, needing simplicity, was too heartrending, and full of pedal and torpor. But Arrau reported “You have to start with absolute faithfulness to what the composer wanted by studying the earliest editions. On the other hand, this loyalty is only a basis on which the artist builds his own vision, his own idea of the work.”
His conception of Chopin developed an authentic Chopin, albeit his own, in which he is a master of design; structure is prime. It is not, says Debal, a Slavic, Polish Chopin but is the essence of the Teutonic type, blended with “his passionate Latin” heritage. Arrau’s Chopin during the 1950s was skeletal, but in his later period it was often massive and colorful, possessing many interpretive depths. It is never light or pretty, far from the view of him as a “ladies’ composer” according to Arrau himself.
Arrau’s earlier Debussy is transformed in later years. He felt the Preludes were of visionary scope, with a “proximity to death,” a phrase he often used. Gone is the Gallic clarity of the French musician. The grace of simplicity rests uneasily in Arrau’s music-making; his Debussy seldom has a moment’s repose, and he finds in the music a labyrinth of mysterious murmurings. Said Arrau, “Debussy is a composer whose depth and spirituality often escape the performer. The miracle in Debussy’s music is this feeling of musical mystery which makes it so difficult to explain what he actually meant. There is no question about the incredible beauty of his sounds, but to stop at his tones is to misunderstand Debussy.”
The composers in whose work Arrau’s genius truly blooms and flourishes are Schumann, Beethoven, Liszt, and Brahms. He became deeply involved with Schubert whose music, he felt, poses the most difficult of interpretive problems. His recording of the B flat Sonata shows many beauties of tone and feeling, but it strays, lacking directness and charm. His best Schubert recording is a haunting reading to the great C minor posthumous sonata, with a chilling finale.
For many pianists and audiences, Schumann’s large works are difficult to interpret and play. But Arrau’s creativity was perfectly welded to Schumann’s deep Romanticism. The denser the work, the more involved Arrau became. His own metric clock fits closely with the seemingly barless music. Free to indulge and experiment, Arrau could become playful. He brought out inner voices, subtleties of voicing and texture, and the vernal atmosphere of early German Romanticism. The Fantasy, Symphonic Etudes, Humoreske, Davidsbundlertanze, and Carnaval are filled with fire, and leaping, soaring spirit, but also with the dark overtones of Schumann’s own nightmarish psyche on the brink of mental disaster. He played Schumann with great compassion.
All pianists should closely study Arrau’s Beethoven. He has been among the great disseminators of this composer’s work, and has prepared his own edition of the thirty-two sonatas. His playing offers an abundance of interpretive insight. This is Arrau the master builder, fired with intellectual curiosity and passion. He saw in Beethoven a mirror of human aspiration, joy, and suffering. The music was Arrau’s spiritual home.
Commented Arrau, “It is inadvisable for a very young artist to want to play late Beethoven. He should study late Beethoven sonatas, but he should not play them too soon because that is an impossible pretension on his part. Works like late Beethoven and late Schubert should mature in the artist gradually. You should live with them for many, many years before deciding to play them publicly.” He adds, “Beethoven is probably the greatest composer that ever lived, and the deepest, because he encompassed the whole cosmos.”