Musical genius, prodigy, and boy wonder are some of the words most often used to describe Claudio Arrau (1903-1991). Regarded by many music critics as a master interpreter and impassioned artist, Arrau enjoyed a stellar, if sometimes unorthodox, career that spanned over 80 years. Arrau was born on February 6, 1903, in Chillan, Chile. His father died less than 12 months after he was born, but his mother, an amateur pianist, recognized and nurtured his musical genius and became his first teacher.
Chilean legend says that Arrau could read music before he could read words. He made his formal performing debut in Chile at the age of five, playing selections composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Frederic Chopin. It became clear long before he reached ten years of age that his talents surpassed those of the available teachers and that his musical education would require the molding of a master mentor. In 1912 Arrau was sent to study with Martin Krause at the Stern Konservatorie in Berlin at the expense of the Chilean government.
It was through Krause that Arrau was first linked to the music of Beethoven in what would prove to be a profound lifelong musical and spiritual connection. Arrau's life was threaded to the composer's through a direct line of four teachers: Beethoven taught Karl Czerney, who taught Franz Liszt, who taught Krause. Once Arrau left Chile, Krause was his only teacher.
Young Arrau's introduction to the European concert scene came early. He performed before royalty and in salons and in 1914, at the age of 11, made his formal recital debut in Berlin, marking the official start of his career as a solo pianist. In 1922 he made his London debut in a recital with Dame Nellie Melba and the violinist Branislaw Hubermann.
Life in Berlin provided Arrau with the opportunity to bathe in the richness of European culture. Arrau considered it the duty of every great artist to become not only proficient in his or her field of expertise, but also to know as much as possible about all art—painting, sculpture, literature, and theater. He collected Etruscan and pre-Columbian art and was knowledgeable about European classic literature. Arrau felt that his appreciation of the wide range of arts and culture helped inform his interpretations of the music he played. Arrau's concert schedule, which over the course of his life took him all around the globe, enabled him to indulge in his interest in the world around him. Whether in Europe, America, Australia, South Africa, Israel, India, or Japan, the young pianist studied the local art and culture and collected artifacts.
Martin Krause died in 1918, when Arrau was in his late teens, an event that deeply shook the young musician. Arrau was further rocked in 1923 and 1924 by a disastrous U.S. reception on his first tour there. Performing with the Boston Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, Arrau found that U.S. acceptance of his style and work came slowly. Mournful about the loss of his mentor and concerned about maintaining his career, Arrau experienced a period of emotional, artistic, and financial insecurity. He eventually found a psychological and spiritual mentor in Jungian analyst Dr. Hubert Abrahamsohn, with whom he remained close throughout his life.
Arrau adhered to Carl Jung's notion of the "collective unconscious" in which the psychologist posits that the same universal aspects of human experience lie dormant in all people, clothed in symbolism, waiting to be exposed, felt, and lived. Arrau willingly underwent analysis throughout his life because he believed that if he could tap into his unconscious he could set in motion powerful creativity. He remained humble within this context, acknowledging his creativity as something available to all humans, his talent a gift.
Arrau's accomplishments and the honors he received throughout his career were myriad. In 1927 he won the International Prize for Pianists in Geneva, which helped build his early reputation as a Bach pianist. This link to the composer became firmly established in 1935 when Arrau completed the entire cycle of Johann Sebastian Bach's keyboard works. After completing the cycle, though, he decided that the harpsichord was the most appropriate instrument on which to play Bach's works and chose not to play them again. He did, however, find this cyclical approach to composers' works satisfying. For example, he played a cycle of Beethoven's works in Mexico City in 1938 and later did the same with compositions by Mozart and Franz Schubert.
Arrau married soprano Ruth Schneider in 1940 and shortly thereafter left Germany to live in New York City. He and his wife had children after moving to the United States. Although he lived there for years, he did not become a naturalized U.S. citizen until 1979.
Arrau's Mastery Acknowledged
In 1991, New York Times music critic Donal Henahan called Arrau's musical contributions "exemplary," noting in particular his detailed interpretations of Beethoven. "Arrau played a great deal of 19th-century music with great virtuosity and insight, but also with a well-tailored refinement that prompted critics early in his career to characterize his style as 'aristocratic,' a somewhat misleading label that stuck with him."
But Arrau was not merely a traditionalist. In fact, his musical taste and affinities varied greatly. Although primarily considered a Beethoven specialist, he also played the modern music of Arnold Schoenberg, Igor Stravinsky, and Ferruccio Busoni before they achieved fame in their own right. Whatever the composition, music critics found that Arrau's playing was marked by a thoughtfulness and consideration of detail not often evident in others' work.
Arrau was also regarded by many as a man of particularly sensitive and passionate temperament. He found it difficult, and often emotionally painful, to live up to the expectations thrust upon him by the public, the artistic and financial communities, and himself. Because he was so focused on his emotional life, he was considered by some to be temperamental. He would on occasion cancel performances if he felt that his spiritual affinity to a piece was out of balance.
In addition to his musical talents, Arrau was a man of great political passion and conscience. On one occasion he performed a benefit concert that raised $190,000 in contributions for Amnesty International's campaign for the release of political prisoners around the world. In addition, he refused to play in his native Chile for years in protest against the Marxist government of Salvadore Allende and later that of the right-wing military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. He did return to his homeland in 1981, though, arriving to a hero's welcome. The Chilean government declared a day of national mourning when he died. A nephew reported at the time that Arrau had claimed that, while his mind and intellect belonged to Germany, his heart was still with Chile.
Although Arrau was a dedicated teacher for many years, in his later life he became disillusioned with teaching because he saw a trend in the musical world towards placing an emphasis on technique rather than the personal development of the artist. He was committed to the notion that a pianist not only had to know myriad aspects of culture to be a well-rounded artist, but also must know him or herself emotionally. Arrau felt that many of his students were unwilling to take such steps. Still, he found comfort in having chosen and adhered to his own personal path of growth and exploration.
Arrau gave up performing after his wife died in 1989. He had been scheduled to perform a recital, his first in three years, when he died on June 9, 1991, in Murzzuschlag, Austria, at the age of 88 after undergoing intestinal surgery. He is best remembered for his personalized interpretations of the work of some of the greatest piano masters of all time, as well as his willful artistic spirit.
The Annual Obituary, 1991, edited by Deborah Andrews, St. James Press, 1992.
The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. 1, edited by Stanley Sadie, Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980.
Newsmakers, Gale Research, 1992.
New York Times, June 16, 1991.