10. Artur Schnabel against Himself

Not only did Artur Schnabel record all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, he also prepared annotated editions of them, complete with tempo and metronome indications. In this chapter, we would like to compare the tempo curves of his recordings with tempo recommendations of his edition—to see how they compare and discuss any discrepancies. The recordings of our three sonatas were made in 1933 (op. 57), 1934 (op. 2/3) and 1935 (op. 106). The edition of the sonatas is from the years 1924–1927. He made revisions for a reprint by Simon and Schuster in New York in 1935, which however were not actually adopted for print until a later edition by Curci in 1949. The tempo indications of our three sonatas were not changed, so that we can assume that the tempi of the 1924–1927 edition continue to reflect his conception of the tempi at the time of the recordings. We shall not compare Frederic Lamond’s Appassionata recording with his edition, because the tempo indications offer solely a torso, which would seem to be more editorially than artistically motivated. In order to distinguish between the editor’s contributions and Beethoven’s own text indications, Lamond only adopts the (few) metronome markings from Hans von Bülow and does not include the (many) written tempo indications.

Figure 27: Tempo Curve Appassionata Artur Schnabel (1933)
Compared with the Indications of his Edition (1924–1927/1949)

Schnabel’s metronomization of the Appassionata in his edition is highly differentiated and his recording largely reflects these tempo indications. Figure 27 shows the tempo curve of the recording alongside the tempo indications of the edition. The differences consist mostly of increases of tempo at the high points (at measures 25, 81, 112 and 227) and decreases at the slowest points (beginning of the exposition and development). So that an already dramatic conception of tempo is made even more so on the recording.

There are two passages that deserve particular attention: The higher tempo at measure 227 and the slower tempo at the beginning of the movement. The faster tempo at 227 is especially remarkable as the resulting accelerando occurs at a point where the edition actually calls for a reduction in tempo. And on the recording this increase in tempo is accompanied by a flood of wrong notes. Schnabel left the recording this way and allowed for its release; he seems to have believed that result was successful in its way and from our perspective rightly so. It certainly delivers something highly dramatic, even ecstatic. ( 85) The difference between the recommendations of the edition and performance practice could be characterized as the difference between the calm, reflected calculations at home—calculations that also bear the technical difficulties in mind—and the heated zeal of engagement in the concert hall or recording studio. The performance situation requires a very specific mix of concentration and stress, in which one makes decisions that one may not have chosen with distance of reflection, decisions that come at a price but that are convincing in the end. Compared to the recordings of other pianists, Schnabel’s tempo decisions in this passage are unique. Of all the recordings whose tempi we examined, there is only one other recording on which an already fast tempo at this point is increased. It is the Walter Gieseking’s recording from 1939, and it contains no fewer wrong notes than Schnabel’s.

The second passage deserving of particular attention is the beginning of the movement. Schnabel’s edition gives a tempo that he does take at the beginning of the recapitulation, but which is not even close to that which he takes at the beginning of the exposition. The artistic result of a comparatively slow beginning of the movement can also be considered successful. Schnabel was the first in the history of recordings of the Appassionata to take such an approach to tempo, and many interpreters would later follow his example. Before Schnabel, the tempo curves were more even, whether at a faster tempo—Frederic Lamond, Harold Bauer (both 1927)—or at a slower one—Wilhelm Kempff (1932). The most famous Appassionata recording after Schnabel’s with a notably slow beginning is that of Svjatoslav Richter (1960).

From our perspective there are three possible explanations for such a discrepancy between the metronome markings and performance practice. First, one could perceive it as a simple misperception: Schnabel conceives of the tempo with the continuous eighth notes of the beginning of the recapitulation and plays it without the eighth notes simply slower with a rhapsodic-dreamy character. Second, this approach causes a particularly expressive performance situation in context, which tends to make an already dramatic formal arch even more dramatic. Third, it is also possible that Schnabel was bound by a regulating idea, which simply forbid him to set different metronome markings for the exposition and recapitulation: The idea of form as ‘architectural form.’ ( 86) Of the 32 sonatas there is not one for which Schnabel gives different metronome markings for the beginning of the exposition and beginning of the recapitulation, not even the smallest discrepancies that, given the minute differences of indications that are otherwise so frequently found in his edition, is actually quite surprising (we will return to this question at the end of the chapter).

The especially slow beginning also has the secondary consequence of distorting the tempo relationship between the first and second theme groups: Schnabel’s recording does the exact opposite of his suggestion in the edition that the second theme group should be played slower than the first. In the recapitulation however, he follows his recommendations exactly and the second theme group is indeed slower than the first.

Figure 28: Tempo Curve op. 2/3 Artur Schnabel (1934)
Compared with the Indications of his Edition (1924–1927/1949)

The indications in the edition of the Sonata op. 2/3 (see Figure 28) are far less differentiated as those of the Appassionata, and Schnabel’s recording differs from these to a greater extent. For starters, he does not take the quick tempo at the beginning of the exposition and recapitulation, but rather takes these and all other thematically and melodically bound sections considerably slower and only the virtuoso sections and the ‘energetically lively’ episode at measure 39 follow his tempo indications. In other words: He does not draw any distinctions between thematic and virtuoso passages in the first and second theme groups and concluding group, and at the beginning of the development section. He only realizes the leap of tempo within the transition.

The fact that Schnabel gives so few tempo modifications, is likely an account of the then common belief that early Beethoven should generally be performed at a single tempo. The tempo modifications that Schnabel does give however, are then only fully understandable when one takes Frederic Lamond’s edition into consideration, from which Schnabel critically distances himself. Lamond recommends in his edition that one make tempo changes between thematic and virtuoso passages in the first and second theme groups and not in the transition to the episode at measure 39. Schnabel does just the opposite—even though he plays those passages, so indicated by Lamond, at a faster tempo too. The fact that Schnabel decided against a faster tempo at measures 13 and 61 has to do with the fact that here he had more gradual tempo transitions in mind, as opposed to measure 39. The reasons for this are probably no less than a principally different conception of the piece. At the very latest beginning with Wilhelm von Lenz (1860), the sonata has repeatedly been accused of being simply a virtuoso piece and not a self-contained whole. Lenz writes:

“With the exception of the wonderful Adagio in E Major 2/4, the third sonata in op. 2 is far beneath the other two. The always proper, first movement (Allegro con brio 4/4) is a fusion of the keyboard styles of Haydn and Mozart, and a harpsichordist piece without any musical significance, having nothing to do with a basic, poetic concept. (…) We stand here before the only of Beethoven’s piano movements in which one finds purely pianistic passages (13 and the following measures).” ( 87)

Eugen d’Albert (1902) sums up this idea once more in a footnote to his edition:

“This sonata is intended to be nothing more or less than a virtuoso’s showpiece; and it is, therefore, useless to try and conjure mysteries or depth of thought into its interpretation.” ( 88)

The idea that the piece is a virtuoso work is in accord with Lamond’s metronome markings, which give the passages at measures 13 and 61 extremely fast tempi, tempi that are nowhere as high, and which ostentatiously identify these as virtuoso passages. In Schnabel’s case the virtuoso passages are integrated into a comprehensive, unified tempo process. These do not receive their own tempo indications and are also not accorded a role as tempo climax of the movement. However, an abrupt change of tempo does bring out a characteristic thematic figure such as that at measure 39. That Schnabel then on the other hand decides on an even faster tempo at measure 69—the tempo climax of the movement—which he himself does not take in his own recording, is still indicative of the ideal of a tempo process at a higher level, in which all figures are integrated, whether thematic, melodic or virtuosic.

Finally, the decision to set the tempo of the movement based on the passage groups and not the primary theme group, is not only pragmatic—given that continuous smaller note values make it easier to conceive of the tempo—but rather again the result of Schnabel’s anti-virtuoso concept: The passage groups are not ‘brilliant’ exaggerations of the tempo, they mark the actual flow of the tempo; comparatively the thematic passages offer residues of more tension-filled concentration—and with these a reduction of tempo as well.

Figure 29: Tempo Curve op. 2/3 Wilhelm Backhaus (1952)
Compared with the Indications of Frederic Lamond’s Edition (1923)

Lamond’s tempo model, unfortunately Lamond never recorded the sonata himself, is the closest Wilhelm Backhaus’s recording from 1952. Backhaus, like Lamond, was a pianist educated in the Liszt tradition. Backhaus makes considerable leaps in tempo at the virtuoso passages, which mark the absolute tempo climaxes of the movement and these leaps are even greater than those suggested by Lamond. It would almost seem as if the 68 year old Backhaus’s interpretation was advocating by example the assertion made by the admired teacher of his youth, Eugen d’Albert, that the Sonata op. 2/3 was “purely a virtuoso sonata.” Figure 29 shows the tempo curve of Backhaus’s recording in combination with Lamond’s tempo plan.

Figure 30: Tempo Curve Hammerklavier Sonata Artur Schnabel (1935)
Compared with the Indications of his Edition (1924–1927/1949)

Schnabel’s tempo indications for the Hammerklavier Sonata are also highly differentiated (see Figure 30) and again here his recording largely follows his own interpretation recommendations, perhaps even more so in this case than with the Appassionata. In contrast to the Appassionata and op. 2/3, he takes in particular the beginning at the very fast given tempo, which of course also has to do with the fact that, in context of the discussions about the autograph tempo, the beginning represents the point de la perfection (see   Chapter 5). The extreme reductions in tempo seen on the tempo curve—excepting tempo and dynamic before the concluding group material at measures 99, 331 and 361 and a reduction of tempo at the beginning of the concluding build up before the recapitulation at measure 221—represent Beethoven’s ritardandi and fermatas, which Schnabel did not give metronome markings in his edition. The only extended period where Schnabel deviates from his recommended tempo is in the second theme group, where he plays both relevant sections (at measures 47 and 75) faster than his edition suggests.

It is difficult to say why it is that Schnabel plays the second theme group so much faster than his suggestions in the edition. Looking more exactly, this poses two questions. First: Why are the metronome markings for the second theme group in the edition even slower than those of the first—a suggestion that not only he himself does not follow, but hardly anyone else either. It is conceivable that this has to do with the generally fast metronome markings of the movement, and a desire for lyrical gesture before the concluding group. However, this may also have to do with the 19th Century tradition of a slower second theme group. The second question then is: Why does Schnabel actually play the second theme group even faster than the first? It seems to us that given the fiendishly difficult technical challenges of the Hammerklavier Sonata and the enormous pressure that Beethoven’s autograph metronome markings put on the performer, the second theme group, which is comparatively so easy to play, tends simply to ‘run off’ in the heat of the moment. The fact that he allows this though is traceable to his compositional commitment. Pushing the tempo in no way compromises the unclear position between lyrical turn and passage.

Finally though, it seems to us that Schnabel settled in general on a tempo model that tends towards ‘development’. Schnabel carries the ‘organism model’ of composition—the idea that a comprehensive, complex composition grows out of a single motive as a tree from a single seed—over to the tempo level. Rather than simply progressing linearly, the tempo must also develop an arch form. It is this that leads to Schnabel beginning the Appassionata and op. 2/3 so slowly. This is not possible for the Hammerklavier Sonata on account of the fast metronome markings and the exceptional significance of the tempo of the first theme group, and so the second theme group ends up being so fast.

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85. von Loesch and Brinkmann, ‘Die Tempogestaltung in Artur Schnabels Appassionata-Einspielung’ (  as fn. 1); Heinz von Loesch, ‘ ‘In the very struggle with external difficulties, a sweeping excitement of the mind makes its presence felt’ – On the Semantics of Virtuosity’, in: Dzielo muzyczne jako znak (8) (The Musical Work as a Sign. 8th International Symposium), ed. Anna Nowak, Wydawnictwo Uczelniane Akademii Muzycznej w Bydgoszczy 2012, pp. 41–50.

86. The term ‘architectural form’ as used by Jacques Handschin,    Musikgeschichte im Überblick, Lucerne 1948.

87. Wilhelm von Lenz,    Beethoven. Eine Kunst-Studie, Dritter Theil, Erste Abtheilung: Kritischer Katalog sämmtlicher Werke Beethovens mit Analysen derselben, Erster Theil: I. Periode op. 1 bis op. 20, Hamburg 2nd edition 1860, p. 43.

88. Leipzig: Otto Forberg.