The Piano Files

The First Complete Recording of the Beethoven Sonatas

Artur Schnabel’s groundbreaking recording of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas is still legendary over 80 years later.
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Artur Schnabel Beethoven

We live in an era when we can access at the click of a button multiple recorded versions of the greatest musical masterpieces. We have gotten accustomed to listening to all the music we could ever want to hear from the comfort of our homes. It can be hard to imagine a time when key works of the repertoire were not at all represented in recorded form.

When Austrian pianist Artur Schnabel made the first complete recording of the Beethoven Sonatas in the 1930s, the expensive and time-consuming process took several years to finish. It was so costly and involved that prepaid subscriptions were taken to guarantee that the funds were available to produce these records. Between 1932 and 1937, Schnabel put the first complete set of Beethoven’s Sonatas and other works on record, resulting in some 100 heavy shellac discs gathered in 12 large bound volumes.

In the early days of recording, before tape splicing made it possible to edit out mistakes, records were made in unedited 4-to-5 minute segments with the needle carving the master record directly, meaning that if any mistakes were made, they would stay there — unless the artist made another attempt to produce a better version. While multiple takes were usually attempted, it was not an easy task for artists to deliver a performance that was both error-free and musically vibrant. However, as many thousands of historical recordings show, many artists did just that — though in some cases a few errors can be heard.

This historical venture was a stressful one for Schnabel, who had previously resisted making recordings. He wrote to his wife detailing the ordeal after a particularly taxing session at the London recording studio:

…one can only play for four minutes. In these four minutes sometimes 2000 or more keys are hit. If two of them are unsatisfactory you have to repeat all of the 2000. In the repeat the first faulty notes are corrected but two others are not satisfactory, so you must play all 2000 once again. You do it ten times, always with a sword of Damocles over your head. Finally you give up and 20 bad notes are left in it. I am physically and mentally too weak for this process and was close to a breakdown. I began to cry when I was alone in the street. Never before had I felt deeper loneliness. My conscience tortured me. Succumbing to evil, the betrayal of life, the marriage by death. It is perfect nonsense, totally unnatural. Depravity…

Furthermore, on one occasion, he found that he had to record works that he had not anticipated:

I had no idea of how outrageous a process the recording on discs could be. Like slave drivers they burdened me with six hours of recording on a daily basis. I had to play pieces that were not included in the contract, but I had no time to prepare them. They thought I was always able to play all the Beethoven sonatas and concertos at the drop of a hat. Instead of refusing to do anything that was not prearranged, I Iet them, as usual, cajole me into doing it; now eight sonatas and two concertos are completed. This is crazy. The working conditions are unimaginable.

It is astonishing that under such stress, Schnabel could play as wonderfully as he did. Indeed, his performances from these sessions contain playing that is still highly praised today, and there is much to relish in these readings: a full-bodied singing tone, soaring phrasing, clarity of texture, gorgeous pedal effects, natural timing, and those idiomatic bursts and contrasts that are so key in Beethoven’s revolutionary writing. To be sure, some of today’s listeners might feel uncomfortable at the occasional moment of inaccuracy. Still, we should keep in mind the pianist’s experience in what he described as a “torture chamber” (the recording studio) and consider that there is not a commercially available recording made today that would be made under such conditions. All of the “perfect” modern recordings we hear are, in fact, made up of seamlessly edited multiple takes, a luxury not granted Schnabel and his contemporaries.

We should also recognize that Schnabel was a great musician who came from a remarkable lineage. His teacher Theodor Leschetizky studied with Carl Czerny, who was a pupil of Beethoven himself. Although Leschetizky taught many legendary pianists with their own individual styles, and one can therefore not assume that everything Schnabel did was something that was communicated from the composer through all these generations, his insightful music-making and his pedigree make these performances well worth hearing.

And here, at the click of a button, those years of arduous effort that Schnabel endured for posterity:

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