Claudio Arrau, one of the greatest pianists of the XXth century, lived for music. You may check it out here if you want to find out more about him or if you feel like you have a connection with his artistry.
Claudio’s Spectacular Early Life
Claudio Arrau was born in 1903 in the city of Chillán, the capital city of the Ñuble Region of Chile. His father was Carlos Arrau and worked as an ophthalmologist. Unfortunately, he would pass away when Claudio was only a year old. His mother was Lucrecia Leon Bravo de Villalba and worked as a piano teacher – an obvious influence in Claudio’s life.
His family was once a very important one in the region of Southern Chile. One of his ancestors was Lorenzo de Arrau, a military engineer who originated from Spain. He arrived in Chile in 1763 following the orders of King Carlos III of Spain.
His great-grandmother is known to be Maria del Carmen Daroch del Solar. She was a descendant of a Scottish noble family, the Campbells of Glenorchy.
Claudio was born and raised in the Catholic faith, but he would renounce it as early as his late teens.
The fact that Claudio was a child prodigy is well documented. It is known that he was able to read music before he managed to learn how to read words. Even if his mother was a pianist, she wasn’t a professional one, so some consider his achievement as being even more impressive.
Claudio’s mother, being an amateur pianist, was the one who introduced piano to her child’s life. Despite being only 4 years old, Claudio could now read Beethoven sonatas and when he was only 5 years old he would go on and hold his first concert.
At the age of 6 years, he held an audition for the Chilean President Pedro Montt and some of the members of Congress. He left such a strong impression on them, but especially on Pedro Montt, that the President went to make arrangements so that Claudio could follow a proper education in the future.
With support from the government of Chile, when he was only 8 years old, he would go alongside his mother and his sister, Lucrecia, on a ten-year-long grant to Germany where he could study. Claudio was admitted at the Stern Conservatory of Berlin. Here he would study under the tutelage of Martin Krause, a pupil of Franz Liszt.
Martin Krause was quoted as saying about Claudio that “This child is meant to become my masterpiece”.
“Transcendental Etudes” by Franz Liszt is one of the most difficult works anyone could try on a piano, but, being a true virtuoso, Claudio could play it by the age of 11. He also proved he could tackle another difficult work, “Paganini Variations” by Johannes Brahms.
The very first recordings that Claudio made were on Aeolian Duo-Art music rolls for player piano.
When Claudio was in his fifth year of studying, his mentor, Martin Krause, passed away. The now 15 years old pupil was so affected by his death that following this he would stop his formal studies forever, probably considering nobody could ever replace the role Martin had in his life.
An International Star
In the year 1935, by now in his 30s and a world-renowned pianist, he presented over the course of 12 recitals the entire works for keyboard made by Johann Sebastian Bach. The following year he presented the keyboard works of Mozart over the course of 5 recitals. He followed this similarly with the complete works of Franz Schubert and Carl Maria von Weber.
All of his works were celebrated by critics and the audience alike so in 1938 he presented the whole of Ludwig van Beethoven’s compositions for piano sonatas and concertos. This was first held in Mexico City but would become a recurring event in Claudio’s life, later organizing the same concerts in cities like London and New York.
As a result, Claudio Arrau went on to become a leading authority in the works of Ludwig van Beethoven.
The Family Life
In the year 1937, Claudio married Ruth Schneider who was a mezzo-soprano of German heritage. She was five years younger than him. The two would stay together until she passed away in 1989. The couple had three children: Carmen, Mario, and Christopher.
Carmen was born only a year into their marriage and lived until 2006. Their first son, Mario, was born in 1940 and passed away a year before his mother, in 1988. Christopher was born more than 20 years into their marriage, in 1959 and is still alive today.
As the situation was becoming worse in Germany because of World War II, the family decided to leave and settle in the United States. They would become residents of the Douglaston neighborhood of Queens, New York and would spend their entire life there. Claudio became an American citizen in 1979, while also retaining his Chilean citizenship.
Claudio would die in June of 1991 in Austria on the 9th of June due to complications following an emergency surgery done the previous day which was meant to correct an intestinal blockage. He was buried in Chillan, Chile.
Critical Reception of Claudio Arrau
Pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim noticed Claudio Arrau possessed a rather particular sound made of two elements: one that was thick and orchestral, while the second one was a timbre that seemed to exist outside the body spectrum. Sir Colin Davis appreciated his devotion to the works of Liszt.
American critic Harold C. Schonberg noticed that Claudio had a romantic way of interpreting the compositions.
Claudio received four Grammy Award nominations across his career has failed to win any. His first nomination was in the “Best Classical Performance Instrumental Solo (With Orchestra)” for the album “Chopin: Variations on “La Ci Darem La Mano” / Fantasy On Polish Airs, Op 13 / Andante Spianato And Grand Polonaise Brillante in E Flat, Op.22” (1975).
His follow-up nomination was in 1979 in the “Best Classical Performance Instrumental Solo (Without Orchestra)” for “Liszt: 12 Transcendental Etudes and 3 Etudes De Concert”. He would receive another nomination in the same category in 1986 for “Chopin: 4 Scherzi / Polonaise Fantaisie Op. 61”.
The last time he received a nomination was in 1987, just four years before his death, in the “Best Classical Performance – Instrumental Solo (With or Without Orchestra”) for his album “Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.5 in E Flat (“Emperor”).
Claudio was seen as a highly reflective interpreter. He also liked to read as much as possible, especially when he was traveling. Alongside his native Spanish language, he also spoke four other European languages: French, Italian, German and English. In his 20s he also became interested in the works of Carl Jung regarding psychology.
Claudio Arrau was also known for the very serious approach he took to music – sometimes too serious. As a child, there were instances in which his mother would feed him while he was playing the piano. He recounted how he just opened his mouth and his mother would take the spoon to his mouth so he wouldn’t leave the piano for a second.
As an adult, Claudio considered the pianist should be faithful to the score he is performing, but also encouraged the use of imagination. In his early career, he developed a reputation for being a virtuoso. Starting with his middle age, he would start playing using a much slower tempo.
Claudio Arrau was the teacher of many future famous pianists such as Nelson Delle-Vigne Fabbri, Karlrobert Kreiten and Garrick Ohlsson.
He loved performing in recitals as even in his middle age (around the ages of 40 and 60) he would average about 120 concerts per season and he always had a large repertoire. Not only did he tackle the famous works of Beethoven, Chopin, and Bach, but he also presented to the audience the less famous works of Liszt, Busoni or Alkan.
As a recording artist, Claudio has done most of the works for piano by Schumann, Liszt and Chopin. Between 1962 and 1966 he edited all of the sonatas ever composed by Beethoven and recorded them on the Phillips label. He redid a vast majority of them between 1984 and 1990 plus Mozart’s sonatas for piano.
Claudio Arrau has earned his place among the XXth century greatest pianists thanks to his native talent in this area and few if any people could ever be considered his rival.