Claudio Arrau genius

Claudio Arrau (1903-1991)

Claudio Arrau  (1903-1991)

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Age of Death
Birth Place
Chillán, Chile
Death Place
Mürzzuschlag, Austria
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Since in music we deal with notes, not words, with chords, with transitions, with color and expression, the musical meaning always based on those notes as written and nothing else - has to be divined.

Claudio Arrau León was a Chilean pianist known for his interpretations of a vast repertoire spanning the baroque to 20th-century composers, especially Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt and Brahms. He is widely considered one of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century.


Arrau was born in Chillán, Chile, the son of Carlos Arrau, an ophthalmologist who died when Claudio was only a year old, and Lucrecia León Bravo de Villalba, a piano teacher. He belonged to an old, prominent family of Southern Chile. His ancestor Lorenzo de Arrau, a Spanish engineer, was sent to Chile by King Carlos III of Spain. Through his great-grandmother, María del Carmen Daroch del Solar, Arrau was a descendant of the Campbells of Glenorchy, a Scottish noble family. Arrau was raised as a Catholic, but gave it up in his late teens.

Arrau was a child prodigy and he could read music before he could read words, but unlike many virtuosos, there had never been a professional musician in his family. His mother was an amateur pianist and introduced him to the instrument. At the age of 4 he was reading Beethoven sonatas, and he gave his first concert a year later. When Arrau was 6 he auditioned in front of several congressmen and President Pedro Montt, who was so impressed that he began arrangements for Arrau's future education. At age 8, Arrau was sent on a ten-year-long grant from the Chilean government to study in Germany, travelling with his mother and sister Lucrecia. He was admitted to the Stern Conservatory of Berlin where he eventually became a pupil of Martin Krause, who had studied under Franz Liszt. At the age of 11 Arrau could play Liszt's Transcendental Etudes, one of the most difficult works for piano, as well as Brahms's Paganini Variations. Arrau's first recordings were made on Aeolian Duo-Art player piano music rolls. Krause died in his fifth year of teaching Arrau, leaving the 15-year-old student devastated by the loss of his mentor; Arrau did not continue formal study after that point.

Claudio Arrau, November 1929

In 1935, Arrau gave a celebrated rendition of the entire keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach over 12 recitals. In 1936, Arrau gave a complete Mozart keyboard works over 5 recitals, and followed with the complete Schubert and Weber cycles. In 1938, for the first time, Arrau gave the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and concertos in Mexico City. Arrau repeated this several times in his lifetime, including in New York and London. He became one of the leading authorities on Beethoven in the 20th century.

In 1937, Arrau married mezzo-soprano Ruth Schneider 1908–1989, a German national. They had three children: Carmen 1938–2006, Mario 1940–1988 and Christopher 1959. In 1941 the Arrau family emigrated from Germany to the United States, eventually settling in Douglaston, Queens, New York, where Arrau spent his remaining years. He became a dual U.S.-Chilean citizen in 1979.

Arrau died on June 9, 1991, at the age of 88, in Mürzzuschlag, Austria, from complications of emergency surgery performed on June 8 to correct an intestinal blockage. His remains were interred in his native city of Chillán, Chile.

Tone and approach to music

Daniel Barenboim said that Claudio Arrau had a particular sound with two aspects: first a thickness, full-bodied and orchestral, and second an utterly disembodied timbre, quite spellbinding. Sir Colin Davis said: "His sound is amazing, and it is entirely his own... no one else has it exactly that way. His devotion to Liszt is extraordinary. He ennobles that music in a way no one else in the world can." According to American critic Harold C. Schonberg, Arrau always put "a decidedly romantic piano tone in his interpretations".

Arrau was an intellectual and a deeply reflective interpreter. He read widely while travelling, and he learned English, Italian, German, and French in addition to his native Spanish. He became familiar with Jung's psychology in his twenties.

Arrau's attitude toward music was very serious. He preached fidelity to the score, but also the use of imagination. Although he often played with slower and more deliberate tempi from his middle age onward, he had a reputation as a fabulous virtuoso earlier in his career, a reputation supported by recordings he made at this time, such as Balakirev's Islamey and Liszt's Paganini études. However, even late in his career, he often tended to play with less restraint in live concerts than in studio recordings.

Arrau was a man of remarkable fortitude; even towards the end of his life he invariably programmed very large, demanding concerts, including works such as Beethoven's Emperor Concerto and Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 1.


Numerous pianists studied with Arrau, including Karlrobert Kreiten, Garrick Ohlsson, Roberto Szidon, Stephen Drury and Roberto Eyzaguirre among others.

He was a frequent recital performer: from age 40 to 60 he averaged 120 concerts a season, with a very large repertoire. At one time or another, he performed the complete keyboard works of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin; but also programmed such off-the-beaten-path composers as Alkan and Busoni and illuminated obscure corners of the Liszt repertoire. It has been estimated that Arrau's total repertoire would carry him through 76 recital evenings, not counting the 60-odd works with orchestra which he also knew.

Arrau recorded a considerable part of the piano music of Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. He edited the complete Beethoven piano sonatas for the Peters Urtext edition and recorded all of them on the Philips label in 1962–1966. He recorded almost all of them once again in 1984-1990 along with Mozart's complete piano sonatas. He is also famous for his recordings of Schubert, Brahms and Debussy.

Notable recordings:

  • Bach: Goldberg Variations recorded in 1942, partitas 1,2,3 and 5 recorded in 1991
  • Beethoven: complete piano concertos he recorded them three times and piano sonatas
  • Brahms: complete piano concertos, piano sonatas 2 and 3
  • Chopin: complete Études, nocturnes, preludes and piano concertos
  • Debussy: complete preludes & images, Suite Bergamasque
  • Liszt: piano sonata in B minor, complete Transcendental Études
  • Mozart: complete piano sonatas
  • Schoenberg: piano pieces, Op. 11
  • Schubert: late piano sonatas, Impromptus, Klavierstücke, D. 946
  • Schumann: piano sonata in #F minor, Carnaval, Fantasia in C major, piano concerto in A minor he recorded it four times
  • Weber: piano sonata in C major, Konzertstück, Op. 79

At the time of his death at age 88 in the midst of a European concert tour, Arrau was working on a recording of the complete works of Bach for keyboard, and was also preparing some pieces of Haydn, Mendelssohn, Reger and Busoni, and Boulez's third piano sonata.

The Robert Schumann Society established the Arrau Medal in 1991. It has been awarded to András Schiff, Martha Argerich and Murray Perahia.


  • Olin Downes, reviewing a recital of Mozart, Schumann, Ravel and Debussy works in The New York Times, described Claudio Arrau as "a pianist of most exceptional equipment, imagination and unfailing taste."
  • In 1963, according to various critics, he was a man with "no equal at the present time in point of technical stature and depth of musical imagination," "the No. 1 pianist of our time," a "pianistic titan," a "lion of the piano," or, if you like, a "neo-Liszt from the Tropic of Capricorn".
  • "Is it not Claudio Arrau who is the most musical and deeply serious piano phenomenon of our time?" – Karl Schumann, Germany's leading music critic, in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on June 2, 1986.
  • According to Joseph Horowitz: "His earliest recordings, extending into the forties, are his most mercurial, and are buffed with the glistening tonal refinements mentioned in his early New York reviews. His recorded performances of the following decade or so are more majestically placed; given room to maneuver, he is more likely to linger than to bolt. ... Then, sometimes around 1960, the recordings document a different change. An emerging undercurrent of raw feeling note only dictates yet slower tempos and grander rubatos, but adds to the dignified architecture of Arrau's sound a steady projection of human frailty. ... How did this change come about? ... At the risk of resorting to cut-rate psychology, I am tempted to cite, as well, the event Arrau recalls as 'the greatest shock in my life": his mother's death in 1959. Perhaps mourning openend new emotional pathways. Perhaps the disappearance of a pervasive authority figure freed or emboldened him to make a more vulnerable statement in his art."
  • John von Rhein wrote in 1991 in the Chicago Tribune: "He was among the least flamboyant of pianists, avoiding virtuosic display as rigorously as some pianists seek it out; yet there was never any doubt of his virtuoso technique. He commanded a rich sonority, each chord superbly weighted, the fingerwork a model of finely chiseled clarity, the shape of each phrase deeply considered. Sometimes Mr. Arrau's penchant for slow tempos and emphasis on inner detail could seem fussy, depriving his performances of spontaneity and momentum. At his considerable best, however, he was among the most deeply satisfying interpreters of Mozart, Brahms, Schumann, Liszt, Chopin and particularly Beethoven, whose works held a position in his repertoire comparable to that of his great colleague, pianist Rudolf Serkin.

Awards and recognitions

  • 2012: Voted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame
  • 1990: Gold Medal of The Royal Philharmonic Society
  • 1988: La Medalla Teresa Carreño of Venezuela; Honorary Member of The Royal Philharmonic Society
  • 1984: The Highest Distinction Award from the Inter-American Music Council and the Organization of American States; Doctor Honoris Causa of Universidad de Concepción; Professor Honoris Causa of Universidad de Bío-Bío
  • 1983: The International UNESCO Music Prize; National de la Légion d'honneur of France; National Prize of Art of Chile; First Honorary Member of The Robert Schumann Society; Doctor Honoris Causa of University of Oxford; Commandatore da Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia; Knighthood from the Order of Malta; Beethoven Medal of New York; Philadelphia Bowl of Philadelphia
  • 1982: La Orden del Águila Azteca of Mexico
  • 1980: Hans von Bülow Medal of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra
  • 1970: Großes Bundesverdienstkreuz of the Federal Republic of Germany
  • 1965: Chevalier of Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France; Presented with 'The Mask of Chopin' & Chopin's manuscripts
  • 1959: Santiago's Honorary Citizen; Concepción's Honorary Citizen and City Gold Medal; Hijo Benemérito de Chillán; Chillán's hitherto Lumaco Street was named after Claudio Arrau
  • 1958: The Medal of The Royal Philharmonic Society
  • 1949: Hijo Predilecto de México; Doctor Honoris Causa of University of Chile
  • 1941: Hijo Ilustre de Chillán
  • 1927: Winner of the Grand Prix of the Concours International des Pianistes Geneva. The jury was composed by Arthur Rubinstein, Joseph Pembauer, Ernest Schelling, Alfred Cortot and José Vianna da Motta. Cortot exclaimed: "Cela c'est un pianiste. C'est merveilleux"
  • 1925: Honour Prize of the Stern Conservatory, becoming Professor
  • 1919 & 1920: Liszt Prize after 45 years without a first-place winner
  • 1918: Schulhoff Prize; End of studies at the Stern Conservatory, receiving an "Exceptional Diploma"
  • 1917: Sachsen-Gothaische Medaille
  • 1916: Grant of the Stern Conservatory
  • 1915: First Prize in the Rudolph Ibach Competition he was the only participating boy
  • 1915: Gustav Holländer Medal for young artists
  • 1911: Grant of the Chilean Congress for musical studies in Berlin


  • Claudio Arrau: Complete Philips Recordings 2018

More facts

Gender: Male
Best Known For: Could read notes before letters
Fulfilled his Potential: Yes
Number of spouses: 2
First Marriage To: Erika Burkewitch
Second Marriage To: Ruth Schneider
Children: 3
Children names: Christopher Arrau
Carmen Arrau
Mario Arrau
Father’s Name: Carlos Arrau
Father’s Occupation: Ophthalmologist
Mother’s Name: Lucrecia León Bravo de Villalba
Mother’s Occupation: Piano teacher
Citizen Of: Chilean
Awards: Deutscher Schallplattenpreis, Liszt Record Grand Prix, Diapason d'Or, Grand Prix du Disque, Edison Award, Belgium Caecilia Award, Japan Record Academy Award, FFFF de Télérama, Warsaw Chopin Society's Grand Prix du Disque Frédéric Chopin
Claudio Arrau
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