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Claudio Arrau 1 Allan Warren
Claudio Arrau in 1974, by Allan Warren

Claudio Arrau León (February 6, 1903 – June 9, 1991) was a Chilean pianist known for his interpretations of a vast repertoire spanning the baroque to 20th-century composers, especially 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. 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.

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. 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.

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.

Tone and approach to music

Claudio Arrau
Claudio Arrau

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 despite the lack of any formal education outside of his musical training, 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.

Notable recordings:

  • Bach: Goldberg Variations (recorded in 1945), 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
Claudio Arrau, 1929

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.

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.

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