The present-day listener might be surprised to learn that composition was the favorite musical activity of pianist Artur Schnabel. Teaching came second in order of preference, and performance followed after that. Schnabel was reportedly uncomfortable with public performance as well as with recording, and described the years from 1919 to 1924, when he had withdrawn somewhat from active concertizing to concentrate on writing music, as the happiest of his life.
Schnabel was born in Lipnik, Poland, on April 17, 1882. When he was seven his family took him to Vienna; there he came under the tutelage of piano pedagogue Theodor Leschetizky, who spotted in the young prodigy an unusually deep musicality. It was Leschetizky who steered the boy away from virtuoso showpieces, instead encouraging him to explore the then-neglected piano sonatas of Schubert, introspective and lyrical works that needed sensitive and alert readings to come to life. Schnabel also studied theory and composition with Brahms' friend Eusebius Mandyczewski, and by the age of 19 had composed and performed a large-scale piano concerto.
In 1900 Schnabel settled in Berlin, already a growing center for new music where the forward-looking pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni held court. Schnabel made the acquaintance of important composers and performers of the day and, through his marriage to contralto Therese Behr, immersed himself in the Romantic song literature. He joined the faculty of the Berlin State Academy in 1925.
Despite his prodigious talents as a musician, Schnabel was always more of a pianist's pianist. Eschewing the audience-pleasing blandishments of flashier soloists, he gave performances that revealed the inner significance of the music. His interpretations of the late, visionary sonatas of Beethoven were spiritual testaments, as can be heard in the landmark recordings he made in 1932 of the complete cycle of Beethoven's 32 sonatas. The company that issued the cycle, His Master's Voice, had had significant success with their subscription-funded recordings made in collaboration with the Hugo Wolf Society of that composer's complete songs, and they looked to repeat their success with Schnabel's studio performances. Although Schnabel greatly disliked the whole idea of recording, he created in HMV's studios one of the most valuable documents in the history of music, treasured not only for its technical artistry but also for the depth of Schnabel's musical insight.
In 1933, Schnabel left Berlin after the Nazi takeover of Germany. By 1939, he had settled in the United States, where he took citizenship and taught at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; he continued to record, but the commercial pressures of the American music industry were uncongenial for him. Though he maintained a home in New York City, he returned to Europe after World War II. In addition to his many recordings (he made far more, and with far more substantial repertoire, than such illustrious contemporaries as Rachmaninov and Busoni), Schnabel also prepared an edition of Beethoven's piano sonatas and the Diabelli Variations, and wrote three books: Reflections on Music (1933), Music and the Line of Most Resistance (1942), and the autobiographical My Life and Music (1961). As a composer, he wrote three symphonies, the aforementioned piano concerto, five string quartets, a Rhapsody for orchestra, piano pieces, and songs. His last work was a Duodecimet for strings, winds, and percussion. Most of these works remain unpublished and are only rarely heard; they demonstrate a highly original approach to the modernistic currents that flowed through Europe at mid-century. He died in Axenstein, Switzerland, on August 15, 1951.