Karl Ulrich Schnabel’s Approach to Expression
Claude Mottier

I have little to say here about Artur Schnabel – I never met him, since he died so long before I was born – and most people interested enough to read these words will know as much about him as I do, or more. Nor do I wish to concentrate on how Karl Ulrich Schnabel continued his father’s legacy. It is true that he did… but so did many others. Too often, I have heard effusive praise of my grandfather to the effect of, »It was almost like being able to study with Artur!« Such statements are simply inaccurate and, frankly, offensive. Even among some of his most ardent admirers, it is not always clear that people appreciate to what extent Karl Ulrich was an innovator, rather than a vessel holding his father’s legacy in trust.

As a teacher, he had a great deal more to say about technique than his father had had – largely because he came to his own technique later in life, and with greater difficulty than his father had; but also because he spent years exploring how subtle variations in touch would affect tone quality.

He found that he could manipulate the sound even after a note had been struck; and more importantly, he figured out how he had done it, and thus could teach the techniques to others. Similarly, he explored the use of the pedal and wrote Modern Technique of the Pedal (1950). But more than the fp that made the opening chord of the Pathétique riveting, more than chromatic scale fingering that brought my plodding final scale of Chopin’s first Scherzo up to the requisite blazing speed overnight, more than the sparkling trills that transformed all his students’ playing, more than all of this I remember his approach to expression.

Learning about expression

When, like many young children, I began to take piano lessons at the age of five, my grandfather soon realized (or was made to realize) that here was one instance where he would not be able to maintain his lifelong habit of not teaching children. And so I soon became the first and only child he ever taught, and he began to teach me all manner of things my other teachers wished he hadn’t. Specifically, he believed that there was no reason to wait until I had a fully formed technique to teach me about expression. I clearly remember my first lesson with him; I had brought some infantile (and not very interesting) piece to play for him. I have no memory of the piece, but one piece of advice he gave me sparked my imagination and stays with me.

»Can you imagine an angry lion?« he asked.

»Yes,« I said, imagining the sharp claws, majestic mane and pointy teeth on that angry (hopefully not at me!) lion.

»Now imagine a very small bird,« he continued.

»Yes…« I said, trying to imagine what it would be like to be that angry lion.

»Now,« he said, »couldn’t that bird be just as angry as the lion?«

I imagined I was that little bird, furious. »Yes.«

»But that angry bird wouldn’t be loud like the lion, would he?« he asked.

What a revelation! »No!« I smiled.

»So this section here should be like the angry bird, piano, but with the same emotion,« he concluded. It seemed the most natural thing to my five-year-old self. This simple lesson – the first of many – opened a world for me that, sadly, remains shrouded in mysticism and metaphysical gobbledygook even for most adult artists. The simple question, »What, specifically, do you want to express right here?« is all too often answered with no more than a blank stare, or a meaningless platitude like, »This part gets really emotional.«

Note: The complete text of Claude Mottier’s essay on Karl Ulrich Schnabel’s approach is here (PDF).