Helen Schnabel (1911-1974)

helen-schnabelHelen Schnabel, born Helen Fogel in New York on July 22, 1911, came from a poor family that had emigrated from Austria and settled in the Bronx. She saw a piano for the first time in a doctor’s waiting room at age four, and, in her own words, “immediately fell in love” with the instrument. However, it took two years to convince her father to allow his musically inclined daughter to commence piano studies. Her first serious teacher was Manfred Malkin, who arranged for her first Carnegie Hall appearance at age nine as a child prodigy. Reviews of her first full-length recital two years later likened the prodigy to the legendary Teresa Carreño. Here was a natural pianist, for whom the instrument’s challenges held few difficulties.  Under her maiden name, Helen Fogel, she broadcast frequently in the following years and gave recitals in New York when 11 and 12 years old.

Helen Fogel gained further experience performing at private musical soirées hosted by influential New York arts patrons like the Guggenheims and the Lewisohns. While still in high school, she began to teach at a music settlement school as well as privately and continued her studies with Alexander Siloti , who had studied with Franz Liszt, on a fellowship at the Juilliard Graduate School, graduating at age 21.

In addition to her frequent solo, orchestra, and chamber appearances, Ms. Fogel played often on the radio. 1933 marked a turning point in the young pianist’s busy career soon after her graduation from Juilliard, when she heard Artur Schnabel in concert for the first time. With her reputation already established, Helen spent four years, from 1935 to 1938, studying with Artur Schnabel at Lake Como in Italy. It was here that she met Artur Schnabel’s son, Karl Ulrich.

Helen and Karl Ulrich Schnabel were married in 1939. At the time of their marriage in 1939, the couple decided to form a piano duo, primarily concentrating on repertoire originally written for two players at one piano. In 1941 their only child, Ann, was born.

America’s entry into World War Two interrupted the couple’s joint and solo careers, and Karl Ulrich went to work as head of an electronic laboratory in a Massachusetts plant, where Helen later joined him.

After the war the Schnabels continued their duo career with a series of six broadcasts in New York, followed by recitals in USA and Canada. They extended their duo concert activity to Europe where in 1956 they participated in the Holland Festival with five orchestral concerts and in 1972 at the Edinburgh Festival.

Helen Schnabel continued to concertize extensively as a soloist in the United States and Europe. She was also a beloved teacher at the Dalcroze School in New York, beginning in 1940. After 1948 she spent summers teaching, along with her husband, in yearly master classes at Lake Como, Italy, as her father-in-law had done before the war.

Recordings include concertos by Mozart, Beethoven, C.P.E. Bach and Artur Schnabel, and solo works by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Weber, Malipiero and Artur Schnabel under the labels Epic, SPA, Philips, and Sheffield/TownHall Records.

Helen Schnabel died at Lake Como, Italy, on September 29, 1974.

Link at Women at the Piano.