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14 minutes reading time (2840 words)

The Schnabel family’s exile in Italy

Legendary for their ability to ignite the imagination in students, the Schnabel family has provided a rich musical heritage, including a teacher tree linking directly to Czerny and Beethoven through Artur's studies with Leschitizky. One of the Schnabels' most celebrated and influential students, Leon Fleisher, reflects back on his time with the Schnabels as lessons in life and ethics as well as in music.

Few know the details surrounding the Schnabels' exile during World War II. When Hitler ordered a national boycott of Jewish businesses and professionals in Germany, Artur Schnabel and many of his contemporaries found their concerts cancelled and their lives in danger. The family fled to Italy and set up their home and studio in Tremezzo.

We are grateful to the late Ulrich Baumgarten for bringing this story back to life, and we thank the composer Fredric Kroll for translating the essay and bringing it to our attention. Inquiries and/or comments may be addressed to Dr. Fredric Kroll, Hessenstr. 3, D-79211 Denzlingen, Germany.

Leaving Home

by Ulrich Baumgarten 

May 16, 1933-Sept. 7, 1938

When Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, Karl Ulrich ("Ruly") Schnabel suggested to his father: "Why don't we go to Lili Kraus's at Lake Como where we had such a good time last summer?" Karl Ulrich convinced his father, his mother Therese, and his brother Stefan, although the latter was not pleased to move from one Fascist country to another.1 Dr. Otto Mandl, a wealthy Hungarian industrialist and Lili Kraus's husband, was asked to find a suitable domicile for the family. Artur Schnabel had discovered a passion for playing tennis years before, so it was a stroke of luck to rent the Villa Ginetta, an outpost of the Grand Hotel in Tremezzo, which had its own tennis court. The Villa also became the starting point for Artur and Therese's morning walks to Rogaro di Tremezzo before Artur commenced teaching at eight o'clock.

The Villa Ginetta at Lake Como, Italy.
Karl Ulrich Schnabel
Therese Schnabel-Behr


Artur's dog, Mäcky, and the tennis rackets were stuffed into the second-hand Fiat, for which Artur Schnabel received an import permit signed personally by Mussolini. On May 13, Ruly, Stefan, and Therese drove toward Italy, stopping en route in Garmisch and St. Moritz. Artur, having just received an honorary doctorate from the University of Manchester, went on to Vienna for the Brahms Festival, arriving in Tremezzo later than the rest of the family.

Rented pianos arrived from Milan, followed by 7,000 kilograms of freight transported from Berlin, including Artur's 4,000 books. The family's twelve-room apartment in Charlottenburg was retained—after all, in just a few months the nightmare would be over, and one would be able to go back. Ruly and Stefan's Aunt Lilly continued to act as secretary and managed the household by herself, pending the Schnabels' return. Ruly's apartment on the Kurfürstendamm was also retained; Ruly later returned to Berlin several times.

Teaching in Italy

In the summer of 1933, forty of Artur Schnabel's students from all over the world traveled to Tremezzo on the banks of Lake Como to participate in the master classes given by their venerated teacher. Among them were Clifford Curzon, William Glock, and Carlo Zecchi. Karl Ulrich Schnabel was his father's assistant. Welcome guests during the "good times in Italy" included the composer Ernst Krenek, Bruno Walter, who came from nearby Lugano, Schnabel's future biographer Cesar Saerchinger, and Konrad Wolff. Wolff 's wife Ilse Bing, the "Queen of the Leica," paid for her piano lessons by photographing her teacher.

The master classes were held until 1938.2 Beginning in 1934, they were organized by Peter Diamand, who had grown up as a neighbor of the Schnabels in the Schlüterstrasse in Berlin. The most prominent students at this point in time were Maria Curcio, Rudolf Firkusny, and Leon Fleisher.

At the same time, violin classes took place under Szymon Goldberg, the concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, who had been dismissed on racial grounds. Therese Schnabel taught voice students, among them Gertrud Hindemith, Maria Stader, Irene Eisinger, and Herta Kroehling, who was later to play a crucial role in salvaging the Schnabels' property when they emigrated to America. In nearby Milan, Karl Ulrich Schnabel's first piano teacher, Lisa Spoliansky, and her husband, Alfred Schroeder, a student of Artur Schnabel and later Director of the Jerusalem Conservatory, found asylum.

Tours abroad 

During his first Italian exile, which was to last until the introduction of the Italian race laws on Sept. 7, 1938, Artur Schnabel toured the United States, giving concerts in 1933, 1935, 1936 (this year saw the performance of a Beethoven sonata cycle in New York), 1937, and 1938. In 1934, he toured the Soviet Union, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Palestine. In 1934 and 1935, he also gave concerts in Vienna and England, a highlight of which was a Beethoven sonata cycle in London. These years also included vacations with his family in France, and trips to Switzerland— Schnabel composed his Sonata for Piano and Violin and his first symphony while in the village of Saas-Fee in the Swiss Alps.

With the help of Carlo Zecchi and Peter Diamand, Karl Ulrich Schnabel had little difficulty in pursuing his career in Italy. He made recordings for the radio in Vienna in 1934 and toured the U.S.S.R. in 1935 and 1937, where Fritz Stiedry gave him access to Shostakovich. His concert appearances of March 1936 in London and November 1936 in Warsaw, and his New York debut in January 1937 were triumphant. A tour of the United States followed his New York debut. During his father's piano classes, Karl Ulrich met his future wife, Helen Fogel. Artur and Karl Ulrich recorded Mozart 's Concerto for Two Pianos K. 365, and Bach's Concerto for Two Pianos BWV 1061 under Sir Adrian Boult for His Master's Voice in 1935 and 1936. The recordings were made in London, where Artur Schnabel had made his legendary complete recording of all Beethoven's thirty-two piano sonatas in 1932 and 1933. Artur and Karl Ulrich performed their first four-hand piano recital in New York in 1938.

During the first Italian exile, contact was broken off between Therese and her brother Hermann Behr, who openly supported National Socialism, and, according to Herta Kroehling, wrote Therese "nasty letters." Hermann Behr conducted the final concert of the 12th German Singers' League Festival in Breslau in 1937, in the presence of Hitler and Goebbels.

Stefan Schnabel made his acting debut in the Old Vic Theatre in London as early as 1933, feeling more and more attracted to the English language. He became successful on Broadway, on television, where he had a role in The Guiding Light for seventeen years, and in the cinema, appearing in more than sixty films.

Artur Schnabel's daughter, Ellie Rostra, fled from Berlin to Paris, where she attended master classes. She was primarily a composer and survived the war disguised as a nun in a convent in southern France.3

Artur's passion for composing is described in Maria Stader's book, Nehmt meinen Dank: Die Mozartsängerin erzählt ihr Leben (Accept My Gratitude: The Mozart Singer Tells Her Life Story) as follows: "He longed to give up the piano and dedicate himself completely to composition. 'Give my Artur a big table, a pile of music paper, a selection of sharpened pencils, pens, and flasks of ink of different colours,' Therese sighed, 'and he'll vanish out of sight.'" 4

Increasing tensions 

The annexation of Austria by Germany abruptly rendered the Schnabels stateless, as their Austrian passports lost their validity. They naturally neither wished nor were able to apply for a German passport. At the time, Artur Schnabel was on tour in New York, where he applied for American citizenship for his wife and himself (his two sisters also emigrated from Vienna to the United States.) He received his immigration visa in December 1938 from the American Embassy in London. Friends in England helped him to obtain the British "Certificates of Identity" with which the Schnabels were able to travel. After Hitler's state visit to Italy in May 1938 resulted in the Provvedimento contro gli ebrei stranieri residenti in Italia ("Provision against Foreign Jews Residing in Italy"), Artur Schnabel of course no longer desired to play in Italy nor to remain there. He cancelled his last concert in Italy, which had been scheduled for Dec. 21, 1938, in Naples.5

Therese traveled in March 1939 from Italy via London to the United States. The Villa Ginetta remained vacant until the beginning of September 1939, when Herta Kroehling, at the urging of her mother, went there from Berlin to keep an eye on things. From September 1939 until her precipitous departure in July 1941, Herta Kroehling lived by herself in the Villa Ginetta, always in uncertain hope of the Schnabels' return. San Pietro, the owner of the hotel and the Villa Ginetta, became a Nazi collaborator, and the German lady in the Jewish household was a thorn in his side. In July 1941, the German commissioner for the province of Como turned up unannounced, took away her passport, and summoned her to his office in Dervio, where she would get it back. Herta Kroehling repeated before witnesses in 1999 the exact words with which she was ordered to leave the house: "This is a Jewish household. You know what happens to people like you in Germany: their remains are sent to their relatives in a sack." Shaken by this threat, Herta Kroehling asked a Swiss friend to accompany her on her bicycle ride to Dervio, fifty-five kilometers away on the other side of the lake. Before obeying the summons, she told him, "If I'm not back in fifteen minutes, start a hue and cry."

During questioning, Kroehling pointed out that the house had been rented by Therese Schnabel, who was Christian; nonetheless, she was confronted with the choice of either returning to Germany or being conscripted "to compulsory labor," which meant being thrown in a concentration camp. With the help of a young Italian friend named Carluccio, Kroehling attempted to escape forced departure by moving to the province of Milan, where the Italian authorities made it possible to gain time. Hoping that her friend would be able to be trained as an engineer by Siemens in Berlin, she finally decided to return to the German capital. She and Carluccio took measures to protect the entire interior of the Villa Ginetta, all the personal property of the Schnabels, from confiscation by the Nazis or the Polizia Fascista. Carluccio—probably out of love for Herta—persuaded his parents to let their house in the mountains in Margno be used as a hiding place. Herta and Carluccio, pretending that the Schnabels were moving to Switzerland, filled fortyfive crates with sheet music, manuscripts, books, paintings, and silver. At dawn, they took the crates and furniture to a boat that started off in the direction of Como, only to turn on the lake unseen and continue to Bellano on the opposite bank, where a truck belonging to Carluccio's family (they owned a grocery in Tremezzo) and a number of workers lay in wait. It was only a few kilometers from Bellano to Margno in the mountains. There, the music and personal objects were walled into the garage. The furniture and portions of the library were unobtrusively mixed in with the household of Carluccio's family; the carpets and the silver were concealed in a cottage in the forest.

The situation became dramatic after September 8, 1943, when northern Italy was occupied by Hitler's "Fire Brigade" (elite SS divisions) and army units redeployed from Russia. Because the family's villa in Margno was the most beautiful in town, three SS soldiers requisitioned it in September 1943, remaining there until the end of the war. Every morning, military conferences with general staff maps took place around the kitchen table, under which the family's hunting rifles lay. On the bookshelves stood the Schnabels' Brockhaus Encyclopaedia, and the SS men browsed through it. As the upper Valsassina was said to be firmly in the hand of the partisans, brutal raids were conducted in the area. The most terrible one began on June 24, 1944, and lasted forty days, during which 700 mountain cottages were destroyed. Carluccio's family was severely and repeatedly questioned by the Polizia Fascista.

As if by a miracle, there were no catastrophic consequences, and when Artur and Therese Schnabel returned to Lake Como for the first time in 1947, they discovered that their possessions had survived the war undamaged. Driven by Peter Diamand, they twice journeyed to Margno to express their gratitude to the courageous family.

Signed photo of Artur Schnabel, presented in gratitude to the family who helped keep his possessions safe during the later stages of World War II.


Return to Italy 

When the war was over, the question of where the Schnabels would reside arose again. Therese Schnabel refused to return to Germany. Artur Schnabel, whose mother had been killed in the Holocaust at the age of eighty-four,6 would have preferred to move to Switzerland, but only if Herta Kroehling would have been able to join him there. The apartment in New York was retained for the time being, and Karl Ulrich, with his wife Helen and his daughter Ann, rented the Villa Bel Sorriso in Volesio near Tremezzo for the family.

In 1946, Artur Schnabel composed his Seven Piano Pieces in Sils-Maria, Engadine, in southeastern Switzerland. In 1947, his Rhapsody for Orchestra was written there, and in the same year, Artur Schnabel met Dinu Lipatti in the Hotel Waldhaus in Sils-Maria. Schnabel heard Lipatti perform a concert in nearby Silvaplana.

Herbert von Karajan had somehow managed to find out the Schnabels' telephone number in Volesio. He tried everything to win Artur Schnabel for the Salzburg Festival until Therese—after several phone calls which she felt to be tactless— forbade any further contact and terminated the conversation.

Due to a severe heart ailment brought on by incorrect medication in 1949, Artur Schnabel was no longer permitted to hike in his beloved Engadine, having to confine himself to walks in the plain. He liked to go on excursions above Croce near Menaggio. He and Therese spent the summers of 1950 and 1951 in the famous Hotel Axenstein, above Lake Lucerne, where Queen Victoria had vacationed during the nineteenth century. In the solitude of this magical mountain world, the twelve-tone composition Duodeciment was written in the summer of 1950. When Artur Schnabel's health deteriorated in 1951, Therese nursed him self-effacingly for months. He sought recovery in the Hotel Axenstein at the end of June.

Artur Schnabel died in the Hotel Axenstein on August 15, 1951. His body was interred in the cemetery of Schwyz at the foot of the Mythenstock. Artur Schnabel was survived by his wife, Therese, who lived with Herta Kroehling in the Villa Bel Sorriso after Artur's death for almost eight years. Karl Ulrich and Stefan made Lake Como their second home.


Born in 1960 in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, Ulrich Baumgarten received his concert diploma from the Vienna University of Music and Performing Arts, having studied under Paul Badura-Skoda, among others. Baumgarten was a virtuosic and sensitive interpreter of Liszt, Alban Berg, and above all, the late works of Alexander Scriabin. In the course of his advanced studies under Karl Ulrich Schnabel, Baumgarten informed the Akademie der Künste in Berlin of his intuition that significant portions of Artur Schnabel's unpublished papers could be found in the basement of Karl Ulrich Schnabel's villa, which in fact turned out to be the case. Convinced that the Akademie der Künste had not paid him an adequate commission for his key role in the founding of its Schnabel Family Archives, Baumgarten sued the Akademie. After losing the lawsuit, he fell prey to a protracted period of depression, culminating in his tragic death by drowning under uncertain circumstances in the Rhine downstream from Basel, presumably during the night of Dec. 18/19, 2006. He was interred on his forty-seventh birthday. This essay is his sole remaining legacy.

1 Testimony by Mary Lou Chayes on video, 1995. 

2 Starting in 1940, thanks to Schnabel's pupil Joseph Brinkmann, Schnabel's summer classes were continued at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where Brinkmann was a professor. 

3 Ellie Rostra (1899-1995). Daughter of Artur (fathered at the age of 16) and the violinist Rosa Hochmann. 

4 Maria Stader, Nehmt meinen Dank: Die Mozart-Sängerin erzählt ihr Leben (Accept My Gratitude: The Mozart Singer Tells Her Life Story), München: Kindler, 1979, p. 167. 

5 Lili Kraus and her husband, who also had Austrian passports, emigrated via Paris to London, proceeding on toward New Zealand in 1942. They fell into the hands of the Japanese in Jakarta and were under arrest and/or prisoners of war (POWs) there until 1945. 

6 Cf. Maria Stader's deeply moving testimony in: Nehmt meinen Dank, p. 292.


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