Claudio Arrau

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Claudio Arrau

Claudio Arrau León (Chillán, Biobío Region, Chile, February 6, 1903-Mürzzuschlag, Styria, Austria, June 9, 1991) was a Chilean pianist internationally known for his profound interpretations from a repertoire that ranged from baroque music to 20th century compositions. He is considered the first great South American pianist and one of the most outstanding pianists of the 20th century, thanks to his performances praised by the critics of the time.He recorded one of the first commercial audio CDs in history.Arrau was student of the master German Martin Krause, who said “this child must be my masterpiece”.

Claudio_Arrau’s Biography

Arrau during his childhood.


Arrau in 1929.

He was the son of Chillanejo ophthalmologist Carlos Arrau Ojeda and of the surgical pianist Lucrecia León Bravo, who taught Claudio the art of piano. The couple married in Quirihue and their three children were born in that same city, where they were baptized in the Dulce Nombre de Jesús church, according to their records. When Claudio was three months old they moved to the city of Chillán, where he was registered with his brothers in the civil registry. The Arrau family was descended from Lorenzo de Arrau, a Spanish engineer from the colonial era.

When Claudio was barely a year old, his father died, the result of an equestrian accident; the Arrau family had significant debts without paying then. This motivated his mother to devote full time to his craft, teaching the execution of the piano. Child prodigy, thanks to the talent and dedication of his mother, at three years and read scores and five years offered his first recital in his hometown. After a piano session in front of President Pedro Montt and the National Congress, he was awarded a scholarship to continue studies in Berlin at the Stern Conservatory, together with the outstanding professor Martin Krause, one of the last disciples of Franz Liszt.

During that period he won several prizes, including the First Prize of the House of Rudolph Ibach and the Gustav Holländer Medal. In 1914 he offered his first recital in Berlin and then began an extensive tour of Germany and Scandinavia, while in 1918 he toured throughout Europe. At that time, he performed with leading orchestras under directors such as Nikisch, Muck, Mengelberg and Furtwängler.

Martin Krause died in 1918, a fact that plunged Arrau into a depression. Such was the respect he owed to his teacher who, after this fact, gave his musical training completely, not having any other teacher later, he was able to recover and continued giving concerts, until, in 1920, he received the Liszt Prize for two years consecutive.

During his tours of Europe he played by heart the full-tempered harpsichord, composed of forty-eight preludes and forty-eight escapes, a feat that Beethoven had tried, but could never perform in public.

In 1925 he was appointed Professor of the Stern Conservatory. In 1937 he married the mezzo-soprano Ruth Schneider, with whom he had three children.

Arrau always recognized in Pablo Neruda an artist and author non plus ultra, and said that for him it would have been an honor for the poet to consider him his friend.

In 1941 Arrau moved to the United States due to the consolidation of Nazism. The decision was motivated by the murder of one of his disciples accused of being anti-Nazi, along with the persecution in which his wife, of Jewish origin, was involved. Installed in New York, he founded the Claudio Arrau Academy in 1943 with Rafael de Silva.


Tomb of Claudio Arrau in the Municipal Cemetery of Chillán.

In 1980 the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra awarded him the Hans von Bülow medal.

He recorded one of the first commercial audio CDs in history, Chopin Valses, with the complete collection of Frédéric Chopin’s waltzes. Then, the president of Philips visited him at home with a high-frequency radio transmitter and asked him to press a button when New York time was 10:00. The signal that the device issued started the CD production in Germany. On August 17, 1982, he was the first to go on sale together with The Visitors of the ABBA group and the Richard Strauss Alpine Symphony, directed by Herbert von Karajan.

In 1983 he received the National Art Prize of Chile, a fact that according to the pianist was his definitive consecration, pointing out:

To be recognized by the people and the land where one was born is for me the definitive consecration. One can be distinguished by friends, admirers and critics, but if the recognition of one’s family is lacking, honor and fame are incomplete. Now the Chilean family has decided to grant it to me and my feelings are a mixture of great humility and excited satisfaction.

Claudio Arrau León died at age 88 in Mürzzuschlag (Austria) on June 9, 1991. His remains are buried in the Municipal Cemetery of Chillán by testamentary will, and more specifically in the so-called Paseo de los Artistas, together with other well-known artists from Chillanejos such as Ramón Vinay, Marta Colvin, Lalo Parra and Gonzalo Rojas.

To commemorate the centenary of his birth, 2003 was declared in Chile «Claudio Arrau Year» by decree 178 of 2002 of the Ministry of Education.

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