Tribute

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli

1920 - 1995

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was born at Orzinuovi, a small town near Brescia, Italy, on January 5, 1920.

His father, Giuseppe Benedetti Michelangeli, formerly a lawyer, used to play piano, and gave his son Arturo his first music lessons when the child was but three years old. His mother taught him to read and write.

His love for his father was as deep as discrete. During a period when he was ill, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, together with other fellow students at the Musical Institute in Brescia, used to travel to a distant restaurant by bicycle where they entertained the clientele in order to make some money and help Benedetti Michelangeli's father. When his parents found out that, his father scolded him angrily, repeating that those were not things to do, and that Arturo had to think only about studying. He was around 14.

In Brescia, at the Musical Institute, he also met his future wife, Giuliana Guidetti.

Musical studies

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli began to receive regular music lessons at the age of four, at the Musical Institute ``Venturi'' in Brescia, with Paolo Chimeri.

At the age of five, he took part in the annual concert together with other pupils from the school. He wore a short skirt, the way children used to do by that time. When he appeared on the stage, he stood up motionless in front of the piano stool for a few seconds, then, without saying a word, he went back behind the scenes. Everybody thought he was afraid, and they pushed him back on the stage. But young Arturo retired a second, then a third more time, without speaking, until someone eventually understood that he just needed some help to raise up on the stool, still too high for him. Then, he began to play quietly, perfectly at his own ease.

By that date, a local newspaper reported that Little Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (first course, M.o Chimeri) excited the most lively astonishment in the audience for a faultless performance of two studies (op. 409) by Czerny. To the readiness to catch the musical sense of what he played, he joined technical sureness and the ability to communicate his feelings through the sounds.

The review seemed foretell Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli's whole artistic career. The episode of the stool already revealed single mindedness of his behaviour, a trait which in later years was put down to "a superiority complex." Actually, Benedetti Michelangeli never allowed himself a smile to his applauding audience during his performances: he politely bowed, but his countenance remained cool and unyielding.

Applause goes to Beethoven, to Chopin, to Debussy, not to me. I hate when applause is addressed to the pianist, he explained once.

Later he continued studying piano and composition in Milan at the Conservatoire, under the supervision of Giovanni Maria Anfossi, one of the most outstanding pianists of the first half of the century, and violin, with Renzo Francesconi. He received his diploma in Milan in 1934, at the age of 14, and immediately began his career as an artist.

A life as an artist

When Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was to begin his career as an artist, Europe was slowly sinking into the abyss of the Second World War, and an ever decreasing attention was addressed to music.

In 1937 he presented himself to the Italian radio broadcasting agency of that time (EIAR, today's RAI) for audition, but he wasn't engaged.

In June 1938, at the age of 18, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli took part to the Second International Music Contest of Bruxelles, dedicated to the memory of the Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaye. The inaugural competition had been open only to violinists, and it was won by David Oistrakh. Emil Gilels won the second competition, devoted to the piano, and Benedetti Michelangeli came only seventh (first among the Italian competitors). It seems that Rubinstein himself gave poor marks to Benedetti Michelangeli, and that an Italian juror even gave a nought. However, Queen Mother Elizabeth of Belgium, who sponsored the contest, could not help noticing Benedetti Michelangeli's bravura. After a private concert at Court in Lechen, where Benedetti Michelangeli accompanied the Queen Mother, a violinist herself, she awarded the young pianist with a special gift, a pair of cuff-links with diamonds, in the shape of sevens. Seven, she addressed him, will be your lucky number.

Queen Mother Elisabeth and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli remained close friends and often exchanged letters thereafter. The Queen of Italy Maria José, who belonged to the Belgian Royal Family, personally intervened in order to save Benedetti Michelangeli from military service and from the War. However, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli never wanted to leave Italy during that period, despite crossing the Swiss borders so many times to give concerts.

The year after, 1939, Adolf Hitler prepared to invade Poland, and the third Bruxelles Competition did not take place. Neutral Switzerland, however, decided to hold a new International Musical Competition in Geneva. Men and women competed separately, as the pseudo-sportive fashion of that time prescribed, and during each round the artists were separated from the jury's sight by a thick black curtain. They played anonymously, and they were marked by a number only. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli played with number seven.

On that occasion, on July 8, 1939, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli played Liszt's Concerto No. 1. Alfred Cortot, who was in the jury, exclaimed, A new Liszt is born!, and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was proclaimed the winner of the contest. Cortot gave him a photograph of himself, inscribed with the following dedication: To Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, with all my devote admiration.

On that date the legend was born. The newspapers reported enthusiastic comments, and immediately an important Italian gramophone company, La Voce del Padrone, invited him to record for it. Perhaps it was possible that Cortot's comments were over sensational, and other critics were more moderate in their acclaim. A lady, a colleague and competitor of Benedetti Michelangeli's, was reported to say that Cortot's judgement had been probably excessive, since Liszt had been a composer, besides a virtuoso, after all. However, other reviewers, such as Piero Rattalino, agree with Cortot's sensational statement, on the basis of the recording of that Concerto performance, recently found by the Swiss Radio in its archives.

First in Europe (Barcelona, 1940; Berlin, 1946), then in the United States (1948), and finally in Asia, Benedetti Michelangeli was acclaimed by a wide variety of audiences, and praised by the sternest critics. His activity in the recording studio continued also with the German Telefunken.

In 1949, he was chosen as the official pianist for the events organized in Poland and several other countries in order to celebrate the centenary of Chopin's death. In 1957, the Iron Curtain notwithstanding, he was in Prague.

On April 28, 1960, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli gave Beethoven's Concerto No. 5 Op. 73 Emperor, in the Vatican City, at the presence of H.H. Pope John XXIII. His particular bond with the Church of Rome and his admiration towards that Pope, moreover a native of his own land, was later testified by two further concerts in the Vatican, some of which even took place during his voluntary exile from Italy. In the same year (1960) he awarded the G.B. Viotti Golden Prize in Vercelli, Italy.

In 1962 he accepted to record a series of eight concerts in Turin for RAI, the Italian broadcasting corporation. Although in black and white, although Benedetti Michelangeli gave strict instructions not to frame him directly and other such restrictions, nowadays these recordings form an invaluable documentary source of his art and his technique. Apart from his usual reserve in allowing the TV cameras to spy the artist's intimate labour from close up, he used to repeat that he did not care about the image, and that the sound only really mattered to him. His unfathomable countenance was once defined the face of silence (Bruno Barilli). However, as it usually happens, they were probably never addressed with the attention they would deserve.

In 1964, during his first concert in the Soviet Union, at Moscow Conservatoire, the public was double than the seats allowed. The reviewers, usually quite severe, reported that the listeners were in a frenzy, and commented about the extraordinary range of his talent, the perfection of his taste and the extraordinary richness in his sound.

In 1965, his first tour in Japan excited enthusiasm in the oriental audience.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli had an artisan's concept of his job of pianist. To play, he used to say, means labour. It means to feel a great ache in the arms and in the shoulders. He practiced up to eight, ten hours per day, in quest for an equilibrium between the long for the sound effects that the instrument cannot yield and the sensitiveness that allows one to steal the maximum from it nonetheless, as he used to say to his disciples. He used to work on a piece until it was technically perfect, then he began to think about its interpretation. He stopped practicing just a couple of days before the last rehearsal, not to go on the stage with his hands and his mind tainted by the mechanics of exercise. As the years passed by, his extreme sensibility of touch transformed into an absolute equilibrium of the pianistic colours. Together with few other exceptional pianists, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli stretched the pianistic technique to extreme limits, and it is inconceivable that one could do more both in precision, elegance, and powerfulness.

He did not love his life as a concert artist, however. His wife, Giuliana Guidetti, was his agent. She organized concerts and dates for him, and also presided over his financial affairs. In a recent interview, she remembered that her husband could not believe that his concerts were worth so much money. After a concert, she reported that he gloomily said: You see, so much applause, so much public. Then, in half an hour, you feel alone more than before.

His Last Years

In 1968, after the record firm BDM, where Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was a partner, went bankrupt, the Italian authorities sequestrated two of his pianos. He never forgave Italy for such an outrage. Even if he never changed his official place of residence as Bolzano, he left Italy in a voluntary exile, and established his residence first in Zürich, and later in the Canton Ticino, Switzerland, since 1970. In the last years, since August 1979, he occupied a small villa at Pura, near Ponte Tresa. His house was acoustically isolated: nobody could even listen to him from outside. Was that another tribute to his maniacal long for privacy and solitude? (On the contrary, Glenn Gould was a fine neighbour. He even used to organize small amateur concerts with his neighbours in Canada.)

He made only a few official entrances back into Italy, allowing a concert in April 1977 in the Vatican City, in the Sala della Benedizione, which is in fact abroad with respect to Italy, and again in the Vatican City, in June 1987, in the Sala Nervi, upon invitation of Pope Paul VI, for a memorable performance for the benefit of the Order of Malta, another concert in 1980, in Brescia, his birthplace, in memory of his countryman Pope John XXXIII, and again in the Vatican, in 1987. He arrived to publish an advertisement in the London Times in 1993, at his own expenses, to cancel four announced concerts, since the organizers had allowed some eighty Italian people to buy tickets. His last public concert was in London, in 1990.

On October 17, 1988, during a concert in Bordeaux, while the performance of Debussy's Ondine, he fell on the keyboard for an aneurism at the aorta. However, the year after he was again on the stage, giving concerts and recording as well.

He died in Lugano, Switzerland, seven years later, on June 12, 1995, from a chronic illness. According to his will, neither the cause nor the exact hour of his death were to be made known. He is buried in the small cemetery of Pura, near Lugano, under no tombstone.

Throughout his life this inimitable and unclassifiable pianist of genius remained faithful to his very high conception of Music. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who cultivated perfectionism pushed to the extreme, will most certainly be remembered as the incarnation of intellectual honesty.


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