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ARTURO BENEDETTI MICHELANGELI, CLASSICAL PIANIST—AND RACE DRIVER? PART 1

THE CLASSICAL music announcer added casually that pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli also competed in the Mille Miglia. Though I had heard of Michelangeli the pianist before, I was intrigued by this reference to Italy’s premier cross-country road race, run 24 times between 1927 and 1957; 13 races held prewar, 11 afterward.

This called for some research.

By the time I was done, I had consulted 20 different sources, a new record for an item here at SimanaitisSays. This was, at least in part, because of wonderfully inconsistent references to this notoriously eccentric musician.

Michelangeli’s career as world renowned pianist would seem enough to celebrate his idiosyncrasies. But his extramusical activities, including an enthusiasm for fast cars and perhaps fanciful biography, only add to his brio. And thus expand this into Part 1 and, tomorrow, Part 2.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, 1920–1995, Italian classical pianist and pedagogue, World War II pilot, anti-Fascist, mountain climber, champion-class skier, and auto enthusiast.

One of my 20 sources is Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, by Nicolas Slonimsky, Schimer, 1994. Describing him as a “celebrated Italian pianist and pedagogue,” Slonimsky says of Michelangeli, “Both his virtuosity and his eccentricities contributed to his legend, and his rare concerts were invariably public successes.” Other sources cited here range from hagiographic tributes to obituaries that followed Michelangeli’s death on June 12, 1995.

It’s part of the Michelangeli mystery that, according to his will, the cause and exact hour of his death were never to be made known.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was born in Brescia, Italy, the city in which the Mille Miglia starts and finishes. According to musiciansgallery.com, “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.”

Maybe his father taught at a local conservatory. And, indeed, Wikipedia says that years later Arturo was to marry one of his father’s music pupils.

On the other hand, according to forte-piano-pianissimo.com, “His father, a barrister and amateur musician had been born into a long line of professional diplomats, and expected his son to follow suit.”

Yet possibly, as The Baltimore Sun noted in “Michelangeli was Mysterious to the End,” June 13, 1995, “The pianist, who lived for a while in a castle near his birthplace in Brescia, Italy, claimed noble descent and (in his rare interviews) referred to his father as a professor at the local conservatory of music. The truth is somewhat more prosaic. Mr. Michelangeli’s father was indeed employed by the conservatory in Brescia—not as a professor, but as a janitor.”

Speaking of noble descent, I was fascinated by a naxos.com reference to an article that “fuelled the Michelangeli myth and mystique by stating that he was said to be descended from St. Francis of Assisi….”

What’s more, according to forte-piano-pianissimo.com, “… like Liszt, he entered a Franciscan monastery in Laverna; he never took his vows, but remained there for a year.” The website describes a similar glancing encounter with medicine: “Luckily for the music world (and perhaps to the detriment of the medical one) he gave it up after five years of study, without earning a degree.”

The Art Of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Deutsche Grammophon Collector’s Edition, 8 discs, 2003.

In 1939, Michelangeli, age 19, took first prize in the Geneva International Music Competition. Wikipedia cites one of the judges declaring that Michelangeli was “a new Liszt.”

Or, according to The New York Times in its June 13, 1995, obituary, the judge actually said, “In this boy there is some Liszt and Paderewski.”

Not quite the same thing, is it?

On the other hand, The New York Times has it as the 1940 Geneva competition. My vote goes to Concour de Genève, which says 1939.

What’s worse, The New York Times repeats the Mille Miglia story too. But that’s part of tomorrow’s Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli Part 2.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. Image from Warner Classics.

As a teaser for tomorrow, The Baltimore Sun writes of Michelangeli’s musical intensity: “He performed Ravel’s ghoulish Gaspard de la Nuit with the glee of Count Dracula at liberty in the blood bank….” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

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This entry was posted on October 2, 2017 by in And Furthermore... and tagged , , .
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