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ARTURO MICHELANGELI was regarded as a great classical pianist. In a profession not unknown for eccentricities, he was also one of the most idiosyncratic and most mysterious. Forte-Piano-Pianissimo.com writes that Michelangeli “made an impression on audiences akin to that of Rasputin on the Empress Alexandra.”
Two days ago at SimanaitisSays, I wrote of Michelangeli’s early years, culminating with his earning a first prize in the 1939 Geneva International Music Competition. Today, I consult my (record-breaking) 19 sources again while celebrating his life’s realities and myths, several of the latter enthusiastically promoted by Michelangeli himself.
“He proudly admitted his Croatian ancestry,” notes Forte-Piano-Pianissimo, “ ‘You can say I’m of Slavic origin and still a bit of a Slav. I’m certainly not Latin.’ ”
What’s more, Michelangeli looked like another notable Slav: Dracula. For much of his life, Michelangeli dressed funereally and wore his hair, naturally red, eventually dyed coal-black, at shoulder length.
Michelangeli’s adventures during World War II were fulsome; or maybe not. For example, musiciansgallery.com shares a tale of his friendship with Queen Mother Elisabeth of Belgium, whom he met when competing in the Second International Music Contest of Bruxelles in 1938. Michelangeli, age 18 at the time, finished only seventh there, though first among Italians, and the Queen Mother awarded him a pair of cufflinks with diamonds arranged in the numeral “7.” She told Michelangeli this would be his lucky number.
And, according to musiciansgallery.com, “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.”
Yet, other sources tell a different tale, perhaps encouraged by Michelangeli in post-war years. Forte-Piano-Pianissimo writes, “Michelangeli saw the war through the eyes of a pilot, a partisan and a prisoner. ‘I’m a pilot above all,’ he declared, ‘A pilot; then a doctor; and only then, maybe, a suonatore.’ (player).”
Se non è vero, è ben trovato. Any one of the tales makes for a good story.
According to The New York Times and corroborted by other sources, “During World War II, Mr. Michelangeli served as a pilot in the Italian Air Force, and was captured late in the war by the Germans, who, he later claimed, ‘hose-whipped’ his hands and arms when they discovered he was a pianist.”
Pilot, doctor, pianist. Of race car driving, Forte-Piano-Pianissimo writes, “His participation in the Mille Miglia auto race did not result in victory, as has often been reported.”
Indeed, entries in this Italian cross-country road race are well documented. According to racingsportscars.com, the sole listing for Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli is the 1953 Mille Miglia. Further digging at teamdan.com reveals that Fiat 750 Sports No. 2216 (i.e., leaving Brescia at 10:16 p.m.) ended up 258th of 283 finishers. Scads of others either failed to complete or even begin the 1000 miles.
This Fiat was driven by Pier Luigi Patti with Giovanni Rocco as co-driver. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli and Farisoglio are listed as part of the entry, though not participating in the race meeting.
For another Michelangeli car connection, consider this: According to fantasyjunction.com, the 1967 Ferrari 330 GTC sold by this firm “was owned in Italy in the 1960s by Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who was a famous pianist, and friend of Enzo Ferrari himself. Mr. Michelangeli is mentioned in [renowned coachbuilder] Mr. Scaglietti’s obituary, as well as Enzo’s biography.”
The only other car photo retrievable from Google Images (also shared by Warner Classics’ bio of Michelangeli) shows him driving what sure looks like a British MGA. (Note the oval hood vent and windscreen details.)
In 1949, after several triumphant concerts, Michelangeli was named by an international group to be the official pianist in the 100th anniversary commemorating the death of Frédéric Chopin. Michelangeli’s reputation grew, though not without controversy because of his habit of canceling more concerts than he actually gave.
The reasons for these cancellations were often exacting, if infuriating to managers and concert organizers: Michelangeli insisted on traveling with his own Hamburg Steinway and its technician; once, being exposed to open air, the piano had allegedly lost its touch. Another time, according to The New York Times, June 13, 1995, Michelangeli “abruptly halted a 1948–1949 American tour at midpoint because… ‘They wanted me to act as if I was from Barnum’s circus.’ ”
Vladimir Horowitz, another pianist extraordinaire and renowned himself for idiosyncrasies, called Michelangeli “the great meshuganah,” Yiddish for “crazy one.”
Yet, The Baltimore Sun, June 12, 1995, shares a tale: “After a stupendous Carnegie Hall recital in 1966, Mr. Michelangeli’s refusal to play an encore only drove the audience, already mad with enthusiasm, further over the brink. First the stage door was closed…. Then the house lights were turned on, and the stage lights turned off. Still, the audience remained, now with its cheers joined by rhythmic hand-clapping and foot-stomping.”
“Suddenly…. a spectral figure—part Prince Hamlet, part Count Dracula—crossed the stage to the piano….”
As encore, Michelangeli chose Claude Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie, The Submerged Cathedral. The piece evokes a church rising from the depths of the ocean at midnight; the church is filled with damned souls.
Well played, I’d say, with homage to Barnum too. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017