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 clientelle 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 studiesArturo 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.
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 artistWhen 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 oversensational, and other critics were more moderate in their acclaime. 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 testimonied 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.
(The author who collected the present scraps had to stay up till midnight on Saturdays to watch them for the first time, on the third National Channel!)
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 unconceivable 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.
TeachingArturo Benedetti Michelangeli had always a great passion for teaching. He had his first pupil at the age of 11, she was 18. Her name was Carla Tretti, and she had been sent to study composition with Arturo's father. Since she had also to pass the intermediate examination for the eighth year of piano, she asked her teacher to listen to how she performed Beethoven's Pathetique. He suggested her to let his son listen to her. She could not believe Arturo was only 11! She played the Sonata, then young Benedetti Michelangeli invited her to stand up, and played the same Sonata in his own way. Then, she had something more she couldn't believe at!
In the same year of the Geneva's competition, 1938, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli obtained the chair of piano (pianoforte principale) at the Conservatoire in Bologna, clara fama. In 1945, he sought to be transferred to Venice, first, and then, for the sake of his health, to the Conservatoire of Bolzano, where he remained until 1959. He also held many stages in the nearby Castle of Appiano, and in Arezzo, where he directed the International Courses of Perfectioning and Pianistic Interpretation (founded by himself and by The Friends of the Music), during the summers of 1952, 1953, and then regularly from 1955 to 1965, in Moncalieri, near Turin, from 1960 to 1962, and in Lugano, Switzerland, at Villa Aeleneum, in 1969 and 1970. All of his courses were reserved to particularly talented artists, coming from every corner of the world. Among his students were Martha Argerich, Hanz Fazzari, Maurizio Pollini, Remo Remoli, and Rinaldi.
He employed a great deal of what he earned for his concerts to maintain the studies of his best pupils, which in the sixties added up to a substantial income. His lessons and courses were free. Music is a right for those who deserve it was one of his principle.
On June 22, 1964, during a triumphal recital at the Teatro Grande in Brescia, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, aged 44, celebrated his silver anniversary in teaching.
RecordsArturo Benedetti Michelangeli chose which composers he interpreted according to the principle: You ought to know everything, then you choose what deserves to be played for yourself, and what deserves to be played in public.
As with all other composers, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was rather selective in the choice of those Beethoven's works which entered his rarefied repertoire. There exist several recordings of the Concertos for piano and orchestra Nos. 1, 3, 4 and especially of Concerto No. 5, ranging from Michelangeli's early performances (under the direction of Ernest Ansermet, 1939) to more mature ones, including those directed by Sergiu Celibidache (1969, 1974) and Carlo Maria Giulini (1979). On the other hand, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli seemed to be rather reluctant to challenge Beethoven's Sonatas. It is remarkable that among the five Sonatas that he used to play, four (Sonatas No. 3, 4, 11, 12) belonged to Beethoven's early production, still under the influence of Haydn and of Wien classicism, while the fifth was Sonata No. 32 (Opus 111) from Beethoven's late period, where the canonical structure of the classic forma sonata was already almost lost. To that regard, it has been observed that ``what perplexes of Benedetti Michelangeli's art is that in many pieces of the romantic repertoire he seems to lack emotional self-confidence, and his way of playing, so direct in other occasions, is then charged with expressive affectations that disturb the musical flow'' (H. C. Schonberg, quoted by P. Rattalino).
About Mozart, he said: Mozart left such a vast and beautiful literature. Before I die, I would like to do as much as possible of him. And about interpretating, in general: To take again the music that I played in the past is like to begin again everything da capo. It's better then not to turn back, because this can be often too grievous.
He reserved a particular attention towards the Italian harpsichordists of the XVIII century. After playing a Sonata by Galuppi at the Italian radio, the composer's scores, almost unknown up to that time, rapidly disappeared from the shelves of the music stores in Italy just the day after.
He also reserved much of his attention as an interpreter to modern composers such as Schönberg and André Marescotti, even in a period when to play them would have caused scandal, and people left the auditoriums with indignation.
Probably one of his less known musical interests was about the folk-lore songs of the Italian Alps. During his stay in Val di Rabbi, near Bolzano, he harmonized several mountain songs, which testifies his love for the mountains.
Private lifeOn September 20, 1943 he married Giuliana Guidetti, whom he had met in Brescia, and who had later been a pupil of his. She was a valued counselor and secretary to her husband. She used to live quietly, sharing time together at their villa in Bornato, near Brescia, or in Bolzano or Arezzo, and almost never appeared in public together with her husband, so that nearly nobody knew that Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was married.
From 1970 on, his secretary Marie-José Gros-Dubois, twenty years younger than him, was faithfully near his side.
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was always plagued by ill health. For years he suffered from a nephritis at its right arm, and also stood a lung crisis, which contributed to his romantic charm, although he kept on being a strong smoker. When he taught at the Venice Conservatoire, for one year, he used to suffer from bronchitis and raging fevers.
He never used to care too much about the clothes he wore. They report that he employed the same frac in his concerts for over eighteen years, and that he owned only a couple of clothes: one for the summer, and one for the winter.
Other pianists. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was also a great listener. He knew almost everything of everybody, even if the others' interpretations did not match his own tastes. He had had the opportunity to listen to many of his great contemporaries, from Cortot to Paderewski. He particularly appreciated Richter and Cantelli. And Alfred Cortot, obviously. After one of Cortot's concerts in Brescia, Cortot is reported to have played some wrong notes. When Benedetti Michelangeli went and visited him in the backstage, Cortot pretended to scold his right hand with a slap. Then Benedetti Michelangeli made the opposite gesture, hitting his left hand with his right.
Cars. Although he was afraid of sports, lest he could get harmed, sports-cars were his passion. His only luxury was reported to be a Ferrari, which he enjoyed driving at high speed. Once, a policeman halted Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli in his car, and asked him what his job was. I play, he is reported to say. Where?, the policeman asked him. Here and there, he answered. A tramp, then. -- Yes, say a tramp, was his conclusion.
Actually, his father had registered him in the trade union of ``street-musicians,'' thus helping him to avoid military service.
Interviews and fictitious life. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli never liked to release interviews. His wife, Giuliana Guidetti, was even more bashful, in order to protect his privacy, such that many even ignored Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli had been ever married.
When he happened to release interviews, however, he could even tell lies, or at least tell only part of the whole truth. He used to say that his teachers were Austrian or German, and that his grandmother made him travel all across Europe with her. Of his father he said he had Austrian aristocratic origins, a Benedikter indeed, and of his mother that she had Slavic origins. Thus he played to build a fictitious past of romance for himself, more or less the same way Beethoven amused to confuse the Dutch patronymic ``van'' in his surname with the German noble preposition ``von.''
There was a basis of truth in what he said, however. During the First World War, his father had really travelled across Europe and visited Austria, and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli had a grandmother whom he adored, and whom he used to accompany on the Dolomites which he loved.
His instruments. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli was also famous for the almost maniacal degree of perfection he required of his instrument during a concert.
His Steinway piano preceded him everywhere he went, so it could get acclimatized, by truck, by airplane, covered by material or wool, and his favourite tuner, Cesare Augusto Tallone, followed him for years too.
Once, in Japan, he cancelled a concert for which he had already been engaged, because his piano had suffered too much from the long trip to that country. The Japanese reacted in a sharp way, sequestrating his passport for a while, and fining him a considerable amount. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli took offense, and did not hold concerts in Japan any more.
When his piano could not follow him, Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli addressed the upmost attention to the choice of the instrument where he had to play, however.
Between 1946 and 1961 he held eleven concerts at the Lyceum, a prestigious musical institution in Catania, Italy, founded and directed by Donna Amalia Lanzerotti Pantano since 1928. The first time he came and visited mamma Amalia, as he used to call her, the servant left him at the entrance, mistaking him for a tramp.
When he played at the Lyceum, a small club, he used to perform on a baby grand piano, whose action he judged perfect. When he was requested to give a concert for the larger auditorium of the Teatro Massimo ``Vincenzo Bellini'' in Catania, obviously he could not use the same piano, since the intensity of its sound was not adequate. A grand piano was then hunted for in the whole Catania. One such piano was found in a private residence, and it was carried not without difficulties, onto the stage of the Bellini's. During the final rehearseal, however, Benedetti Michelangeli drew himself back, even questioning his own performance: the sound of the grand piano was powerful enough, but its action was not altogether perfect.
Quite ingeniously, Benedetti Michelangeli's favourite tuner in Catania found a solution. He moved the baby grand piano from the Lyceum to the stage of the Bellini's, put it on the side of the grand piano, whose harmonic table he disconnected from the mechanics, so that it was free to resonate. Thus, Benedetti Michelangeli could employ the perfect mechanics of the baby grand piano, though making use of the power of sound of the grand piano.
His Last YearsIn 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 acousically 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, during the performance of Debussy's Ondine, he suffered from an aortic aneurysm. Spectators report that he simply stopped playing, lifted his hands from the keyboard, but left the chord hanging in midair. He then turned round and called for his assistant who then slowly walked him from the stage. Nevertheless, Benedetti Michelangeli resumed performing and recording the following season.
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.
AcknowledgementsVery special thanks go to Neil Tingley, who spontaneously offered himself to improve this section, as concerns my use of the English language. Find more links to Neil's work in the links section.