The Chilean-born American pianist, Claudio León Arrau, was the son of eye doctor Carlos Arrau and Lucrecia Ponce de León, a piano teacher. He belonged to an old, prominent family of Southern Chile. His ancestor Lorenzo de Arrau was sent to Chile by King Carlos III of Spain. He received piano instruction from his mother at an early age, making his debut performance in Santiago at the age of five playing W.A. Mozart, L.v. Beethoven, and Frédéric Chopin. At the age of 10 the Chilean government sent him to Berlin, where he enrolled in Stern's Conservatory of Music. His teacher there was Martin Krause, who had studied under Franz Liszt. At the age of 11 Arrau could play F. Liszt's Transcendental Etudes, considered to be one of the most difficult sets of works ever written for the piano, and also J. Brahms's Paganini Variations.
While studying Claudio Arrau entered competitions, and won the Ibach Prize and the Gustav Holländer Medal. He also began giving recitals in Germany and Scandinavia, earning excited comment over the excellence of his technique, and the maturity of his interpretations. In 1918 he made a major European tour, giving concertos accompanied by illustrious conductors such as Nikisch, Wilhelm Furtwängler, and Willem Mengelberg. He returned to South America in 1921, and made a triumphal tour beginning in Santiago de Chile. He made his first North American tour in 1924, appearing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He joined the faculty of the Stern Conservatory in 1924. He won the Grand Prix Internationale des Pianistes in Geneva in 1927, and toured in the Soviet Union in 1929, and again in 1930.
Claudio Arrau continued a notable concertizing career throughout the 1930's, including a famous series in 1935 and 1936 in Berlin, in which he played the complete keyboard works of J.S. Bach followed by the complete keyboard works of W.A. Mozart. He then announced that he would no longer play J.S. Bach, asserting that his music was not conceived for the modern grand piano. In 1938 he played all of the L.v. Beethoven piano sonatas and five piano concertos in a series of recitals in Mexico City, and repeated the feat during the next two years in Buenos Aires and Santiago. When World War II broke out he ended his association with the Stern Conservatory and returned to Chile, founding a piano school there. But the next year, after a tour of the USA where he received the highest critical acclaim, he and his family moved permanently to New York. He devoted himself to concertizing, teaching, and recording. His complete L.v. Beethoven cycles became legendary; in 1952 he performed such a series, in which each recital was broadcast live by the BBC.
After World War II Claudio Arrau's concert tours included Australia, Czechoslovakia, Romania, India, South Africa, Israel, and Japan. In the 1960's he made definitive recordings of the complete L.v. Beethoven piano sonatas; he also supervised the editing and publication of an Urtext edition of the same sonatas. In the 1970's, Chile, which had enjoyed a record as one of South America's most democratic nations, fell to the military government of Pinochet. In protest, Arrau gave up his Chilean citizenship in 1978, and became a naturalized citizen of the USA. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he continued to be a revered figure in Chile; in 1983 he was awarded the Chilean National Arts Prize. He returned at the age of 81 to tour Chile in 1984, his first performances there in 17 years.
Claudio Arrau had world fame for his deep interpretations of a huge, vast repertoire spanning from the Baroque to 20th-century composers. He is widely considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. A patrician artist whose matinee-idol appearance was as elegant as his playing, he achieved a major reputation for his performances of J. Brahms and F. Liszt. Indeed, few Romantic-period composers, from L.v. Beethoven onward, were beyond his grasp. In addition to that repertory, his Debussy was regarded by many connoisseurs as exemplary. Arrau believed that his abiding interest in psychoanalysis aided him in probing the intent of those whose works he performed. Certainly, Arrau's performances were marked by a balance between heart and intellect.
Claudio Arrau recorded the complete piano music of Robert Schumann, and edited his works for publication, as well as all L.v. Beethoven piano sonatas in Urtext edition. He is also famous for his recordings of J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart, J. Brahms, F. Liszt, F. Chopin, Schubert and Debussy, among others. He played with style and passion, with a prodigious technique. Many claimed that his rich, weighty tone lent his interpretations a distinctive voice, some saying it sounded thick and muddy and others praising its rounded tone, saying it sounded as though Arrau were almost playing the organ or "plowing" his "paws" into the "flexible" keyboard. Although he often played with slower and more deliberate tempi from his middle age, Arrau had a reputation for being a fabulous virtuoso early in his career. Many critics feel his overall approach became less spontaneous and more reserved and introspective after the death of his mother, to whom he was extremely close. At the time of his death Arrau was working on a compact disc recording of the complete works of J.S. Bach for keyboard, and had Haydn, F. Mendelssohn, Max Reger, Ferruccio Busoni and Pierre Boulez's 3rd Sonata in preparation.
Claudio Arrau was the teacher of Karlrobert Kreiten, Paul Kiss, Edith Fischer, David Lively, Ena Bronstein, Philip Lorenz, Alfonso Montecino, Olga Barabini, Ruth Nye, among others. Garrick Ohlsson, Arnulf von Arnim, David Rubinstein, Roberto Eyzaguirre, Bennett Lerner, Dickran Atamian, Goodwin Sammel, Roberto Szidon, Rosalina Sackstein, John Cobb, Clive Britton, Reidrun Rodewald, Antônio Guedes Barbosa, Germán Diez, Fedora Aberastury, Elmma Miranda, John Bell Young, Güher Pekinel and Süher Pekinel and others also received lessons from Maestro Arrau.
Through his great-grandmother, María del Carmen Daroch del Solar, Claudio Arrau was a descendant of the Campbells of Glenorchy, a very prominent Scottish noble family. He was a distant relative of Francesca von Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kászon, daughter-in-law of Otto von Habsburg. They both descended from Sir John Campbell of Glenorchy, father of the first Earl of Breadalbane. In 1937, Arrau married German Jewish mezzo-soprano Ruth Schneider, and thehad three children: Carmen (1938-2006), Mario (1940-1988) and Christopher (1959). He had a happy family life with his wife and children. The Arraus were a very close family and used to pass summers in Chester (Vermont), where the pianist had a summer residence.
The Robert Schumann Society established the Arrau Medal in 1991. It has been awarded to András Schiff, Martha Argerich and Murray Perahia.