Schnabel the mathematician

Have you ever heard people at a restaurant trying to figure out how much each owes when they couldn’t get separate checks? Opinions can become quite heated. The same thing might very well happen to a group of musicians trying to decide how to split a single fee for a concert among themselves. It helps to have someone  very good at math and very persuasive that his or her solution is fair to everyone.

Pianist Artur Schnabel, violinist Bronislaw Hubermann, violist Paul Hindemith, and cellist Gregor Piatagorsky faced just that situation in 1933. Johannes Brahms would have been 100 years old that year, and they played a concert of his chamber music for piano and strings.

After some discussion, Hubermann wanted to leave it to the management how much each would receive, figuring that he’s get the best possible deal that way.  Schnabel refused. After that, the discussion became very heated until Schnabel declared, “We will divide the fee into 35 parts.”

Brahms wrote three trios (violin, cello, and piano), three quartets (violin, viola, cello, and piano), three sonatas for violin and piano, and two for cello and piano and two for viola and piano (although clarinet players don’t see it that way! They’re for clarinet or viola and piano). Three people playing three trios amounts to 9 parts, the quartets for 12, etc. for a total of 35 parts.

Schnabel, the pianist, played all 13 pieces, so claimed 13 of 35 parts. Hubermann played 9 pieces, Piatagorsky 8, and Hindemith 5. Even Hindemith, who wound up with the least pay, agreed that Schnabel had come up with a good plan, although Piatagorsky later mused that it was lucky Schnabel had not proposed counting notes. He and everyone else would have come out much worse!


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