Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995) and his Ferraris - not only an immortal Chopinist

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920-1995)
There is little need for me to introduce Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, one of the greatest pianists and musicians of all time. 

I have been listening to a remarkable live recording of a concert he gave in Warsaw in 1955. His Bach/Busoni Chaconne from the Partita in D minor No.2 BWV 1004 is surely one of the greatest ever recorded. Michelangeli's  knowledge and command of the piano as an instrument was unequaled, permitting his soul and ours to take unhindered flight. His total identification with the music, his majestic 'Olympian' and 'Apollonian' playing has often been described as 'unearthly' even to the point of bordering on the cold classicism of a perfect Athenian statue.

I once heard him play Debussy and Beethoven many years ago in the Royal Festival Hall in London, performing on two distinct Steinway concert grand pianos, one for each composer, individually tuned and prepared by himself. His hearing was acute. Dressed totally in black - dark, poetic, possessed, cadaverous and brilliant - occasionally dabbing his brow with a black silk pocket square. I was with the conductor of the great Hallé orchestra of Manchester, Sir Mark Elder, and we were both astounded at this memorable musical occasion, deeply etched into memory.

These character traits made him curiously and uniquely gifted in his penetration of those uniquely emotional, inaccessible aspects of Chopin, seldom engaged or touched by lesser mortals. His refined,  poetic recordings of the G minor Ballade, the F minor Fantasia or the B flat minor Scherzo are formidably expressive, replete with the untranslatable Polish emotion of żal in his inspired phrasing, nuance, rubato and glorious tone. The mazurkas are a kaleidoscope of shifting colour, intimacy, timbre, simplicity and rhythmic independence of the hands.The sensuality of the B flat minor Sonata, the affecting delineation of the Polish melancholy of death in the Marche funèbrethe deeply moving cantabile of  grieving reflection, the miraculous legato and the unsettling writhing of the disinherited mind in the contrapuntal web of the Presto.  

But his elegant musical genius is not what I wish to discuss in this reflection. What could  I possibly add to what has already been hyperbolically written by numerous critics far more gifted than I ?

Many of you will know my fascination with classic cars, an obsession that runs alongside my musical life-blood. Many great musicians and artists have been equally fascinated, as human beings often are, by speed, inspired design and distinguished, fast motor cars. Michelangeli was one, the great German conductor Herbert von Karajan was another. He used to drive home in exceptional Porsches so fast that farmers brought in their animals lest they stray onto the road. The artist Andy Warhol was  fascinated by Rolls-Royce. François Cevert, the French Formula 1 team-mate of the champion driver Jackie Stewart, was also a classically trained concert pianist who played Beethoven sonatas in his paddock caravan before Formula 1 races and the French writer Albert Camus was tragically and absurdly killed in a Facel Vega in 1960. Even Bruce (Xiaoyu) Liu, winner of the most recent International Chopin Competition in Warsaw is a champion go-cart driver and dreams of taking up Formula 1.

Michelangeli was born in Brescia. He assures us his family was of 'Slavic' Croatian ancestry. This was the Italian town where the immortal road race known as the  Mille Miglia originated in 1927 and was last run in 1957. In many ways it had been inspired by the far older classic Targa Florio. He studied to be a doctor but abandoned this career for music. He was a pilot in the Italian Air Force during WW II and loved flying. His association with Brescia and fast cars would have made a Mille Miglia fascination and addiction almost inevitable. It is rumoured he may have taken some part in the April 1953 race in a Fiat Parisotto 750 Sport. Many legends abound around such escapades .... 

These discoveries gave me extraordinary excitement, enhancing the image of an immortal pianist who had also been a pilot and shared my passion for rare, fast cars. I seem to have inherited this trait from my great-uncle, the Australian concert pianist Edward Cahill (1885-1975). He owned an Alvis Speed 20 and later in life, during WW II, drove a Type 57 Bugatti around Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) after charity concerts for interned troops and international exiles. In his biography I had written:

Eddie had one curious interest seemingly at odds with being a classical musician. He was interested in motor racing, had even done a little in Australia and arranged to visit the Brooklands circuit over Easter. He felt a connection between the two forms of risk- taking – one with Liszt at the limits of the keyboard concertizing and the other at the 'ten-tenths' limits of a fast car on a race track. The adrenalin rush that resulted from the proximity of an accident, of danger, stimulated his rather neurotic temperament. A moth attracted to the flame. (The Pocket Paderewski - Michael Moran , Melbourne 2016) pp.73-74

In her remarkably detailed book on the artist Michelangeli written by his pupil the Polish pianist Lidia Kozubek, (Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli as I knew him - Peter Lang GmbH, Frankfurt am Main, 2011) we learn much of his personal characteristics apart from his sublime pianism and musicality. Although one of the highest-paid pianists, he lived rather a frugal life of great generosity and often gave to charitable causes. You really should read it for a fuller more balanced picture of this extraordinary man.

Kozubek quotes the Italian author and journalist Grazia Livi who writes in Epoca : 

'...the one luxury he does allow himself  - perhaps on account of an overwhelming desire to get the better of reality - is a particularly fast and powerful car. (Michelangeli enjoyed living dangerously).' p.13

Kozubek regarded him as a Renaissance man, such was his versatility and extensive knowledge of diverse spheres of art, science and life.

As a good host, Michelangeli made a point of adding variety to the daily round, appreciating as he did the regenerative powers of relaxation for  a tired mind and body. He would take us on outings to beautiful Italian towns - to visit an ancient monument, a museum, or antique dealer's (he was an expert on antique furniture) or simply to a good supper in some especially fine location, of which of course there is no shortage in Italy. Always an added attraction of such trips was riding in Michelangeli's car, often at a giddy speed of over 100 miles miles per hour! - and regardless of whether it was day or night. When travelling alone on the Italian motorways, he would do up to 150 miles per hour. He was a very able, sure driver, and fast driving appeared to unwind him.

Michelangeli was also a pilot:his friend the Italian conductor Ettore Gracis  mentions that he had some 300 flying hours behind him. Sometimes he even borrowed a plane and flew to a concert being held in some remote town far away. (p.14)

Below are some of the cars Michelangeli owned and drove. He had had a passion for Ferrari and was a 'Saturday friend' of Enzo Ferrari himself (the day reserved for special friends) and is mentioned in his biography. Michelangeli is also mentioned in the obituary of the great coachbuilder Sergio Scaglietti (1920-2011) who created some of the most beautiful Ferraris.

The Italian coachbuilder Sergio Scaglietti, who has died aged 91, was responsible for the bodywork of some of the most beautiful sports and racing cars ever built – a series of Ferraris created between the mid-1950s and the late 1960s: the 750 Monza, the Testarossa, the 250GT and GTO, the Lusso, the Dino 246 and the California Spider. These cars were bought by the type of customer who helped establish Ferrari's glamorous reputation: the film director Roberto Rossellini, the playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, the conductor Herbert von Karajan, the actor Marcello Mastroianni, the Shah of Iran, the pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, ex-King Leopold of Belgium and Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands.

(Guardian Obituary 24th November 2011 of Sergio Scaglietti, Italian coachbuilder, born 9 January 1920; died 20 November 2011)

Enzo Ferrari (1898-1988) at the entrance to the Ferrari factory

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli with his Ferrari 250 GT short-wheelbase Coupé - one of the greatest, most exciting of all Ferrari road cars for the gentleman weekend racer

(possibly manufactured 1958 with coachwork by Pininfarina)

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli with his Ferrari 330 GT 2+ 2 Coupé (1964-1965)
No doubt he bought a 2+2 to accommodate his fearless pupils!

Replacing the 250 GTE, the 330 2+2 was Ferrari’s second attempt at a 4-seat Grand Tourer. Michelangeli clearly took more than one pupil as a passenger according to Kozubek. The car was often criticized for its distinctive dual headlights which was a feature of the body designer Tom Tjaarda. Not long afterward Ferrari reverted back to the single headlight treatment for the road-going model.

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli at the wheel of an MG MGA (1955-1962)

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli leaving his Jaguar XJ6 or perhaps XJ12 (1968-1973)

The 1967 Rosso Corsa Ferrari 330 GTC by Pininfarina, VIN 10215, once owned by
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli

(Photographs from the 2015 auction catalogue sale by Fantasy Junction in the US)

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

At present we are drowning in so many horrendous events - the immeasurable suffering of a brutal European war, the horrors in the Middle East, terrifying earthquakes, murderous crimes, worldwide financial instability, technological private surveillance, famine, religious conflict, gender reassignment, misogyny, celebrity culture and not to forget the lingering long-term effects of the Covid pandemic that are still with us. 

However, despite all this, I offer you a link to my own cars collected through a lifetime of genuine love for exotic machines alongside my passion for the physical transcendence offered by Chopin's music. I hope you will not find me presumptuous or conceited, but I would like to share with you the extremely modest connection I imagine I have with Michelangeli. 

Certainly you would not wish to hear me play Chopin, Scarlatti, Debussy, Beethoven or Galuppi on the it's motor cars!

I assure you there is no unacknowledged 'slavery' lurking here except my own as an author bent over a desk for far too many years!  Oh I could write a book assessing our present so-called 'woke culture' of censorship, 'sensitivity readers' and the contentious nature of colonialism.

I feel one now has to somehow fight psychologically to remain optimistic and hopefully empathetic in the face of these severe contemporary moral reversals and decline. 

One struggles in some desperation not to feel guilty for managing, even enjoying, one's 'normal' life in the face of such horrors. Many now find exotic cars simply a lucky, vain and narcissistic 'escape' or merely 'indulgence' rather than a delightful redeeming vice of civilized life. 

For the classic car enthusiast, reality is not like that at all, life being the complicated matter it is...Do read Françoise Sagan's Essay 'Speed'  in her book of essays With Fondest Regards, another artist who was an aficionado of fast cars. 

The account of my career in cars published on Classic Driver lies here:


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