The German-born American pianist, Grete Sultan (born Johanna Margarete Sultan), was born in Berlin into a musical family. By the time she started formal lessons of with her sister at the age of 5, she already could read music. Later, at 15 (1922), she entered the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, where she studied with Russian pianist studied with Leonid Kreutzer until her graduation in 1925. In 1927 she began her studies with Edwin Fischer, who was a major influence on her life and work. She also studied with Claudio Arrau. Another one of her teachers and an important influence on her musical life was Richard Buhlig, an American pianist living in Germany.
Grete Sultan established herself as a pianist of both Classical and contemporary works in Berlin. In 1933, after the National Socialists came to power, she was, as all Jews were, banned from playing in public and could only appear in concerts of the "Juedischer Kulturbund" (Jewish Culture Association). With Richard Buhlig's help, she fled Germany in 1941 via Lisbon, from where she emigrated to the USA by ship. She settled in New York City and took up piano teaching, first at Vassar College and the 92nd Street Y, then at the Masters' School in Dobbs Ferry, NY. She toured widely, giving all-Bach, all-L.v. Beethoven, all-Schubert, and all-contemporary programs; made her New York debut in 1947.
Grete Sultan became associated with the composer Henry Cowell, with whom she gave performances of works by Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. In New York she met the composer John Cage, who became a lifelong friend and associate; they often appeared in concerts together. It was through Sultan that Cage met one of her students, Christian Wolff, who gave Cage his first copy of the I Ching - a book that shaped Cage's composition methods during the subsequent decades. Cage dedicated two pieces to Sultan. The first was part of his Music for Piano series, Music for Piano 53-68. In 1974, when Sultan started learning Cage's Music of Changes, the composer offered to write some new music for her, and the result was a monumental piano cycle, Etudes Australes, a chance-determined set of 32 etudes based on star maps. Sultan made the premiere recording of the work and played it in concerts throughout the USA and Europe and in Japan. worldwide. She also championed the works of Alan Hovhaness, Ben Weber and Tui St. George Tucker, but contemporary composers were not the only ones that interested her: in the 1940's she helped popularize J.S. Bach's Goldberg Variations (BWV 988), and her concert programmes included music from Schubert and I. Stravinsky to Earle Brown and Morton Feldman.
In 1968-1969 Grete Sultan gave a series of programmes at New York's Town Hall under its Jonathan Peterson Lectureship Fund. Her performances, which continued well into her 80s, were always critically acclaimed, her alacrity, sensitivity, and uncompromising, directness uniquely enhancing the disparate works she programed. She was praised by Claudio Arrau, who saw her as following". . . in the footsteps of the greatest women keyboard masters - Landowska, Haskil, Hess - blessed with musical purity and inwardness, reinforced by mind as well as soul." She gave her last recital in 1996, aged 90, at New York's Merkin Concert Hall, performing the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988). She died in a Manhattan hospital five days after her 99th birthday, of pneumonia complications.