Alfred Brendel on a life in music: ‘Impatience was not a vice’

Where, and how, does a musician’s calling reveal itself? It can be stimulated by artistic activity and aesthetic leanings in the family, by the early opportunity to listen to concerts and opera, by being exposed to recordings and YouTube. In my case, there was nothing of that sort. Nor was there an intellectual background. Without an academic piano teacher after my 16th year, I became used to finding out things for myself. It helped me to keep my mind as independent as possible.

My first recital at the age of 17 provided a clear signal: courteously received, it made my pessimistic mother give in. Of course it wouldn’t be the solid future of a bourgeois academic – the risk was incalculable. Yet I was allowed to take it. For a couple of years, I had already dabbled in as many artistic endeavours as I could find – writing sonnets that sounded profound and meant nothing, studying composition, as well as drawing or painting myself, my friends, or whatever came to mind.

Impatience was not one of my vices. I felt I had musical talent but was cautious in imagining how far it would lead. And I saw it as a long-term proposition, hoping, at 20, that I might be an artist of stature at 50. Lofty musicians such as Edwin Fischer, Alfred Cortot and Wilhelm Kempff, whom I was able to hear at that time, gave me an idea of what to aim for. Some of their most inspired performances have stayed in my mind.

I was 14 when the war ended, and lucky enough never to have to join an army. The fact that I spent some of my school years in countries that were governed by Ustashi or Nazis has significantly influenced my later outlook on life. The experience of war, bombs, people proud to be political “believers”, the preposterous voices of Hitler and Goebbels on the radio, the sight of Jews wearing yellow stars and the experience of a war closing in on where I stayed with my mother left a store of information in my memory, information that told me in hindsight what the world should avoid being. It made me a sceptic forever.

After years of turmoil without a proper home and an available piano, I realised that there was a large area of compensation. The realm of aesthetics – art, music, literature, theatre and film – seemed to be, as Nietzsche had said, the sole justification of life and the world. I decided that the world was absurd, and that to perceive the comical side of absurdity was the proper strategy for survival.

Next to the wonderful sense of order I derived from music, I learned to value nonsense – not just the poetic territory discovered by Edward Lear but the nonsensical part of reality. The pronouncement that “Dada was nothing, ie everything” opened up the world beyond the strictures of intellect.

As a child, I had played a lead in a children’s theatre and watched movies by Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. The fascination of the cinema has remained, culminating in a film series that I curated a few years ago under the heading “Between Dread and Laughter”. Great acting in the theatre as well as on the screen has continued to inspire my urge to play roles as a musical performer, and to treat musical pieces as characters.

From the age of 20 onwards I had the opportunity to make recordings. I had already used a Swiss tape recorder, a gift from friends, and a microphone for my private benefit. It can take considerable time for a young player to learn how to listen properly to himself. One of the paradoxes for a pianist is that he or she has both to anticipate the sound and at the same time take in what happens in the moment. It was my privilege that in a recording career that spanned 50 years I had the chance to keep abreast of my own playing, react to it, decide what to improve, and which inspired moments, if possible, to retain.

In the 1950s, Vienna became a hunting ground for various American record companies. There were fine halls to record in and young talent queueing up. During these postwar years, facilities in a city divided into British, American, French and Russian zones were relatively cheap and the wording of contracts suitably vague. The LP had just reached the market, and big chunks of music had never been recorded before. Beginning in 1956 I had a busy recording schedule. In the following decades, technology developed from mono to stereo to digital, from LPs and cassettes to CDs. Here is one of the reasons why I was able to repeatedly re-record parts of my repertoire. But there were other reasons as well: the trust my companies had placed in me and, obviously, a reasonable degree of commercial success.

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