Alfred Brendel, KBE

Doctor of Music

Wednesday 17 February at 11.15 am - Orator: Professor Katharine Ellis

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor

Late last year, the recording company Decca put the finishing touches to an 85th birthday tribute to the pianist Alfred Brendel, who signed with them in 1969. That tribute took the form of the re-release of his complete recorded legacy for the company, reflecting the cumulative experience of a performing career spanning six decades, from the 1940s to his farewell tour of 2008. Even without his earliest recordings for other labels, the set amounts to no fewer than 114 discs of music, from J. S. Bach to Arnold Schoenberg, with particular reference, in between, to Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt. It is, and will remain, a treasure trove.

It is a privilege to present this morning’s honorary graduand, who is one of the finest concert pianists in the world of classical music. Not just because he has worked with most of the great conductors and orchestras, and played in every major concert hall; but because the depth of his musical interpretations, and his openness to questioning those interpretations as a result of new research, have made him a touchstone for every thinking musician, whatever their instrument. Within an industry that embraced celebrity, his name became a byword for insight and craft; amid increasing homogeneity of pianistic style, he remained ruggedly individual to the tips of his famously Band-Aid-clad fingers; in a world besotted with youth but plagued by early burnout, he found the secret of artistic longevity in a combination of endless curiosity both musical and cultural, clarity of purpose, and professionalism.

None of this was a foregone conclusion. Who could have predicted such musical preeminence in a teenager from a non-musical family, who had not attended an orchestral concert, a piano recital or an opera until he was fifteen? Alfred Brendel started learning the piano in Zagreb aged six but was not a child prodigy—a wunderkind; nor did he go through a full conservatoire training; nor did he find instant success and a ready-made concert schedule via the now-traditional route of winning a major competition. His career built up gradually, on his own terms. Which included rescuing Franz Liszt from his reputation for tawdry glitz, and championing the Schoenberg Piano Concerto worldwide. He made his concert début at seventeen and his first recording two years later, in 1950. In 1958, he began recording the complete series of 32 Beethoven sonatas for the Vox label, and it was an all-Beethoven concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall that shot him to international fame in the late 1960s, causing three major labels to race each other to sign him as an exclusive artist. He has since recorded two more Beethoven sonata cycles, one as part of an unprecedented project to record Beethoven’s entire piano output. He has also recorded all the Mozart piano concertos—many more than once. Together with international concert tours, these landmark projects cemented his reputation as a supreme interpreter of the classical repertoire.  International honours and prizes flowed from the early 1980s, and have continued unabated to this day.

Alongside his concert tours and recordings, Alfred Brendel began writing as early as the 1950s, publishing two English-language essay collections in 1976 and 1990. The first was entitled Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts: nothing, in Brendel’s vision, is definitive—at least, nothing worthwhile is.The essay form, he wrote more recently, appeals to him because ‘Essays resemble performances in that their ambition is open ended. I like to see both of them, at least potentially, as works in progress, to be reconsidered and, if possible, improved. In the face of masterworks, I try to understand what they are instead of telling them—and the audience—what they should be.’ Writing and performing go hand in hand; constructive self-critique is obligatory. These essays, written with wisdom, eloquence and humour (not least when Brendel writes about humour), reveal the ethic of master performer who takes nothing for granted, and nothing as read.

To analyse and perform humour is one thing; to create it is quite another. And yet Alfred Brendel does this, too—as a poet writing in German and English. For several decades he has written playful and ironic verse that speaks to a love of lucidity and ambiguity combined. One of his most famous—perhaps because it became a Guardian Saturday Poem in 2011—dates from 1998, inspired by a not-so-imaginary audience fraternity at Cologne’s Philharmonic Hall. Here is a ‘bleeding chunk’:

Members are required to applaud
immediately after sublime codas
and cough distinctly
during expressive silences
Distinct coughing is of paramount importance
to stifle or muffle it
forbidden on pain of expulsion
Coughs of outstanding tenacity
are awarded the Coughing Rhinemaiden
a handsome if slightly baroque appendage
to be worn dangling from the neck

Now, imagine sitting in that same hall, opening your programme book, and reading Alfred Brendel’s plea, knowing in your heart of hearts that it is aimed at you. For Brendel’s poem was indeed presented this way to its target audience. This is poetry as social action. It was also, he says, effective.

Embarking on a farewell concert tour in 2008, Alfred Brendel started his journey here in Bristol, just up the hill at St George’s, where he had previously done a number of recordings. He played Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, closing with a signature piece, Schubert’s last sonata. The music critic Rian Evans wrote of that concert that ‘his interpretation here bore all the hallmark clarity and rigour, with moments of visionary grace.’ Among musicians those qualities have earned him unfettered admiration, while his modest self-presentation and love of self-deprecation have won him enduring affection. I shall give him the last word, courtesy of a miniature poem of 2004 which I shall interpret as a pen-portrait:

Once upon a time                                          

I was no wunderkind                                                              

Due to my obstinacy


I became one later

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Mr Alfred Brendel, belated and recalcitrant wunderkind, as pre-eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Music, honoris causa.

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