A Pianist’s A–V

Gustav Klimt: Schubert at the Piano, 1899; destroyed by fire in May 1945

Art and Artists

There are those who believe that delving into the biography of artists ensures a deeper perception of their art. I am not one of them. The notion that a work of art has to mirror the person of the artist, that man and work are an equation, that the integrity of the person warrants the integrity of his production—such belief seems to me to belong, particularly in the area of music, to the realm of wishful thinking. (The poet Christian Morgenstern has his hero Palmström assert that “there cannot be what must not be.”)

Beethoven’s frequently chaotic handwriting in his letters and musical autographs reminds us of his domestic disarray as we know it from pictures and descriptions. In complete contrast, there is the enduring order of his compositions.

The person of a great composer and his work remain to me incommensurable: a human being with its limitations facing a well-nigh limitless musical universe.

There are exceptional cases where events from the composer’s life can be traced in the music. Beethoven, in his Sonata op. 110, composed the experience of returning to life after a severe case of jaundice. Similarly, Schoenberg in his String Trio turned a major health crisis into sound. And Brahms conceived his D-Minor Piano Concerto under the impact of Schumann’s plunge into the Rhine.

Generally, however, the desire to link tendencies and incidents in an artist’s life to his compositions will lead us astray. The notion that a griever longs to compose his grief, a dying musician the experience of dying, or a person overwhelmed with joy his gaiety belongs in the realm of fairy tales. Music is full of counterexamples. Works of happiness, joyfulness, serenity, and even lightness have emerged in times of greatest personal distress. Let us rejoice.


When Beethoven, talking about Bach, exclaimed that to do him justice, the master’s name should not have been Bach (brook) but Meer (the sea), his remark was relevant not only to the surpassing abundance and diversity of more than a thousand compositions but also to the creative power that had come together in this supreme exponent of the most widely extended family of professional musicians ever. I see Johann Sebastian Bach as the grand master of music for all keyboard instruments: the initiator of the piano concerto, the creator of the “Goldberg” Variations, the master of the solo suite and partita, of choral preludes, fugues, and cantatas.

When, in the postwar years, Bach’s piano works were assigned exclusively to the harpsichord or clavichord, young pianists were deprived of the main source of polyphonic playing. To most of us, the assumption that Bach doesn’t fit with the modern piano is an outmoded viewpoint. On present-day instruments one can individualize each voice and give plasticity to the contrapuntal progress of a…

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Copyright ©Alfred Brendel 2013 (to be published in the UK by Faber & Faber Ltd. on September 5, 2013).