At the age of 91 in January, more than a decade had passed since Alfred Brendel left the concert halls, bidding her farewell to an unforgettable concert with the Vienna Philharmonic in 2008. But his intellectual activity never ceased: he kept on giving. Lectures, essay writing and participation in events that combine music and poetry.
A brilliant translator of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and, in particular, of Schubert, Brendel was able to absorb and incorporate modern sensibility into his art, for example through his poems, which he says appear in that intermediate state between sleep and wakefulness.
His sense of humor (which he considers a defense against the absurdity of the world) is another notable feature of his—he even devoted the essay “Should Classical Music Be Totally Serious?” (“Should classical music be totally serious?”).
Alfred Brindel is often remembered that he never imagined that he would become a successful pianist, but his legendary status is attested to by the fact that the group “Great Pianists of the 20th Century” dedicated three out of a hundred pianists. The double albums that make up it. As he himself admitted in the BBC documentary Man and Mask, he had an unusual path. “I was not a child prodigy; as far as I know I am not Jewish. I was not born in the East. My parents were not musicians, there was no music in the house; I have a good memory, but it is not outstanding; I admit that I am not good at reading scenarios at first sight ».
Born in Wissemberk, present-day Czech Republic, on January 5, 1931, the first musical experience he remembers occurred in the 1930s. At that time, his parents ran a hotel on the island of Krk, in the Adriatic, and young Alfred put records on a phonograph to entertain guests.
After that, he says in a BBC documentary, his father became director of cinema in Zagreb, and every weekend he went to see the films shown there, some of which were Nazi propaganda. In Zagreb he began taking piano lessons at the age of six, and later studied at the Conservatory in Graz, a city in eastern Austria where the family had settled after World War II.
In his youth, while studying piano and composition, he devoted himself to drawing and painting, and even held a small exhibition. But when he decided that he would make a career in music, he asked his friend to destroy all his work. Years later, Brendel was surprised to find these paintings in his friend’s house, which he considered “appalling.” However, his taste for the visual arts would accompany him throughout his life, and currently the walls of his home in Hampstead, London, where he has lived since 1971, are filled with paintings, engravings, primitive masks, and portraits.
It premiered on April 26, 1948, with a party in Graz that included a composition for it. The following year he won the fourth prize in the Bossoni International Competition in Bolzano, Italy.
After the war, Vienna became a city where many small North American record labels saw an opportunity to make recordings with good musicians who wanted to work for little money. Brendel – who, according to professor and pianist Leopold Marksteiner, “arrived in Vienna as a musical outsider” – made his first recordings, and his international career slowly took off.
“One day I was playing a Beethoven party in London, in the Queen Elizabeth Hall,” he recalls in Man and Mask. “It was a very unpopular show. I personally didn’t like the concert very much. But the next day I got offers from three major record labels. It sounded awful to me.” Compare this rapid rise to “water in an electric kettle that boils and suddenly begins to boil.”
Today, nearly half a century later, he can no longer be seen performing live, but the numerous recordings available on YouTube and on DVD show him playing without a recording, his eyes always half-closed, his forehead wrinkled, his face taking on various expressions, from subtle smile to sarcasm. To the most serious attraction and joy. The bound finger motions are accompanied by a small shiver of intellectual — and perhaps even physical — pleasure.
His interpretations have already been accused of being “brain” by some critics, but Brendel loves monsters and mythical characters, and in the part of Novalis he has one of his favorite proverbs: “In a work of art, chaos must flash through the veil of order.”
On Wednesday, April 20, the pianist and thinker was in the Portuguese capital to receive the title of Doctor Honoris Causa from the University of Lisbon. In connection with this distinction, Nascer do SOL has had the opportunity to ask him a maximum of ten questions in writing. Of these, Brendel declined to respond to only one, about his relationship to popular music and what he thinks of bands like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles.
His childhood and youth passed through the Second World War. Did you continue to play the piano at that time? Did music help you during those dark days?
He was fourteen when the war ended. When the Russian army invaded Styria [estado austríaco que faz fronteira com a Hungria]I moved with my mother to western Austria and only came back when Styria became part of [sob administração] British. For several months I was without a piano. He was barely old enough to be called up to serve in the army. I regard the fact that I have never had to be a soldier as one of the great fortunes of my life. Even without active participation, the experience of war made me a pacifist.
It is said that composer Hector Berlioz, upon listening to Liszt playing the piano, exclaimed, “It is true that God exists–at least for pianists.” Have you ever found God on a sheet of music, in a concert hall, or on a keyboard?
I did not find God, but I never looked for him. Being religious, as far as I know, is not part of the duties of a good citizen. But I can say that I am interested in the mystical experience.
Has playing the piano always been fun for you? Do you see it as just a tool, or has it become throughout your life an extension of your body, a close friend?
The piano was never a cross I should have carried. It was, at times, a mystery waiting to be resolved. An excellent instrument, with a steady sound, and the movement is not too resistant, it can be a reliable friend, and a very dear partner on the holidays.
One of these days, as I was driving home, I heard on the radio a violin costume by Marc-Olivier Dupin from Traviata, for Verdi, and from moment to moment fatigue gave way to an immense lightness. I’ve always wondered how melodies can change our state of mind. I think this Woody Allen quote sums it up very well: “I can’t listen to Wagner much…I’m starting to get really excited about the invasion of Poland.” Over the decades that you have been a pianist, but also as a thinker, have you found guides to help you understand this amazing power of music?
No, when I hear Tristan [e Isolda, ópera de Wagner] I don’t feel like occupying Poland. In my opinion, a mistake is made to confuse a man and an artist. These are areas that do not correspond to each other. Even the great artist will always be, as a person, as restricted as his peers, while the reach of the great composer seems almost limitless. Mozart, the transcendent creator of Da Ponte’s opera [As Bodas de Fígaro, Don Giovanni e Così fan tutte, assim conhecidas porque as três têm libretos de Lorenzo da Ponte] He had little to do with the man Mozart. And do they really light up each other? By the way, one of my favorite movies is Woody Allen Zelig.
Writer Marcel Proust considered poetry to be “a celebration of our inspiring minutes”. Does this idea apply to music? Do you believe in inspiration or do you think it is the result of a lot of discipline and hard work?
There is it all: discipline, hard work, inspiration, abandon, critical scrutiny, subtlety, sarcasm, humor, and control, as well as the happy moments when the music seems to play itself.
We live in a time of great specialization, but you have always practiced and refined the various crafts. Music, poetry, painting, humor… Do you see them as distinct, separate areas, or activities that pollute and enrich each other?
Nietzsche said that the best reason for the existence of humanity and the world is aesthetics. For me, from a very young age, the entire aesthetic realm is one enchanted continent.
Probably because he was, in addition to being a musician, and also a writer and thinker, there were critics who considered some of his interpretations to be “cultured.” Is it difficult for a pianist to balance style, emotion and instinct? Besides the rational ‘brain’ aspect, is there also a ‘messy’, dadaist, nonsense and terrifying aspect of your personality?
If being intellectual means that the mind is completely in control of the person, then I certainly am not. However, Dada and nonsense, as charming as they are, are not part of my musical practice.
Do you still play the piano daily? What is a normal day in your life like?
Due to various diseases, I stopped playing several years ago. I stopped giving concerts at the age of 77 and started my interesting career giving advice and preparing string quartets. Of course, writing has been an important component of my life for many decades.
Sixty years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear threat has returned to the planet. What song would be a suitable soundtrack for the end of the world? Twilight of the Gods for Wagner, Olivier Messian’s End Time Quartet? Or something brighter?
The Rite of Spring, by Stravinsky.