Alfred Brendel is born in a northern Moravian village in 1931, where he effortlessly learns dozens of folk songs from his nanny.
When he is three, his parents start a hotel business on the Croatian island of Krk, where Alfred is permitted to play records for the hotel guests, sometimes singing along to Jan Kiepura operetta recordings.
The next stage is Zagreb, where his father runs a movie theater and six-year-old Alfred receives his first piano lessons. At the age of seven he composes a waltz that resembles the Radetzky March in 3/4 time, and gives his stage debut soon afterward in a children’s performance at the Zagreb opera house, singing two couplets as a general sporting a sword and fez. He was not a child prodigy, however, as he often points out.
His father is drafted in the Second World War and Alfred moves with his mother to Graz. He starts performing less well at school as his interest is now focused only on art. He drops out of school at sixteen to devote himself entirely to music (and completely self-taught!), a decision for which his mother only forgives him many years later when he receives the first honorary doctorate from Oxford University.
Born in 1931 in Vizmberk/Wiesenberg, modern-day Czech Republic, first piano lessons in 1937
Starting 1943 piano and composition studies at the conservatory in Graz. In 1947 he passes, as a day pupil, the state exam in piano at the Vienna Musikakademie; from age sixteen onward he continues without a piano teacher
First solo recital at seventeen; his career is launched when he wins a prize at the renowned Feruccio Busoni Competition in Bolzano. Though it is only an “honorable fourth prize,” Brendel is just eighteen and no first prize is awarded
1950 moves to Vienna, first recordings. In the 1960s, he is the first pianist to record Beethoven’s complete piano works
1971 Brendel moves to London, where he still resides with his second wife Irene. They have three children together, including their son Adrian, who is a successful cellist. From his first marriage, Brendel also has a daughter, Doris, who has made a career as a rock singer
During the 1982–83 season he performs all thirty-two Beethoven sonatas in eleven European and American cities. He also records Mozart’s complete piano concertos and devotes himself throughout his whole life to giving Schubert’s piano works the place they deserve
Not only a pianist, Alfred Brendel has also published musical essays (the most well-known entitled Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts) and five volumes of poetry. Though regarded as the philosopher among pianists, he prefers the term “thinker”
He has received countless awards and honors, including two honorary doctorates, Japan’s Praemium Imperiale, the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, an ECHO Klassik Award for his life’s work, and the title of Honorary Knight Commander
2008 after a sudden hearing loss and a six-decade-long career as a pianist, gives his farewell concert in Vienna. He continues to write, give master classes, and hold lectures and poetry readings
Did you know?
Finding the atmosphere at Vienna’s Musikverein too formal, Brendel once leads a baby turtle through the audience in the 1950s.
Brendel loves everything that is absurd, grotesque, and kitschy, from Dada to Baroque architecture and the cartoons of Gary Larson. Asked about his favorite activity, he answers “laughing.”
The worst instrument he ever played on was in Ballarat, one of the coldest places in Australia. Members of the audience were wrapped in blankets and Brendel eventually announced that he wished he had an axe so he could break the piano to pieces.
He characterizes himself as a more or less harmonious skeptic; he believes doubt is not an instrument of self-flagellation but a sign of mental health.
Brendel often passes harsh judgment on other musicians. On the subject of Glenn Gould, for example, he wonders why someone who is so talented mistreats composers so terribly.
What really angers him is that people like Schubert, Büchner, and Keats had to die so early.
In Brendel’s view, the interpreter is a rhetorician: his task is to teach, to move, and to entertain people, as well as to continually find and feel something new, to “revive the score and kiss it to life.” This, he says, is the erotic component of interpretation.