Piano Man: A Life of John Ogdon, by Charles Beauclerk, Simon & Schuster, RRP£20, 432 pages
On February 5 1981 John Ogdon had a day that, by his own standards, was not untypical. He began and ended it in a psychiatric hospital, slumped in a chair. In between, he gave a recital before London’s cultural elite in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Fellow musicians described it as “absolutely glorious”.
Reading Piano Man, Charles Beauclerk’s new biography of Ogdon, you might easily conclude that madness and genius are two sides of the same coin. Ogdon (1937-89) is variously described here as suffering from Asperger’s, autism, bipolar disorder, paranoia and schizophrenia. He was overweight, unkempt, clumsy, uncommunicative.
But when he sat at a piano “he became one of the most magnificent creatures on this earth . . . totally unaware of his own talent”, in the words of Rodney Friend, former leader of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Like composers Harrison Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell Davies, Friend knew Ogdon from student days in Manchester, but his assessment is not biased.
Everyone and anyone who came into contact with Ogdon recognised a musical phenomenon. As well as a photographic memory, he had an exceptional ability to digest music off the page and translate it instantly to his fingers. He had another, even more valuable talent no one could teach – the ability to divine the soul of the music he played and communicate it to audiences both erudite and untutored.
The 25th anniversary of Ogdon’s death has prompted a plethora of tributes, including an upcoming BBC4 documentary and the release of previously unavailable recordings. But it is hard to imagine any of these offering a portrait as unsparing, illuminating or definitive as this book.
Piano Man succinctly encapsulates the extremes of Ogdon’s life, public and private, manic and depressive, in a way that adds up to a full-size portrait. Beauclerk lays bare previously under-explored areas of the story, especially Ogdon’s childhood and marriage, while explaining the exceptional nature of his gift. The personality that emerges is both epic and tragic, imbued with “profound subjective feeling, which is so far from being egotistical that it appears purely objective” – a description of Ogdon’s playing by one of the more perceptive Russian critics at the time of his triumph in the 1962 Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow (he shared first prize with Vladimir Ashkenazy).
The competition was widely regarded as a propaganda tool to showcase the superiority of communism at the height of the cold war. In one of several episodes that reveals how assiduous Beauclerk has been in tracking down contemporary sources, he takes us behind the scenes of the contest, giving it the character of a thriller. The tension of jury deliberations is captured as vividly as Nikita Khrushchev’s jovial strong-arming of the British victor at the prize-giving ceremony.
It made Ogdon’s name but he was ill-equipped for the high-octane world of travel and fame he was entering. A child prodigy in an adult’s body, Ogdon was unsophisticated with money, undiscriminating with repertoire. Within two years he had lost his mother, the emotional bedrock of his life; fallen out with Emmie Tillett, one of the music world’s most powerful agents; and become locked in a destructive spiral with his wife, fellow pianist Brenda Lucas.
His behaviour became increasingly erratic – he began to drink and smoke heavily – and “gradually, his whole personality changed”. By 1973 he was receiving electric shock treatment in a mental hospital. The following year he made several suicide attempts. His subsequent comebacks were as fraught as the court orders to protect him from financial destitution. He was reduced to begging for work.
While these episodes, together with the vicious alchemy with Lucas, mark the nadir of Ogdon’s life story, they are eclipsed by the highs. Playing KS Sorabji’s four-hour Opus Clavicembalisticum for the composer in 1959, he is espied “sweating Vulcan-like at his musical forge”. His 1964 reading of the Beethoven Op 109 sonata in the depths of Utah is “more of a seance than an interpretation”. The piano becomes his “proxy self, a sort of external hard drive where all his feelings were stored”.
Reading between the lines, it becomes clear that, had Ogdon been starting out today, he would have gone nowhere. Deprived of musical tuition between the ages of 10 and 16, he would never have made the grade. Physically unattractive, he would have been a marketing nightmare. He championed composers (Charles-Valentin Alkan, Ronald Stevenson, Gerard Schurmann, Arnold van Wyk) whose music, then as now, is deeply unfashionable and recherché. His recitals regularly featured his own compositions.
Ogdon harked back to an age when, like his heroes Liszt and Busoni, almost all piano virtuosi were composers and improvisers. Compared with 21st-century virtuosi, he was indeed a giant. His outsize story reminds us of the high price today’s neatly packaged prodigies pay for commercial success – and the crippling price Ogdon paid for his genius.
Andrew Clark is the FT’s chief music critic