Piano Man: A Life of John Ogdon
Simon and Schuster, 2014
Tortured genius, wunderkind, saint, psychotic, and perpetual child, these are just some of the stereotypes besetting any biographer of the pianist John Ogdon (1937-1989). Charles Beauclerk’s Piano Man does nothing to avoid these labels, and even adds some new ones to the mix: John (as he is described throughout) is “leonine” and “bear-like”; and his achievements at the piano are “titanic”, “colossal”, “volcanic”, and “Herculean”. Superlatives also abound. He is “the greatest English pianist of all time” and “the most gentle of giants”. Beauclerk writes as if language were inadequate to embrace his subject, a man who was large in girth and soul, and yet elusive. He was also a man of enormous contradictions.
In this detailed and analytic study, Beauclerk offers a fascinating portrait of a pianist who is in danger of being forgotten since his death 25 years ago. Ogdon, who was a formidable member of the international musical elite in the 1960s and 1970s, spent his final decade in a state of pitiful physical and mental decline. Yet his childhood was marked out by a musical brilliance which was reminiscent of prodigies such as Mozart (whose birthday he shared). He could read music before he could speak and could sight-read Chopin aged three-and-a-half, having practically taught himself to play the piano by observing the workings of the family’s pianola.
The portrait of his childhood is absorbing and is enlivened by strangely hagiographic touches. We are told that Ogdon’s childhood brilliance was matched by modesty and diffidence, by vulnerability and a lack of aggression. The portrait also contains darker tones. His father suffered a slow mental disintegration and John, though he avoided its worst years by being born relatively late in his father’s life, became the “lightening-rod” of his father’s madness when it finally and terrifyingly cracked. John (who shared all of his father’s names: John Andrew Howard Ogdon) seemed destined to re-live his father’s struggles. The twin themes of music and of madness run throughout the book.
One of the most astonishing facts of Ogdon’s life was that he had no musical instruction between the ages of 10 and 16, despite having started piano lessons at four and been offered Junior Exhibitions to the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music (then the Royal Manchester College of Music) at eight. After two years of part-time attendance at the Royal Northern College, he moved to Manchester Grammar School where his music lessons were dropped at the school’s philistine insistence that he concentrate on “academic” subjects in order to prepare for a career in banking. A period of “musical exile” ensued, in which he developed his idiosyncratic and deeply introspective style of playing. He only resumed lessons six years later when he started at the Royal Northern as a full-time student and already its star performer.
Beauclerk’s portrayal of the “hidden years” at Manchester Grammar cast Ogdon as a loveable and popular loner (paradoxes seem the order of the day) and an overweight, bespectacled child, described as “goofy”, “affable”, “genial”, and “shambolic”. Skirting dangerously close to caricature in comparisons with Charles Hamilton’s Billy Bunter and with William Golding’s Piggy from The Lord of the Flies, Beauclerk nevertheless hints at the depth and vulnerability of the teenage Ogdon. Like the “guardian of the conch”, he is “a standard of civilization among the boys”, over whom a shadow is already looming. These snapshots of a child, described elsewhere as “Six-Pie Oggy” for his penchant for devouring pork pies, capture tragicomic aspects of a figure to whom grandiose labels would later be applied.
Regarding Ogdon’s developing relationship with the piano, the book offers many perspectives, some fanciful, though most are thought provoking. As a development of the Piggy theme, Beauclerk suggests that “the piano was his conch”, and we are ominously reminded that “when it smashes Piggy dies”. Such notes of foreboding sound throughout the early chapters, where the out-of-kilter Ogdon household is described in positively gothic terms (Howard Ogdon dabbled in the occult). John is only happy when touching the keys that are “a means of establishing order in his life, and of channelling some of the darker spirits that inhabited his childhood home”. Elsewhere, the piano is variously described as his drug, mirror, mother, and altar, and even as physically welded to him. (Beauclerk quotes Bruno Walter, who said of Eugen d’Albert that “he appeared to me like a new centaur, half piano, half man”.)
Beauclerk’s thesis is that there was no “real division” between John and his instrument, and he develops his theme with frequent recourse to metaphors and to the psychology of Carl Jung. The bi-polar disorder that finally overwhelmed Ogdon is likened to the struggle between Ahab and the whale in Moby-Dick, a novel with which John was obsessed throughout his life. Beauclerk diagnoses the illness as the result of a repressed libido (the whale) in conflict with the will to “order” (Ahab)—just one of many extravagant speculations which halted the otherwise compelling narrative of this cradle-to-grave biography.
Much of the book is taken up with Ogdon’s relationship with his wife, Brenda Lucas, a fellow pianist, whom he met while at music college in Manchester. The passages describing their marriage are among the most emotionally challenging in the book. But Beauclerk is diplomatic and somehow manages to provide psychological justification for both sides of this troubled union, presenting Brenda in as empathetic terms as the circumstances and apparent facts allow. The result is nevertheless a contrast between the aspirational and manipulative Brenda and the kindred spirits whom Ogdon gathered around himself at music college—Peter Maxwell-Davies, Harrison Birtwhistle and Alexander Goehr—and whose experimental music he championed.
The later chapters of the biography describe a harrowing, downhill spiral from the summit of Ogdon’s victory in the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1962 to his internment in mental institutions in 1980s. There were, however, fractured moments of “comeback”, such as the concert which he delivered on 14 July 1988 in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, when he temporarily emerged from his depressive gloom to play Sorabji’s four-and-a-half hour long, phenomenally complex, and technically almost-impossible, Opus Clavicembalisticum, a work considered unplayable by many other virtuoso musicians.
Ogdon’s quiet and unexpected death from pneumonia in 1989 is presented as a testament to the man’s humility. Just as his musical performances were characterised by extremes (his pianissimo playing was exquisite) so too did his relatively short life swing dramatically between outbursts of crazed violence and the utter self-effacement which was his more habitual mode. Though the images of the lion, bear, whale, and centaur which Beauclerk conjures may tell us something about Ogdon’s stature and complexity, it is only his playing which communicates the essence of the man. It is to this that Beauclerk’s study ultimately points.
Beauclerk revises Brenda Lucas Odgon’s premature biography, Virtuoso (1981), co-written with Michael Kerr—an idealized portrait of a tortured genius with a resolutely happy ending. He offers something rather different: far more psychologically subtle, wide-reaching, and analytical in its treatment of its subject. Here we see both sides of Ogdon, the earthy and the divine, the supremely gifted and the tragically broken. In the end, the clichés are irrelevant; this is a moving testimony to a remarkable man and a book which both informs and inspires.
Kit Coldstream  is a teacher and musician living and working in Oxford. She has studied music, theology, and creative writing – in Paris, at Oxford, and at UEA respectively.