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Virtual Book Club X (Part 1)

11 December 2015

John Ogdon, the 'Piano Man' of the title, died in 1989, and it is therefore surprising that this book is, in the words of the publisher's blurb, the first 'full biography.' It is a compelling and heart-rending story.

Charles Beauclerk has produced a very detailed book. He has read John Ogdon's correspondence, and some of that of his father, Howard Ogdon. He has spoken to the surviving members of Ogdon's extended family and to many of his friends, musical colleagues and students. And he seems to have examined all the concert programmes and competition entries in which John Ogdon performed.

This biography is written chronologically, which is helpful in enabling the reader to follow John Ogdon's tortured life as it unfolded. It describes the life of a musical performer in great detail, and there is also much detail of the music which Ogdon played. However, the listing of every piece that he played in every concert or competition, and the listings of the other competitors in the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition – few of whom are heard of to-day – and their competition pieces, could have been usefully placed in an Appendix.

It may be helpful to consider the book, and John Ogdon's life, as consisting of three parts. The first includes his childhood and adolescence and his adulthood until his marriage to Brenda Lucas in 1960, when he was twenty-three. The second encompasses the ten or so years of his great fame, ending with the third, which describes his life in harrowing detail from about 1969 until his death in 1989 at the age of fifty-two.

The writer has researched John Ogdon's family tree, and describes his rather dysfunctional family life. Ogdon was the youngest by seven years of his parents' five children. His father, Howard, had been confined in what would now be called a psychiatric hospital, in 1939. His subsequent escape from the hospital and his life there were recorded in a book he wrote about the experience. For whatever reason, Howard Ogdon stayed away from his family after his escape until 1944, so that during the period of John Ogdon's infancy he was not present. Following his return home, Howard Ogdon spent much of his time in his study, and his paternal function was negligible.

There is an extraordinary and powerful image of John Ogdon as a baby and small child. As soon as he could sit up, aged about six months, his mother – much as mothers’ to-day might park their child in front of the television set – put him in front of the pianola. He became fascinated by the movement of the keys and the music they produced. Indeed, when he first began to compose his own music – which he did throughout his life, even during his periods of acute mental illness - at the age of about three, he not surprisingly thought that this was done by making small holes in rolls of paper.

John Ogdon began to play the piano early, by ear, and he had many teachers, though for much of his adolescence he had no teacher. His occasionally idiosyncratic style of playing, which later teachers tried largely unsuccessfully to influence, probably dates from this period. He very early showed that he could read through a piece of music, and without practice or rehearsal and sometimes after a long period, play it without an error. This ability lasted to the end of his life. Since Ogdon was especially attracted to contemporary music and to very difficult piano music, this trait is especially impressive.

Ogdon was a pupil at Manchester Grammar School – at the time a grant maintained school and not the private school which it has since become. He was always a voracious reader, and his letters show an elegant writing style. His masters at school wanted him to go to Oxbridge to read English, but having been a junior pupil at the Royal Manchester College of Music (now the Royal Northern College of Music) and also being, in the words of a contemporary of his there, Alexander Goehr, interested only in food and the piano, be elected to attend the College. There his contemporaries, apart from Goehr, included other prominent composers, including Peter Maxwell Davies. While a student Ogdon performed in a number of competitions which he did not win. His disappointment in his lack of success demonstrates an interesting competitiveness.

Brenda Lucas was also a piano student at RNCM. She had dreamed of becoming a famous soloist, but her talent was not as great as John Ogdon's. They were married in 1960 and had two children together. At one point Brenda seems to have recognised the disparity in her and her husband's musical abilities and vicariously to have enjoyed his fame, but for most of their married life, she seems to have resented it. They did perform and make recordings as a piano duo, while at the same time she felt too much in his shadow.

By the time of his marriage John Ogdon had begun what for the rest of his life was a punishing playing and recording career. In 1962, jointly with Vladimir Ashkenazy, he won the Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow, a great coup for him, though the required programme could be said to have been ideally suited for his style of playing.

At the outset of their marriage the Ogdons lived in Manchester, where they had both grown up, but with the burgeoning of John's career they moved to London, living in increasingly larger and more expensive houses until the move to their last house together in Chester Terrace overlooking Regent's Park, in 1968. Brenda enjoyed giving lavish dinner parties, which John attended, though he did not converse much with the guests. This move, and the party-giving, heralded the beginning of the couple's financial difficulties, which went on throughout their lives together. Neither of them seems to have had any idea of the value of money. While it was the case that John Ogdon had great earning power in his heyday, even then their extravagance led to financial difficulties.

In the years after 1962, John Ogdon's appetite for playing and recording was voracious. Additionally food retained its attraction for him, and after 1963 he began to smoke cigarettes continuously, while with his alcohol consumption he kept pace with the guests at Brenda's parties. The number of his engagements was astonishing. For example, in 1973, when he had already suffered periods of being mentally unwell, he performed in seventeen different counties around the world and gave about two hundred concerts. The travelling involved alone could be considered stressful. It seemed that he was unable to say 'no' to engagements. He was also spurred on by the fact that in spite of his phenomenal earnings – although his and Brenda's difficulties with managing money did not lead to their being able to negotiate appropriate fees for his musical stature – the household was chronically short of money.

For part two of this review please click here

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