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Virtual Book Club X (Part 2)

14 December 2015

This is the second half of Virtual Book Club X, looking at John Ogdon's life as outlined by Charles Beauclerk in "Piano Man: A Life of John Ogdon." For the first half, please click here.

Matters began slowly and inexorably to lead to the mental health difficulties which dogged the remainder of John Ogdon's life. At the beginning of 1971, following a concert in San Antonio, Texas, he described seeing large crosses in the sky, and he heard a voice urging him onto the outside window ledge of his hotel room. This led to his first hospitalization. During the next two years his musical colleagues noted that when he gave concerts, he seemed withdrawn. His punishing schedule continued, while at the same time more worrying symptoms appeared until towards the end of 1973, Ogdon asked his wife to find a psychiatrist for him and he was admitted to hospital. This was following a further hallucinatory episode. At this time be began to self-harm, and this became a recurring feature of his life.

John Ogdon now began a life which consisted of residence in a number of psychiatric hospitals including the Maudsley, and hostels and other facilities for people with mental health problems. His relationship with his wife deteriorated. They had to sell their house and also, sadly, his vast collection of musical scores amongst other things. Brenda ceased to be able to live with her husband because there had been episodes in which he had hurt her or threatened to hurt her, apart from the difficulties they had suffered almost from the beginning, which were largely because of the primacy for him of his career. In the end they lived, bizarrely, in separate flats, he on the ground floor and she in the basement. He had a serious of minders or carers who tried to look after him, and who tried to organise him when he gave concerts. He gave his last concert, which was very well received, a few days before his death in 1989, of multiple organ failure, when he was fifty-two years old.

In his last years, John Ogdon presents a pitiful picture. He fascination with music, not only piano music, and his composition, was undiminished, and he went on playing difficult contemporary music to a diminishing audience, as he became increasingly unreliable. There were incidents when he did not turn up for concerts, when he turned up late having become confused as to how to get to wherever he was going. Most of the time he managed to stick to the expected programmes, but sometimes improvised or was unable to or refused, to keep pace with an accompanying orchestra. His friends, who were many, had him to stay frequently, but his relationship with his wife, who contributed to the pressure of his performance career because of being chronically short of money, did not improve. He did not look after his appearance or eat appropriately, and did not always take the complex medication prescribed for him.

Beauclerk makes a number of suggestions for diagnoses of John Ogdon's condition or conditions. It seems likely that he occupied a point on the Autistic Spectrum. While he maintained an apparently voluminous correspondence with many people – not exclusively about music – he was tongue tied and not well able to communicate verbally. He did form close relationships with musical colleagues, with students and his minders or carers, most of whom were very fond of him, but his ability to manage more intimate relationships does seem to have been impaired. He had an isolated childhood and approbation followed from his immense musical gifts. He lived in a household where there was little conversation and no encouragement to discuss his emotional life, which seems to have been bound up with his piano playing, which both provided emotional stimulation and allowed him to show his own emotions.

It is clear that Ogdon was preoccupied with the oral – his obsession with food and his addiction to smoking and perhaps to drinking – underline this, and perhaps he had not matured from the infantile oral stage. During his childhood his mother would have ensured that he was properly dressed in clean clothes, that his shoe laces were tied and that he was polite to visitors to the home. When he was living with his wife, she no doubt at least some of the time, took over those functions, and during the period of his greatest fame, when he was travelling and performing alone, John Ogdon could manage himself adequately.

Following the beginning of the decline in his mental health, Ogdon was largely left to his own devices in regard to managing his dressing, eating and so forth. The depressive episodes which he suffered, when he was not being minded or cared for, would have exacerbated his self-harming and his lack of recognition of a need to dress or eat properly. It is possible, as has been suggested, that the perhaps frantic touring, and absorption in new and difficult music, were attributable to the manic phase of a bipolar condition. But there are many pianist/composers who work or have worked just as hard, who lead more ordinary, less dramatic lives. It seems more likely that John Ogdon suffered from more than one disorder, which could have been ameliorated by closer observation of what seemed to be going on in his inner world, and a less stressful family life with the constant pressure to keep solvent.

Tagged in: virtual book club, maudsley, book review, biography and psychology,