Alfred Brendel, widely considered ‘one of the greatest pianists of all time’, played his last public concert in 2008. I consider myself fortunate to have heard him perform several times during my years in England before this.

I remember being intrigued on finding, in addition to his recordings, his many books on sale before the concerts and in the interval. This is how I learnt that “next to music, literature is Brendel’s second life and occupation.” At the time, my job required me to move every year or less from one poky accommodation into another, so I had to be careful to keep my possessions in control. Luckily, wherever I went, the council libraries were well-stocked, and even if they didn’t have the latest releases, one could requisition them, and they would be procured very quickly.

I remember ordering Brendel’s “One Finger Too Many” from my local library soon after it was in print. I found his witty, wickedly funny and often also simultaneously profound poetry in a class by itself. His zany brand of humour was something I had not imagined, from his stage presence as a respected pianist. The poems were translations from the original German, and I was able to enjoy the poems in both languages. It was interesting to observe how the translations (by Richard Stokes), rather than being literal, took artistic liberties in order to retain the essence of the poems in English.

And now, all these years after relocating back here, I found ‘Playing the Human Game’ (Phaidon Press 2011), another compilation of Brendel’s poems on a friend’s bookshelf and was thrilled when she let me borrow it.

Playing the human game

The poems can be savoured on their own, but quite a few of them make references to earlier poems in ‘One Finger Too Many’. For instance, Brendel makes a wry comment about what a performer has to endure when we are introduced in ‘One Finger Too Many’ to the Coughers and Clappers in “The Poet of the Keyboard”:

“No one
ever dared open the windows
Fresh air
might harm the poetry
the music’s aroma
to be savoured undiluted
by ears flared like nostrils
craving nuances previously unfathomed
But not mocked as viciously as the coughers and sneezers – to be found at all perfomances:
Attempts by unfeeling artists or impresarios
to question such privileges
have led to a Coughers and Clappers initiative
Members are required to applaud
immediately after sublime codas
and cough distinctly
during expressive silences”

In ‘Playing the Human Game’, we hear of the Coughers and Clappers again:

“The Coughers of Cologne

have joined forces with the Cologne Clappers

and established a Cough and Clap Society

a non-profit-making organization

whose aim it is

to guarantee each concert-goer’s right

to cough and applaud

Attempts by unfeeling artists or impresarios

to question such privileges

have led to a Coughers and Clappers initiative

Members are required to applaud

immediately after sublime codas

and cough distinctly

during expressive silences

Distinct coughing is of paramount importance

to stifle or muffle it

forbidden on pain of expulsion

Coughers of outstanding tenacity

are awarded the Coughing Rhinemaiden

a handsome if slightly baroque appendage

to be worn dangling from the neck

The C&C’s recent merger

with the New York Sneezers

and the London Whistlers

raises high hopes

for Cologne’s musical future”

Some lines have been directly lifted from the earlier poem and inserted here as well. Also the English translation (again by Richard Stokes) transforms the Frankfurter Jungpfeifern (“young pipers”) into the London Whistlers.

His shorter poems appeal more to me. Take Brahms (I), for instance:

“When at dead of night the ghost appears

and starts prowling round the piano

then we know

Brahms has arrived

It wouldn’t be quite so bad

if his cigar smell

didn’t stink out the music room for days on end

Even worse though

is his piano playing

This wading through chords and double octaves

wakes even the children from their deep sleep

Not Brahms again

they wail

and stop their ears

Out of tune and smoking

the piano stands there

when Brahms gets up

“Brahms”

he says several times

in a plaintive tenor

before leaving through the kitchen door”

He makes a reference to another of his books (‘Cursing Bagels’ 2004) in the poem titled ‘Beethoven’:

“In the hereafter

we can make up

for all we missed in life

Beethoven for example

can be retrieved

as a baker

With his customary fury

he hurls his dough into the oven

The resemblance of his sonata to pretzels

was first remarked upon by Tovey

but it was Schenker’s acute ear

that perceived the late bagatelles

as poppy-seed cake

The deceased master’s most recent composition

his ‘Cursing Bagels’

curse

when you sink your teeth into them”

Brendel, among other things, seems to be making a dig at musical analysis here; Donald Tovey and Heinrich Schenker were noted musical analysts and theorists.

He loves wordplay as well. In the above poem, bagatelles are compared with bagels. In another poem, when writing about ‘piano devils’, he gives one the name Stechbein, which is the reputed piano firm Bechstein in scrambled form. He has a field day with Steinway as well. Its first part means “stone” in German, so there are references to “stony path” (“Steinweg” in the original German) in one poem. In scrambled form, it gets transformed into ‘Weinstay’, a drink that the piano devils love to get intoxicated with on Sundays.

His biting (there are several references to biting and being bitten in his poems) humour can have a dark side too. I’ll leave you with his poem Everything (II), a sober comment on the times we live in and our unquenchable thirst for retribution:

“We’re everything

We’re against everything

Everything must end in the end

The beginning of the end

must be a new beginning

the beginning of a new end

we fervently long to begin

No we don’t want a new end

Our beginning

does not end

What it in the end begins

is final

No we don’t want a new beginning

but what we do want

is to kill”

(An edited version of this article was published on 9 August 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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