CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: When the laughing had to start

What connects music and words? Alfred Brendel, poet-pianist, does.
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The Independent Culture
There's nothing fair about the way talent is handed out - to those who have, more is given - but music is a talent that does not combine easily. We know about music and mathematics, and music and chess: Francois Andre Philidor wrote operas with one hand and chess treatises with the other, and the Russian pianist Mark Taimanov spends his holidays officiating as a chess grandmaster. But music and painting? Few composers have bridged that gap.

With music and literature we're on firmer ground. Some writers routinely compose - Anthony Burgess, Paul (The Sheltering Sky) Bowles, and even the ineffable Roger Scruton. And many composers handle words with as much facility as they do notes: Wagner was his own librettist (alas), and so (again alas) was Michael Tippett. For Robert Schumann, his music criticism read like theatre, and when he described his own works, the poetic muse was always in attendance. "It seemed as though flowers and gods were coming out of my fingers," he wrote of his playing, after a successful amorous encounter with Clara. For this bewildered genius, all music was metaphor.

What are we to make of Alfred Brendel, who gave his new collection of poems their inaugural reading in Cheltenham yesterday? For if these bagatelles have a leitmotiv it is laughter - as a liberating, disruptive, regenerative force. "At one stage in my life," he says, "I didn't laugh enough. Some mechanism in my psyche may have come to my rescue."

But the poems have taken him by surprise. "I did not sit down to be a poet, or to prove an aesthetic point. They simply emerged, starting on a plane to Japan when I could not sleep properly. After two hours of being half asleep and half awake, the first poem, about a third index finger, began to come through. I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote it down. I found it rather funny. So I went on writing." When he had done 20, his wife surreptitiously showed them to a German publisher, who said that if he wrote a few more they would make a book. There are now two books in German, of which One Finger Too Many (Faber & Faber) is an English distillation.

The poems we read in English are, he stresses, "versions" rather than translations: his original German word-play won't translate. And if he starts a poem in English the same problem arises: "I've just written one which begins: `Bolster your ego, be a cannibal.' You simply can't do that line in German."

At one level, these poems have been a route to self-knowledge. "I am not a subject on which I usually spend a lot of thought - there are many other things which interest me more - but after a while, I started to look at what they said about me. And they told me that I found the world absurd, which was no surprise."

And he derived this perception from early experience. "Seeing the Nazis in the streets in Austria, hearing their broadcasts on the radio, becoming aware of the great void left by the Jews - all that was an important part of my education. It inoculated me against fanaticism and belief. I began to understand that the world is absurd, which is a valuable perception, now that it grows more absurd each day." The most savage poem in the book is also, in Brendel's view, the most realistic: in it the Lord of the Universe contemplates his good works, which range from wars to tornadoes to deftly implanted sexual anguish.

The prime source of the imagery is Brendel's lifelong passion for painting and sculpture, and he eagerly claims kinship with the English nonsense tradition that stretches back through Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, all the way to the Renaissance. "We have no such tradition in German literature: our sole representative is Christian Morgenstern, a great poet of the grotesque, whose poems I love, and know quite a few by heart."

Brendel is not at first blush a "musical" poet; he doesn't revel in alliteration or assonance, and he has no interest in the sound of language per se. But he does draw parallels between the two arts. "Music and poetry are both linear, with a beginning and an end. And music is routinely called a language. In my early life I composed just enough to know what composition means. That is what I am doing when I write poems. Like a good recording session, the end result should not give you any idea of the work that has gone in."

There is also a parallel with performance: "At the piano, one must concentrate, but not too hard - keeping a balance between the analytical side of the brain and the free-association of the other. This is important in both music and poetry."

In a Beethoven sonata, phrases and ideas overlap and intermingle: the same might be said of one of Brendel's quirkiest poems, with its invocation of laughter in church. "It springs from my being in Kyoto, and visiting the temple of a thousand Buddhas, which became interwoven with the images of the sumo wrestlers I saw on television there every night. And then came Kafka's Gregor Samsa - the man who turned into a beetle - and behind it was my religious scepticism."

Another directly autobiographical product begins: "Holding in his hand/ the invitation to play Othello..." and has Brendel propelling himself on to the stage. "Not long ago, I woke from a dream in which I was in the audience and somebody went up on stage and announced that I was going to play Othello. I woke up and asked myself: `Now why on earth Othello?' I wasn't frightened, merely puzzled."

But the concerns of his own profession surface constantly and explicitly. One of the shortest poems in the book concerns the trill near the end of Beethoven's Opus 111 sonata - "the closest you can come to a mystical experience in all music". But the composer who makes the most forceful entrance is Brahms, whom Brendel gleefully transmogrifies into a bogeyman who frightens children in their sleep. "Maybe this was a little revenge for the perversity of the B flat concerto. The pianistic demands are so against the body, so dangerous to play - or the passages which, as they stand, are literally unplayable."

Is Alfred Brendel too serious? Radio 3's Hilary Boulding recently dished her chances of getting the controllership by having the temerity to say so. Brendel is serious, but in the way all true comedians are. "If the gods laugh at all, their laughter would be like the snake in front of the rabbit. The laughter that interests me is human. It's the distinguishing feature of humanity."