Obituary: Peter Stadlen

Bayan Northcott
Tuesday 23 January 1996 01:02

In the history of 20th-century music, the name of Peter Stadlen will always be associated with Anton Webern's Variations for piano Op 27, of which he gave the world premiere in 1937. Yet, by an irony of which he was doubtless well aware, it was his growing scepticism over the musical tendencies represented by that very work which, 20 years later, was to lead to the abandonment of his career as a noted interpreter of contemporary music.

Born in Vienna in 1910, Stadlen trained as a conductor, composer, even philosopher, before completing his piano studies with Leonid Kreuzer in Berlin. Indeed, at the Venice Biennale in 1937, he conducted a performance of Schoenberg's 12-note Suite for septet Op 29 from the keyboard - a remarkable feat, for the piano part itself is crammed with complexities.

Following the Nazi takeover in Austria, he sought refuge in Britain - one of that brilliant generation of Viennese immigrants, including Hans Keller and three members of the future Amadeus String Quartet, who were so to enrich the musical life of post-war Britain. Stadlen took British citizenship in 1946, but immediately resumed his international career; introducing such important works as Schoenberg's Piano Concerto and Hindemith's Four Temperaments to European audiences, running a master-class in modern piano music at the Darmstadt Summer School from 1947 to 1951, and in 1952 receiving the Austrian government's Schoenberg Medal.

Yet, by this time, he was beginning to worry whether the chords produced by the 12-note method, let alone by the more rigorous post-Webernian serialism coming into vogue, created any audible harmonic logic. Eventually, he concluded they did not, publishing his findings in 1958 in William Glock's music magazine the Score in an article entitled "Serialism Reconsidered". This has been much quoted for its vivid account of working with Webern, but its suggestion that the published score of the Op 27 Variations largely failed to convey the expressive intentions Webern privately insisted upon drew down the ire of the by then international serialist establishment. Ultimately, Stadlen was obliged to publish in facsimile his own copy of the work, covered in Webern's additional markings - a document which is said to have prompted Pierre Boulez, no less, to reconsider his entire interpretative approach to Webern.

Meanwhile, Stadlen continued his anti-serial campaign for several years; I recall a charismatic lecture to the Oxford University Contemporary Music Club in the early 1960s. Today, the consensus would probably be that he was more right than wrong, though it has to be added that the argument, both pro and contra, was conducted on a far higher level circa 1960 than such controversies tend to be now.

In any case, having given up performance, Stadlen turned to musicology, holding a lectureship at Reading University from 1965 to 1969 and a visiting fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford, in 1967-68. He made a substantial contribution to the never-ending debate about Beethoven's tempo markings and was the first to discover the extent to which Beethoven's factotum, Anton Schindler, had forged entries in the conversation books Beethoven kept in the years of his deafness. But Stadlen also published on continuity in Mozart, Schoenberg's use of speech-song, and other topics. It is odd that his papers have never been collected. They would make a distinguished volume.

At the same time, he was building a career in broadcasting and journalism. In 1959, he joined the Daily Telegraph as music critic, succeeding Martin Cooper as chief critic in 1977. Reviewing is an exiguous activity, but, behind Stadlen's lapidary notices, one contined to sense an enquiring and dialectical mind. Which was doubtless why he and his wife Hedi, with whom he enjoyed an inseparable union for over 50 years, continued to attend concerts and operas as avidly as ever after his retirement in 1986. To converse with them during an interval was always a cultural pleasure; her poise and warmth so perfectly complementing his often quizzical bemusement at some latest avant-garde enormity or populist cop-out.

Three weeks ago, during a concert of late medieval rarities, we talked of recent research on Charles Ives. Stadlen seemed frailer, but retained as ever the aura of a musician who had devoted his life, no matter what the cost in controversy and doubt, to the discovering and sustaining of musical truth.

Peter Stadlen, pianist, musicologist, critic: born Vienna 14 July 1910; married 1946 Hedi Simon (two sons); died London 21 January 1996.

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