One Finger Too Many
by Alfred Brendel
Faber and Faber, GBP7.99, 73pp
Interpreter as Composer
Alfred Brendel, the great classical pianist, has always been a man of diverse interests. His love of literature and art, in addition to music, is well known. Apart from his supreme interpretations of the piano music of composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, and Liszt, he is the author of two volumes of essays on music, and now the author of a unique volume of poetry, One Finger Too Many. This is a book full of double-edged poems that come back on the reader, the author, and themselves. Whether whimsical or biting, they are often brilliant and surprising. Adapted from their original German by Brendel with the assistance of Richard Stokes, they carry a vigour that makes them “live” in English. Not all the poems are of equal quality, with some mere squibs, but they work collectively as a cycle and leave one with the impression of having shared the private space of a very public figure.
Here is an informed, witty, and deeply humorous space that overcomes the usual separation of composer and interpreter. No matter how ironic the poems, they always carry “feeling” for the human – as Brendel has said himself, “I am always conscious of the fact that feeling must remain the Alpha and Omega of the musician”, and so, after everything, must it for the poet. And most refreshingly, Brendel can capture the “serious”, without taking himself seriously. It’s one of the few volumes of poetry I’ve read that’s left me with a sense of relief!
In a 1996 interview with Stephen Plaistow in Gramophone, Brendel said of Beethoven’s sonatas – “I want the sonatas to tell me what to do.” It is pleasing that this philosophy has extended to his poetry. And though one loses some context without the original German texts, there is a strong sense that the subject matter dictates the form – it is the line itself which is at the core of the poem. The line works aphoristically, allegorically, and even syllogistically. As units, the pieces are like fables. This gives them a deceptively “light” feel, but the tone is something that’s carefully evoked – it is the lightness of touch that makes the heavier moments on the keyboard tolerable.
The “heavier moments”, for want of a better expression, are indirect. In a particularly bizarre piece, “Monkey”, malevolence is potential, but kept at bay by irony. It works as parable or fable, as this extract from the poem “Paradise” also shows:
with but a tinge of regret
watching the ugly grow beautiful
angels with blackened wings
drop from the sky
and the serpent
aim at us
hissing from its tree
Many of these poems move between the public and private spaces of performance. They speak of distraction and concentration, obsession and the ridiculous. The obsession of “The Poet of the Keyboard” is mocked, as the player performs to “an imaginary public”:
ever dared open the windows
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
Brendel has understood something about poets and pianists alike! This is poetry as antidote.
In his essay “Liszt Misunderstood” Brendel writes: “For, so the audience reckons, a pianist who champions Liszt cannot be taken seriously as an interpreter of the Classics. People forget that Liszt himself was the foremost Beethoven interpreter of his century. It would be more to the point if they were to adopt the opposite approach and accept as an outstanding Liszt player only a pianist who has proved his competence in the interpretation of Classical masterpieces.” In this quote we might find something of the world view that informs One Finger Too Many. Whilst unsubtly sarcastic on occasions, and apparently lightweight on others, these poems are deeply informed by what makes a poem. Their timing is often impeccable; as adaptations they seem unmarked by calque, and they rarely stray outside their moment, even in a longer piece like “Othello”. The spirit informing these is that of a poet. To draw comparisons from the English canon may be inappropriate, but the tone of Swift comes to mind on more than one occasion:
blew her fuse
Inconsiderate as always
joined her in the bathtub
and made her sing his obscene canons one after another
Much of the verse shows a closeness to speech that is dangerously attractive – we want to be familiar with the voice but dare not, lest we become its next target.
This book is of a hybrid nature – both in terms of the movement between literary and musical cultures, and of its being a work of apparent clarity while also innovative in its focus, voice, and, to a certain extent, structure. The poems, unhindered by titles on the page, interact like a musical score. Like variations on a theme they flow into each other, sometimes work contrapuntally, and set up a complex series of cadences. Had some of the anecdotal pieces been stronger lyrically, one would have had, in its own terms, the perfect score. But this flaw is in some senses a plus, as it gives the writing the feel of a “work-in-progress”. The occasional rough edge allows the reader room for interpretation. In the main, however, these are finely tuned verses.
The array of composers making an appearance is wide – Mendelssohn, Bruch, Liszt, Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven and “Brom Brehm Brums/sorry Brahms”, as well as numerous musical references to delight the connoisseur and casual reader alike. “Tritsch-Tratsch” is especially appealing, amusing, and slightly disturbing, coming, at least in part as Brendel points out in his postscript, “from my depraved imagination”.
In Liszt we have pianist as interpreter and composer, as we do with Brendel in One Finger Too Many. And it’s the relationship that’s interesting. This is a book of great wit and humour, to be read in a sitting.