Alfred Cortot

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Alfred Denis Cortot (Nyon, Switzerland, September 26, 1877 – Lausanne, Switzerland, June 15, 1962) was a Swiss pianist and conductor. He is renowned for his poetic and deeply melancholic interpretation of Romantic period piano works, particularly those of Chopin and Schumann. Born in Nyon in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, Cortot studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Emile Descombes (reputedly a pupil of Chopin) (as did Maurice Ravel), and with Louis Diémer, taking a premier prix in 1896. He made his debut at the Concerts Colonne in 1897, playing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3. Between 1898 and 1901 he was a choral coach, and subsequently assistant conductor, at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, and in 1902 he conducted the Paris premiere of Götterdämmerung by Wagner. He formed a concert society to perform Wagner's Parsifal, Beethoven's Missa solemnis, Brahms' German Requiem, and new works by French composers. In 1905, Cortot formed a trio with Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals, which established itself as the leading piano trio of its era, and probably of any era. From 1907 to 1923 Cortot taught at the Paris Conservatoire, where his pupils included Clara Haskil, Dinu Lipatti, Vlado Perlemuter, and even Marguerite Monnot (French composer of most of the best songs of Edith Piaf and of the stage musical Irma la douce). In 1919 he founded the École Normale de Musique de Paris. His courses in musical interpretation were legendary. Extremely widely traveled as a pianist, he also appeared as guest conductor of many orchestras. He died in Lausanne. Controversially, he supported the German occupation in France during the Second World War (he played in Nazi-sponsored concerts, for example), serving as Minister of Culture for the Vichy regime, and befriending Hitler's assistant Albert Speer. His Vichy connections, in particular, led to him being declared persona non grata after the Liberation. The motives for his wartime activities have been disputed; they may have arisen from nothing more than his lifelong championship of Teutonic musical culture. Moreover his wife, Clothilde Breal, daughter of the semanticist, Michel Breal, was of Jewish origin and Clothilde Breal's cousin, Lise Bloch, was married to Leon Blum, the first Jew to become President du Conseil or Prime Minister in France. Cortot and the Blums maintained a close friendship. At any rate, he was banned from performing publicly for a year, and his public image in France suffered greatly (though he continued to be well received as a recitalist in other countries, notably Italy and England). As the foremost piano interpreter of Chopin and Schumann, Cortot made editions of both those composers' music, which were notable for his own meticulous commentary on technical problems and matters of interpretation. He had famous memory lapses - particularly notable from the 1940s onwards, when non-musical matters were very much on his mind - and occasionally left wrong notes on his records. This was in stark contrast to his technically flawless student, Lipatti. Cortot was also the author of the piano exercise book: "Rational Principles of Pianoforte Technique". This book contains many finger exercises to aid in the development of various aspects of piano playing technique. It was originally written in French but has since been translated into other languages. Technical flaws notwithstanding, Cortot was among the very greatest musicians of the century, and represented the end of an era. He is considered the last exponent of a personal, subjective style that deprecated precise technique in favor of intuition, interpretation and authentic spirit. This approach was replaced by the modern "scientific" way of playing, which places logic and precision at the forefront and equates authenticity with metronomic and literal "interpretations". Cortot's recordings and musical annotations have seldom been out of print. Read more on User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply.