ALFRED CORTOT (1877 - 1962)
The son of a French father and Swiss mother, Alfred Cortot was born in Nyon, Switzerland in 1877. During his childhood the family moved to Paris and young Alfred joined the Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine where he studied piano first with Emile Descombes (1829–1912) and, from the age of fifteen, with Louis Diémer (1843–1919). Cortot made his début in 1897 with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37, and gave piano duet recitals with Edouard Risler (1873–1929) playing arrangements for four hands of music by Wagner. His enthusiasm for the German composer led to his appointment as choral coach, then assistant conductor at Bayreuth working under Felix Mottl and Hans Richter. Cortot’s experiences in Bayreuth left him eager to introduce Wagner’s music to French audiences, and in 1902 he founded the Société de Festivals Lyriques, through which in May of the same year he conducted the Paris première of Götterdämmerung. The following year Cortot organised another society enabling him to give performances of major works such as Brahms’s Requiem, Liszt’s St Elisabeth, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and Wagner’s Parsifal and not long after he became conductor of the Société Nationale, promoting works by contemporary French composers.
Cortot was a multi-faceted musician, a conductor and chamber music player as well as solo pianist. He formed a famous piano trio with Jacques Thibaud and Pablo Casals, but it was as a pianist for which he became renowned. He was appointed by Gabriel Fauré to a teaching post at the Paris Conservatoire, but was in such demand as a performer that he was invariably away on tour. In 1918 Cortot made his first tour of America, and during his second tour in 1920 he played all five of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos in two evenings and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30, with the composer present. Also at this time he founded the Ecole Normale de Musique for which he appointed a hand-picked staff. Cortot himself taught there until 1961; his most famous students included Magda Tagliaferro, Clara Haskil and Yvonne Lefébure.