John Andrew Howard Ogdon

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John Andrew Howard Ogdon

Also Known As: "Jon Ogden"
Birthdate: (52)
Birthplace: Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire, UK
Death: August 1, 1989 (52)
London, UK (Undiagnosed Diabetes & Pneumonia)
Immediate Family:

Husband of <private> Ogdon

Managed by: Terry Jackson (Switzer)
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

    • <private> Ogdon

About John Andrew Howard Ogdon

John Ogdon


John Ogdon (Piano)

Born: January 27, 1937 - Manchester, England Died: August 1, 1989 - London, England

The English remarkable pianist and composer, John (Andrew Howard) Ogdon, attended Manchester Grammar School, before studying at the Royal Manchester College of Music (the predecessor of the Royal Northern College of Music) between 1953 and 1957. His tutor there was Claud Biggs. As a boy he had studied with Iso Elinson and after leaving college, he further studied with Gordon Green, Denis Matthews, Ilona Kabos, Dame Myra Hess, and Egon Petri - the latter in Basle, Switzerland. He began his career while still a student, premiering works by Goehr and Maxwell Davis. Following an acclaimed series of concerts in the north of England, he made his sensational London debut as soloist in 1958, playing Ferruccio Busoni's rarely-heard Piano Concerto under the baton of Sir Henry Wood. In 1960, Ogdon married pianist Brenda Lucas in 1960, and the two often appeared in recital together. He won first prize at the Budapest Liszt Competition in 1961, and consolidated his growing international reputation by winning another first prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1962, jointly with the young Vladimir Ashkenazy, another rapidly emerging artist.

A hectic career followed, in which John Ogdon played acclaimed concerts and recitals around the world, and recorded extensively. His life and career might be summed up as prodigious. His size was impressive. Tall and with a tendency toward obesity, Ogdon brought power and strength to his performances, with critics often resorting to words like "thunderous" in their assessments. Yet Ogdon was always sensitive to the demands of musical architecture. An affable and approachable artist among his more aloof colleagues, his primary concern was to communicate music's essence through clear delineation of its form. A player of great strength and protean technique, Ogdon was unafraid, and in fact preferred, to tackle the biggest scores, including F. Busoni's mammoth Piano Concerto, L.v. Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, the Concerto for Solo Piano (from the Op. 39 Etudes) of Charles-Valentin Alkan, and the four-hour Opus Clavicembalisticum by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, which he first played in private recital at the age of 22. He also was capable of sensitive intimacy with his repertoire. When he was at the height of his powers, it was his concentration and unrelenting but plastic control that impressed audiences. His repertoire was also massive: more than 80 composers were represented, with literally hundreds of scores. He was able to play most pieces at sight and had committed a huge range of pieces to memory. He enjoyed stretching his vast talents to their limit and attempted such monumental tasks as a complete recording of Sergei Rachmaninov's works for piano, which was released in 2001. He recorded all ten Scriabin sonatas early in his career. In more familiar repertoire, he revealed deep musical sensibilities, always buttressed by a colossal technique. More than 260 works in his playing preserved in recordings.

John Ogdon also studied composition with Richard Hall, Thomas Pittfield, and George Lloyd. He composed nearly 200 works in many forms, including a symphony, piano works, chamber music, a string quartet and a piano concerto. A planned symphony based on the works of Herman Melville and a comic opera were left unfinished.

John Ogdon taught at the Indiana University of Music in Bloomington from 1976 to 1980. He wrote extensively on music, including a number of well-received treatises, including Sorabji and Melville (1960), Liszt's Later Piano Music (1970) and The Romantic Tradition (1972).

John Ogdon's health was never good, and his physical constitution was not strong enough to carry the burden of his enormous talent. A gentle giant, known and loved for his kindness and generosity, he found it hard to say no and was pushed beyond his strength. In 1973, Ogdon suffered a breakdown which, given the pace of his career, might not have been unexpected, but a more serious cause was at the heart of it. Like his father before him, Ogdon was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalised for several years at the Maudley Hospital in London, where he was nevertheless reported to maintain a practice schedule of three hours a day on the hospital's Steinway. In general he needed more nursing than it was possible to provide while touring. In 1980, he made a comeback in the concert hall, but critics found that his technique had suffered from the years of institutionalisation and the medication he took to maintain his inner balance. In 1983, after emerging from hospital, he played at the opening of the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. Still, there were moments of great inspiration when the brilliance of his conceptions overshadowed any diminution of his keyboard powers, and his 1988 recording of K.S. Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum (Altarus) is an astonishing achievement. Shortly after, at the age of 52, he died of pneumonia, brought on by undiagnosed diabetes. His death was mourned by a multitude of friends and admirers.

The BBC made a film about his life titled Virtuoso, based on his biography Virtuoso: The Story of John Ogdon (London, 1981), written by his wife and fellow-pianist, Brenda Lucas Ogdon. John Ogdon was played by Alfred Molina, who won a Best Actor award from the Royal Television Society for his performance.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ From

Friday, January 26, 2007 John Ogdon - a blazing meteor John Ogdon was born seventy years ago, on January 27th 1937. The words below were written by him in 1981.

"Here then…are some of the harsh facts behind the words ‘severe mental illness’ and ‘serious nervous breakdown’ which the press has been using about me so often lately. Not that I am complaining about the press! – I was thrilled by the sympathetic and wide spread media interest that came my way both before and after my return to the….concert stage" 

Ogdon (above) was thrust into the limelight in 1962 when he was joint winner, with his friend Vladimir Ashkenazy, of the Moscow Tchaikovsky Competition. He wowed the Moscow audiences with his performances of Rachmaninov, Balakirev and Scriabin, as well as the Tchaikovsky 1st Piano Concerto which became his signature piece.

Although Ogdon is mainly remembered today for his stunning interpretations of the Russian romantic repertoire he was also a ceaseless performer of modern music. He studied in Manchester at the same time as Peter Maxwell Davies, who wrote his Opus 1 Sonata for Trumpet for Ogdon and Elgar Howarth, and his Opus 2 Five Pieces for Piano for him in 1956. Ogdon became part of what is now known as the ‘Manchester School’ together with Harrison Birtwistle and Alexander Goehr.

John Ogdon’s appetite for new music was insatiable. He gave the first performance in 50 years of Kaikhosru Sorabji’s (1892-1988) four hour epic, Opus Clavicembalisticum, and then offered to repeat the piece as an encore! He went on to record the Sorabji, a recording that is still in the catalogue. (Despite his exotic name Sorabji was born in Essex, England!) Among the other contemporary composers that Ogdon championed and played were Ronald Stevenson, Christopher Headington, David Blake, Malcolm Williamson (who dedicated his Sonata for Two Pianos to him), the American Richard Yardumian, and his long-time friend and supporter Gerard Schurmann.

Somewhat surprisingly Ogdon admired the work of Cornish tonal composer George Lloyd whose piano concerto ‘Scapegoat’ was dedicated to him, and which was described by Ogdon as ‘almost a masterpiece’. He was also a fan of jazz, and as Artistic Director of the Cardiff Festival of Twentieth Century Music he programmed Gershwin and Ellington alongside Boulez and Szymanowski. He was one of the first pianists to tackle Messiaen’s Vingt regards, was a ceaseless champion of Alkan’s oeuvre, and was responsible almost single-handedly for the rehabilitation of Busoni’s Piano Concerto.

As if this wasn’t enough Ogdon was also a prolific composer. His Theme and Variations was written for none other than Vladimir Ashkenazy. He wrote solo sonatas for piano, violin, flute and cello, a string quartet, and a quintet for brass, and left an uncompleted symphony inspired by the writings of Hermann Melville. His most ambitious work was a Piano Concerto, of which he made a long-deleted recording for EMI.

But if Ogdon’s creativity blazed across the heavens like a meteor, sadly his mental health spluttered like a dysfunctional firework. He made three attempts at suicide, one was by cutting his own throat. There were long stays in the specialist psychiatric Maudsley Hospital in London, interspersed by long periods of depression. There was electroshock therapy and lithium treatment. But ironically Ogdon died on August 1st 1989, aged 52, of natural causes connected with undiagnosed diabetes.

John Ogdon’s wife, the pianist Brenda Lucas Ogdon, supported him through illness. She has continued to champion his work long after it dropped out of fashion, and runs the John Ogdon Foundation. In 1981, eight years before his untimely death, she wrote a biography titled Virtuoso. It is John Ogdon’s own words from the Foreword that I used at the start of this article. And I will conclude by quoting his wife's Afterword which is as relevant to the Piano Man in 2005 as it was to John Ogdon twenty-four years ago.

"I have been amazed how many people have confided in me, as if to a comrade in arms, that a spouse, a relative, or a friend – even, on occasion, they themselves – had undergone a comparable ordeal (if not so extreme a one). But why have they hidden that experience from the world? Why, when most of them admit to having been deplorably ignorant when they were first forced to cope, do they not give advice and warnings to others? What is it that they are ashamed of.......?"

For a related story take An Overgrown Path to Music and Alzheimer's. There is a superb sketch of John Ogdon by Milein Cosman on the National Portrait Gallery web site. Unfortunately this gallery charges for the use of their images on web sites so I haven't linked to it. As the sketch is not currently on public view at the Gallery this seems rather self-defeating. It is worth following the link as there are lovely sketches of other musicians including the Amadeus Quartet there. I fully sympathise with the drive for intellectual property protection. But in this case shouldn't the Gallery be taking the risk of exposing the works under their stewardship to public view? Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

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John Andrew Howard Ogdon's Timeline

January 27, 1937
Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire, UK
August 1, 1989
Age 52
London, UK