A SENSITIVE GUIDE, BY DAVID CANFIELD
JOHN OGDON REMEMBERED, GRAMOPHONE, Spring 1998
David E. Canfield was working at Indiana University at the same time as John Ogdon when they met. Through the eyes of a colleague, then-piano student David Boeddinghaus, he provides a valuable insight into John Ogdon as a teacher
JOHN OGDON WAS an “enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a riddle”. Few pianists commanded such a formidable presence when seated at their instruments, but away from the piano, meeting well-wishers after a concert, or even acknowledging applause after a stunning recital, Ogdon exuded shyness from every pore. If there can be a shy way of walking, he managed that too — eyes downward and a gait that was more a shuffle than a walk. But shy though he may have been, he was undoubtedly one of the sweetest and kindest people ever to grace the concert stage.
I got to know John Ogdon slightly during the years he was at Indiana University as his piano studio was next to my office where I supervised one of the music libraries of the School of Music. Every afternoon he would walk by my open door and we would exchange pleasantries. One day I brought in my recording of his Piano Concerto and asked him to sign it. He seemed genuinely touched when I told him that my own Piano Concerto (my doctoral thesis piece) was strongly influenced by his own work in the genre. His signature on my record is very small and unassuming, almost as if he did not want to deface the sleeve.
Among the people who worked as my assistants in the library during that time was David Boeddinghaus, a student of Ogdon. Boeddinghaus, who is now the pianist for the New Orleans Hot Jazz, first met Ogdon in Vienna in the spring of 1976. Ogdon, over a drink at his hotel, told him that he was planning to come to teach at Indiana University, when Boeddinghaus came to Indiana in the autumn of 1979, he decided to ask Ogdon if he could study with him. Ogdon readily accepted him as a pupil, and Boeddinghaus maintained a good relationship with his teacher during his time of study with him. That was apparently not the case with all of Ogdon’s students, however. Some of them simply did not understand how to relate to him. His style of teaching was not at all aggressive but quite the reverse and sometimes, when a student would play through a piece, Ogdon would have very little to say. However, Boeddinghaus learned to draw out Ogdon’s comments, which he found extremely enlightening and perceptive, and even more, was generally able to get his teacher to play the work or passage in question, to illustrate his ideas.
Ogdon was in fact very sensitive to his students’ needs: Boeddinghaus ran into him at a popular restaurant across the street from the music school and shared with his teacher some problems that he was experiencing with a particular piece he was working on at the time. Ogdon immediately invited him to come up to his studio to help him through the problem, forgoing the remainder of his lunch hour. On another occasion, Ogdon invited Boeddinghaus over to his house and during the course of the visit played for him his new Japanese recording of a Liszt programme. As Boeddinghaus listened, he thought that this was not one of the better recordings he had heard of his teacher. As if he was reading his mind, Ogdon suddenly blurted out, “You know, this is rather sloppy, isn’t it?”
Ogdon’s capacity for sight-reading was nothing short of prodigious. His students, knowing of his capabilities in this regard, would sometimes test him with full orchestral scores from the music library. They never stumped him. Boeddinghaus recalls one occasion in which one of Ogdon’s students had written a 12-tone piece and brought the manuscript in to him at his lesson. Ogdon looked the piece over, remarking that it looked interesting. He played it through once to make sure he was reading all the notes correctly, then gave it a flawless world premiere performance — there was no other way to describe it — for his audience of one.
Coincidentally, it was because of David Boeddinghaus that I acquired some rare items from Ogdon’s personal collection of scores and recordings: Boeddinghaus called me one day, knowing of my interest in records, telling me that he had seen a garage sale in the newspaper which mentioned classical records. I picked Boeddinghaus up and we went to the address given, not realizing whose house it was until we were greeted by Brenda Lucas. Included in the sale were most of John Ogdon’s piano music and recordings. I never expect to see again the kind of bargains that I was able to purchase at this sale. For instance, I purchased two private transcription recordings (one-of-a-kind items) of Kaikhosru Sorabji performing several of his own piano pieces for 25 cents each. I bought several dozen records, and dozens of piano scores, including Sorabji’s famous Opus Clavicembalisticum. Some of the scores were marked up with Ogdon’s inimitable markings. These markings, in multiple colours, apparently gave the pianist visual aids in beat placement, phrasing, fingerings and other areas.
It is perhaps surprising that a pianist who was such a gifted sight-reader would feel the need to mark his scores in such detail — and apparently every piece he performed received a similar treatment. However, they do give an interesting glimpse into the mind of a very private artist.