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Eugen d’Albert. Postcard photograph by Marta Wolff, published by Hermann Leiser, Berlin. [c.1910].

Eugene d’ALBERT (1864-1932)

April 2014

(b.10 April 1864, Glasgow; d.3 March 1932, Riga)

Eugen d’Albert, the 150th anniversary of whose birth falls on 10 April, deserves reassessment both as a serious and eminently approachable composer and as a great name in the history of piano playing.  Born in Glasgow to a French father (the successful Victorian dance music composer Charles d’Albert) and an English mother, and with Italian musical forbears, he lived abroad from his late teens and is now normally regarded as German.

At the age of 12 d’Albert became the first Foundation Scholar of the National Training School for Music (forerunner of the Royal College of Music), South Kensington.  Studying Piano with Ernst Pauer and Harmony and Composition with Stainer, Prout and Sullivan, he made rapid progress and attracted the attention of distinguished visitors such as Hans Richter and Anton Rubinstein.  At 16 he was engaged for three concerts in the prestigious Popular Concert series at St James’s Hall and played the Schumann Concerto at both the Crystal Palace and the Philharmonic Concerts.  After winning the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1881 he travelled to Vienna, where Richter introduced him to Liszt, whose pupil he became for 3 years.  Liszt described him as ‘an extraordinary pianist; … among the young virtuosi I know of no more gifted as well as dazzling talent than d’Albert’, and called him both ‘the Young Lion’ and ‘Albertus Magnus'”.

Other admirers of his playing included Brahms, Busoni and Richard Strauss; the latter dedicated his Burleske for piano and orchestra to d’Albert in 1890.  Revelatory in many styles, including Bach, Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and Debussy, he was considered supreme as a Beethoven player.  Bruno Walter wrote of him: ‘I shall never forget the titanic force in his rendition of Beethoven’s Concerto in E flat major.  I am almost tempted to say he did not play it; he personified it.  In his intimate contact with his instrument he appeared to me like a new centaur, half piano, half man’.

The first of his twenty-one operas, Der Rubin, was premiered in Karlsruhe in October 1893 and the last, Mister Wu, posthumously in 1932 (Dresden, 29 September 1932, completed by Leo Blech).  By far the most successful however was Tiefland, first seen in Prague on 15 November 1903 and still performed in Germany and Austria. Its British première was at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 5 October 1910, conducted by Beecham.

We are grateful to Mr Peter Joslin for contributing three of the above images.