Alfred Cortot

Alfred Cortot

Alfred Denis Cortot (Nyon, Switzerland September 26, 1877 – Lausanne June 15, 1962) was a Franco-Swiss pianist and conductor. He is one of the most popular 20th century musicians, especially renowned for his poetic insight in Romantic period piano works, particularly those of Chopin and Schumann.

Early life and education

Born in Nyon in the French-speaking part of Switzerland to a French father and a Swiss mother, 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 an assistant conductor at the Bayreuth Festival. 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 1956 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.

World War II

Controversially, he supported the German occupation in France during the Second World War (he played in Nazi-sponsored concerts, for example), serving as High Commissioner of the Fine Arts for the Vichy regimeDavid Dubal booklet to Nimbus Records release of Duo-Art piano rolls [] ] , and befriending Hitler's friend, architect, and (after 1942) Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speerfact|date=February 2008. 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 linguist, 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 yearand 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 in concert (particularly notable from the 1940s onwards, when non-musical matters were very much on his mind) and occasionally left wrong notes on his records. Such finger slips are in stark contrast to the technically flawless performances of his celebrated student, Dinu Lipatti. However, when Cortot was in form, which more often than not he was, he showed a brilliant technique which could handle almost any kind of pianistic firework. This gift is evident in his legendary recordings of Liszt's Sonata in B minor and Saint-Saëns' "Etude en Forme de Valse".

Cortot also wrote a good deal of didactic prose, including a piano primer: "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 long 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 favour 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".Fact|date=February 2007 Cortot's recordings and musical annotations have seldom been out of print.

In his early years (approx. 1920-1930) Cortot recorded a number of piano rolls for the Aeolian/ Duo-Art company, since 78rpm discs were not always satisfactory in quality or maximum duration of the recording. Once he performed a Liszt Rhapsody weaving his own playing live at the piano with its mechanical reproduction. With eyes closed some critics could not distinguish between the two. In later years Cortot of course switched to disc technology; and he recorded right up to 1957, only five years before his death. By then he made errors even more often, but retained his specially eloquent phrasing and the free, romantic performing manner for which he was famous. See, for the description of reproducing pianos like the Duo Art, this site:



* Cortot, Alfred, "La musique française de piano", 1930–48
* —, "Cours d’interprétation", 1934 ("Studies in Musical Interpretation", 1937)
* —, "Aspects de Chopin", 1949 ("In Search of Chopin", 1951)
* Gavoty, Bernard, "Alfred Cortot", 1977 (French)
* Manshardt, Thomas, "Aspects of Cortot", 1994

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