Alfred Cortot was an early 19th-century French-Swiss pianist, conductor, teacher and arranger. Cortot was particularly enamoured by the music of the great German Romantics, in addition to that of Wagner. Cortot was responsible for introducing cautionary French audiences to the music of Wagner and many other German Premieres. He also promoted the works of contemporary French composers.
Cortot was born in 1877 in Nyon, Switzerland to a French father and Swiss mother. He received his very first piano lessons in Geneva at the age of five. The family relocated to Paris when Alfred was still a young boy, allowing him to join the Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine. He first followed piano lessons with Emile Descombes before beginning his studies with Louis Diémer. It is also possible that he had lessons from Rouquou. In any case, Cortot received the highest honour, the Premier Prix, upon his graduation from the Paris Conservatoire in 1896. Around this time Cortot made his concert début with Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor.
It was through pianist Édouard Risler that Cortot was exposed to the music of Wagner, for which he gained an enormous appreciation. Together with Riseler, Cortot performed Wagner’s works in versions for four-hands. Cortot moved to Bayreuth in 1898 to work as a répétiteur and then assistant conductor at the opera, under Felix Mottl and Hans Richter. Cortot left Bayreuth in 1902, full of enthusiasm for the music of Wagner and his eagerness to share Wagner’s music with the people of France. To achieve his goal, Cortot founded the Société de Festivals Lyriques, through which he was able to conduct the Paris premiere of Götterdämmerung(May 1902) and Tristan und Isolde (June 1902). He organized another society, Association des Concerts A. Cortot, the next year in able to conduct works such as Requiem (Brahms), St Elisabeth (Liszt), Missa Solemnis (Beethoven) andParsifal (Wagner). While this society was short-lived, it successfully helped ease the French into Wagner’s music. Following this string of mostly German performances, Cortot became the conductor of the Société Nationale, where he promoted new works from contemporary French composers. He was appointed conductor of the Concerts Populaires at Lille in 1904.
Despite his flourishing conducting career, Cortot never gave up the piano. Instead, he travelled the world on multiple occasions, including two U.S. tours, to perform solo recitals. He was particularly well-known for his interpretations of the music of Beethoven and Schumann. In 1905, Cortot joined forces with the virtuosos violinist Jacques Thibaud and cellist Pablos Casals. Their piano trio toured frequently and served as a model for future piano trios.
At the height of his career, Cortot was chosen by Gabriel Fauré to teach at the Paris Conservatoire in 1907. Cortot accepted this offer but quit in 1917 as he felt he could not devote enough consistent time to his students due to his extensive concert engagements. He instead founded the Ecole Normale de Musique in 1919, for which he selected the teachers. Cortot also taught at the school until 1961; his students included Magda Tagliaferro, Clara Haskil, Samson François, Gina Bachauer, Dinu Lipatti and Yvonne Lefébure.
Cortot’s reputation continued to grow, leading him to give lecture recitals, premiere new French music and conduct orchestras world-wide. He was, and still is, especially noted for his scholarly editions of Chopin’s music. Not only did he include technical notes, he also provided much musical insight and was thus capable of ‘infusing his readings of the Romantic repertoire with a rare insight and poetic patina’.
Cortot founded another society in 1943, the Chamber Music Society of the Paris Conservatory Concerts. This turned out to be less of a success than his other ventures due to his fondness for German culture at a time that coincided with Germany’s occupation of France. To many it also appeared that Cortot willingly cooperated with the Germans. These factors led to his badly tarnished reputation in the post-war years. By the time he finally returned to the stage, he was suffering from health problems including a failing memory.
During the 1920s and 30s, Cortot recorded a number of outstanding albums, ones that have ensured the survival of his legacy as a pianist. Modern-day pianists such as Stephen Hough and Angela Hewitt have both expressed how Cortot influenced them. Hough stated, ‘I’ve loved Alfred Cortot’s playing from an early age and I never tire of hearing his recordings”. For him this fascination comes from Cortot’s unique combination of ‘utter interpretative freedom…and insight into a composer’s wishes’.
This freedom has also led many to refer to Cortot as “the pianist who played lots of wrong notes”. While Cortot’s accuracy was not 100 percent, he never let this distract from the musical message, which was for him much more important. Hewitt described Cortot’s playing as having “an eloquence in the phrasing [and] an unaffected freedom in the rhythm” ensuring “it’s impossible to imitate; one can just marvel at it”. His pupil Yvonne Lefébure once claimed ‘his wrong notes were those of a God’.
While Cortot did not compose any original works, his interpretations, commentaries and arrangements of others’ works have provided much insight into the mind of a 19th-century musician. His output includes the writing Cours d'interprétation, which describes both the technical and interpretative facets of his teaching method in extensive detail and the performing editions of the complete works of Chopin, which are contained within 10 volumes. Cortot’s works are evidence of his position in history as’ both a living link to Romantic Paris and a key figure of the 20th century’.