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Biography

John Andrew Howard Ogdon (January 27, 1937 – August 1, 1989) was an English pianist and composer.

Ogdon was born in Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire, and attended Manchester Grammar School, before studying at the Royal Northern College of Music between 1953 and 1957, where his fellow students included Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Elgar Howarth and Peter Maxwell Davies. Together they formed New Music Manchester, a group dedicated to the performances of serial and other modern works. 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, Dame Myra Hess, and Egon Petri — the latter in Basel, Switzerland.

He won first prize at the London 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 Vladimir Ashkenazy.

John Ogdon was able to play most pieces at sight and had committed a huge range of pieces to memory. He enjoyed fully using his vast talents, for example wanting to record the complete works for piano of Rachmaninov (which constitute about 6-full length CDs). He did not record all these works , but those he did record - about half - were released in 2001. He recorded all ten Scriabin sonatas early in his career. Ogdon was also a formidable exponent of the works of Charles-Valentin Alkan and Ferruccio Busoni. In more familiar repertoire, he revealed deep musical sensibilities, always buttressed by a colossal technique.

His own compositions number more than 200, and include 4 operas, 2 large works for orchestra, 3 cantatas, songs, chamber music, a substantial amount of music for solo piano, and 2 piano concertos. The majority of his music was composed for the piano. These include 50 transcriptions of works by composers as diverse as Stravinsky, Palestrina, Mozart, Satie and Wagner. He also made piano arrangements of songs by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and George Gershwin. He also wrote sonatas for violin, flute and cello, all unaccompanied. A planned symphony based on the works of Herman Melville, and a comic opera, were left unfinished. The original manuscripts of many of John Ogdon’s compositions now reside at the Royal Northern College of Music Library Catalogue.

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 he experienced a severe breakdown. His illness was never fully diagnosed, but was thought to be schizophrenia (possibly inherited from his father) or manic depression. Ogdon spent some time in the Maudsley Hospital in London, and in general needed more nursing than it was possible to provide while touring. Nevertheless, he was reported to maintain three hours' practice a day on the hospital's Steinway piano.

In 1983, after emerging from hospital, he played at the opening of the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. In 1988 he released a five-disc recording of an interpretation of Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum, shortly before he died of pneumonia, brought on by undiagnosed diabetes.

The BBC made a film about his life titled Virtuoso, based on his biography 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.

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