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Albert, Eugen d' (1864-1932)

Eugen d'Albert

born: 10 April 1864
died: 3 March 1932
country: Germany

Eugen Francis Charles d’Albert was born at 9 Newton Terrace, Glasgow, on 10 April 1864 into a family of Italian extraction which probably included Domenico Alberti, to whom the famous bass device is attributed. Eugen’s grandfather, François Benoit d’Albert, was captain of cavalry and aide-de-camp to General Frère of the Imperial Army of France, dying ‘a hero’s death for his Emperor’ in the battle of Waterloo. It was his son, Charles Louis Napoléon, Eugen’s father, who moved the family to Britain, settling in Newcastle upon Tyne where he published Ballroom Etiquette, ran his own band, and in 1863 married Annie Rowell.

Eugen did not go to school (the great Education Act was not yet passed) but was taught by his father. On 17 May 1876 he entered, as one of its first intake, the National Training School for Music (now the Royal College of Music) headed by Arthur Sullivan. The place was won in a competition. The family moved to lodgings in South Kensington. At the School the boy made quite a name for himself and soon added the Queen’s Scholarship to the one from Newcastle. Many years later, W G Alcock was to write:

I first saw d’Albert on May 17th, 1876 at the opening of the National Training School for Music. We students had assembled for an examination, the purpose of which was to decide under which Professors we should severally study. We hung about the passages, making new friendships, and listening casually to the examination taking place in what is now the Council Room of the Royal College of Organists. I remember standing at the door watching a chubby boy playing (I think) the Concerto in A minor by Hummel. At its conclusion Ernst Pauer (who examined us) said, ‘Ach, you will be with me,’ evidently seeing future possibilities. His playing certainly was astonishing for a boy of twelve, and by the time he was fifteen his technical command and sense of interpretation were far ahead of his years.

Sullivan held a class in composition, in which d’Albert always distinguished himself, bringing a prodigious amount of work each week. He amazed us all one day by producing a Suite for Pianoforte, which he played brilliantly, Sullivan sending me to fetch Stainer, who was teaching upstairs, to hear it. So, to our delight we had it all again. The Preludium was included in the last ARCM syllabus, and the Gavotte and Musette are still played. The work is an astonishing example of precocity, being distinguished by that finish and grasp of effect only to be expected from one far more advanced in years and experience.

We had to play our own compositions at these lessons, and I was always nervous and diffident when my turn came. So d’Albert most kindly played them for me, making them as presentable as he could. There was a point in an ‘alleged’ Sonata of mine which pleased him, and I recall his appreciative glance at me when it arrived. I was ever grateful for his condescension and willing help. The visit of Wagner to London in 1877 gave us much to think about and wonder at. D’Albert soon acquired a wide knowledge of the ‘music of the future’, and would play to us some (then) complicated progression. ‘Now just listen to this … Isn’t that an amazing passage?’ and so on.

His performance of the Schumann Concerto at a student’s concert at old St James’s Hall before the Prince and Princess of Wales showed brilliant promise, later to be fully justified, and his gifts as a composer were proved at the same concert by his Concert Overture in C. I recall his being presented by Sullivan to the Prince and Princess amid great enthusiasm.

The Overture in C was a replacement for an earlier one rejected by Sullivan. This may be the origin of the stories of clashes between master and student. Whatever the difficulties, he was, after all, in his early teens and in a totally new environment; they cannot have amounted to much for he was very soon invited to play for Queen Victoria, and to stay at Osborne where he and the Duke of Edinburgh (a violinist of ability) played together. Such invitations could have resulted only from Sullivan’s recommendation.

Whilst a student d’Albert gave several public performances and shortly afterwards played his own Concerto in A under Hans Richter, subsequently being invited to stay with Richter’s family in Vienna. He arrived there late in 1881 and his first impressions included astonishment at the musical abilities of the little Richter children and amazement at the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic. As a member of the Richter household he met and heard many of the dignitaries of musical Vienna, in particular von Bülow and Brahms. He was later to play the latter’s two Concertos under the composer’s baton.

D’Albert was awarded the prestigious Mendelssohn Scholarship for composition, but he remained intent on making his way as a pianist and the required compositions were not produced. The awarding committee showed enormous patience at the patently flimsy excuses offered by this fiery but obviously talented teenager. Even so, the award was eventually withdrawn, but d’Albert was not much worried, for by this time he was enrolled at Weimar to study under Liszt.

He seems not to have spent much time with Liszt, but the impact was clearly strong, and Liszt, not given to lavish praise, wrote, ‘There was also an artist, an extraordinary pianist, by the name of d’Albert. Hans Richter, the eminent conductor, introduced him to me in Vienna last April. Since then he has worked at Weimar, under my tutelage. I know of no more gifted as well as dazzling talent than that of d'Albert’.

With the heady feeling of youth, suddenly liberated from parents and college and immersed in a very different environment viewed through romantically-tinted spectacles, d’Albert wrote to a German newspaper in 1884, running down England, the English, English weather and English musical life. It was a silly and impetuous letter from a person not yet mature. Later The Times, itself less staid than it subsequently became, also published it.

Nevertheless, d’Albert was ill at ease in Germany, as his daughter remembers: ‘He became a German composer because Germany was the centre of music in those days, but he never had a permanent home there. He had many misgivings about Germany. He never lived there except with Carreño in Coswig, Saxony (1892–1895). He never became a German national. No, he kept his British passport till the First War, then he became a Swiss citizen’. (In 1892 d’Albert had married Teresa Carreño, a Venezuelan pianist and opera singer, capable conductor and slight composer. The marriage lasted only three years—it was Carreño’s third.)

In 1907 he succeeded Joachim as Director of the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin, but the extent to which he regarded it as a teaching or as an administrative post is unclear. Backhaus, Dohnányi, Howard Jones, Rehberg and Risler are amongst those who spoke of themselves as his students, but his daughter has suggested otherwise: ‘He detested teaching, he did not have pupils. Various people played for him, he always encouraged them but they never had lessons’.

During his later years d’Albert devoted himself increasingly to composition but continued to appear as a pianist. Reviews of these years are mixed. His records, made between 1910 and 1930, reflect this; insight and virtuosity alternate with the mundane and inaccurate. When not travelling, he lived mainly in Italy, Austria and Switzerland. He died in Riga of a heart attack in 1932.

from notes by Eliot Levin © 1994


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