Classical pianists mourn ELP’s Keith Emerson

Classical pianists mourn ELP’s Keith Emerson


norman lebrecht

March 12, 2016

From Peter Donohoe:

I am floored by the news that Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake and Palmer shot himself on Thursday.

keith emerson


To the degree that any rock group could have influenced me in the long term, ELP was the one that did the most. It was always an ambition of mine to meet any of the three of them in my adult life and in my position as a classical musician, and tell them how much they had inspired me when I was a teenager and beyond.

I was introduced to their music as a first year music student at the University of Leeds in 1971, when at a late night party in a friend’s study at our hall of residence he was playing one unwelcome  rock LP after another, and then suddenly ELP’s first album came on and made a very big impact on me – and impact that has lasted until the present day. I immediately wanted to emulate Keith Emerson – as if I stood a chance….

It was partly the obvious fact that the trio were genuinely classically aware, and openly demonstrated their respect for classical music. It was also that they formed a genuine fusion between rock and jazz. But, most of all, given my age at that time, it was their virtuosity and their uninhibited aggression that attracted me.

All three had a command of several instruments, and an inventiveness of which I was unaware in any other rock group. Given that my primary musical discipline was the piano, I particularly admired Keith Emerson’s finger brilliance very much, and found his use of the piano, electric piano, electric organ, other electrical keyboards, and perhaps most of all, the recently developed Moog synthesiser, quite fantastic.

On ELP’s first album, a number called ‘The Barbarian’ was effectively an arrangement of Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro, and the main theme from the opening movement of Janacek’s Sinfonietta formed the basis of ‘Knife Edge’.

Very soon after my first encounter with their music, they produced a live recording of their highly suspicious version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which although somewhat crass and pretentious, was also great fun, and I enjoyed hearing it many times.

However, it was ‘Tank’ that really struck me most – the very first track I ever heard by ELP – in that it highlighted the keyboard brilliance, the importance of the bass guitar leading rather than following, a long drum solo and the prominence of the Moog, all in one number.

I spent the next months revelling in all their releases to date, going to several of their concerts. They were exciting to the point of delirium, and for me represent that era – and that stage of my own development – to an extraordinary degree. There was also a show of violence at the end of each performance as Keith Emerson made as if to have a fight to the death with his electronic organ, which he stabbed several times and produced fake blood. This phallic symbolism was the naff side of ELP’s style, but of course it created a talking point and added to the ethos of aggression that we all loved. I certainly loved the megalomania, and the spectacle, but underneath all of that there was big musical talent that really struck home.

Keith Emerson’s stage presence, inventiveness and originality, genuineness and – I suspect, hidden underneath that youthful aggression – his gentleness, had more impact on my long term professional life than I can say, and I regret very much not having made the opportunity to tell him so.

I think one can sense the underlying modesty of the man from the way he is obviously genuinely touched – and possibly awestruck – from these two clips from recent performances, one of which is a complete performance of Emerson’s Piano Concerto by Jeffrey Biegel. Whatever opinion of the music one may have, there is no doubt that he was a very fine person.


From Jeffrey Biegel:

I am very saddened, as we were close friends, he was , in my eyes, like an older brother. Most of the commentary I read from his fans is how Keith and his work with various groups, The Nice, ELP, etc, turned them on to classical music. My friendship with Keith began in his later years, starting around 2000. The last chapters of Keith’s life were quite special. Many of his fans may not be aware of the following testament: I came to know Keith around 2000, thanks to Daniel Dorff at Theodore Presser (music publishers). I learned much of his Piano Concerto #1 ‘by ear’, and was sent the score. I immediately learned it, and scheduled a performance with the NJ Bergen Philharmonic in 2002. I sent a fax message to Keith, and he warmly replied. We then started an email exchange, which finally led to phone conversations. We first met in February 2008 when I performed with the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, and Keith attended along with Mari and brought his beloved bird, cage and all, to the Sheraton Hotel! In April 2008, he attended my performance of his Piano Concerto #1 (written in 1977) with the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, Steven Larsen conducting. We became close friends, and met again in Oregon when I performed his concerto with the Rogue Valley Symphony, conducted by Martin Majkut. It was there that David Woodford and Jason Woodford filmed us for a documentary of Keith’s life. Maestro Jeff Reed then invited us to the Orchestra Kentucky of Bowling Green for a joint performance where I performed Keith’s concerto, Keith performed works with the orchestra, conducted one of his orchestral pieces, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts and Humanities. This was around 2013. In 2014, we celebrated his 70th birthday in a concert with the South Shore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Scott Jackson Wiley, with hundreds of fans waiting until after 1am to meet their idol. I was determined to help make Keith’s name iconic to the next generation. The icing on the cake came in 2015. Keith gave his blessing to me to record his Piano Concerto #1–making it the second recording of the concerto only after his own in 1977 with the London Philharmonic. Joined with the Brown University Orchestra and their Maestro Paul Schuyler Phillips, Naxos and Naxos of America released the recording bearing the title of Neil Sedaka’s ‘Manhattan Intermezzo’ along with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Duke Ellington’s ‘New World A-Comin’. The cd was released January 8, 2016, and Keith gave interviews with Joe McKesson’s Dash Classical, Sirius XM (yet to be aired) and others. Everything seemed to be on the upswing. Keith also performed in concert for a festival in Palermo in September 2015 with Scott Jackson Wiley conducting, and Primavera Shima performed his piano concerto. He had also performed at MoogFest and made an appearance at The NAMM Show, and performed in Europe and was scheduled to travel to Japan next month. I was just on the verge of sharing with him that it seemed likely that he might have been the recipient of an Honorary Doctor of Music from a prestigious college in the US sometime in 2017. Unfortunately, only Keith had control of his destiny ultimately. It is my hope that all of his fans and friends will remember him by continuing to promote his music and perform his music when it is possible. I will continue to perform his piano concerto when the opportunities present themselves, and hope the next generation of young pianists will take interest to perform it as well. I will miss him, and it is only now becoming reality after yesterday’s shocking news.

keith emerson bob moog

Bob Moog, Keith Emerson


  • William Dodd says:

    Especially sad since there’s a new recording of Emerson’s Piano Concerto out— It isn;t Rachmaninoff, but it’s charming.

  • steve says:

    So passes yet another great; I don’t know how anyone else from my generation feels but a cold wind keeps hitting the back of my neck every time I read the news now. If I could only turn back time and appreciate the moments I watched people like this perform more fully.

    • 6fingers6 says:

      Amen brother, beautifully said.
      I was fortunate enough to know KE he was my neighbor. We met while looking for his exotic bird that had escaped the wilds of Santa Moinca. Just a great guy. A real bad weekend.

  • Herry says:

    Waaaay ahead of his time. Most people under 30 think k.west is the next best thing. Sure, compare a classical pianist to a toilet bowl inhabitant. Not difficult to figure that one out.

  • Marc says:

    An ELP concert recording begins with the announcement, “OK, we’re going to give you ‘Pictures at an Exhibition.’ ” The audience goes wild, then a wave of shushing quiets the crowd in anticipation of Keith’s solo playing of the Promenade. It shows the respect that fans of ELP had for the trio and for the music they performed. Keith was a brilliant and innovative keyboardist, but the number of his fans who discovered great music through him cannot be over-estimated. Even Aaron Copland was impressed. I heard him at UC Irvine talk about the group’s version of “Fanfare for the Common Man.” He commented, “It started out sounding like the Fanfare, and then I guess they went off doing their own thing. Anyway, I was reconciled by the royalties.”

  • Theodore McGuiver says:

    ELP and Keith Emerson in particular were among my childhood icons. I was listening to Mussorgsky’s original version of Pictures on the radio two nights ago. I explained to my wife that it had also been orchestrated by Ravel (the most famous version) and that this superb group Emerson, Lake and Palmer had done an extraordinary version of it in the 1970s. The next day, I read that Keith Emerson had committed suicide. Dreadful news. Another really talented musician leaves us. Can’t agree enough with Herry, above.

  • M2N2K says:

    Shockingly sad. He was for me the greatest rock musician of all time, by far. Those albums recorded in the 1970s are classics – can (and will) listen to them and enjoy for the rest of my life.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    For his fans. Thank you, Joe McKesson

  • Ellingtonia says:

    The definitive performance of Fanfare for the Common man by ELP at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal………..empty at the time………

    • Ken says:

      While this is a great video, I don’t think it’s a recording. Palmer is not playing any kettle drums, and if you look at the 5:45 point, the sound from the top keyboard starts while Keith’s right hand is still on the middle keyboard. They are miming, very accurately, to the version on Works, Vol. 1. In their concert at Olympic Stadium on August 26, 1977, they played quite a different version (

  • Barbara Nissman says:

    What a tragedy and a sense of loss!
    Since the 100th anniversary of the Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera will be celebrated on April 11th, 2016, mention should be made of the impact that ELP and Keith Emerson in particular had on the popularization of Ginastera’s First Piano Concerto.
    We’d been in touch recently and did an interview together about his meeting Ginastera for the first time to get permission to use his transcription of the Toccata finale for his album, Brain Salad Surgery.
    What a charming, generous and thoughtful soul he was, and I am so thankful for the brief time that we knew each other.
    RIP, Keith!

    • M2N2K says:

      It just so happens that Alberto Ginastera’s First Piano Concerto is being performed tonight at the David Geffen Hall of New York’s Lincoln Center (by pianist Sergio Tiempo and the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Gustavo Dudamel conducting). It would not be inappropriate to dedicate the performance of this concerto’s exciting finale to the memory of Keith Emerson who based his brilliant Toccata on that movement’s very idiosyncratic musical material.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Norman, thank you for sharing our personal sentiments. Keith was a dear friend, and respected colleague. He has touched so many lives since his early career, and so many people have shared their personal testaments online en masse since learning of his passing. He will be remembered no doubt, and hopefully, in addition to myself, more pianists will come to know his Piano Concerto and perform it. For those who are not aware, check out Rachel Flowers, a brilliant blind pianist, who has taken much of the ELP music under her wing. She is quite a phenomenon to witness. Again, sincere thanks for sharing the news of our friend Keith’s untimely passing.

  • Paul Kelly says:

    Many of these worthy and deserved tributes refer to Keith Emerson’s work wIth Emerson Lake and Palmer. To my mind his best writing and playing was with the earlier and rather less glitzy band, The Nice. A true late 60s fusion of rock, classical and jazz, The Nice benefited from more 60s emphasis on the music and less on 70s staging and showmanship. The tour de force here was Emerson’s Five Bridges Suite commissioned by Newcastle Arts Festival. Recorded just a month after Deep Purple’s similar Concerto for Group and Orchestra it is structurally and musically more enjoyable and the ensuing album had intelligent and inspiring re-workings of Sibelius, Tchaikovsky and Bach on the other side. Emerson’s rendition of the finger-busting Honky Tonk Train Blues can take a bit of getting used to. But overall he was an exceptional keyboard player, an innovative band leader and composer who sank from wider public view too early and who deserves greater recognition as an innovator and pioneer. Emerson and his ilk showed that the intelligent fusing of different musical styles can produce very rewarding results and that, at its best, there is much to admire in ‘progressive rock’ which was a branch line that closed too early.

    • Jeffrey Biegel says:

      Yes, Richard. I have seen this, and replied. And thank you for your reply as well. If you wish to delve into the classical side of Keith in recent years in a separate chat, I would be happy to share. It gave Keith so much pleasure to be with orchestras. There were symphonic events he attended and performed in Europe which was left out of stories of late, and a new orchestration of Tarkus premiered in Japan a few years ago.

  • M_von_Kolinahr says:

    A little anecdote from New Zealand, regarding Keith’s wider influence, something he may never even have been aware of: in 1970, the then NZ National Film Unit produced a short promotional travelogue-style film for special widescreen projection on three screens for the Expo 70 fair in Osaka, Japan, directed by Hugh Macdonald, called “This Is New Zealand”. The film was highly successful, and so in the following year it was shown in NZ as well to give the wider public an opportunity to see it. Given the unusual three-screen projection concept, the very high production values and the glorious NZ scenery, the film became a runaway success here (my father took me to see it when I was 11), and in particular, it also forever became inseparably associated with the Intermezzo from Sibelius’ “Karelia Suite”, which served as its theme tune, as in the opening three minutes:

    That version, incidentally, was from Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra, which was the recording the filmmakers liked best. For decades, though, I’d always wondered just why they’d chosen that particular piece. I’d long thought it probably had something to do with the various associations between NZ and Finland in any case (e.g. leading NZ composer Douglas Lilburn’s orchestral idiom/writing was in tune with Sibelius, and there have also been prominent Finns in the musical scene here, such as the NZ Symphony Orchestra’s former Music Director Pietari Inkinen and current Concertmaster Vesa-Matti Leppänen). But it was only last year, when watching the DVD making-of documentary about the film, that I learned that someone had been playing The Nice’s second album, “Ars Longa Vita Brevis” (1968), featuring Emerson’s original arrangement of the Intermezzo for the group, and it was that arrangement which ultimately led to the music’s use in the film, simply because the filmmakers liked it so much at the time. They decided it would be best to go for a traditional orchestral version for the soundtrack itself, but Emerson’s original take (and inspiration) from 1968 can be heard here:

    I’d been a die-hard Emerson fan since my teens in any case, whether with The Nice or Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and also loved his classic-(jazz-)rock fusion technique at its best (especially with ELP, although The Nice had a very individual playfulness and spontaneity which I also found especially appealing). I’m delighted to hear that his Piano Concerto, too, has now been recorded by other artists, and upon listening to it again properly after many years it was great to hear just how well it actually works as a piece, and how enjoyable it is, with its hints of Prokofiev, Stravinsky and jazz, but also very much with his own personal stamp. I’m terribly sad to hear the tragic news of his passing, and heartened to see the other positive comments here – he was a genuinely gifted talent by any standards, a terrific keyboardist with an inimitable compositional and performance style that cut a swathe through genre and stylistic boundaries, at best very convincingly indeed. The Ginastera Piano Concerto adaptation on ELP’s “Brain Salad Surgery” (1973) is a typical example. Like M2N2K above, I’m sure I’ll continue to listen to and enjoy his music for the rest of my life. (I can especially also recommend the 5-CD “From The Beginning” ELP box set, which features many rare live performances and outtakes, some of them stupendous, and even a brief interview with Aaron Copland himself about Emerson’s famous 1977 adaptation of his “Fanfare for the Common Man”.)

  • Anne63 says:

    He shot himself. How many people, I wonder, have killed themselves entirely spontaneously as a result of the easy availability of guns?

    Maybe he would have done it anyway, but maybe not.

  • Steve Jones says:

    I am a Keith Emerson fan since boyhood in late 60s England, and am heartbroken at this tragic turn of events. My only hope, now, is that Keith’s music will eventually earn the wider regard which I believe it deserves. I would very much like to thank Mr Biegel for his efforts in this direction and would respectfully ask that, when the time is right, he approach the Emerson estate with a view to doing what Keith himself couldn’t do – to perform his 2nd Piano Concerto in public. Thank you, Keith Emerson, for a lifetime of musical education and enjoyment; you will be sadly missed, and always remembered.

    Steve Jones

    • Jeffrey Biegel says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Steve. Certainly as the estate unfolds, we will inquire about the current status of the 2nd piano concerto. I have been in contact with Mr. Emerson on numerous occasions about this, and will be able to help sort it all out when the time is right.

  • nick karter says:

    As a teenager in the 70s, I wanted music that was more than Pop and found Prog Rock, and ELP were at the forefront. I would put Tarkus,Brain Salad Surgery and Works Vol1 on the turntable then listen over and over. Keith Emerson in particular represented the Energy of Rock with the complexity of Classical and the innovation of Jazz. He opened the doors to my current musical tastes including Coltrane, Bartok and others. Ironically this week I bought a new vinyl version of Tarkus and listed to the complex chords and counterpoint…
    I am so glad that he is getting the attention and accolades in this forum of “serious” musicians. I almost went to Long Island last year to hear Jeffrey Biegel’s rendition of Piano Concerto number one and had asked the conductor of our local orchestra (NJFO) to perform this in New Jersey. I want to thank his advocacy.

    Keith was an exceptional musician. The world has been denied the man who would merge centuries of music with his two hands “right before your eyes”.

    • Sal M. says:

      I too was a teenager in the 70’s and will never forget Keith’s performance of his piano concerto as an 18 year old at Madison Square Garden in NYC. At that moment I realized the emotional response music can have as I was brought to tears at the completion of the piece. I remember blaming my contact lenses as my friends were not similarly moved.

  • Al K. says:

    On the face of it I realize I’m “just another fan” but perhaps can offer a common perspective felt by keyboard players who idolized Keith.

    I never met Keith Emerson personally yet through his music felt I knew him personally. In 1973 I had just picked up a Mini Moog Model D for performance with my own local rock band. Over the previous 2 years I had spoken with inventor Robert Moog over the phone when I called to inquire about pricing on moog modular system prices… I was surprised when I got him on the phone directly at and he actually referenced Keith Emerson as somebody I should be listening to… I didn’t have the spine to tell him I was only 17 and had no money, but this conversation set me on a course which had me devouring ELP records as fast as they came out… I ended up buying several Tarkus and Picture’s at an Exhibition because they were vinyl and I wore them out dropping record needles on them as I practiced emulating Keith’s style and riffs. I was hooked. When Brain Salad Surgery came out, I had the opportunity to see ELP play in early 1974… QUADRAPHONIC SPEAKER STACKS in the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City… they rotated the sound of Keith’s big Moog Modular this way and that way and round and round the arena and the sound sent shivers and thrills up my spine like I’ve never experienced since and vividly remember how electric is was.

    In short, there was no better showman or keyboardist that I had ever heard.

    Over the years music became a side-bar for my own mediocre talent and I spent my years in Engineering School and later became an Electric Engineer… I T.A’d electronic computer music classes at the University for extra college bucks and built my own analog synth’s from scratch… modeled after Keith Emerson’s sound. My connection with music faded but never my admiration for The Master, Keith Emerson.

    I had a chance one last time to hear ELP… 1997 in Reno, NV. I was thrilled to hear the band and the sounds that started it all for me once again… I introduced my new wife to their music and she became a great fan as well.

    Keith, if only you knew how much impact you’ve had on my life. I love you man and wish that I could have helped. If I could give you only a tiny fraction of the admiration and love have for you back in return, you might still be here. It was that much. I look forward to the music in heaven taking a great leap forward as you find new expression in your immortalized eternal hands. A simple “thank you” doesn’t cut it… but it’s all I have.

  • John says:

    A wonderful tribute by Peter Donohoe. Sums up how many of us have been
    influenced by Keith Emerson over the years. I was studying music in London in the late 70’s and went to a piano recital by the swiss pianist Albert Ferber.
    I was distracted during the performance by someone directly in front of me that kept swinging their long haired head around seemingly totally captivated by the music. It was a black leather clad Keith Emerson at the height of his fame.
    I spoke with him at intermission and learned that he was taking taking lessons from Mr. Ferber to try and change his piano technique. Albert Ferber tried to have him adopt a more relaxed stressless approach to the keyboard. He was unsuccessfull and perhaps this hand tension may have produced some of his hand injuries.
    I also remember Mr. Ferber saying he was a little intimidated by his star student who arrived for lessons in a white Rolls Royce. Keith Emerson was a class act and his music will endure.

  • Jason G says:

    I saw ELP live a few times. They began one concert by rushing onto the stage together, grabbing their instruments, and going into the Peter Gunn theme. The last time I saw them Emerson didn’t play a note for 5 minutes as Lake and Palmer handled the opening to Tarkus by themselves. Emerson just stood by cajoling the audience into applause for his bandmates. I don’t think any band could handle playing with a full orchestra except for them. RIP

  • Peggy Burneka says:

    I had been so sad about Keith Emerson’s death, as I loved the man and his music. But when I watched the video of Jeffrey Biegel’s performance of Keith’s Piano Concerto No. 1, heard that beautiful music again and saw Keith’s joyful reaction to the performance, there was no stopping my tears.

    Keith, I am so sorry for your pain; I wish the love and admiration of your many fans could have helped you through. We will always cherish your amazing music. May you now be at peace.

  • Vallin SFAS says:

    Dec. 31, 2016:

    And then, after one of the saddest years in musical history, on Dec. 8 the news gets unimaginably worse. Keith’s best mouthpiece–Voice Of God–Greg Lake dies.

  • David Rock says:

    If no one has, at this point, mentioned her, I would like to suggest for EVERYONE OF ELP’s fans to go to YouTube and check out Rachel Flowers! She performs TARKUS on solo piano and also performs it on Hammond organ AND on MASTER KEITH’s BEAST MODULAR SYNTHESIZER! (I would DIE just to TOUCH IT!!!!!) Rachel also performed Keith Emerson’s Piano Concerto #1, on solo piano AND flute (1 hand on the flute, the other on the piano!). She also performs KARN EVIL 9! Rachel also has 2 albums available (“Sound Cloud” & “Listen”). Ms. Flowers mother confirmed for me that Rachel did, INDEED, PLAY EVERY INSTRUMENT HERSELF! OH, YEA, DID I MENTION… RACHEL FLOWERS IS TOTALLY BLIND?!!!? YOU WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • dan says:

    So he was going to retire after Japan, but decided to die instead. I’m sorry, I don’t believe it. Just because it looked like suicide doesn’t mean the coroner wasn’t lazy or late for dinner or fooled.