Brendel was born in Wiesenberg, Czechoslovakia (now Loučná nad Desnou, Czech Republic) to a non-musical family. They moved to Zagreb, Yugoslavia (now Croatia), when Brendel was six where he began piano lessons with Sofija Deželić. He later to moved to Graz, Austria, and studied piano with Ludovica von Kaan at the Graz Conservatory and composition with Artur Michel. Towards the end of World War II, the 14-year-old Brendel was sent back to Yugoslavia to dig trenches.
After the war, Brendel composed music, as well as continuing to play the piano, to write and to paint. However, he never had more formal piano lessons and, although he attended master classes with Edwin Fischer and Eduard Steuermann, he was largely self-taught after the age of sixteen.
Brendel gave his first public recital in Graz at the age of 17. He called it "The Fugue in Piano Literature", and as well as fugal works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt, it included a sonata of Brendel's own composition. 
At the age of 21, in 1952, he made his solo first recording, Franz Liszt's Weihnachtsbaum, the work's world premiere recording. His first concerto recording, Sergei Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 5 had been made a couple of years earlier. He went on to make a string of other records, including three complete sets of the Ludwig van Beethoven piano sonatas (one on Vox Records and two on Philips Records). He was the first performer to record the complete solo piano works of Beethoven.  He has recorded or performed little of the music of Frédéric Chopin, but not because of any lack of admiration for the composer. He considers Chopin's Preludes "the most glorious achievement in piano music after Beethoven and Schubert".
Brendel recorded extensively for the Vox label, providing them his first of three sets of the complete Beethoven sonatas. His breakthrough came after a recital of Beethoven at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, the day after which three major record labels called his agent. Around this time he moved to Hampstead, London, where he still resides. Since the 1970s, Brendel has recorded for Philips Classics Records.  He is only the third pianist (after Emil von Sauer and Wilhelm Backhaus) to have been awarded honorary membership of the Vienna Philharmonic, and he was awarded the Hans von Bülow Medal by the Berlin Philharmonic.
In April 2007 Brendel was one of the initial signatories of the "Appeal for the Establishment of a Parliamentary Assembly at the United Nations".
In 2009 Brendel was featured in the award-winning German-Austrian documentary Pianomania, about a Steinway & Sons piano tuner, which was directed by Lilian Franck and Robert Cibis. The film premiered theatrically in North America, where it was met with positive reviews by The New York Times, as well as in Asia and throughout Europe, and is a part of the Goethe-Institut catalogue.
In November 2013 Brendel was the guest for BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. His choices were Handel's "Al lampo dell' armi" from Giulio Cesare, sung by David Daniels (conducted by Roger Norrington); Edwin Fischer's performance of the slow movement Bach's Piano Concerto No. 5 in F minor (BWV 1056); Mozart's "Zeffiretti lusinghieri" from Idomeneo, sung by Sena Jurinac (conducted by Fritz Busch); Haydn's String Quartet in D major, (Op. 20/4), 4th movement, by the Lindsay String Quartet; Schubert's String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, 3rd movement, as recorded by the Kolisch Quartet; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's recording (with Karl Engel) of Mahler's "Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht" (from Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen); and the LaSalle Quartet's String Trio, (Op. 45) of Schoenberg. Brendel's favourite was the Busch Quartet playing Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 (1st movement).
Brendel frequently performed the music of Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Mozart. He has played relatively few 20th century works but has performed Arnold Schoenberg's Piano Concerto. Toward the end of his concert career he stopped playing some physically demanding pieces, such as the Hammerklavier Sonata of Beethoven, due arthritis.
Critical reaction to Brendel's playing has been mixed. He was lauded by music critic Michael Steinberg as "the new Schnabel", whereas NY Times critic Harold C. Schonberg noted that some critics and specialists accused the pianist of "pedanticism". Brendel's playing is sometimes described as being "cerebral", and he has said that he believes the primary job of the pianist is to respect the composer's wishes without showing off himself, or adding his own spin on the music: "I am responsible to the composer, and particularly to the piece". Brendel cites, in addition to his mentor and teacher Edwin Fischer, pianists Alfred Cortot, Wilhelm Kempff, and the conductors Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwängler as particular influences on his musical development.
Brendel has worked with younger pianists such as Paul Lewis, Till Fellner and, most recently, Kit Armstrong. He has also performed in concert and recorded with his son Adrian and has appeared in many Lieder recitals with Hermann Prey, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Matthias Goerne.
In November 2007 Brendel announced that he would retire from the concert platform after his concert of 18 December 2008 in Vienna, which featured him as soloist in Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat; the orchestra (the Vienna Philharmonic) was conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. His final concert in New York was at Carnegie Hall on 20 February 2008, with works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. Since his debut at Carnegie Hall on 21 January 1973 he had appeared there 81 times, and in 1983 he became only the second pianist to perform the complete cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas at the Hall, a feat he repeated in 1993 (Artur Schnabel was the first in 1936; after Brendel, Maurizio Pollini performed the cycle in 1995/1996, and Daniel Barenboim did so in 2003).
Brendel has been married twice. His first marriage, from 1960 to 1972, was to Iris Heymann-Gonzala, and they had a daughter, Doris, who is a progressive rock and pop rock musician. In 1975, Brendel married Irene Semler, and the couple have three children; a son, Adrian, who is a cellist, and two daughters, Katharina and Sophie.
Next to music, literature is Brendel's second life and occupation. His writings have appeared in English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, Korean, and other languages. For several years, he has been a contributor to The New York Review of Books. His books include:
- Musical Thoughts and Afterthoughts (essays) (1976)
- Music Sounded Out (1990) – essays, including "Must Classical Music be Entirely Serious?"
- One Finger Too Many (poetry) (1998)
- Alfred Brendel on Music (collected essays) (2001)
- Me, of All People: Alfred Brendel in Conversation with Martin Meyer (2002) (UK edition: The Veil of Order)
- Cursing Bagels (poetry) (2004)
- Playing the Human Game (collected poems) (2010) Phaidon Press
- A Pianist's A–Z: A Piano Lover's Reader. Faber and Faber. 2013. ISBN 978-0571301843.
Awards and accolades
- Honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE; 1989)
- Hans von Bülow Medal of the Berlin Philharmonic (1992)
- Beethoven-Ring of the Vienna Music University (2001)
- Léonie Sonning Music Prize (2002; Denmark)
- Ernst von Siemens Music Prize (2004)
- Prix Venenia: Premio Artur Rubinstein (2007)
- Praemium Imperiale (2008)
- Herbert von Karajan Prize (2008)
- Franz Liszt-Ehrenpreis (2011)
- Juilliard Medal (2011)
- Voted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame (2012)
- Golden Mozart Medal of the Salzburg Mozarteum (2014)
- ECHO Klassik Lifetime Achievement Award (2016)
Brendel has been awarded honorary doctorates from universities including London (1978), Oxford (1983), Yale (1992), McGill Montreal (2011), and Cambridge (2012) and holds other honorary degrees from the Royal College of Music, London (1999), Boston New England Conservatory (2009), Hochschule Franz Liszt Weimar (2009) and The Juilliard School (2011). He is an honorary Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford and Peterhouse, Cambridge. He has received Lifetime Achievement Awards by Edison, Midem Classical Awards, Deutscher Schallplattenpreis, Gramophone, and ECHO Klassik.
A 2012 survey of pianists by the magazine Limelight ranked Brendel as the 8th greatest pianist of all time. A 2016 survey of the UK's Classic FM presenters included Brendel in its 25 greatest pianists of all time. He was included in Peter Donohoe's "Fifty Great Pianists" series for BBC Radio 3, which aired in 2012.
- Alfred Brendel – Unpublished Live and Radio Performances 1968–2001
- Great Pianists of the 20th Century – Alfred Brendel III
- Stephen Plaistow, "Brendel, Alfred", Grove Music Online, 2007. Accessed 3 June 2007.
- "Alfred Brendel: Life & Career". alfredbrendel.com. Retrieved 2016-01-06.
- Francis Merson, "Alfred Brendel: Notes on a Musical Life", LImelight, April 2016, p. 40
- Uncle Dave Lewis. "Liszt: Weihnachtsbaum; L'arbre de Noël; The Christmas Tree". AllMusic. Retrieved 8 November 2015.
- Charlotte Higgins (21 November 2007). "Alfred Brendel, piano maestro, calls time on concert career". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 21 November 2007.
- Anthony Holden (8 January 2006). "Alfred Brendel, A Personal 75th Birthday Selection". London: The Observer. Retrieved 21 November 2007.
- "Featured Signatories", Campaign for a UN Parliament, 2007. Accessed 5 January 2011.
- Dargis, Manohla (3 November 2011). "A Master of the Piano Whose Performances Receive No Applause". The New York Times. Retrieved 24 May 2013.
- "Desert Island Discs: Alfred Brendel". bbc.co.uk. 15 November 2013. Retrieved 21 November 2013.
- The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present, Harold C. Schonberg, Simon & Schuster, Second Edition, 1987, ISBN 0-671-63837-8
- Tom Service (16 June 2003). "Alfred Brendel (Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk)". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 21 November 2007.
- Nicholas Wroe (5 October 2002). "Keeper of the flame". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 21 November 2007.
- Stephen Plaistow (15 December 2008). "'I've had a lot of fun' Alfred Brendel talks to Stephen Plaistow about inspirations, aching limbs and mastering Mozart". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 14 June 2010.
- Andrew Clements (1 July 2003). "Adrian and Alfred Brendel (Wigmore Hall, London)". The Guardian. Retrieved 24 November 2007.
- Morrison, Richard (3 October 2009). "Alfred Brendel on retiring from the concert hall and his books of poetry". The Times. London. Retrieved 23 April 2010.
- "Alfred Brendel (pianist)". Gramophone. Retrieved 11 April 2012.
- "ECHO KLASSIK Lifetime Achievement Award". Retrieved 17 October 2016.
- "Exeter College Oxford". ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 8 November 2015.
- Merson, Francis (5 July 2012). "The 10 Greatest Pianists of All Time". Limelight. Archived from the original on 2014-04-18.
- "The 25 greatest pianists of all time – as chosen by the presenters of Classic FM". Classic FM. Retrieved 26 March 2016.
- "BBC Radio 3 - Breakfast, Alfred Brendel and Wilhelm Kempff - Peter Donohoe's Fifty Great Pianists". Bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 26 March 2016.
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