Leon Fleisher’s Memoir My Nine Lives: Reviewed by Beverly K. Lapp

Beverly K. Lapp

Introducing Beverly K. Lapp, Associate Professor of Music at Goshen College. Bev came into my life first as a student at Goshen College, then as a faculty colleague. She writes as well as she plays piano and teaches–which is saying a lot. Enjoy her review below.

Fleisher, L. & Midgette, A. (2010). My nine lives: A memoir of many careers in music. New York: Doubleday.

I read My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music in less than a week, eager to learn the story of the legendary pianist Leon Fleisher as told by him and Anne Midgette, Washington Post chief classical music critic.  Part of my fascination with Fleisher is due to his pedagogical lineage: he studied intensively with Artur Schnabel, who was taught by Leschetizky, who took lessons from Czerny, who was Beethoven’s student.  What further intrigued me was what I knew (or thought I knew) of Fleisher as tragic figure.  At the age of 37 and in the midst of a brilliant career, the pianist suffered the devastating loss of function in his right hand.

While this story was indeed the central narrative of Nine Lives, many other themes surfaced, including how young talent emerges and is nurtured, triumphs and setbacks in personal and professional relationships, the shaping of major musical institutions in the 20th century, and the master teacher/student paradigm as exemplified by Fleisher and his contemporaries.   Readers will also enjoy the generous name-dropping and the gossipy feel of the book. Fleisher’s good friend and fellow concert pianist Gary Graffman says on the back cover, “It’s a great read: inspirational, cliff-hanging, informative, funny, horrific. (And furthermore, most of it is true).”  Trusting our recollections to be “mostly true” must be one of the key challenges of writing a memoir.

According to family lore, Fleisher’s older brother would run off to the park following his piano lessons, after which four-year old Leon (who had been carefully observing) climbed the piano bench and went through the lesson materials himself, doing all the teacher had asked of his reluctant brother.  His mother, who hoped for her younger son to be either the U.S. president or a concert pianist, soon made Leon’s talent development her primary life’s work.  At the age of nine, after performing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in B-flat with the San Francisco Symphony, Fleisher became the youngest student accepted into study with Artur Schnabel, who only consented with the promise that the young Fleisher would stop performing during their years of their working together.  After ten years of teaching Leon in Europe and New York, Schnabel decided it was time for his talented student to develop his gifts more independently.  Fleisher also recognized the need for this weaning of sorts, noting, “When I approached a piece for the first time, I would get it into my mind and fingers, but I didn’t always work on unlocking its deeper mysteries and challenges for myself.  I knew I would get the word from on high in a couple of weeks when I played the piece for my teacher.  There seemed little point in exerting too much thought when I had direct access to someone who would, in a few crisp sentences, reveal all manner of things I had never thought of before” (p. 76).

As a piano teacher, I was fascinated with the descriptions of teaching that Fleisher received and later dispensed.  The book is infused with a pedagogical spirit.  Each major section is divided by “master classes” on specific works such as Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor and the Schubert Sonata in B-flat major, with Fleisher himself now revealing all manner of things about the Western classical piano canon. About the Schubert sonata he writes, “There’s a gentleness, an otherworldliness to Schubert.  Beethoven is always shaking his fist at the heavens, but Schubert is just the music of the spheres.  It’s music of nature.  There’s something sublime about it.  It’s both poignant and serene.  Sometimes it’s suffused with pure joy.  And there’s wit, and humor, to be found there as well.  He likes to yodel, Schubert does” (p. 265).  Targeted advice is also offered in the master class portions of the book.  For example, Fleisher observes that in the second-movement cadenza of the Brahms concerto, “Some people interrupt the trill a little bit each time a new hand comes in, but I think that’s all wrong; the idea is that each trill is joined by the next, rather than each entering as a new event.  I also keep all of that ascending trill in one pedal, because you need the resonance of the A in the bass” (p. 59).

About his work with Schnabel, Fleisher reflects that the renowned teacher did not often address technique, a practice enabled by his decision to not work with children.  “He expected his students to have mastered the mere physical requirements of playing already….what he really wanted to talk about was the music itself.  Technique was almost beside the point” (p. 34).  In my studies with various teachers I have encountered this key distinction in styles: a pedagogy in which heavy emphasis on technical principles leads to desired sounds juxtaposed with a pedagogy that focuses on the composer’s framework and intentions, with technique falling into place as needed to serve the sound.  While this may seem like a false dichotomy to some, as a student I have needed one approach over the other at various times, and, as a teacher, I find myself vacillating between the two depending on the student and other variables.  Fleisher seems to suggest that a more deliberate technical approach as a young pianist would have kept his playing healthy and may have prevented his injury.  For a pianist hailed as one of the great interpretive minds of the late 20th century one wonders, however, what might have been lost if he had not been shaped by Schnabel’s musical wisdom at such a young age.

Fleisher’s chapter devoted to his own teaching career is a gem for musicians and music-lovers.  Eventually settling into a long-term professorship at Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, Fleisher cautions young pianists against focusing on putting “all of their feelings” into the music, writing “whatever gift you have, whatever insight or response, has to be used to support what the music itself is saying, not to inflict your own views on it.  What you want to avoid at all costs is playing that sounds as if feeling were being injected into the music, as through a syringe.  You hear that kind of thing a lot, and it’s ghastly” (p. 213). He suggests that the performer needs three personae always: person A hears exactly what he or she wants before striking a single note (based on deep understanding of the musical score), person B is occupied with depressing the keys, attempting to achieve what A wants, and person C sits and objectively listens, judging whether or not B is getting what A wants and helping make adjustments as needed.   He notes that many new students stop at B.

Fleisher writes candidly about his three marriage relationships: the joy of each new beginning, the pain and regrets involved in the ending of the first two (deemed “Opus One” and “Opus Two” and including the parenting of five children) and the happiness found in his 25 year-plus marriage to pianist Katherine Jacobson (whom he calls “Eroica”).  The travails of another key relationship are also analyzed, that of his involvement with the Tanglewood Music Festival.  Urged on by Seiji Ozawa, musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Tanglewood’s parent organization, Fleisher accepted the invitation to be artistic director at Tanglewood and flourished during an eleven-year role with the institution. Those heady years of shaping legions of promising young artists ended sadly, however, with increasing tension between Ozawa and other administrators.  Fleisher resigned when the conflicts seemed insurmountable, and his reflections will resonate with anyone who has experienced a difficult ending with a loved institution.

Fleisher’s injury, as previously mentioned, is the central turning point recounted in his memoir.  The dawning awareness that his right hand was not working correctly, the eventual acceptance of his fate after living through all the stages of grief, the cautious exploration of what a career as a left-handed concert pianist could be like, the embrace of his potential as a conductor, and the ongoing search for a cure are conveyed with honesty and courage.   Fleisher remained convinced that the cause of his injury, in which the third and fourth fingers of his right hand curled up into a stubborn but not painful lock, was repetitive-strain or overuse.  “It was so obvious to me what was wrong with me.  I had practiced too much and lost the use of my hand” (p. 275).  After decades of a flourishing career as the preeminent performer of an amazingly rich array of left-handed repertoire, Fleisher was diagnosed as having a neurological condition known as focal dystonia and found restored use of his right hand with periodic injections of botox, of all things.  “Botox is a poison that cures,” writes Fleisher.  “It’s the best metaphor I can think of for something bad that ends up doing something good.  Thus it’s a perfect symbol for what happened with my right hand.  It was a horrible, devastating blow.  Yet ultimately it changed my life – and changed me – for the better” (p. 296).

This narrative of great talent developed, dealt a terrible card, and then adjusted for the musical nourishment of audiences around the world, results in a wonderful memoir full of engrossing tales.  It left me eager to read more memoirs, convinced that in the realm of literature it is these “mostly true” stories that are most satisfying of all.

Music provides an architecture for many of the world’s finest books. The various forms–sonata, symphony, nocturnes, etc. offer writers ideas for how to tell stories using rhythm, repetition, movement, harmony, and dissonance. What have you learned about the intersection of these two art forms in your life?

I loved reading Fleisher’s description of Schubert’s Sonata in B Flat Major so much that I immediately downloaded this single for $.99 on iTunes. I am now listening to a young Fleisher play it (before his hand injury?) and can think of his images of “music of the spheres” and “yodeling.” As one who once yodeled in front of 5,000 high school students, that one resonated a lot!

As a non musically trained person, I really love getting words and images that help me listen better. How about you?

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Celebrity Memoir, Guest blogger and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Leon Fleisher’s Memoir My Nine Lives: Reviewed by Beverly K. Lapp

  1. An excellent and thoughtful review, that has made me add this to my summer reading list. Shirley is correct, in saying that Beverly “writes as well as she plays piano and teaches.” I am intrigued by the memoir for two reasons: One, with 14 years of classical piano training, I am interested in how Fleisher was trained and how his teaching style reflects that training. Two, I am reflecting on the idea of the three personae; this idea is ripe for integrating across disciplines.

    Thank you, Beverly and Shirley!

  2. shirleyhs says:

    Kathleen, you are well positioned to benefit from reading, absorbing, and using the material in this book. I love the way you take the arts with you as you help organizations improve their processes. Will look forward to seeing how you use the concept of the three personae. Bev did a great job of extracting tasty highlights from the feast of this memoir.

  3. Ah, most interesting! I was “forced” to take piano all through high school and have always loved music. I spend most of my day with some kind of music playing — for inspiration, for enjoyment, for just the creative joy. This sounds like a lovely memoir. Thanks so much for sharing it here on this award-winning blog! All my best for a peaceful summer, Shirley! — Daisy “in the sun”

  4. shirleyhs says:

    Daisy,

    Thanks so much for naming this one of your award-winning blogs. I hope everyone seeing this comment clicks on your name to visit your delightful Sunny Room Studio where you celebrate the arts and artists of all kinds.

    The connection between being “forced” to take lessons and later enjoyment of good music is a really interesting one. I think most people who became good at music are grateful to parents for being “forced” to move through the times of difficulty and boredom. Maybe we would all benefit from reading this memoir as we think about what it takes to be good at any art form.

  5. Fleisher’s recordings of the Beethoven piano concertos, with Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, are still the standard by which I judge new recordings.
    I heard Fleisher at Tanglewood years ago–Ozawa may have been conducting–when he was limited to his left hand. I believe he played the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand.
    I enjoyed the review. I’ll look for this book.

    • shirleyhs says:

      You New Yorkers have such a rich cultural life at your finger tips. Thanks for sharing these memories. I will confess I didn’t know there were concertos for the left hand. But I’m sure Bev does.

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