I’m related to Beethoven! Sort of. My first serious piano teacher was Emlio del Rosario. Emilio was a student of the great Leon Fleisher. Leon Fleisher studied with Artur Schnabel and also studied with Maria Curcio. Schnabel studied with Carl Czerny, who was a student of Beethoven’s. Beethoven, um, I’ve written about once or twice. Czerny was a disaster — he wrote “piano exercises” that neither worked as exercises nor as music. Schnabel was the first to record all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas, and those. (as well as his other) recordings have stood the test of time. But Leon Fleisher holds a special place in my imagination. In part, because he is still alive.
Fleisher was part of another musical family tree. In the 1960s he lost his ability to play piano with his right hand due to a condition known as Focal Dystonia. Composers flocked to his cause, writing him works he could play with his left hand only. Another great pianist of the same era, Gary Graffman, suffered a similar fate. Composers flocked to Graffman’s cause as well. Paul Wittgenstein (1887–1961) lost his right arm in WWI. The Czeck pianist Ottakar Hollman permanently hurt his right arm in WWI. Dutch pianist Cor de Groot had an injury that led to works from six Dutch composers. I have an old friend who was a brilliant pianist until he mysteriously lost feeling in his right hand. He went on to become an attorney. One big difference between Fleisher and all or most of the above? Fleisher had a happy ending — he regained the ability to play with his right hand. In 2004, Fleisher released the album “Two Hands” which was the buzz of the classical music world. First album of his with two hands since the early 1960s. Why him? Why did he succeed where others didn’t? There are medical reasons, but I also would argue that Fleisher remained focused on the music, which he felt trumped his secondary role as performer.
I have to confess…I didn’t really follow or even care about the whole left hand/right hand thing. I didn’t read interviews with the doctors, I didn’t follow personal details of Fleisher’s life that weren’t of interest to me. I just happen to think he is a deliciously satisfying pianist who brings composers’ music to life. I particularly love the recording of the Schubert “Wanderer Fantasy” he made in 1963 just before he lost the ability to use his right hand. There is no larger, happier, and more optimistic recording than this one. Am guessing it was recorded before November of that year because if you listen carefully you can hear Camelot. This is a recording exuding youthful idealism, optimism, a new frontier of possibilities for those of us who choose to wander. Even more than that, this recording is the essence of Schubert. I love Schubert for his warmth, his sunnyness, his brightness; indeed, the Wanderer is outdoor music. It makes me feel a connection with nature, and specifically a connection of pure joy.
And this is just as Fleisher himself would want it: he would want us focusing on the music, and not on his right hand. I love this quote of his: “My teacher, a very great man, Artur Schnabel, described that transaction in the following way: he said that the performer is the alpine mountain guide, absolutely essential in getting you up the mountain, as he knows the pitfalls and dangers along the way. But his purpose is to get you to the top of the mountain so that you might enjoy the view. So as performers, we are indispensable because we bring those black dots on the paper to life, but the music is the star. Many young people forget that equation and seem to feel that the more they demonstrate that they are affected by what they do, the more successful they will be, and that’s not what I do.” This is a pianist who has kept fully intact his perspective about performing arts, its power, its magic and majesty, yes, but also its roles and responsibilities.
The guy has a great sense of humor too. When asked if he identifies more with Schroeder from “Peanuts” or Ralph the piano playing dog from “The Muppets,” he said “Neither — I identify more with Lucy when she’s pulling the football away from Charlie Brown.” As a promising young pianist, he did indeed have his hope for a bright future yanked from him at the last possible moment. Just like Charlie Brown, Fleisher got up, and tried again…and again. And despite a storyline that is so clearly about Fleisher, he never lost sight of his real focus — the football, um, the music.