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My Nine Lives – A Memoir of Many Careers in Music

by Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette

Doubleday | 2010

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

leon fleisher

Since opening an art gallery in Taft, California, one of my favorite things to do is to listen to music while I paint. In so doing, I’ve come to a new appreciation of my collection of classical music and jazz. So, when a musician friend recommended the book she had just read, a memoir by Leon Fleisher, the well-known American pianist and conductor, I wanted to delve into it.

The Child Prodigy

Leon Fleisher was born on July 23, 1928, in San Francisco, to Jewish immigrants. His father was born in Odessa and his mother, in Chelm, in Poland. She had big dreams for him—she wanted him either to become the first Jewish president or a great concert pianist. They purchased a piano, and he started studying at the age of four. When other children his age were attending public school or playing ball, Leon was practicing the piano.

He made his public debut when he was eight years old and played with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux when he was sixteen. Monteux called him “the pianistic find of the century.”

He became one of the few child virtuosos to be accepted for study with Artur Schnabel, considered the greatest living exponent of the German repertoire. When he was nine years old, Leon traveled with his mother to Lake Como in Italy to work with Schnabel. About this he says:

“There’s a genealogy of pianists and their teachers, like the “begats” in the Bible. Beethoven taught Carl Czerny. Czerny taught a whole roster of notable students, including Franz Liszt and Theodor Leschetizky. Leschetizky, a brilliant teacher, taught Padereswki, the phenomenally popular virtuoso of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century who became prime minister of his native Poland, and he taught the young Artur Schnabel. And Schnabel, of course, taught me. So in the family tree of teacher-student relationships, I am in a line going back to Beethoven.”

.fleisher with arthur schnabel

Schnabel discouraged sentimentality in his student’s playing. He said it should be “like liquid gold,” and metephors meaningful to the young Fleisher

By the age of sixteen, Fleisher was playing at Carnegie Hall, and by twenty, his career as a concert pianist was established. He was meeting and playing with the most famous musicians and conductors in the world.

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor

Brahms’ first piano concerto is Fleisher’s signature piece, one he loves and has played his entire life. It’s wonderful to read a première musician’s comments on music:

“Brahms has always spoken to me in a special way. There’s the warmth, the richness in the music. There’s the sheer brilliance of the way he writes for the piano. There are little references to other works, to other composers, buried in the score, winking out at you like in-jokes, or favorite combinations of notes that he returns to and uses over and over again, like old friends. Nothing he does is unconsidered. The more you look, the more you find."

Take his first piano concerto, the D Minor, my lifelong companion. The first movement begins with the sound of a fist defiantly thrust up at the heavens. The second movement, The Adagio, or slow movement, is a prayer, gentle and soft.

But go to the printed music and look at the beginning of that Adagio. The violins and violas open the movement by playing a melody, in unison, that’s noted in half notes and quarter notes. (Half notes are held longer than quarter notes: on the page, they appear while, little circles with stems, as opposed to the black dots of the quarter notes.) If you look only at the white notes and disregard the black ones, you suddenly see the fierce opening theme of the first movement staring out at you, like a secret sign. I couldn’t sleep for a week after I found that out.

Maybe the D Minor is a young man’s concerto. It certainly seized my imagination when I was young with its bigness, its huge ambition, its nobility—and its immediate impact. If you’re in a performance and this music doesn’t rouse you within the first forty-five seconds, you might as well just walk off stage and call it a night. It tries to hit you in the face…

Fleisher goes on for another five pages on the D Minor; if you want to read further exposition, you’ll have to read the book.

His Life as a Concert Pianist

He married for the first time in 1951. His wife and young family lived overseas more than in the United States, in Holland and then Rome. When they returned, besides a busy schedule of concerts, he began teaching at the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore, where he met and fell in love with his second wife, Rikki.


As can be imagined, the hands of pianists, especially concert pianists who practice six or seven hours a day and are required to play demanding works using repetitive movements, are subject to ailments. They must take care to protect their hands from injury. More strain is placed on the right hand than the left because a great deal of the work must be done by the third and fourth fingers.

In 1963 Fleisher’s right hand started to feel numb and then, much to his horror, his third and fourth fingers began to cramp, curling towards his palm, until he was eventually unable to open them.

It was tantamount to the greatest tragedy that can befall a concert pianist, and reminiscent of Beethoven losing his hearing. Fleisher was flung into an anguished despair. He began a merry-go-round of consultations with doctors, psychologists, and various therapists, including a hypnotist, seeking a proper diagnosis and cure. His career was at a standstill, and he now had five children to support.

A Teacher, a Conductor, and a Left-Handed Pianist

Fleisher found that music isn’t in one’s hands—it’s in one’s heart and soul. Through the many years when he was unable to play with both hands, he increased his teaching load, worked as a conductor, and became a left-handed pianist. Then he was offered a position as the Artistic Director at prestigious Tanglewood, where he worked for eleven years. Though he never completely regained the use of his right hand, shots of Botox helped him to play with both hands again. He has lived as rich a life as any musician.

Listening to Leon Fleisher

Looking through my repertoire of Brahms CD’s, I found that it didn’t include the Fleisher recording of the First Concerto in D Minor, so I ordered it. It’s currently my favorite CD.

Leon Fleisher is now someone I feel like I know. What a delight! After the long orchestral prelude, the piano breaks in with electric beauty and precision.  It must be a joy for an orchestra to follow him, as his leadership is striking.

I would highly recommend this book both to musicians and to people who want to know more about music and how American culture has been enriched by it.

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