In Leon Fleisher's book, 'My Nine Lives,' a pianist faces a crippling nightmare

By Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 4:52 PM

An excerpt from pianist Leon Fleisher's "My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music," by Fleisher and Post critic Anne Midgette, to be published Tuesday by Doubleday.

My 12th birthday present from my mother and father was a recording of Brahms's Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor. My family didn't have many records, apart from a few records by Enrico Caruso - a staple in American homes in those days - but my parents knew this one was something out of the ordinary. The soloist was my teacher, the great Artur Schnabel, whose playing was even then legendary and bore the seal of absolute authority: After all, in his youth in Vienna he had met Brahms, heard him play and even gone on a picnic with him. And the conductor was the brilliant Hungarian taskmaster George Szell.

The Brahms D minor concerto is a huge work. In those days of 78 rpm records, it took up seven or eight discs. I put the first disc on the record player and lowered the needle, and a dark roll of timpani poured out of the big horn of the speaker, like the thunder of Thor. There followed a defiant cry from the massed forces of the orchestra, as if shaking a fist at the lowering heavens. The hair on my head stood up. That opening did something to me that no other music had done before. I wore out the first side of that recording. It took me about a week even to get to side 2, where the piano actually makes its entrance.

Even for a child prodigy, the Brahms D Minor is a tall order. It calls for two-fisted piano playing and emotions that you might think are beyond the compass of a child. But I loved it so much I couldn't stay away. Within a year or so, I was working on making it my own. I was probably a little young. It's smart, though, to learn very difficult repertory when you're young. That way, you get it in your fingers, and in your DNA, before you realize just how hard it really is.

From the moment I first heard it, I dreamed of playing the Brahms D Minor with a full orchestra, with George Szell conducting. And when I began learning it, actually playing it myself, I dreamed even harder.

Dreaming helps. My dreams were fulfilled. The Brahms D Minor Concerto became my talisman. I played it in my debut with the New York Philharmonic, when I was 16. I played it when I won the prestigious Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels at age 23, the first American to win it. And I played it, finally, with George Szell. We even recorded it together. Some people call our recording a classic.

If my story is about anything, it's about being very careful when your dreams come true. The Greek myths are full of tales of heroes cut down in the arrogance of their prime, taught humility by a blow from the gods. It sounds melodramatic. But such things really can happen. They happened to me.

I was at the peak of my career, ready to conquer the world, and whether or not I was guilty of hubris, the thunder of Thor came down and hit me where I lived. When I was 36 years old, I mysteriously lost the use of two fingers on my right hand. The fourth and fifth finger started cramping, curling up, until they were firmly lodged against my palm. When the gods want to get you, they know right where to strike: the place it will hurt the most. I thought I would never play again.

Was it in my head? Was it some bigger malady? No one was able to tell me what was wrong. I looked. I looked in more places than I might have thought possible. I was willing to try anything to get the use of my hand back: treatments, therapy, medications, spiritual healers, you name it.

I wasn't especially noble in my affliction. I shut down. I acted out in all kinds of ways, of which I am not particularly proud. Inwardly, I railed against my situation; outwardly, I hid from it, turning away from friends and family, trying to prove however I could that I was still vital. I grew my hair, grew out my beard, and began tooling around on a Vespa. I didn't have any other tools to help me deal with what had happened.

It was hard to find words for the dark cloud that hovered over me: of anguish, of dejection, of rage. I fell into a deep depression. At my lowest point, I seriously considered killing myself.

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