Review: "My Nine Lives," a memoir by the injured pianist Leon Fleisher
MY NINE LIVES
A Memoir of Many Careers in Music
By Leon Fleisher and Anne Midgette
Doubleday. 325 pp. $26
In the summer of 1964, the classical pianist Leon Fleisher, at his wife's request, was grudgingly moving a patio table out of the basement of their Baltimore home when he hit a door frame and sliced off part of his right thumb. A doctor stitched him up, but his relationship to the piano - the most enduring love affair of his life - had taken a hairpin turn. Little by little, the last two fingers on his right hand curled against his palm. For the next 30 years, despite numerous medical consultations and unorthodox treatments, he became a left-handed pianist, trapped in a much-reduced (albeit brilliant) repertory of works written exclusively for that hand.
Left-handed pianists, when they are as awe-inspiring as Fleisher, will find work, but not sufficient work to support a wife, an ex-wife and five children. So, as Fleisher writes with his co-author, Anne Midgette (classical music critic for The Post), in "My Nine Lives," he began to explore aspects of his field he might never have paid much attention to: conducting, teaching, advising. In a book that is thrilling as much for its narrative suspense as for its psychological sensitivity and intellectual insights, he tells about also exploring nonmusical aspects of our culture: motorcycles, drugs, Rolfing, EST. All the while, he harbored the hope that one day he would sit down at the keyboard, his fingers would uncurl, and he would once again be able to play the two-handed German repertory by Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, which, for Fleisher, a five-year student of the legendary Artur Schnabel and a "musical son" of the revered conductor George Szell, constitutes the crown jewels of piano literature.
Thanks to a diagnosis of focal dystonia - a condition that can be temporarily relieved by Botox injections - his dream finally came true. Now over 80, Fleisher once again is concertizing and recording as a two-handed pianist, and this time his repertoire embraces not only Bach and Schubert but also Chopin, Debussy, Scarlatti - the repertoire associated with such pianists as Vladimir Horowitz, often the whipping boy of those who affiliate themselves with the purity of the German school. (Fleisher calls Horowitz "perverse" in his use of rubato and, on his own CD "Two Hands," demonstrates a very different approach, playing, for instance, Chopin's Nocturne in D Flat Major as if he were channeling Schubert. The result is diamantine and must be heard to be believed.)
Beyond that, Fleischer's personal life has soared into happiness. The wife of the patio table and he parted ways, with reasonable collegiality, and his third wife, Kathy, a considerably younger former piano student of his, has proven a helpmeet and soulmate. His children have not only forgiven him his admitted neglect of them in their childhoods, but most of them have gone into music themselves. He has come to terms with his mixed feelings about his mother, a woman comparable to Gypsy Rose Lee's or the Marx Brothers' mum, who, in her pursuit of her prodigy's career, never sent him to school or permitted him to have friends outside his older tutors. Today, he has friends of all ages all over the world, both inside and outside music.
And he has come to understand that what music means for him is only partially what the instrumentalist's body achieves. Music is larger than the body. As he tells his students, repeating a key lesson he learned from Schnabel, "Practice less, think more. All the notes [in the score] are equally black. It's up to us to make the decisions about which notes are of primary importance." His ultimate adage: "Support the composer. Classical music - Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert - should be played as if you're a part of the universe: man finds his proper place in the cosmos. . . . By contrast, in the Russian repertory - those big showpieces by Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev - you have to play as if you are the center of the universe."
"Should"? "Have to"? Regardless of what you know about classical music, this book is an engine for thinking.
Mindy Aloff is a cultural critic who lives in New York.