Politics & Policy

TUESDAYS WITH JAY: The Comeback Kid

Leon Fleisher with two hands.

Publisher’s Note: National Review has brought out Here, There & Everywhere: Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger. You may order the book here. It has eight chapters  –  and we are making one piece per chapter available on NRO. We are doing this every Tuesday  –  hence, “Tuesdays with Jay”!

The chapters are Society, Politics, People, The World, Cuba and China, Golf, Music, and Personal. For the piece drawn from Society, go here. For the piece drawn from Politics, go here. For People, go here. For The World, go here. For Cuba and China, go here. For Golf, go here.

And this week’s piece is from the chapter on music. It was originally published in the December 31, 2003, issue of National Review.

A momentous event occurred at Carnegie Hall on October 31, Halloween night: Leon Fleisher played a recital with two hands. Why such a big deal? Fleisher has been one of the most celebrated pianists in the world for as long as most people can remember. But he had not played a recital in Carnegie Hall — not with ten fingers — since 1947. The evening was packed not only with musical power, but with emotional power as well.

The Fleisher story is famous, at least in music circles, but I will run through it. The pianist was born in San Francisco, to a father from Odessa and a mother from Chelm. As a boy, he came under the guidance of Pierre Monteux, the great French conductor who was resident in San Francisco. At nine, he began to study with Artur Schnabel, a historic pianist. In the summer of 1938, young Fleisher traveled to Tremezzo, Italy — on Lake Como —  to take lessons from master. Not long after, the master, of course, had to leave Europe in a hurry — and he went to New York. The Fleisher family moved from California so that Leon could study full time with him.

“Was he a good teacher?” I ask. “Could he communicate what he knew?” “He was an unbelievably good teacher,” answers Fleisher. “Not only was he able to communicate what he knew, he did so at a level of inspiration that was just staggering.” And, by the way, how was his English? “Oh, his English was extraordinary, for someone whose mother tongue it wasn’t. He sounded like Richard Burton with a German accent. He relished each syllable.”

In 1952 — now age 24 — Fleisher won the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium. On the jury: Artur Rubinstein, Robert Casadesus, and Rudolf Firkusny, among others. Among the other contestants: Maria Tipo, Theodore Lettvin, and Philippe Entremont (who finished tenth, oddly enough).

Fleisher went on to a blazing career, making soon-canonical recordings of Beethoven and Brahms with the conductor George Szell, in Cleveland. How did Szell — who could be severe — treat Fleisher? “Very well, believe it or not. He adored my teacher, and it was through him that I met Szell when I was twelve or thirteen. I think it was clear that he had some cryptopaternal feelings toward me.”

In 1964, Leon Fleisher was 37, and at the top of his game. But then disaster struck. He contracted what came to be known as dystonia, a neurological disorder making normal use of a hand (for example) impossible. In this case, it was the right hand. Fleisher’s left hand would always remain unaffected.

“For two years,” he says, “I was in a deep funk,” which is to put it mildly. It was hard to do anything. He divorced. Then he slowly started coming back to life, helping to form a chamber-music group, taking up conducting (which his ailment did not prevent him from doing) — and teaching. I hazard to ask, “Did you ever resent your students, who could play, while they might have had much less to impart, musically?” “No,” chuckles Fleisher, before adding, “There might have been a certain irony.”

At first, Fleisher would not look at the left-hand-alone literature, which is sizable: “I denied my condition” by ignoring this music altogether. But eventually, he came to it, playing the Ravel D-major concerto, Britten’s Diversions, and other works, many of them commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, the pianist (and brother of the philosopher) who lost his right arm in World War I. Says Fleisher, “There are over 1,000 pieces for the left hand alone, and most of them are crap — forgive me. But there is one recital’s worth, maybe two recitals’ worth, of really good stuff.” Fleisher is responsible for a lot of that stuff, as many composers of our own day came to write music especially for him.

I ask Fleisher whether, while practicing with his left hand, he would ever sneak in some right hand, just to check. “All the time, every day,” he says. Was it ever any different? “It was always the same” — “petrified flesh,” is one of the ways he puts it.

In 1979, another celebrated pianist, Gary Graffman, unfortunately joined him. He, too, lost the use of his right hand. Says Fleisher, with typical candor, “On one level, I was kind of grateful when it happened, because it proved that a) I wasn’t crazy, and b) I wasn’t a freak. And it gave me strength to cry out about this problem. A lot of people out there with dystonia don’t want to talk about it, they want to hide it. You will see cancellations by pianists because they are ‘indisposed.’ Very often, that ‘indisposition’ is dystonia, to one degree or another.” Needless to say, “I felt for Gary, and I knew what he was going through, but, together, we could bring attention to this problem.”

Fleisher tried every kind of treatment, “from A to Z and beyond,” he says. “You name it, I’ve done it: alternative, conventional . . .” In 1981, he attempted a comeback, having found some relief, but it proved a mirage.

Flash forward to 1995, however: The pianist found greater and more enduring relief in a process called “rolfing,” and then Botox. Rolfing is a kind of massage therapy that restores flexibility and softness to muscles. After two years of this therapy, Fleisher was ready for Botox — the very thing that actresses (and others) now use to straighten out their wrinkles. It has a more serious function in treating dystonia, altering the neurological picture.

After 30 years of silence — two-handed silence — Leon Fleisher made a return. “Now that I look back over it, and consider the lessons I have learned, I’m not so sure that, if I could relive my life, I would have it any different. The only reason I was able to come out of that depression around ’66, ’67, was the knowledge, the awareness, that my relationship with music was more than just as a two-handed piano player. I became a better teacher — I couldn’t push a student off the chair and say, ‘This is what I need.’ I had to start to use words, to convey what is essentially unconveyable in words, because of what music is. And I started to conduct, which has afforded me some of my most meaningful and satisfying moments, not only in musical life, but in life in general. The greatest joys are those that are shared.”

In sum, “I have tried to put this whole experience to the best use possible.”

I ask him a dumb question: “Did you ever fantasize about coming back, with both hands?” “For 30 years.” I ask a less dumb question: “Did you ever doubt you would?” “No,” Fleisher says. “No. I knew that there was some kind of answer, if not a total answer.” People should understand that the agony did not lie in the denial of a glorious career — it lay in the inability to play, even for himself, “to realize what was in my head, to make manifest what was inside me.” But Fleisher had teaching, conducting, and the left hand, and these were means of doing “what keeps me going, what keeps me alive, which is making music.”

At the recital in Carnegie Hall, on Halloween night, Fleisher began with some Bach: Egon Petri’s arrangement of Sheep May Safely Graze. He devoted the second half of the program to Schubert’s Sonata in B flat, D. 960, one of the most profound works in the piano literature. Fleisher does not believe that one should play an encore after this sonata, but he had one planned: He was going to repeat Sheep May Safely Graze, but this time he would have the aid of some of his students, placed throughout the hall. With tape recorders in their laps, they were going to play gentle sheep bleatings — just for some levity. But Fleisher was “thwarted,” as he says, because vigilant Carnegie ushers would not allow the tape recorders into the hall!

So instead, he brought out a Halloween basket — one that looked like a jack-o’-lantern — and offered candy to patrons in the first row. A light, lovely touch from a man who has been through hell, and whose greatness is far more than musical.

* * *

NR senior editor Jay Nordlinger’s new collection, a beautiful 528-page hardcover, is a must for your personal library, and also makes a great gift. We’re making Here, There & Everywhere available for the special low NRO Bookstore price of $21.95. You save $3, and shipping and handling is free. Click here to order. You can also have Jay’s signature and personal inscription, if you like. There is a box to make that request.

 

Paul Johnson, the great British historian and journalist, says, “Jay Nordlinger is one of America’s most versatile and pungent writers. He is at home in geopolitics and sociology, in sport, music, and literature, and to all these topics he brings an inquiring mind, deep knowledge, and an engaging style. This collection shows him at his wide-ranging best.”

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