Well-known US pianist ‘died alone with his dog’

Well-known US pianist ‘died alone with his dog’


norman lebrecht

July 12, 2017

A student of John Bell Young has reported his death, in his apartment in Bratteleboro, Vermont, alone with his dog, Ben.

He had not been heard from since April.

Confirmation of his death has been issued by a US district court in New York, where Young was being sued for defamation by by the pianist Valentina Lisitsa.

Young’s sister, reporting his death, declared him to be insolvent and intestate. He had no spouse or children. The death certificate places date of death as ‘April 2017’ and confirms his cremation on April 20, in Middlebury, VT.

John Bell Young, who was 63, had been impaired for the past four years by the effects of a stroke.

A New Yorker of part-Cherokee origin, he supplemented a stuttering career as a pianist with writing reviews in music journals. He considered himself the ultimate authority on the music of Scriabin and attacked anyone who questioned his credentials. A combative, venomous character he issued death threats to imagined enemies and pursued online vendettas against dozens of musicians and media persons.

That was the public face of John Bell Young. His student has described him as a sympathetic teacher, capable of great kindness. May he rest in peace.


  • Ravi Narasimhan says:

    I remember him from a couple of online discussion groups. I learned quite a lot from his posts and several videos he posted on performance practice. I also saw the other side. It is unfortunate that he had to go it alone after a stroke. RIP.

  • Rami Bar-Niv says:

    John gave me a review “to kill for” on Fanfare Magazine for my CD of the Grieg and Schumann concertos. Unfortunately he had lots of health problems.
    I am so sad to hear of his death at such a young age. RIP JBY.

  • Allan Evans says:

    Did his dog Ben starve to death?

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    We knew each other first online via FB, and then via telephone and shared many long conversations about music in final two years of life. He always told me he knew his time was short. He had studied with Constance Keene and knew that my teacher was Adele Marcus. He was adamant about pianists, with an uncanny feeling about sound and great artists of the past. We hit it off, and he wrote several kind reviews pertaining to my work in recordings and videos. He also shared his teaching videos as well, and his recordings of Enoch Arden with actor, Michael York. John was a very learned musician and pianist, and from our conversations, did not tolerate anything less than the standard he was taught and maintained during his lifetime. Oddly, when I was in Portland, OR in May, I came upon his book about Liszt in Powells–the large bookstore in Portland. Unaware of his passing, I took a picture of the book standing on its own and sent it to his cell phone. No reply–and I started to wonder what was wrong. Trying to call him, the phone had been disconnected and I had no means of reaching him. I hope he is in a better place now.

  • Miriam Gómez-Morán says:

    I never met John Bell Young in real life, but I did on the internet. He did not know me, but he listened to some of my mp3 I had uploaded and he wrote to me in order to make very kind comments about them, specially about my recording of Scriabin’s 5th Sonata. I am surprised to read that he had that “other side”, because he was extremely nice with me and only said positive things.

    R.I.P. John Bell Young.

  • Paul Lanfear says:

    So sad to hear of this, Norman. After a brief period of communication with him I came to the conclusion that here was indeed a major talent with considerable musical insights unfortunately clouded by an unbearable degree of (understandable) bitterness, narcissism and ultimately irrationality. A tragic figure. RIP

  • Ellon Carpenter says:

    I learned of his death a few weeks ago. Some time ago, he had gotten a contract for a book on Scriabin (our shared interest); but due to his poor health, he needed help with it. I recommended a young Scriabin scholar I knew, and it was just published: “The Alexander Scriabin Companion: History, Performance, and Lore” by Lincoln Ballard and Matthew Bengtson–with John Bell Young. Published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. John wasn’t able to contribute as much to the book as he had planned; but, even so, I’m sorry he wasn’t able to see it finally published. John certainly was a complex character with an outsized ego, but, as I never crossed swords with him, enjoyable to know. He may have died alone, but he did have friends.

  • Benjamin says:

    A horrible bully. He sexually harrassed and cyber-bullied scores of people.

    I do feel bad for his dog though.

    • Sue says:

      The all-too-sadly common traits of bitterness and narcissism – now able to be expressed through the internet so easily in this day and age. You see (read) them everywhere and you’ve got to feel sorry for these types, to a degree.

      Still, to die alone like that. Just awful.

  • Jed Distler says:

    I met John Bell Young once, many years ago. Once was enough. Still, no one should die alone.

  • Steinway Fanatic says:

    He was hopelessly narcissistic and overly impressed by himself. He thought most highly of his pianism & his writings, but neither of those skills were recognized as exceptional by the music industry. He also thought he was in charge of the music business, believing he was all-powerful enough to ruin the career of Valentina Lisitsa by contacting orchestras to demand they cancel her engagements. He also manipulated gullible young pianists into believing he could introduce them to all the industry power-players & foster their careers (for a fee, of course) but then he couldn’t deliver and wouldn’t give refunds. This was a sad case of self-delusion; his megalomania made him a legend in his own mind.

  • Steve P says:

    De mortuis nihil nisi bonum.

    Have mercy, please. I am heartbroken to read so much invective. He is dead; let your worldly bitterness and animosity rest, folks.

    • Benjamin says:

      JBY regularly sent out death threats and posted fake profiles of the people he targeted on adult websites.

      He didn’t show any mercy to his victims. He deserves none.

    • Sue says:

      Yes, fair point. When somebody cannot fight back…..

    • Harold Lewis says:

      I’d say the Latin tag ‘…nil nisi bonum’, with its message of compassion, is entirely appropriate when you’re doing something like burying your Uncle Ted. You wouldn’t want a funeral eulogy to remind you that the old chap was a miser, a womaniser and had served time in jail. But if we’re reflecting on the life and professionalism of an artist in any sort of ‘objective’ way, I suppose it’s only fair to acknowledge that their character had its dark aspects.

    • Valarie Alexandra Valois says:
      • Valarie Alexandra Valois says:

        He contacted me for an article he wrote concerning Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, who was a teacher and mentor of mine, and eventually, after reading a few things he’d written, and some serious conversations, and we became cordial long-distance acquaintances, and I considered him a friend.
        Even though we never met in person, he was perennially interesting, thought-provoking – and was always kind, even funny. He certainly was never boring.
        May he know peace – and true inner freedom from whatever caused any difficulties with others.

  • Dillard Stone says:

    John Bell Young was an awful, awful person who does not deserve to be remembered in a positive way simply because he died. His grandiose, vindictive ranting and threats went well beyond mere “flame wars”: he would actually take malicious concrete action against those he perceived as his enemies. He repeatedly (and quite falsely) portrayed one well-known music writer as having connections to terrorism. He threatened the head of an American music society and promised that he would write bad reviews of any musician who defended her: “If you dare come to her defense, or remain with her sleazy organization, I will bury you publicly with one devastating review after the other, to speak nothing of the dirt I can and will dig up on you personally.” Young has the dubious honor of having been ejected from the roster of Steinway Artists for his atrocious behavior. It’s no surprise that he died penniless and alone.

  • Music Guy in NYC says:

    He did have great knowledge of Scriabin and considerable musical gifts. And yes, unfortunately, he sent out horrible death threats with severed heads and extreme gore to many people. Facebook was made aware of his behavior and at first ignored it. But when he persisted he was finally curtailed in that forum. But he continued elsewhere, threatening violence, hired killers and was well beyond abusive in ways that are simply unacceptable. While one can feel compassion for him on some levels and regret that he did not have a larger audience for his music-making, we cannot pretend that he did not have a side to him that was reprehensible.

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    This is a very tragic story. Never heard of the guy- although he clearly had talent (any authority on Scriabin has to be an interesting person). From the thread here- obviously did/wrote some terrible things which are inexcusable.

    Maybe he had a personality disorder which led to his social isolation. In his defence though- music is beautiful but the business certainly isn’t. In his defence- he wouldn’t be the first talented artist to become a raving lunatic out of bitterness & shattered dreams.

  • Pierre says:

    He once wrote to me in order to promote my book (an essay on the piano) in the US. However I was not fully happy with the terms put forward. So I didn’t relay this information to my French publisher.

  • Rami Bar-Niv says:

    You’re right, he wasn’t that well-known…

  • Matt Rubenstein says:

    I knew John in the 90s pretty well. He was an over-the-top narcissist back then, too, but had a great sense of humor. I’ll always remember one joke in particular. Having followed John’s terrible advice to study with Constance Keene, I was at a concert somewhere near Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan with a group of people who knew her. When I asked somebody where she was, John said: “Constance?! Constance gets a nose bleed below 59th Street.“

    John got weirder and more grandiose with age, apparently. To my mind he’ll always stand for an especially virulent form of North American classical music arrivisme–a manic need to impress and credentialize, mainly by association with some European tradition seen as “très haute.“ In his case, it was Scriabin and Russian piano playing, which he couldn’t just love, but had to wear as a gaudy badge of honor. Despite all that, I remember spending some pretty fun evenings with him and other friends back in the day. Sorry to hear that he dug himself such a lonely grave.

    • Harold Lewis says:

      Though regrettably I never met John Bell Young in person, I came across him on the Web some years back as a vigorous and combative participant in often heated discussions about the performance of Scriabin’s music and, in particular, the recordings made of complete cycles of his piano sonatas. If I recall things correctly, one point he insisted on was that to get under the skin of the sonatas, as it were, pianists had to reflect the force of the erotic, almost orgasmic, currents running through the music. YouTube offers a few instances of his Scriabin – notably the 5th and 7th sonatas – and, my God, they are real no-nonsense, flesh-and-blood performances. I would love to hear him playing the last three Scriabin sonatas and ‘Vers la Flamme’.

  • Valerie Joan Kraemer says:

    Under all of this, JBY was really a softie, a good scholar, an idealist to the highest degree, tremendous imagination, and talent for music creative writing, a passionate man, easily upset and convinced that he was right and just–this is a distinction to mention when accused of narcissism which I disagree with.. He had very real issues, but who amongst us has no issue ourselves? This might be a good time to mention that the repertoire we’ve been playing can get under our skin at times and ultimately over time make us hypersensitive for life–so much so that it becomes hard to face the world [there’s an example of Sofronitzky being afraid to sit on a bus, being afraid of the other faces], and that may have been a contributing factor on certain days when he was way out of control. It is also clear from the nature of many of his outbursts that this should have been viewed as a clinical and given the same medical consideration and respect as any physical illness.

    • Carl Tait says:

      John Bell Young was a monster. One can feel sorry for monsters in some circumstances, but it doesn’t make them any less monstrous. Adding my own story to the growing pile: about 20 years ago, JBY unsuccessfully tried to get me fired because I defended a friend he was libeling. He left me alone after that failed attempt, but continued to libel my friend with the same malicious suggestion of terrorist connections for many years – as recently as 2015.

    • Francis Romano says:

      My consideration and empathy went to his many victims. None at all for that vile, horrible puke.

    • Valarie Alexandra Valois says:
  • Frank says:

    A talent? Most surely. A shitheel? Indubitably.

  • Jack says:

    I encountered John Bell Young by accident on Facebook, and he seemed interesting enough to befriend. I was very interested to hear what he had to say about Scriabin, and there were a couple of pianists on whom he heaped great praise, so he wasn’t all invective. But his “only I am fit to judge” persona overshadowed everything. We had a couple of brief exchanges, after which I felt compelled to reflect back that I was dealing with an intensely angry person. I would have unfriended him, but he unfriended me first. He did contact me later to sort of apologise for his nastiness, and one of his friends explained that his stroke had caused his behavioural problems and I should go easy on him. I am very sorry that he died alone and penniless, and apparently even the date of his death is not known.

  • Paul says:

    Much more known as a cyber bully than a pianist. Fo a slightest disagreement he would threaten individuals with lawsuits and write them long, carefully drafted emails, written by a fictitious lawyer. A sad and conflicted person, clearly with a serious psychological condition. A very sad death.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    Wow. Personality disorder? Just for starters I’d say.

    I guess it should not be a surprise that someone who devoted so much energy to anger and revenge had a stroke. Nature’s way of reigning in bad behavior.

    • Sue says:

      Sadly the internet is full of such types, and even classical music messageboards seem to have their share of narcissistic personality disorders. I’ve participated in them long enough to recognize the signs immediately, and anger is one of the first indicators of trouble and others are combativeness, nastiness and a willingness to demean and humiliate. The psychiatric profession is at its wits end trying to deal with such cases.

  • Marilyn Hall says:

    I remember JBY from many years ago (mid-90’s) when he did master classes at the University I attended. He was always informative, polite, and very generous with his time. I have also attended many recitals/concerts of his where I especially enjoyed his lecture/concert series on Scriabin and other music. JBY probably didn’t remember me from way back then but we chatted often on facebook. We didn’t share the same religious beliefs but he was never “ugly” towards me. I felt bad for him because I remember him in his “prime.” When he had the stroke, it seems as if he became cynical, and pessimistic. Even though he could have an “ugly” side, I never took him serious. I guess I just remembered how he was before his stroke. I often felt bad for the ones he did bash though. Even though he was inflicted with this pain, he still gave his time to my husband (Cory Hall) and I. We talked to John via Skype and he gave us all the “ins and outs” of how to get arts type grants. I never did follow through on these but he would message me sporadically and stated that if I needed any help with applying for grants, that he would help me. It is sad that John died in this way and hopefully his dog Ben was saved. RIP JBY.

  • Joe J says:

    I had the misfortune of knowing him in person for a few months well before his stroke. What a memorably venomous liar he was! It was a shame, because I heard him play live and he had real talent, but his talent was far eclipsed by hateful negativity.

  • PATRICIA says:

    John Bell Young was a mentally ill man filled with anger and hate for so many. I was a victim. “Victim” is the correct word. He victimized me on Facebook. Who am I? A woman in her 70’s, married, a grandmother, with no special talents who apparently crossed him in a manner on Facebook on a topic I don’t even remember that angered him to the point that he tried to find me and threatened to harm me. He called me every filthy name you can think of. In fact, much of what he said about that famous female pianist is what he did to me. I went to the police out of fear for my life. They have all the records. One more attempt by him to find me or to threaten me and they would go after him. He even found a way to privately message me on Facebook – it was as though I could not escape him. He said the same things to me, called me the same vile names he called the pianist, accused me of the same things. I hated him. I am so glad and relieved he is dead. I trust he is burning in hell for what he did to so many.

  • James P. Colias says:

    Although it was more than 25 years since I had any contact with him, I was sorry to read about the demise of John Bell Young. I think it was at one of Joe Machlis’s
    “Musicales” that we met. Later, we would run into each other at another music-lover’s apartment where guests were asked to bring (instead of “a dish to pass”) “a piece to play”. I recall that John played Liszt’s “Invocation” (from “Harmonies Poetique et Religieuses”) which greatly disappointed me … not his performance, but that was the piece that I was planning to play! John always made an impression, but not neces-sarily a favorable one. If I listen to his recording of Scriabin’s “Waltz in A-flat”, op. 38, (which I’m doing now), I can forgive some of his foibles. But apparently he hurt a lot of people, and that is inexcusable. He could be ruthless and overly-aggressive. Does everybody know how he managed to obtain the favorable endorsement of Maria Scriabina (concerning John’s interpretations of her father’s music) to use for his promo-tional purposes? If he died in the setting depicted in the 2015 Master Class video-clip, at least he enjoyed a comfortable space to the end. I’d say RIP, but I don’t believe anybody does.

    James P. Colias

  • Ed Reichenbach says:

    John Bell Young first (and last) came to my attention through an exchange of letters in the January-February issue of Fanfare Magazine, following a review he had written of someone’s recording of piano music of Sorabji. The review was not just dismissive, but downright contemptuous on the music of Sorabji, which was fully Young’s right. But it also made totally invented claims about fellow pianist and Sorabji champion Michael Habermann. So Habermann, while fully admitting that “”of course, Young is entitled to his opinion”, was so bold as to try and correct those invented claims about himself. To which Young found no better than to retort: “”of course, those glib pianists who care to devote years to the cultivation of this glib repertoire are free to do so – at the risk of decimating their careers, or ending up as largely unknown performers who either sit behind a desk at a day job, or worse, in academia”.

    What a despicable, spiteful character. May he rest in peace? Why?

    • Alistair Hinton says:

      I’ve only just seen this.

      I remember the Sorabji review business. It was clear from what he wrote that he had little time for Sorabji’s piano music but far less knowledge of it. At one time he sought to open a correspondence with me. It didn’t take long for him to come out in what I presume (and many here endorse) was his true colours and so I terminated that correspondence before it could developointo the kinds of exchange for which it seems he was best known. A lucky escape on my part, methinks, from a pretty despicable sounding and arrogant character.

      • Ed Reichenbach says:

        Hi Alistair, thanks for your comment. In the meanwhile I got in touch with Michael Habermann to let him know, even years later, how shocked and incensed I had been at the tone and content of John Bell Young’s comments. I told him that at the time I had written a letter to Fanfare’s editor and vehemently complained that he had let that pass – Flegler is famous for being very hands-off on his reviewers, but this was really way too off. Letter was never published and I doubt it was ever transmitted to Michael (I don’t even know that it was to Young) – and I thought Michael might have felt very lonely when he found himself the prey of such a psychopath.

        But, you know, my feeling now is, yes, let him rest in peace: from everything that is reported on this thread, it is so obvious that the man was mentally deranged.

        Thanks for your work on behalf of Sorabji’s memory and legacy.

        • Alistair Hinton says:

          Thank you for contacting Michael Habermann who deserved JBY’s comments no more than did anyone else who’s found him/herself at the butt end of his obsessive and unfounded vitriol.

          Thank you also for your kind remark about what we do here; we do our best to keep that legacy afloat and help to encourage interest in the music, not least through promoting the work of some seriously gifted and dedicated score editors (an ongoing project). Details may be found at http://www.sorabji-archive.co.uk and enquiries may be made to sorabji.rchive@gmail.com

  • Kristina Foltz says:

    Definitely a cyber bully of pianists. He was my Facebook friend and I had known him for his writings on intonatsiia which I admired. He took the trouble of listening to some recordings I posted of myself playing , with very basic recording technology, so the sound wasn’t very good. Didn’t slander me until I came to the defense of Martha Argerich who he described as a “hack” along with countless others pianists whom he despised.. He lambasted me and told me never to question his judgment again. I unfriendly him because I was disgusted. In revenge, he posted a public post warning people that I was a tal”hack with ten thumbs” , and a pianistic fraud. I wrote back saying at least i considered myself in good company. He died shortly after that.

  • lion says:

    1st saw his name at the University of South Florida on a sign for a master class, in 1997. Didn’t think much of it. Saw it again on mp3.com, in 2000. What outstanding recordings he made of Scriabin & Schumann. It was a rich, relaxed sound, deep into the keys. It was disappointing more high quality recordings weren’t made. Always wondered how he played Chopin Etude Op.10 #1 so fast. Perhaps he left out a lot of notes.

  • Sam says:

    I remember JBY from his polemics on the Usenet group rec.music.classical. He did come across as an opinionated but rather odious character there. If there is anything positive I recall, I must say I did learn a lot on how to play Chopin’s E Minor prelude from his video on the piece.