Death of a great American pianist

Death of a great American pianist


norman lebrecht

August 03, 2020

The universally admired, effortlessly influential Leon Fleisher has died at 92.

An Artur Schnabel disciple, he taught generations of Peabody students in Baltimore the human way of making music. When his right hand was disabled by focal dystonia, he continued his performing career as a left-hand specialist, popularising the concertos that had been written for the First War victim Paul Wittgenstein.

Conductors, musicians and audiences alike appreciated his composed presence on stage. He made numerous, indelible recordings and was truly loved.

Fleisher remembers:

I came to the attention of the then conductor of the [San Francisco] Orchestra, a Frenchman, Pierre Monteux. The conductors knew and respected one another; they were friends. They agreed that I needed, what you would call it, “world class instruction.” And they were both good friends of Artur Schnabel, who was one of the great figures of the 20th century in music, who would come out to San Francisco every two, three, four years and play. Both Monteux and Hertz got in touch with Schnabel, told him about me, and he very discreetly declined, saying he never accepted anybody under 16 for language reasons. He spoke in great abstractions in terms of concepts. I was 9.

As it happened, in the spring of ’38 he came out to San Francisco to play, and had dinner with the Hertzes. They snuck me in through the basement, so when they opened the dining room doors, this kid was sitting at the piano. Being a gentleman, Schnabel resigned himself to the inevitable, so I played for him. I played a Sonetto del Petrarca of Liszt, the third one, and I played the cadenza from the Beethoven B-flat Concerto. I didn’t hear it happen, but he apparently accepted me because he invited me to join him that summer in his home in Lake Como of all places, long before George Clooney moved there…

I worked with him for 10 years. Whoever got the idea that a musician’s education should be the equivalent of liberal arts—four years undergraduate, two years for your master’s—utter nonsense. He taught quite differently than other teachers, and I’ve adopted that for my own ways. He had only a small handful of students, and he requested that all students be present for everybody’s lesson. If there were five students, you learned five times the repertoire. And you saw how we all shared the same challenges. It gave you an overview, and you began to realize that like there are laws of physics, there are laws of music in a way. A lot is made of the relationship between music and math, which I think is comparatively superficial. The real connection is between music and physics. Music is movement. Music passes in time from point A to point B. And because it’s movement, it’s subject to all the laws that govern movement.


More follows.


  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    RIP. The George Clooney mention is quite witty…

  • Nick says:

    R.I.P. He was a very bright star on the music horizon!

  • I too remember Leon Fleisher’s piano masterclass at Peabody. Absolutely fascinating. He was a true gentleman — and I was there in the conducting programme. It was the most valuable experience of my two years in Baltimore. We became great friends. He shall always remain a part of me. – Robert Rÿker, Tokyo

  • M McAlpine says:

    Great pianist. Of course he recovered the use of his right hand through botox treatment I believe.

  • IP says:

    The conductors may well have known and respected each other, but there was one exception: dear Arturo, who loathed and detested everyone in the most violent fashion.
    R.I.P. Leon Fleisher, you musical prince.

    • Novagerio says:

      IP: Toscanini said that Monteux had the best stick-technique he had ever seen.
      He also respected and befriended Reiner and Bruno Walter, and he asked Rodzinski to trim the NBC orchestra before his own arrival. And needless to say, he had only good things to say about the eternally young Cantelli.
      He did call Walter “Pagliaccio”, but at least he did it to his face…

    • Greg Bottini says:

      “Dear Arturo” certainly did NOT “loath and detest everyone in the most violent fashion”.
      Where did you get that stuff?
      Of course Cantelli is the first to come to mind; AT admired him as a musician and loved him as a friend and protege.
      But he also respected, among others, Steinberg, Rodzinski, Monteux, Ormandy, and Mitropoulos, and they all conducted concerts with the NBC Symphony.
      In fact, AT asked for Rodzinski to train the NBC Symphony before the first season, and he and Monteux conducted concerts with it before Toscanini ever saw the orchestra.

    • Henry williams says:

      He liked bruno walter.

  • Been Here Before says:

    Rest in peace! Fleisher was not only a world class pianist, but more importantly, a great artist and musician.

    How tragic that the injury interrupted his career in what were supposed to be the most fruitful years of his life. Just imagine what could have been had things gone another way.

    Like his teacher, the great Artur Schnabel, Fleisher was a symbol of artistic probity and true musicianship. And like Beethoven’s, his was the story of courage, patience and resilience of human spirit.

    Rest in peace maestro! Your life and recordings will remain a source of inspiration for many.

  • Daniel Poulin says:

    A true gentleman. I had the pleasure of spending some time alone with him after a short interview for French TV in Toronto. About Glenn Gould, a man he admired (the two pianists exchanged ideas and opinions together) he simply said: “Je pense que c’était un vrai génie” (I think he was a true genius).

  • Rachelle Goldberg says:

    I was saddened to learn that Leon Fleischer had passed away. I had heard a lot about him and was very fortunate to attend a Masterclass he was giving on Mozart Piano Concertos. This took place at the Weill Institute at the Carnegie Hall, New York some years ago. It was a fascinating experience.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    A great musician has passed.
    R.I.P., Maestro Fleisher.

  • John Kelly says:

    There is a wonderful 30 minutes on YouTube – Leon Fleischer working with a young Yuja Wang – on Schubert (which I wish she would play more of!)…

  • Sanda Schuldmann says:

    The end of an era, without question. His legendary Beethoven and Brahms concerti with George Szell are forever a testament to what great collaborations are all about. A thing of the past. His is by far the most amazing recording of the Brahms Handel Variations. I think he is the last of the Schnabel pupils. May he find eternal peace and may his memory be a blessing.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Toscanini recognized Furtwaengler enough to recommend him as his successor at the New York Philharmonic. He also praised Leinsdorf at least as rehearsal pianist.

  • Herbie G says:

    A great loss – what a hero, to fight so hard against adversity and continue to pursue his career. A lesson to us all.

  • Cyril says:

    I was dreading this day. A wonderful man and musician. Condolences to his wife and children.

  • K says:

    I had the pleasure of having my chamber group coached by Mr. Fleisher (many years ago!) at a summer music festival and it was the highlight of the season for me. In addition to his musical insight and incredible knowledge of style and performance practice, he was incredibly nice and brought out the best in us without resorting to strong arm tactics. RIP.