Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Musical Memories

A musician’s autobiography is often as revelatory about the artist as well as the human being.

Musical memoirs roughly fall into two categories. There are, on the one hand, the raconteurs, who use the medium to chronicle their storied careers – encounters with famous personalities, marriages and love affairs, memorable performances. The danger here is that such books often end up to be nothing more than name dropping. The second of Arthur Rubinstein’s memoirs, My Many Years, unfortunately falls into this trap. In Glenn Gould’s wicked but killingly funny piece of writing, Memories of Maude Harbour, the pianist mercilessly makes fun of how Mr. Rubinstein recounts one amorous encounter after another in his autobiography.

Other musicians, while telling the story of their lives, share with readers their philosophical viewpoints, political sympathies, or musical insights. Yehudi Menuhin’s Unfinished Journey is just such a book. Both types of memoirs can make fascinating reading.

Pianist Leon Fleisher’s My Nine Lives – A Memoir of Many Careers in Music – co-authored with Anne Midgette, cannot be so easily categorized. While telling the story of his life and career as pianist, conductor, and teacher, Mr. Fleisher also gives readers his personal insights into many of the musical masterpieces that have been the cornerstone of his pianistic repertoire. They take the form of intermezzi sandwiched between various chapters of Mr. Fleisher’s life story. Personally, I find that such a format disrupts the flow of the narrative, and would prefer to have them at the end of the book as appendices.

Fleisher was of the outstanding American pianists of the 20th century. At the height of a brilliant career, he was diagnosed with focal dystonia of the right hand and lost its use in piano playing. Even with this major setback, Mr. Fleisher has continued his musical career by constantly “reinventing” himself – as pianist (with his left hand), teacher, conductor and musical administrator. Some of Mr. Fleisher’s early recordings, such as his Beethoven and Brahms concerti with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, remain classics to this day - a fact that Mr. Fleisher himself took pains to share with his readers.

What are unfortunate about this volume are the many instances of almost derogatory statements about some of his colleagues, or certain pieces of music. When writing of Arthur Schnabel’s recital programmes, Fleisher writes that Schnabel would have “a whole evening of Beethoven or Schubert, without a single crowd-pleasing bonbon like a Chopin mazurka or Liszt operatic paraphrase.” Chopin’s mazurkas as crowd-pleasing bonbons? The mazurkas are probably the most elusive of Chopin’s compositions, and are far from being crowd-pleasers. To categorically connect such diverse musical creations is unfair both to Chopin and to Liszt.

I was also surprised at Fleisher’s views on some of his fellow musicians. On conductor Sergiu Comissiona, Fleisher writes that “he was the best conductor of second-class music that I’ve ever known. He had his problems with Beethoven and Brahms, somehow; those performances never quite reached the heights of others I’ve experienced.” There are quite a few lines devoted to the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood where Mr. Fleisher was administrator for a number of years, and to Fleisher’s relationship with conductor Seiji Ozawa. Mr. Fleisher writes, “Seiji likes musical depth, and I was deep: a window into the tradition. Seiji doesn’t necessarily access that kind of thing himself, but he certainly appreciated it in other people.” When Fleisher is recounting his eventual famous rupture with Ozawa and with Tanglewood, it degenerates into a sad case of “he says, she says.”

There is no doubt in my mind that Leon Fleisher was and is one of the great pianists and artists of the 20th century. Upon finishing the volume, I cannot help but feel that the entire thing is more than a little self-serving, and does not do justice to Fleisher as an artist. Not everyone, regardless of how distinguished they are in their own field, is suited to writing about themselves. Perhaps someday a more thoughtful biography will be written, one that does justice to the life, career, and artistry of this great musician.

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