Pianist Leon Fleisher Just Passed Away

Leon Fleisher in rehearsal

The celebrated American musician Leon Fleisher (sometimes incorrectly spelled as Leon Fleischer) has died in a hospice in Baltimore at the age of 92. Born in 1928 in San Francisco to Isidore and Bertha Fleisher, both Jewish immigrants, his parents managed the family’s two hat shops. 

Drawn to the piano from early childhood, at the age of 4, Fleisher showed little interest in lessons like his older brother but would sit at the piano and repeat all he had just heard after his brother had gone out to play. The family’s attention moved to Leon’s musical education, removing him from public school so that he could devote his time to the piano instead. He became a student of Artur Schnabel at the age of 9, despite Schnabel having a policy of not teaching children. His debut with the New York Philharmonic was in 1944, at age 16, under the baton of Pierre Monteux!.

A leading pianist in the 1950s, an injury to his right hand through over practise left him with focal dystonia, and unable to use it to play again with two hands for 30 years. He turned to teaching and conducting – and indeed was teaching and giving master classes online until the week before he died – and to mastering repertoire for left hand alone. 

He joined the faculty at the Peabody Conservatory in 1959 and was the artistic director at the Tanglewood Music Center from 1986 to 1997. 

His repertoire during the 30 year period he concentrated on repertoire for the left hand included the works Ravel and Prokofiev composed for Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during the First World War. He also commissioned works from American composers, Lukas Foss created a piano concerto for the left hand for Fleisher.

When Fleisher returned to two-handed playing in 1995, he stated that he was not, and never would be, fully cured. He did, however, acknowledge that the loss of the use of his right hand as a pianist had led to a far more varied career than he might otherwise have had as a traditional concert pianist. 

Made during his early career, his recordings of 19th-century Viennese repertoire, the Brahms and Beethoven piano concertos, recorded with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, are particularly well-regarded. Later, in the 1990s, he recorded exquisite readings of left-hand repertoire, including the Prokofiev, Britten, and Ravel, one piano concerto from each, plus a variety of chamber and solo works. Fleisher performed with many famous conductors, including Leonard Bernstein, Simon Rattle, Herbert Blomstedt, and others.

His memoir, entitled "My Nine Lives", were co-written with a music critic from the Washington Post and published in 2010. In February 2019, Leon Fleisher gave his last concerts at Carnegie Hall, as a celebration for this 90th birthday. 

He is survived by his third wife, Katherine Jacobson, his children from his first and second marriages, and two grandchildren. 

He told The International Herald Tribune in 2007 that “there are forces out there, and if you keep yourself open to them…there are wondrous surprises”.

See also:

- Fleisher, Leon - Original Photos in Performance

- Fleisher, Leon - Original Photos in Rehearsal and Performance