Target Health Blog

Leon Fleisher, Child Prodigy, Struggled to Recover from Focal Dystonia

October 2, 2017

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History of Medicine
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Fleisher in 1963. Photo credit: Seattle Symphony Orchestra, where he was one of their featured artists for the season; photographer: Bender - eBay itemphoto frontphoto back, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18488895

On July 23, 1928, Leon Fleisher was born in San Francisco into a poor Jewish family from Eastern Europe. His father's business was hat-making, while his mother's goal was to “make her son a great concert pianist“. Fleisher started studying the piano at age four, made his public debut at age eight, and played with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux at 16. Monteux famously called him “the pianistic find of the century.“ He became one of the few child prodigies to be accepted for study with Artur Schnabel and also studied with Maria Curcio. Fleisher was linked via Schnabel to a tradition that descended directly from Beethoven himself, handed down through Carl Czerny and Theodor Leschetizky.

“My mother was very ambitious for me and gave me a choice,“ said Fleisher. “Either I was to be the first Jewish President of the United States, or a great concert pianist. Whichever it was, I had to be perfect.“

In the 1950s, Fleisher signed an exclusive recording contract with Columbia Masterworks. He is particularly well known for his interpretations of the piano concerti of Brahms and Beethoven, which he recorded with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. They also recorded Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 25, the Grieg and Schumann piano concertos, Franck's Symphonic Variations, and Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

In 1964, Fleisher lost the use of his right hand, due to a condition that was eventually diagnosed as focal dystonia. At the age of 36, he could barely write his name. “I was preparing for the most important tour of my life when I had a minor accident. I cut my thumb on a piece of cheap garden furniture and required a couple of stitches. When I started practicing again, things didn't feel quite right on my right side. My fourth and fifth fingers seemed to want to curl under. I practiced even harder, not listening to my body when, through pain, it warned me to stop. Things got progressively worse and in less than a year those two fingers were completely curved under, sticking into the palm of my hand. No way could I play the piano.“ It was as if his arm were a rope becoming unbraided, with creeping numbness in his fingers. Engagements were cancelled, recordings put on hold. “I was desolate,“ he says. “My life fell apart, and this mysterious debilitating condition destroyed my relationship with my second wife, striking deep into my family.“ Doctors were perplexed and could offer no medication or surgical repair to a condition that baffled them. Fleisher even considered suicide. “I grew a beard, wore my hair long and in a ponytail, and I got a Vespa scooter. I felt I had no purpose anymore; I was simply floundering.“

After a couple of years marking time, he realized that his connection was with music, not just with playing the piano with two hands. Out of a disastrous impediment, three new careers beckoned, the first as a left-handed concert pianist. “I thought about Paul Wittgenstein, the Austrian concert pianist whose right arm was shot off in the First World War. He commissioned works for the left hand from Richard Strauss, Korngold, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Ravel and Britten, so there was existing piano literature for pianists with no function in their right hands. And there was Brahms' magnificent arrangement for left hand of Bach's Chaconne for solo violin. Thank goodness it wasn't my left hand that stopped working, since there are hardly any piano works for right hand alone. There are about 1,000 pieces for the left hand out there - most of them pretty bad - but Ravel's Concerto for left hand, which I must have played over 1,000 times and have also conducted from the keyboard, is a masterpiece in its own right.“ “Secondly, I decided to pursue a musical career through conducting, moving from a sitting to a standing position. It felt so different to be on my feet in front of an orchestra but, worse, I immediately felt my ass to be 10 times its normal size, waving around in front of the audience.“

But it was in teaching that he found real happiness. “I became far better at explaining those elusive areas of expression and nuance that are so difficult to express in words.“ Indeed, his masterclasses, in which, as tutor, it is irrelevant whether you can use five or 10 fingers, are models of gently humorous correction and deeply-felt inspiration. He never gave up the idea of returning to two-handed repertoire. After leaving the concert platform in 1965, Fleisher tried every kind of medical, psychiatric and alternative treatment, from acupuncture and hypnosis to deep-tissue massage, Tiger Balm and others, including more than a few drams of Scotch. But, as a result of conducting and grasping the baton too tightly, he developed carpal tunnel syndrome. This weakness in the forearm and hand caused by pressure on a nerve in the wrist could be alleviated only through surgery. Fleisher agreed to have his wrist cut open with a knife, to the accompaniment, he remembers, of a recording of Mahler's First Symphony. Astonishingly, the surgery for one ailment helped the other, and his fingers began to straighten out. “After 18 years, I was able to play again. In 1982, I was invited to open the new Meyerhoff concert hall in Baltimore and made the front page of The New York Times for being able to use both hands for the first time since 1965.“ But this supposed cure proved short-lived. “I knew things weren't quite as they should be,“ said Fleisher. “I had to change the advertised program from Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto to Franck's Symphonic Variations. It didn't feel to me like a triumphant return. I broke down in tears in the dressing-room before the concert and felt awful at having to go through an evening of pretense.“

For the remaining 12 of that series of “comeback“ concerts, Fleisher reverted to left-hand repertoire. Only in 1995 was he finally diagnosed with a neurological disorder called focal dystonia. “It's a malady caused by the brain learning to do a wrong thing, and though a cure has been found, I am a dystonic for life. It's task-specific. Glass-blowers get it, computer workers can become afflicted and golfers begin to miss their putts.“ Fleisher thinks there could be 10,000 musicians around the world suffering from the condition and that the composer-pianist Robert Schumann may have been an early victim, causing permanent damage by mechanically exercising his troublesome fourth finger.

Fifteen years ago, Botox was still in its experimental stages. However, a small dose injected directly into the appropriate muscle along with holistic massage therapy involving connective tissues restored Fleisher's fingers sufficiently for him to return to two-handed performances. A tiny amount of Botox relaxes the fingers without causing the paralysis, evident when it is used to reduce facial wrinkles by immobilizing muscles. Crucially, there is no sign of any of the negative effects, such as a diminished quality of emotional experience. In 1995, Fleisher made a second comeback, quietly and without any hype, as he tested his stamina. Only after proving himself to himself did he feel ready to resume his career as a two-handed solo pianist. In 2005, he gave 40 concerts in 31 cities and the following year enjoyed success at New York's Carnegie Hall. The same two fingers on Fleisher's right hand still want to curl, but Botox injections every four months keep the condition under control.

When asked if he dances, Fleisher roars with laughter. “Wouldn't that be a lovely idea?“ he exclaims. “I'm afraid my feet follow my hands. In fact, I have two left feet! It's a deep regret, along with the fact that I am totally ungifted when it comes to jazz.“ According to his singer-songwriter son Julian, though, Fleisher does have something in common with great jazz players: the importance he places on rhythm. Fleisher feels rhythm as the heartbeat of music. “It regulates the metabolism of the piece, motivates the music and, if it's infectious enough, makes us tap our toes.“

In 2004, Vanguard Classics released Leon Fleisher's first “two-handed“ recording since the 1960s, entitled “Two Hands“, to critical acclaim. Two Hands is also the title of a short documentary on Fleisher by Nathaniel Kahn which was nominated for an Academy Award for best short subject on January 23, 2007. Fleisher received the 2007 Kennedy Center Honors. Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman described him as “a consummate musician whose career is a moving testament to the life-affirming power of art.“ Fleisher's musical interests extend beyond the central German Classic-Romantic repertory. The American composer William Bolcom composed his Concerto for Two Pianos, Left Hand for Fleisher and his close friend Gary Graffman, who has also suffered from debilitating problems with his right hand. It received its first performance in Baltimore in April 1996. The concerto is so constructed that it can be performed in one of three ways, with either piano part alone with reduced orchestra, or with both piano parts and the two reduced orchestras combined into a full orchestra.

In 2004, Leon Fleisher played the world premiere of Paul Hindemith's Klaviermusik (Piano Concerto for the Left Hand), Op. 29, with the Berlin Philharmonic. This work was written in 1923, for Paul Wittgenstein, who disliked and refused to play it. However, he had sole performing rights and kept the score, not allowing any other pianists to play it. The manuscript was discovered among his papers after the death of his widow in 2002. On October 2, 2005, Fleisher played the American premiere of the work, with the San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Blomstedt. In 2012, at the invitation of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Fleisher performed at the Supreme Court of the United States. Fleisher has continued to be involved in music, both conducting and teaching at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, the Curtis Institute of Music, and the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto; he is also closely associated with the Tanglewood Music Center. With Dina Koston, he co-founded and co-directed the Theater Chamber Players in 1968-2003, which was the first resident chamber ensemble of the Smithsonian Institution and of The Kennedy Center. Among others, Fleisher has taught Jonathan Biss, Yefim Bronfman, Phillip Bush, Naida Cole, Jane Coop, Enrico Elisi, Enrique Graf, Helene Grimaud, Hao Huang, Kevin Kenner, Dina Koston, Louis Lortie, Wonny Song, Andre Watts, Jack Winerock, Daniel Wnukowski, Alon Goldstein, Dale Anthony and Orit Wolf.

His memoir, My Nine Lives, co-written with the Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette, appeared in November 2010.

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