Jewish pianists

It’s hard to believe that anybody remembers who Leon Fleisher is except in little old Baltimore, where a small coterie of music lovers regard him as legend among legends. Once upon a time, Baltimore used to feel that way about Rosa Ponselle, the long retired star soprano of the Metropolitan Opera who ran the Baltimore Opera for decades after her retirement. Even after she retired from running the Baltimore opera,  she would get the last curtain call at every single performance at the opera. While all the opera nuts (a just about deceased breed in Baltimore) would be screaming ‘BRAVO’ for this or that star singer, my father would be shouting out ‘HAUL OUT ROSA!!!’

It’s been more than fifty years since America lost its greatest pianist just as he was entering his prime, and yet in the second half of the twentieth century, that occurrance seemed to happen over and over again. In 1953, William Kapell died in a plane crash. In 1964, Leon Fleisher developed focal dystonia in his right hand. In 1969, cancer claimed Julius Katchen. In 1973, Byron Janis retired with arthritis. In 1977, Gary Graffman sprained the finger of his right hand, and it never healed.  Take one guess as to what else the pianists Kapell, Fleisher, Graffman, and Janis (originally Yankilevich) had in common? Of course, there was also the greyser goy Van Cliburn, and by the 70’s he just got sick of performing. And even though he was a Canadian goy, everybody thought Glenn Gould was an American Jew too… He certainly swayed and mumbled like a Yeshiva Bocher when he played.

There was something about that moment in the mid-century – the American Prime that never was. So many different artistic endeavors where young men of excellence (and unfortunately it was always men) competed with the very best of Europe, only for their talents to expire before their full harvest like a foreign crop on unsympathetic soil. Every artistic field was littered with the burned out careers of brilliant artists from the high arts either born here or lived here – driven to artistic decline, retirement, inability to work, injury, nervous breakdown, or an early grave, it’s a long list indeed. And how many of them were Jews? Well… let’s think:

George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Weill, Marc Blitzstein, Jerome Robbins, Michael Bennett, Betty Comden & Adolph Green, Clifford Odets, Paddy Chayefsky, Arthur Miller, Lillian Hellman, Wendy Wasserstein, Joseph Heller, J. D. Salinger, Norman Mailer, Nathaniel West, Zero Mostel, Sanford Meisner, John Houseman, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Morris Carnovsky, Lee J. Cobb, Burgess Meredith, Werner Klemperer, Yehudi Menuhin, Michael Rabin, Vladimir Horowitz, Leonard Warren, Richard Tucker, Beverly Sills, Alexander Kipnis, Mark Rothko, … if you want to include Jews who lived in other countries, the list doubles, if you want to include non-Jews, the list exponentially goes up yet again. And when one thinks of the thousands of other worthy artists who never got the proper recognition they richly deserved, this kind of life begins to seem not just unfair, but tragic.

These are the high arts where, supposedly, the temptations of rampant drug use and sex with adoring fans don’t exist in nearly the same quantities as their popular equivalents, where the remuneration is relatively poor and where the craft is dependent on you spending hours every day in the privacy of your own room. The rewards of a true artist for making it are not as great as an entertainer, and the punishment for an artist not making it is still worse than an entertainer’s, because there is so much less demand for art than entertainment in the lower ranks and so much practice demanded from one’s craft. There is so little of the adulation of being a popular artist in being a classical musician, a visual artist, a dancer/choreographer, a writer, a theater actor. The arts are a bad, bad business on their best days that demand so much and give so little in return. These are artforms so planted by the European aristocracy and gentry that participation in them by people of poor backgrounds during the populist 20th century is practically begging for trouble. If the work is not its own reward, there is practically no reward at all. Can you imagine being the poor New York son of Yiddish speakers asked to mingle with high society types? Imagine the resentment and jealousy that might generate in their self-image. Jewish musicians from poor families had to earn every little thing they ever got while the donors who keep their careers alive simply won a lottery by the family they’re born into.

And yet so many of them persist, find new ways to make it work, accept the tragedy of their lot with humility and ply however much of the trade they can in whatever places they can. For worse or better, the arts are what is there for us when all that remains is tragedy. And tragedy is always lurking in the shadows of life, ready to strike at a moment’s notice even to those seemingly blessed in every way. If anyone is well prepared for what to do when tragedy hits, it’s the artist.

At 90 years old, Leon Fleisher is, somehow, still active, and for the third or fourth time in fifty years (I’ve lost count), regularly playing with two hands. I remember hearing Fleisher twenty years ago play a recital, mostly for the Left Hand. When he played Brahms’s left-hand arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne for Violin, you literally heard sniffles and choked back weeping.  How much more moving is it then to hear him, at the age of 90 rather than 70, bring all that human experience to a two-handed repertoire which nobody thought he’d ever be able to play again? When you hear Fleisher bring 85 years of piano experience to something profound, you remember that this is a living link, perhaps the last active link to the German-Jewish pianist Artur Schnabel, whose recitals of Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert and Brahms were like spiritual revivals. whom Fleisher came to Italy in 1938 to study at all of ten years old, only for the two of them to flee Europe together.

Every generation has its tragedies, however unequal. The tragedy of Schnabel’s generation was war, and all the millions of lost who never lived their potential. The tragedy of Fleishers generation was that they lived their potential, and came ever so close to fulfilling it all, only for life’s difficulties to get in the way. But some, like Schnabel and Fleisher, are fortunate enough to live on and report back, having lived through crises that killed so many others and demonstrated to future generations that whatever our time of departure, every day of life is still worth fighting for. In the bodies and spirit of the greatest artists, the arts are a form of prayer. Our highest aspirations are revealed to us, and even when we fail, we emerge from their spells knowing that we can still persevere in our fights for a better, more dignified, more generous way of living and loving.


About the Author
Evan Tucker, alias A C Charlap, is a writer and musician residing in Baltimore. He is currently composing music for all 150 Biblical Tehillim. A Jewish Music Apollo Project - because "They have Messiah, we have I Have a Little Dreidel." He is currently on #17. Evan also has a podcast called 'It's Not Even Past - A History of the Distant Present' which is a way of relating current events to history and history to current events. Most importantly, he is also currently working on a podcast called Tales from the Old New Land, fictional stories from the whole of Jewish History. The podcast is currently being retooled, but it will return.