A Tribute to my Teacher: Leon Fleisher (1928-2020)

Leon Fleisher
Leon Fleisher

I never wrote a tribute before, but this is an opportunity for remembrance and reflection, and I wish to express what Leon Fleisher meant to me.

I spent six years studying under this spellbinding man, and, as you can imagine, the many hours in his studio, as well as the stimulating experiences I collected over time, left a deep impression on me. After listening to my classmates’ lessons, I recall that rather than immediately practicing my repertoire, I’d sometimes sightread theirs and attempt to implement what Mr. Fleisher had told them. I also attended some of the evening masterclasses conceived for other students at Peabody as I could never get enough of him and his ideas. Musical suggestions delivered in his low, warm voice and carefully selected concepts separated by meaningful silences imparted truths that resonate with me today. There was a glowing radiance about him when he spoke and made music. His ideas emanated beams of light and cast a spell upon me. Each lesson felt as though I was witnessing an awakening. I looked forward to the next class with Mr. Fleisher, as one does, waiting for sunrise. I sensed he would brighten the rest of my musical journey.

While I didn’t realize it at the time, the intense passion and love for music he felt and his many principles were passed along to me as powerful influences that remain today. How could I cope with such a strong personality? Mr. Fleisher had experienced some challenges when he interrupted lessons with Schnabel – his teacher. He had to find his way, as he often reminded us. Although he told me that other learning experiences would occur after leaving his studio, I, too, had to confront the shadow of life after my time at Peabody, which I knew would not be as easy a task.

I fondly recall that last lesson with him as it was left unfinished (perhaps a hint that a student must take it upon himself to continue asking questions and finding answers)? I played the first half of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, miscalculating that there wouldn’t be at least two lessons left at the end of the spring semester to tackle such a masterpiece barely. Near the end of the time available, he amicably put his left hand on my right shoulder, attempted to utter something but instead gazed at the images of the universe he had on his studio walls for just a moment. Then, as if he had returned from another galaxy after gathering his thoughts, he smiled at me and said softly: “Enrico, (meaningful pause), you already know what I am about to tell you,” (short silence) “don’t you?” I hoped the many years of working with him had put me on the right path to muster the necessary courage and (after a courageous pause) whisper back my timid “yes… probably.” Music, not words, was the alpha and omega of our relationship. Mr. Fleisher gave a short, sweet laugh, and I allowed myself to echo it. Even if I hadn’t answered, he knew there was no need for words. Our eyes had met, he discerned my response.

He imparted things, subtle things, so intensely with that gaze. I am sure I’m not alone when I say that Mr. Fleisher had an unusual psychological gift as a teacher. His intuition, as accurate as any tuning fork, was capable of quickly capturing a student’s state of mind at any given moment. He could then instantly analyze what might be helpful to say or not say. I even sensed why he occasionally did not say anything. That was because I had learned that it was my responsibility to search for my answer even more intensely. 

He also knew how many words he needed and how to carry his point with the appropriate tone of his voice, which often emphasized the passage of music one just played. Silences were musical, and looks or smiles acted upon me more strongly than any words. What a mysterious talent! His glasses magnified his inquiring eyes, thus making them appear to be even more penetrating. His eyebrows acted like a barometer, and I could nearly predict the tone of his words based on them. But the day came when we both knew it was time for me to leave and move on to other experiences. Yet, so many things have stayed with me. 

Mr. Fleisher used to say that “there are forces out there, and if you keep yourself open to them and if you go along with them, there are wondrous surprises.” He spoke of “forces” connected to musical tension and made comparisons with the laws of physics. I still hear his words: “anti-gravitational experience” (and I suddenly felt that music was about to bring me to remote areas of undisclosed imagination). Some commands acted as shortcuts upon my psyche: “lift” (and that exalted my creativity) and, “wait,” (with a long emphatic letter “a” and a letter “t” that would be whispered “as late as possible” of course, “without sounding too late.”) 

Then, there was his unique “WOW” (with an even longer letter “o” that revealed the wonderous state of his mind upon hearing an exceptional harmonic moment in a piece). That taught me to enjoy the momentum without experiencing anything further in time yet. Likewise, I still ponder on a few markings he left on various scores of mine. For example, Mr. Fleisher drew light bulbs for special fermatas or harmonic surprises. In my score of Mozart Sonatas, I still have his drawing of a weightless, elongated figure attesting to lessons that El Greco learned during the Greek native’s sojourn in Venice and Rome. The tiny figure probably indicated that my phrasing or sound for Mozart had “too much cholesterol” in it, as he often joked about (his ever-present sense of humor was unique).

Also, unlike slurs originating from one point, lifting, and falling onto another, Mr. Fleisher’s few significant markings looked like curves pointing upward (never downward, since Schnabel jokingly had mentioned that “only potatoes grow on the ground”). When he attempted to reveal the mysterious forces of a given musical phrase, his symbolic notation resembled the trajectory of a kite lifting toward some destination in time (oh, yes, everything had to have its time —  sounds, silences, colors, and freedom: in time!) Yet, those markings were also left open as if the questions the music was attempting to answer offered only partial answers. So I needed to fill the rest, which he called “imagination.”

I could describe many more fond memories, but I’ll leave it at this. I am constantly amazed at how Leon Fleisher’s influence still acts on me and how he will always be a part of my journey. I am a better person and a better musician for my years spent at his side. He left me with “All the Things You Are,” but I also think of him as in “All the Untold Things You Said.” For that, I will always be thankful and remember him with love and enduring gratitude.

Enrico Elisi, MM 1999, DMA 2006, Peabody Institute.