A life in pi­ano inspired by my fa­ther’s jewels

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES -

ing pogrom soon af­ter the Rus­sian Revo­lu­tion. Meyer be­came a jew­eller, an­gli­cised his sur­name and at first at­tempted to set­tle Lon­don’s East End, but dur­ing the First World War he left for the more tran­quil en­vi­ron­ment of Leeds, where the rest of his fam­ily were liv­ing. He soon met and mar­ried Mary Behrman, who shared his Rus­sian Jewish back­ground. Fanny was their sec­ond child, born in 1920.

She re­calls her jew­eller fa­ther han­dling tiny gems with tweez­ers. “I used to watch him mak­ing brooches with lit­tle pearls and di­a­monds in his fin­gers,” she says, “and I think that af­fected my un­der­stand­ing of Mozart — the ex­act­ness of how he worked, and the pu­rity of it.”

As her school’s most promis­ing pi­anist, she had to ac­com­pany the hymns in morn­ing assem­bly ev­ery day; but she soon learned to play plenty of the songs of the 1930s to in­crease her pop­u­lar­ity with the other girls. She also en­joyed go­ing to hear the great mu­si­cians who toured to Leeds Town Hall, in­clud­ing Al­fred Cor­tot, Fritz Kreisler and Sergei Rach­mani­nov.

Sub­se­quently, she went to sev­eral em­i­nent teach­ers in Lon­don, but just as worth­while was her de­ter­mi­na­tion ef­fec­tively to teach her­self. “I went to Cyril Smith — I got a schol­ar­ship — but he never re­ally taught me about bal­ance of hands and singing tone,” she says. “I went to To­bias Matthay [who also taught Dame Myra Hess, among oth­ers] and I think he was more in­ter­ested in his fee than in me. He charged four guineas for an hour, three for half an hour – and we lived in a house that didn’t have an in­side loo un­til I was 17! But I heard [the Bri­tish pi­anist] Clifford Cur­zon on the ra­dio and I said to my­self: what have these peo­ple got that I haven’t? So I re­ally worked, be­cause that was the im­por­tant thing: I heard the dif­fer­ence.”

In 1944, she mar­ried a young lo­cal doc­tor, Ge­of­frey de Keyser; they raised two sons, Paul and Robert. Mu­si­cian col­leagues, she re­lates, would some­times ask her why she didn’t move to Lon­don; her hus­band, though, was de­voted to his Leeds pa­tients and she was happy to stay put, build­ing her rep­u­ta­tion as a lo­cal pi­ano teacher. This, though, was a view of her skills that she soon found her­self bat­tling against as stu­dents be­gan to leave to con­sult more fa­mous pro­fes­sors.

One night in 1961, she ex­pe­ri­enced a flash of in­spi­ra­tion: she wanted to start an in­ter­na­tional pi­ano com­pe­ti­tion. She woke Ge­of­frey to tell him; he ini­tially doubted its vi­a­bil­ity, ex­pect- ing that the re­sources of a cap­i­tal city would be needed for such a ven­ture. Yet Leeds has had ad­van­tages of its own: “I don’t think the com­pe­ti­tion would have been so good in Lon­don,” she says, “be­cause here we have all these won­der­ful vol­un­teers.” A ver­i­ta­ble army of en­thu­si­asts helps the event to run smoothly, the will­ing lo­cals fer­ry­ing the con­tes­tants around the town and pro­vid­ing them with prac­tice fa­cil­i­ties in pri­vate homes. “I know ev­ery de­cent Stein­way in Leeds,” Dame Fanny de­clares.

And, on the fi­nan­cial side, the com­pe­ti­tion was made pos­si­ble largely thanks to the gen­eros­ity of the close-knit lo­cal Jewish com­mu­nity, mem­bers of which made vi­tal do­na­tions and con­tinue to do so. Dame Fanny’s feel for Jewish cul­ture has never left her, though she is not ob­ser­vant. “I main­tain we’re all God’s peo­ple,” she says.

Once, the Arch­bishop of York asked her to say a few words at a mu­si­cal func­tion, she re­counts: “I said, ‘Pol­i­tics and re­li­gion di­vide peo­ple, but mu­sic unites us all.’ It’s through de­vo­tion and re­spect. Mu­sic is my re­li­gion. And it makes you hon­est. It makes you look at ev­ery note.” Dame Fanny Water­man’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, ‘My Life in Mu­sic’, is pub­lished by Faber

Gifted: Dame Fanny still teaches in her Leeds home

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