A life in piano inspired by my father’s jewels
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