Dame Fanny Waterman: Piano legend 'hurt' over being asked to retire

By Rebecca Jones
Arts correspondent, BBC News

image copyrightAndy Manning

The legendary piano teacher Dame Fanny Waterman says she was "hurt" to be asked to retire from the world-renowned Leeds International Piano Competition.

She founded and ran the competition for more than half a century and stepped down five years ago, aged 95.

But she has now told the BBC that she had not wanted to step aside and has criticised the Leeds' decision, calling it "misguided".

"I didn't think it was the right time," she said. "I wanted to be there forever.

"But I think the powers that be locally would say, 'I think we ought to have a change'. I remember that kind of wording. 'I think you've been in this job long enough.'"

When asked who told her to go, Dame Fanny said: "Well, I think there was a general feeling that that was my age and that perhaps they can get someone who's even better than me.

"I think they were misguided. Because I had many, many years more to give of my own passion, my own knowledge and everything."

Inspirational teacher

media captionDame Fanny Waterman did not want to retire from the competition she founded.

As a child growing up in Leeds, Dame Fanny was a talented pianist herself. In 1941, she won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London and went on to perform at the Proms.

But she turned her back on the concert platform to teach. Dubbed Field Marshal Fanny, she instructed and inspired generations of pupils.

She also co-devised a series of teaching books, Me and My Piano. With more than two million copies sold, they have never been out of print.

image copyrightDame Fanny Waterman
image captionDame Fanny in concert dress at the age of 21

Unable to sleep during a hot summer's night almost 60 years ago, she came up with the idea of launching an international piano competition in Leeds.

Many of the world's greatest pianists, including Murray Perahia and Radu Lupu made their names in the competition that she nurtured and ran for decades.

And then came the announcement she would retire as artistic director, chief fundraiser, chair of the board and chair of the jury after the competition in 2015.

Her many roles were taken on by four individuals and the organisers say the competition continues to evolve as the musical world changes.

Birthday celebration

So in 2018, for example, preliminary rounds were held in Berlin, New York and Singapore for the first time. And the whole competition was streamed online.

Dame Fanny said she "has tried not to be bitter" about what happened "because I've felt that by saying anything, whoever succeeded me would think, 'Ooh, that was sour grapes'. I wanted the whole thing to be correct.

image copyrightDame Fanny Waterman
image captionDame Fanny Waterman with celebrated pianists Eric Lu (left) and Lang Lang

"I had my doubts, not about myself, but how well this could continue as I had started it."

The Leeds International Piano Competition had been planning a special day of events to mark Dame Fanny Waterman's 100th birthday on 22 March.

But those plans have now been cancelled amid the coronavirus outbreak, and private celebrations will take place instead.

In a statement it said "it celebrates and cherishes Dame Fanny's exceptional contribution to the musical life of this country.

"She will always be identified with The Leeds (competition), which she built into one of the most respected and influential international music competitions.

"Her indelible impact over more than half a century guarantees her position as one of the great figures of the music world.

"As President Emeritus of The Leeds, her continuing involvement is deeply valued and encouraged, and we hope she long remains a guiding spirit."

The next competition event, the 20th, will be held in Leeds in 2021.

"I do hope and pray that in another 100 years our competition will have the reputation it's got now," said Dame Fanny.

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