Classical music star Dame Fanny Waterman to pen autobiography

Dame Fanny Waterman, Leeds

Dame Fanny Waterman, Leeds - Credit: Joan Russell

Dame Fanny Waterman at theage of 94 has begun an autobiography telling the story of her extraordinary life. She talks to Andrew Vine

Dame Fanny Waterman, Leeds

Dame Fanny Waterman, Leeds - Credit: Joan Russell

It’s a schedule that would be daunting for somebody half her age, but Dame Fanny Waterman takes it in her stride. International travel to give masterclasses and judge at competitions, teaching the brightest and best piano pupils who come from all over the world and, of course, presiding over the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition, which she founded more than 50 years ago. And now, in her 95th year, Dame Fanny has taken on yet another task – writing her autobiography which will tell the story of her astonishing journey from humble beginnings in Leeds to becoming one of the most revered figures in the world of classical music.

She has not yet decided on a title and is wondering how to fit everything in, from building the ‘Leeds’ into the premier competition in the world for young pianists and authorship of the standard series of piano tuition books that have sold in their millions on every continent to the friendships with everybody who is anybody. One of those friends who knows a thing or two about writing had some advice to offer. ‘I told Alan Bennett that I was starting work on my autobiography, and he said: “Don’t start at the beginning, start in the middle”.’

So she has, with a story about abandoning a shopping trip by bus to Harrogate when a friend invited her to go instead to a rehearsal of the Halle Orchestra that led to a career as one of the world’s leading music teachers and catalyst for nurturing young talent. Dame Fanny said: ‘And then I go back to my wonderful parents, and my father who came from Russia at the turn of the century.

‘He was a marvellous jeweller, and he was very, very poor and his sympathies were with the poor.

Dame Fanny Waterman, Leeds

Dame Fanny Waterman, Leeds - Credit: Joan Russell

‘We were never well off, but my parents gave me a priceless gift, and that was never to value anything that money can buy, but to value good health, talent, integrity, reliability and of course I was born with a gift of music, and that gift of music has opened the doors of the world to me.’

Her parents, Myer and Mary, scraped together the money for piano lessons, which led to a scholarship at the Royal College of Music and then a glittering career as a concert pianist. She turned to teaching when the first of her two sons was born. Among her pupils was the son of Marion, Countess of Harewood, and a friendship quickly developed. Marion Thorpe, as she later became, helped Dame Fanny when she had the idea for the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition, the first of which was staged in 1963.

Her competition launched the careers of some of the most admired classical pianists of modern times, among them Murray Perahia, Radu Lupu, Dmitri Alexeev, Andras Schiff and Mitsuko Uchida.

She was awarded the OBE in 1971, a CBE in 2000 and then, in 2005, she was made a Dame, a year after she joined Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela in being made an Honorary Freeman of the City of Leeds. ‘At my age I’ve got a lot to remember,’ said Dame Fanny. ‘I want to talk about how happy I’ve always been, because I’ve always had emotional security. My parents believed in me and had vision. And I had the same sort of emotional security with my husband, one of the finest people I have ever met, and he was the backbone of the competition.’ Her husband, Geoffrey de Keyser, died in July 2001, a few weeks before their 57th wedding anniversary.

Most Read

The work never stops on organising the competition. Dame Fanny is busy on the next, the 18th, which will be staged from August 26th to September 13th 2015, raising the nearly £1m it costs herself, as she has always done. Next year’s will be the first without Marion Thorpe, who died in March, aged 87. ‘Marion was my best friend,’ said Dame Fanny. ‘We were chums from the very beginning, and she is part of the history of the competition.

‘Our competition started as a cottage industry with Marion, myself and my husband. And from that it has grown and it is now considered by the international music community as the greatest competition in the world, and it has put Leeds on the international map.’

She remains passionate about finding and nurturing the finest young talent via the competition. ‘You have a duty as a performer to get to the soul of the composers because they live in heaven with the gods and if you get someone who does that, it opens the gates of heaven and you get a wonderful spell of heaven on earth through those great people.’

And she shrugs off the passing years, always looking for a new challenge, such as the autobiography. ‘I’ve got three careers – I’ve got the teaching, I’ve got the publishing, I’ve got the piano competition, and I’ve only got one life to get it all in.’

Details of the Leeds International Pianoforte Competition can be found at