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Frank Glazer

Frank Glazer in 1936. Photograph by Ben Pinchot.

Many people have played all thirty-two Beethoven Sonatas in one concert season before, but I would be willing to bet that no one has done it for the first time at age ninety-five. Frank Glazer holds a unique place among concert pianists and teachers. He is the last living student from the Berlin days of the great Beethoven interpreter Artur Schnabel (other students remain from his teaching in Italy and New York). Surely no one who has ever performed the complete Beethoven cycle for the first time, including Schnabel himself, has ever brought ninety years of study and performing experience to bear on his performances. 

In addition to this heroic Beethoven series, this nonagenarian has recently given concerts and master classes from Maine to California as well as in Austria, Iceland, and Japan. This past season, at age ninety-six, he played a program that included Bach's Chromatic Fantasie and Fugue, Liszt's Sonata in B minor, and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, which were all new pieces to him. He keeps adding to his enormous catalog—he doesn't believe in recycling his performance repertoire. He's never too old to learn new things. And for almost eighty years (fifty consecutive years at the college level), he has been a dedicated, effective, and generous teacher. 

The coda continues 

Young Frank Glazer at the piano.

Origins 

Frank Glazer was born on February 19, 1915, during Woodrow Wilson's presidency. He was the sixth of nine children born to Benjamin and Clara Glazer, Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. Their sparse furnishings included a piano. By age three, Glazer could pick out, among other tunes, "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean." 

With so many children for Clara to look after, Blanche, the oldest child and only girl, happily took on her little brother Frank as her special charge. One of Glazer's early memories was making muffins with Blanche; she often baked cookies and made cocoa for him as well.When Frank was five, Blanche dropped to the floor in the living room. Glazer remembers watching his father pick her up in his arms. She was rushed to the hospital, but later that night she died. Needless to say, Frank was devastated. As a child, Glazer's interest in the piano was sustained and inspired by his sister's playing; whatever playing he did was by way of trying to imitate her. In essence, Blanche was his first teacher. 

Teachers

Young Glazer went through a number of temporary (and not always competent) teachers before his study with his first professional teacher, Raphael Baez. The price was eighty cents a lesson. Glazer remembers him this way: 

He was a sinister-looking man with a goatee and mustache that drooped almost down to his chin. He wore a black cape, a black felt hat with a wide brim, and he walked with the aid of a cane. I didn't look forward to those lessons because when I made a mistake he would pull my hair, if it was long enough, or hit the back of my head with his hard knuckles while saying Um Gottes Willen ("For God's sake"). There were plenty of those hits. Although I didn't understand the German expletive, I knew it was bad news.1

In the summer of 1927, something happened that altered the course of Glazer's life. Two cousins asked him how he was doing in his piano lessons. To their surprise, the twelve-year-old answered that he wasn't getting anywhere, and he was going to quit and become a ballplayer since, in his words, "ballplayers can make $8,000 a year." The cousins suggested that he play for their teacher, Jacob Moerschel. Before he agreed, Glazer wanted to know two things: "Is he old? Does he hit?"2 The cousins reassured the young musician and made the appointment. Glazer played Beethoven's Sonata Op. 13, "Pathetique" and Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Moerschel accepted him on the spot. 

Glazer later learned from Moerschel's widow that when he left that audition, Moerschel said, "At last, I have found the person who is going to do something. I can see it in his eyes, and I'm sure he has the Sitzfleisch [capacity for work]."3 

Vaudeville calls 

Meanwhile, in the summer of 1927, a cousin arranged for Frank, a violinist, and a cellist to form a trio playing classical music in a vaudeville context. Glazer's professional career was underway. The trio was one of seven acts in the vaudeville show, and it didn't take long for a manager to notice the pianist in the group. Soon he was touring with "Baby Dolores," who sang and danced. The manager, Mrs. Frank Billings, created a five-piece band called the "Kiddie Revue" which included violin, piano, drums, saxophone, and banjo. The Mistress of Ceremonies was Baby Dolores herself, and soon they had a chorus line of dancers. Every week there were two rehearsals and ten shows. Glazer worked on his homework as well as his music theory assignments backstage between shows. For all the performances and rehearsals he was paid a total of fifteen dollars per week, which he dutifully turned over to his family. In return for this he received fifty cents a week as an allowance. In order to get permission to work, Glazer had to go to juvenile court. Child labor laws, even then, protected children from being exploited by their parents. 

Glazer played in vaudeville shows from 1927 to 1930. The teenager played Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue only eight years after it was written, once performing it twenty-eight times in one week! Years later when he played Rhapsody in Blue with the Lyon Philharmonic in France, an elderly gentleman told him he had heard Gershwin play it, and Glazer was the only pianist he ever heard who played it the way Gershwin played it.4 

Salons 

Jacob Moerschel brought Glazer to play in people's homes, in the style of the nineteenth-century salon. Everybody benefited from these events. His hosts got to listen to Moerschel talk about his years in Vienna where he heard Johann Strauss and met Antonin Dvoˇrák. Perhaps the study of the piano was only one of the skills Glazer learned from Moerschel; he seems to have passed along his gift for storytelling as well. 

At these events Moerschel laid the groundwork for the possibility that one of the wealthy salon hosts might fund Glazer's study in Europe. Moerschel was well aware that Glazer's parents wouldn't be able to provide the kind of life education the young and enthusiastic boy deserved. 

In November of Glazer's senior year of high school, Moerschel became ill. In February, the week following the twenty-eight performances of Rhapsody in Blue, Glazer was to play Moskowski's Concerto in E major with the Young People's Symphony at the Milwaukee Auditorium. After playing three vaudeville shows, he changed into his tuxedo and headed to the Milwaukee Auditorium. On the way, Glazer stopped to see the bedridden Moerschel. Two months later, almost twelve years after Glazer lost his sister, tragedy struck again—Moerschel died.

Frank Glazer tuning a piano. Photograph by Mottke Weissman.

Study with Schnabel 

Moerschel had been working out a plan for young Glazer's path. While he was ill, he told Glazer that he should study with Artur Schnabel in Berlin. Moerschel and Schnabel had both been students of Leschetizky in the 1890s, and Moerschel had followed Schnabel's career. Moerschel insisted that Glazer study with Schnabel and not someone else. Near his death, Moerschel sent Milton Rusch to speak with potential sponsors, and funding was secured. 

Glazer left his family, Milwaukee, and America for Berlin. Glazer recalls his feelings at this crucial turning point in his life: 

A few months before I left home, the teacher upon whom I had been completely, utterly dependent for direction and guidance, not only in my studies, but also in my career and life in general for almost five very impressionable years—this true mentor—had died. Losing him, I also lost his unflagging support and encouragement. Furthermore, I had left behind a large and closely-knit family as well as all the friends with whom I had recently graduated from high school. And I expected to be away for two years in a country where I didn't know anybody. At home, in Milwaukee, I had performed a great deal and was probably considered to be a proverbial "big fish in a small pond." It was so very far away from, home, sweet home!5

Glazer arrived at ten at night and went directly to Schnabel's house in Charlottenburg, as Schnabel had instructed him. Schnabel was teaching; he often taught until midnight. His secretary told Glazer he couldn't possibly see Schnabel that evening and he should come back the next day. She sent him out into the night. 

Glazer remembers his initial interview with Schnabel as both a marvelous, inspiring time and also one of great confusion. Schnabel was delighted by Glazer's naïveté. He had never met anybody who had come such a distance all alone at such an age (Glazer was only seventeen at the time). Glazer thinks Schnabel was very entertained by him, although he didn't intend to amuse him. Schnabel's smile and the twinkle in his eye reminded Glazer of his own father. 

The lessons took place in Schnabel's home, in a large room with two beautiful concert grand Bechsteins and an enormous library. The lessons were fun because Schnabel had a lively imagination and a great sense of humor. All the students were invited to attend all the lessons. Schnabel, of course, was giving a lesson for the benefit of the student who had paid. The others were allowed to come at no extra expense, which was a way of learning a great deal of music and getting good teaching for free. "The trouble with this system," Glazer recalls, "was that if you went to everyone else's lesson you wouldn't have time to practice yourself."6 

Because of the Nazi situation and because Schnabel was both Jewish and outspoken, there was fear that his apartment might be ransacked by the storm troopers as apartments of others had been. In May of 1933, Schnabel and his entourage of family and students left for Italy. Schnabel lived in Tremezzo on Lake Como, and Glazer lived one village up from there in Cadenabbia. The atmosphere in Italy was much more relaxed than it had been in Berlin. Glazer made many friends in Italy and enjoyed hiking, wonderful food, and boat rides on Lake Como. 

The rest of Europe in 1933, however, wasn't as stable; the political climate was growing more and more uncomfortable for Jews. Schnabel decided he wouldn't teach the following year and didn't know whether he would relocate to London or stay in Italy; he wasn't going back to Berlin. After much thought, Glazer realized that he didn't want another piano teacher, so he decided to return to America.

Frank Glazer with Artur Schnabel. Lake Como, Italy, 1933.

Returning home 

Back in Boston, at eighteen years of age and mostly on his own, Glazer was still quite a young artist. He was grappling with issues all artists face: From where comes real conviction of interpretation in music? How can he play convincingly with rubato, with flexibility? Can he trust what he feels, or does he still need a teacher to tell him right from wrong? When will he be an artist in his own right? 

By October of 1936, Glazer would begin to find his true voice at the piano. It was then, at the age of twenty-one, that Glazer triumphed in his New York debut at Town Hall. The composer Kurt Weill wrote in a letter to a friend after the concert, "Frank Glazer is an excellent musician and a pianist of high qualities. The best test for his great talent for me was his fine interpretation of the Schubert Sonata, which is a very difficult work to perform. I am sure he will make his way through the concert halls of the world."7

The concert didn't go unnoticed in the New York press. No fewer than four newspapers ran glowing reviews of the young pianist's professional debut. The fact that there were four newspapers represented at all suggests a special concert and a special time in concert coverage; today the debut of an unknown pianist would never attract so much attention. The opening line of the review in the New York Evening Journal (October 21, 1936) is reminiscent of Schumann's heralding of the arrival of Brahms: "A young pianist burst upon the musical horizon who is a real personality—his name is Frank Glazer." 

Three years later he made his professional orchestral debut, playing Brahms's Second Piano Concerto with Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall. This time five newspapers reviewed the concert. The Boston Transcript (April 18, 1939) wrote, "He played at every stage as if the cruel passage-work were the most natural activity in the world for him. The remarkable accord among soloist, conductor and orchestra strengthened this confidence. The performance was applauded, as it deserved to be, in almost tumultuous fashion by the audience." Koussevitzky himself called Glazer "A most interesting and exceptionally gifted young artist whose compelling, sane, masculine temperament affords great pleasure."8 George Szell wrote, "I consider him among the very best of American pianists,"9 and Eugene Ormandy stated, "I was deeply impressed by his wonderful art and fine interpretation. In my opinion Mr. Glazer is one of the finest American pianists today."10

Beginning anew

Despite his growing success as a gifted performer, Glazer's curious mind craved a deeper understanding of the instrument and technique, and where those two forces intersected. An audition had been arranged for Glazer with professional manager Carl Engel. However, Glazer made up his mind that he was going to investigate playing the piano as if he had never studied with Schnabel, in fact as if he had never played the piano at all, and he was learning to play for the first time. How shall I sit? How shall I hold the hand? How can I play the piano in the best, most efficient way? He wanted to learn to use only those parts of his bodily equipment that would be necessary, and not a bit more. He decided that using muscles when he didn't need them to play what he was playing was dangerous, and as he got older his muscles would grow more and more tense. Glazer reduced his tremendous repertoire to the study of five-finger exercises. 

His friends back in New York all thought he had lost his mind, but he felt that he was on to something important. He knew that even if he were accepted onto Engel's roster and given huge concert tours immediately, he would feel unfulfilled because he had left this project incomplete. Career or no career, he had to take a chance and figure this out. 

It goes without saying that this gamble paid off, as seventy years later, when nearly all of Glazer's colleagues, friends, and contemporaries have hung up their tuxedoes because of tendonitis, arthritis, or other medical problems, he is still playing brilliantly. 

A generous teacher 

Perhaps Frank Glazer's greatest legacy is his teaching. Glazer had been teaching privately for many years and was an artist-inresidence at Bennett College when in 1965, in the middle of his busy concert season, his friend Walter Hendl called him up at his New York City apartment. A pianist was taking a sudden and unplanned sabbatical from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, of which Hendl was director. Could Glazer commute to Rochester a few times that term to teach the lessons? Glazer hadn't been looking for that kind of work and didn't really want to be tied down to an academic schedule, but he would find a way to make it work for one semester. After filling in for that one term, his phone rang in New York again. Walter Hendl said, "I have six 'Glazer beams' in front of me insisting that you come back next year!" The students who had studied with Glazer had arrived in a delegation in Hendl's office, saying they wouldn't remain at the school unless he found a way to bring Glazer back. He agreed to stay until the youngest graduated, but the youngest kept being younger and he was there fifteen years. 

In 1980, now professor emeritus at Eastman, he and his wife moved to Maine and he was immediately invited to become Artistin- Residence at Bates College. More than thirty years later, he remains in that position. 

In 1986 I met Frank Glazer for the first time. The warmth of his personality and the generosity of his spirit shone from the instant we first shook hands. He invited me to work with him on technique. I began making a two-hour commute to his house once or twice a month. 

There was never a time limit on the lesson. A typical lesson went like this: 

7:00 PM Pick him up at the airport from Turkey, Israel, Japan, etc. 

8:00 PM Out to dinner on the way home. 

10:00 PM Arrival at his home. Discuss trip, concerts. 

1:00 AM He says he's going to bed; I am welcome to practice as late as I like. 

2:00 AM He wanders through in his pajamas saying he forgot something. "Don't mind me." 

2:01 AM Second trip through the room—he makes a small suggestion. 

2:05 AM He suggests I start again, and sits down in an armchair. 

2:10 AM We perform the complete "concerto for solo piano with man in a nearby chair in his pajamas singing the orchestra part." 

3:00 AM We both go to bed. 

10:00 AM Proper lesson; he plays the orchestra part on the second piano instead of singing. 

12:00 PM Mrs. Glazer cooks lunch.

What keeps Frank Glazer going? That's easy; he needs to get ready for his next concert and there's always another concert. He credits his longevity as an artist to his wife of fifty-four years, Ruth. His efforts at developing a thorough technique in his twenties and thirties made him last. Certainly the art itself has kept him young—the company of Beethoven, Schubert, Bach, Liszt, and so many others, and his desire to learn music he's never played. 

Ultimately, though, I think his happiness as he approaches a century of life stems from his generosity of spirit. The kindness he shows his colleagues, students, former students, and friends has not only been a great benefit to the musical world at large, but somehow it has also turned back on the giver and helped sustain him. Many professors get a sabbatical every seven years; Frank Glazer has taught at one and sometimes two institutions every term for the past fifty years—100 straight semesters affiliated with a college or university on top of his concertizing, recording, and private teaching. Personally I think his happiness and positive attitude seem to lead to his generosity. Or maybe it's the other way around.

Drawing from the 1938-1939 Boston Symphony brochure.

Coda 

After a concert in Wisconsin in March of 2001, Frank Glazer was rushed to the hospital for what was ultimately quadruple bypass surgery. The music world held its collective breath. When he had recovered enough to fly home, I met him at Logan Airport in Boston. The first thing he said to me was, "Well, Duncan, it appears I'm entering the coda of my life.When it comes to codas, I can only hope that God is as generous as Beethoven." Beethoven was known for his disproportionately long codas, and when Beethoven arrives at a coda the piece is often far from over. 

The first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is 631 measures long, and the coda is 129 measures. Therefore, if Mr. Glazer began his coda at eighty-six, he should live to be 108. But Beethoven didn't bother conforming to anyone else's standards, so why should Mr. Glazer conform to his and stop at 108?

1 Glazer, Recollections, unpublished pamphlet, p. 1. 

2 Glazer, interview by author, 5 July 2002. 

3 Ibid. 

4 Glazer, interview by author, 28 January 2009. 

5 Glazer, "Journey into a Special Moment," unpublished lecture, pp. 2-3. 

6 Glazer, interview by author, 9 September 2002. 

7 Kurt Weill, letter to Alfred Strelsin, 21 October 1936. 

8 Serge Koussevitzky, letter to Olin Downes, 1936.

Eugene Ormandy, letter to Vladimir Golschmann, 1938. 

10 George Szell, letter to Erik Tuxen, 1950.

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