Founder of The Leeds International Piano Competition, one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world has unfortunately passed away at the incredible age of 100. In memory of the incredible piano teacher and musical icon, we wanted to take this opportunity to celebrate Dame Fanny Waterman’s life and how she inspired thousands to take up and master the piano.
The Early Years
Born 22 March 1920, the Dame was destined to be a musical prodigy from the moment she played her first key. After her parents scraped together the money for piano lessons, Dame Fanny went on to study with the pianist Cyril Smith at the Royal College of Music. From there, her skills grew and she performed with the Leeds Symphony Society in 1941 and at a Henry Wood Promenade Concert in 1942.
Following the birth of her son in 1950, she turned her back on the concert platform to teach, giving masterclasses on six continents and earning the nickname ‘Field Marshal Fanny’. Around this time, she also became a recognised publisher with her series Me And My Piano. The series remains one of the most popular piano books of all time and has sold more than three million copies, been written into 30 different volumes, and has never been out of print since first being published.
Without a doubt however, if her publishing feats were not enough, the biggest legacy of Dame Fanny Waterman remains to be The Leeds International Piano Competition AKA. ‘The Leeds’ which she founded in 1961 with her late husband Dr Geoffrey De Keyser.
The competition celebrates the best piano players from around the world and is regarded as one of the most prestigious competitions within the musical world. It’s winners are the best of the best and the competition has helped launch the careers of players such as Radu Lupu, Murray Perahia, Sunwook Kim and Sir András Schiff.
Funnily though, Dame Fanny had a lot of push back when first setting up the competition. Even her husband said: “It won’t work in Leeds, it has to be in a capital city.” But that didn’t deter Dame Fanny! She stuck to her guns, raising funds from individuals, banks, local businesses before launching the first competition.
The voting process of the competition is held completely blind where each judges must not confer and simply write down the pianists they think should place first, second and third, the competition has been run the same ever since. Embarrassingly though, it actually was one of her own pupils, Michael Roll, who won the first competition, one of only two Britons ever to do so.
From there, the event continued to spread across the globe and it’s rewards became more and more prestigious: There are now five main prizes offered, ranging from £25,000 down to £5,000, and six prizes of £2,000 each for semi-finalists.
Dame Fanny continued to run the event for 54 years before stepping down in 2015 but famously said: "I wanted to be there forever".
Retiring from the competition wasn’t it for Dame Fanny however and at the age of 89 she took on the presidency of the Harrogate international festival, determined to make her mark on it. In 2015 she also wrote her autobiography, My Life in Music, telling the story of her rise from humble beginnings to doyenne of the piano competition world.
Throughout her life, Dame Fanny of course acquired a plethora of titles and awards. She was appointed OBE in 1971, advanced to CBE in 1999 and in 2005 she was made a dame. In 2006 she was awarded the freedom of the city of Leeds. She was also awarded honorary doctorates by the universities of Leeds, Leeds Metropolitan and York and was a fellow of the Royal College of Music.
Dame Fanny Waterman died peacefully in her residential care home in Ilkley, Yorkshire on 20 December 2020.
In the words of conductor, radio producer and editor, and classical music administrator Adam Gatehouse "The lives she has touched, both through the competition but also through her teaching and piano books, are too numerous to mention."
We couldn’t agree more and celebrate the joy that Dame Fanny Waterman’s work has brought thousands across the globe.