Dame Fanny Waterman, legendary pianist, teacher and competition founder, dies aged 100

21 December 2020, 10:48 | Updated: 21 December 2020, 11:01

Dame Fanny Waterman, legendary pianist, teacher and competition founder, dies aged 100
Dame Fanny Waterman, legendary pianist, teacher and competition founder, dies aged 100. Picture: Simon Wilkinson

By Rosie Pentreath

The Leeds International Piano Competition founder and president emeritus died peacefully at her residential care home in Ilkley, Yorkshire.

Pianist, educator and Leeds International Piano Competition founder Dame Fanny Waterman has died, aged 100.

The Leeds pianist is remembered for her series of educational piano books, co-authored with Marion Harewood, and founding the Leeds Piano Competition, which is one of the world’s most revered contests for keyboard players. The books have sold more than two million copies, introducing millions of children to the instrument.

Just the competition makes Waterman’s contribution to 20th- and 21st-century music difficult to exaggerate. The roll-call of winners for a start is pretty staggering: Radu Lupu, Mitsuko Uchida, Murray Perahia, András Schiff, Lars Vogt, Louis Lortie, Kathryn Stott, Alessio Bax and Sunwook Kim, to name just a few.

Waterman was also president of the Harrogate International Music Festival and a Patron of The Purcell School for Young Musicians.

Read more: Celebrating piano teacher and competition founder Dame Fanny Waterman as she turns 100 >

Dame Fanny Waterman at age 21
Dame Fanny Waterman at age 21. Picture: PA

Born in Leeds on 22 March 1920, Fanny Waterman began to study the piano when she was 17. Just four years later, she opened the concert season of the Leeds Symphony Society and won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music. She studied piano with Cyril Smith, before the Second World War interrupted her course.

She was enlisted as a teacher, and soon realised she had found her calling in this: “I realised that my real mission apart from playing the piano was teaching,” she has said. “It is the greatest profession in the world.” Waterman developed her career as a performer, appearing nationwide and often in Leeds, while teaching increasing numbers of pupils.

In 1950, after the birth of her first child, she gave up her concert career and concentrated on teaching. By the early 1960s, she felt that young British pianists needed a goal to give them a competitive edge with foreign players. In 1961, with her friend the Countess of Harewood and Roslyn Lyons, she founded the Leeds International Piano Competition, which helped launch the careers of many great pianists.

“I want to leave a legacy that I have helped to discover some of the greatest young pianists in the world,” Waterman once said, “and that my teaching has influenced people, even those who haven't become musicians.”

Waterman chaired the competition for the first time in 1981 and retired in 2015 after a 34-year tenure. She remained artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition, and chairman of the jury well into her latter years, only retiring at the age of 95. When she announced her retirement, the conductor Sir Mark Elder said, “Dame Fanny’s achievement in setting up and guiding this competition for 50 years is extraordinary. She has given us all something to cherish.”

She was appointed OBE in 1971, CBE in 2001 and DBE in the 2005 New Year Honours. She was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree by the University of Leeds in 1992. And her contribution to the city of Leeds was recognised in April 2006, when she was given the Freedom of the City.

“I feel that music is my religion because it unites us all,” she said. “There’s no barrier of race, sex, age. I really believe that that’s the biggest power in my life.”

Waterman died peacefully aged 100 at her residential care home in Ilkley, Yorkshire, on 20 December 2020. She is survived by her two sons, Robert and Paul, and six granddaughters.

Fellow pianists and members of the music community have taken to social media to remember the ‘tour de force’ pianist: