Byron Janis: A career in music built in spite of adversity
McKeesport native, pianist Byron Janis
Conductor Lorin Maazel, left, and pianist Byron Janis in 1944, before a performance with the Pittsburgh Symphony at the Syria Mosque.
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Concert pianists often create the illusion that they have extra hands flying 'round the keyboard. For years, concert pianist Byron Janis maintained a much more difficult deception -- that he was playing with 10 healthy fingers. He overcame a childhood injury and later a severe case of arthritis to perform at a top level.
In 1940, the Pittsburgh area native was in New York City with his mother and sister, having been selected by a renowned teaching couple, the Lhevinnes, for advanced lessons. He had not been there long, when some sibling rivalry turned tragic. While chasing his sister, he put his hand through the glass of a French door. Pulling it out too quickly, the boy cut his left pinky to the bone. After surgery came the devastating news that it would be permanently numb and not move at the distal joint, the one closest to the tip.
" 'You will never play again,' said doctors," recalls Mr. Janis, 82. "But I just didn't listen and somehow I went on. I learned how to use my eyes in a peripheral sense to see where the pinky was. I learned how to put it in the right place as I went on."
But he didn't just keep playing the piano. Mr. Janis continued on a path of a major concert pianist. His career put him in the company of Vladimir Horowitz, whom he also studied with (as one of his few pupils), and many others who, like him, are part of the acclaimed Philips recording series, "Great Pianists of the 20th Century." Mr. Janis has not only performed Chopin, his signature composer, to great acclaim, but contributed to the repertoire by discovering two of the composer's manuscripts in a country mansion in France in 1967 and two in Yale University a few years later. Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev are some of the other composers he excelled at interpreting in concert and in recording.
Tomorrow, WQED-TV will premiere a documentary about Mr. Janis' life produced by Peter Rosen, coinciding with the release of the pianist's memoirs, "Chopin and Beyond: My Extraordinary Life in Music and the Paranormal (Wiley, $26.95)," co-written with his wife Maria Cooper Janis, the daughter of Gary Cooper.
Born Byron Yanks in 1928 in McKeesport before his family moved to Squirrel Hill, he was "discovered" by his pre-kindergarten teachers, Ms. Sweetring and Ms. McSweeney, at Colfax Elementary.
"I picked out a tune [Ms. McSweeney] was playing on the piano [and I played it] on the xylophone by ear," says Mr. Janis, who was 4 at the time. "When she lifted me on the bench I played the same thing. ... Next week, the teachers came to my house."
At first he thought he was in trouble. "I was listening through the kitchen door, and they said your boy has a musical ear and he should get piano lessons."
At age 5 and with only six months of lessons, Mr. Janis was already good enough to play on the radio (WJAS). After several years of study with Abraham Litow, he gave a successful recital here in 1937 at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. The prodigy auditioned with the Lhevinnes and was whisked to New York.
Following the accident, Mr. Janis was nursed back to top form by teacher Adele Marcus, and managed to play difficult music again. He chose a stage name of Janis and returned to Pittsburgh in 1944 to perform with the Pittsburgh Symphony under the direction of another youngster, Lorin Maazel. They were 16 and 14 at the time. Four years later, the "other" Carnegie Hall, in New York, beckoned, and the pianist triumphed there, too.
"I don't know how I did that," Mr. Janis says from his apartment in New York. "A major part of my life has been mind over matter. The mind is strong."
But even Mr. Janis wasn't sure he could overcome the psoriatic arthritis that struck both hands in the early 1970s as he was at the height of his powers and the peak of his reputation (the U.S. government chose him for an important cultural exchange with the USSR in 1960).
"The finger became a thing I had to deal with. I was not in fear with that, but I was with the arthritis," he said. "Every joint had trouble bending. I had to re-finger so many [measures]. If one finger was inflamed, I would use another. It was improvisation of a different sort."
He hid this deteriorating condition for more than a decade, until he decided he could give hope to others struggling with the condition and became a national spokesperson for the Arthritis Foundation in 1985.
Mr. Janis continued to perform after that, though less and less, especially after surgery in 1990 left him with a shortened left thumb and deeply depressed. But another musical activity, composing, lifted his spirits. He wrote music for an off-Broadway musical, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," among other projects.
"Arthritis taught me to look inside myself for new sources of strength and creativity," he writes in his book.
"We all need role models, and maybe this will be one for people who feel they can't do something because of arthritis -- [that we all] have the ability to overcome things and not give up. It is possible."
Mr. Janis began to think deeper about the power of possibilities after meeting Maria Cooper (he has a son, Stefan, from an earlier marriage). She is a researcher in parapsychology and the couple write about their experiences with events beyond explanation in the memoirs.
The most spectacular is an account of a death mask of Chopin "crying" in 1973. Mr. Janis had recently struck up a friendship with the Israeli mentalist/psychic Uri Geller. After dinner one night, Mr. Geller asked to touch the mask, which had been given to the pianist by the family of Chopin amour George Sand.
"We were standing around holding this mask and in about 15 seconds we noticed a liquid coming out of the eyes," says Mr. Janis. "It was gushing, it was unbelievable. I put my hand on the liquid and said they were tears. I am convinced of one thing, the strongest power in the world is love and I loved [Chopin] since I was a young man, and that may be what caused this to happen."
For Mr. Janis, allowing the possibility of the impossible is crucial to great playing. It has especially informed his performances of Chopin, along with his Polish descent.
"In playing Chopin it is so important to touch that other world," he says. "In playing, sometimes you feel you are being played -- that happened to me a lot."
Mr. Janis is quite aware that this and other claims of the paranormal cited in the book (not in the documentary), will raise skeptics as was the case with Mr. Geller.
"I started to write this book 10 years ago and I was not ready to take the onslaught," he says. "I will be called a fraud, but maybe some skeptics will turn. Now I don't care what people are going to say about it. It is honest, true and it happened. We keep finding things that never could have existed and they exist. All progress is based upon repudiating laws."
Debate aside, there's no doubt that Mr. Janis has smashed the conventional wisdom that you need healthy hands to be a virtuoso pianist. He even returned to the recording studio in the 1990s to create several acclaimed CDs.
"I would not in any point now want someone else's hands," he says. "Everything I have learned I have learned with them."
First Published October 27, 2010 12:00 am