Lilian Kallir’s Musical Alexia

Author · Date 01/21/2016

The pianist Lilian Kallir was a formidable sight-reader who could easily play a Mozart Piano Concerto on the first reading, though she was mostly known for the instinctive musicality, tonal beauty, and precocious maturity of her playing. In 1991, presented with a last-minute change in a program, switching from Mozart’s Piano Concerto in F Major, K. 459, to his Concerto in C Major, K. 467, this lifelong ease with musical notation swiftly and inexplicably abdicated. Shortly before the concert, she opened the score to find to her dismay that the notation was completely indecipherable.

She could recognize individual components of notation—staves, notes, and clefs—but could construe neither structure nor meaning in these symbols. She had lost the ability to read music, thereby becoming one of the first documented cases of acquired musical .

Kallir managed to perform the concerto by memory without major difficulty, and chalked up the experience to nerves, exhaustion, poor eyesight, or a potent mixture of all three. In the coming months the problem returned with increasing persistence, aggravated by exhaustion or stress. Three years later, as the alexia spread to written words and other visual impairments emerged—she was failing to recognize close friends whom she ran into by chance—Kallir began to think that the problems were neurological in nature. Eventually, she contacted the esteemed neurologist Oliver Sacks, who examined her case throughout the following years, eventually devoting the opening chapter of his book The Mind’s Eye to her strange affliction.

Kallir was eventually diagnosed with Posterior Cortical Atrophy (PCA), a rare disease first identified by the behavioral neurologist Frank Benson and his colleagues in 1988, and characterized by a deficit in comprehending complex visual signals. While individuals with PCA can often recognize elementary visual cues—color, motion, acuity—their ability to combine these signals into an identifiable whole is sharply impeded. Kallir was forced to depend exclusively on non-visual means of recalling music, which meant that she relied heavily on aural and tactile cues. She lamented the fact that her musical memory could no longer be nourished visually; her connection to her extensive repertoire relied exclusively on her memory, which was beginning to show signs of strains under the pressures of her concert career.

I studied piano with Kallir at Mannes College of Music in New York from 1997 to 1999, at the same time as Dr. Sacks’ interest and involvement in her case was increasing, though I was ignorant of her affliction and of his role in examining it. She was a devoted, engaged, and inspiring teacher, but her visual problems were clearly evident. She would stand waiting at the door of her Upper West Side apartment with a warm smile but strangely vacant gaze; her fingers would frantically grasp at the piano’s keys when she wanted to demonstrate a passage, something she did less and less as the years went by.

She displayed a fierce pride in maintaining her composure in the face of adversity and refused to admit—to others, certainly, and perhaps to herself—that her illness placed any restrictions on her ability to practice her art. I assumed that her visual problems were due to encroaching blindness. She did not confirm or dissuade my suspicions, as she did not once speak of her disability during the entire course of our lessons.

Kallir was born to Austrian parents in Prague in 1931. Her musical gifts emerged early in life: she gave her first public performance on the radio at the age of four. Her childhood was uprooted by the German occupation of Czechoslovakia and her family’s subsequent flight from Nazi rule. They moved first to Switzerland, and then to New York City, in 1940.

Shortly after arriving in New York, she began studies at Mannes College of Music with Herman de Grab, continuing afterward with the famed and feared pedagogue Isabella Vengerova, teacher of such notable musicians as Leonard Bernstein, Lukas Foss and Menahem Pressler. She gave her New York Town Hall debut at age 17; the New York Times predicted that she was “already well on the way toward an important career.”  

Kallir first performed with the New York Philharmonic in 1957 under Dmitri Mitropoulos. In 1958, she toured England with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester, and in 1959 was featured in three concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Herbert von Karajan, who re-engaged her immediately following the concerts. She was best known for her poetic and intuitive interpretations of Mozart and Chopin. Her colleague Gary Graffman, a fellow Vengerova student and later director of the Curtis Institute of Music, stated that her playing was “exceptionally natural, she had instinctive musicality, there was nothing put on… it just came out of her.”

She married the pianist Claude Frank, whose early experience of fleeing Nazism and eventually settling in New York resembled her own. They had one daughter, the immensely gifted violinist Pamela Frank. The Kallir-Frank family were regular fixtures at the Marlboro Festival along with Rudolf Serkin, Eugene Istomin, and Marcel Moyse. Both Lilian and Claude left behind impressive legacies through their performances—as soloists and duo-partners—and deep involvement in the education of young musicians.

Instrumentalists, particularly pianists, tend to be stoic in the face of injury or illness. Perhaps this is due to the self-control and self-reliance that grows out of highly disciplined work at an early age. Perhaps musicians believe that a diminishment in their musical abilities through physical illness is indicative of a diminishment in their musical talent, a notion that displays a lack of differentiation between the biological aspects of musicianship (optimal functioning of sensorimotor systems) and its more intangible aspects (an opaque notion of musical giftedness).

Certainly, a somatic illness will most often have serious consequences on a musician’s ability to practice his or her art. In the face of illness, one asks why it is so common for musicians to keep their problems tightly hidden from general view. They tend to rely on themselves or a small circle of close friends and family, leaving a wider system of support (doctors, therapists, colleagues, and audiences) unable to assist or even understand the nature of the problem.

Famous musicians’ illnesses are often shrouded in mystery. Glenn Gould never publicly indicated that physical injury might have contributed to his decision to leave the concert stage forever, at the age of 31, but neurologist and hand specialist Frank R. Wilson writes that “in biomechanical terms Gould may have been almost completely unsuited for a career at the piano. Indeed, there is persuasive evidence that for virtually his entire career Gould struggled against and adroitly finessed critical limitations in upper body, forearm, and hand movement.”

The pianist Byron Janis, who suffered from psoriatic arthritis in both hands and wrists, kept his ailment a tightly-guarded secret from 1973 until 1985, when he became a spokesperson for the National Arthritis Foundation. During those years, he struggled to compensate for his illness, working out new fingerings and experimenting with various and increasingly esoteric treatments.  He wrote: “I was terrified, I never knew if I was going to get through.”

By comparison, Kallir appears to have handled her devastating illness with grace and humor. In the course of our close working relationship, she never mentioned her afflictions—not to me, and not to her other students. I remember her strength and lack of self-pity in our lessons with equal parts admiration, for her sense of composure; disappointment, for her not confiding in me; and self-admonition, for my inability to sense the severity of her struggle.

A lingering memory is of our last lesson in May, 1999. Kallir was by that time having difficulty identifying everyday objects, and did so through a complex process of guesswork, inferring logically what something could be based on its color, shape, and texture. In the coming years her ability to navigate the visual world would become further impaired. She described her situation to Dr. Sacks in a characteristically self-deprecating way, avoiding any sense of over-dramatization through a hint of humor: “When I’m alone, it is lousy. I’m not complaining—I’m describing.” (She died in 2004.)

We were discussing the best way to say goodbye in German, without it sounding too final. My rudimentary German had come up with Lebewohl; she laughed at that, finding it overwrought and sentimental. She quietly left the question altogether, and presented me with a gift: a 1952 facsimile print, from the Polish Music Publishing House, of Chopin’s Ballade in A-flat Major. The facsimile provides invaluable insights into Chopin’s compositional process, with several revisions in his precise and ordered handwriting, and a mass of emphatically crossed-out ideas that never made their way into the final score; it’s a visual representation of his rigorous and clearly-delineated musicality.

A card accompanied the score, with a message whose meaning has become clear, now that I know about Kallir’s struggle with visual perception. “I have enjoyed this for a long time—now it should be yours.” Her relationship to music was becoming increasingly internal and autonomous, and she had lost a major source of contact with her favorite composers. That she gave away such a beautiful and meaningful score displayed her spirit of generosity. But despite my ignorance at the time, the act also seemed tinged with a profound sadness. ¶