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September 2005

Emanuel Leplin, symphony composer and mouth painter

Rocky Leplin

Tribute to a great artist

Emanuel Leplin was an accomplished, award-winning, 20th century symphonic composer and painter, who was living in San Francisco when the Bay area experienced a polio epidemic. In 1954, at the age of 36, he contracted polio. At a time when his career possibilities seemed limitless, he sudddenly became very ill and was confined to an iron lung for the next eight months. The polio also left him with paralysis from the shoulders down.

Emanuel at his writing desk composing a music score     Emanuel painting at his easel, using his mouth to hold and control the brush strokes

While he retained a small amount of movement in the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand, sufficient to hold a pencil well enough to continue composing his music, he was no longer able to manage a paint brush. However, with practice, he learnt to paint with the brush held between his teeth. The only difficulty being that his reach was limited on larger canvases. Before long he had not only mastered painting with a mouth brush, but upside down as well, since his solution to reaching the top of the canvas was to flip the painting over.

Skyscrapers: this painting gives an impression of the domination of skyscrapers on the San Francisco skyline.

When the San Francisco Symphony premiered his artwork title "Two Pieces for Orchestra: Landscapes and Skyscrapers", the San Francisco Chronicle's music critic wrote, "It is a rare thing for one man to be represented at the Opera House with two excellent paintings in the lobby and two first-class tone poems on the stage… Serenity, clarity, richness of color and strength were the keynotes in Landscapes. Skyscrapers added great excitement of rhythm… a sense of the epochal and the monumental."

Four paintings executed with a brush in his teeth, each representing one of the movements of his Symphony No. I, were also displayed when the Symphony premiered in 1961. In 1966, Josef Krips came to Leplin's home, sat next to him, and sang the entire 45-minute Second Symphony, stopping only to pause between movements. When he was finished, Krips exclaimed, "It's more complicated than Stravinsky!" Shortly afterward, Krips and the Symphony gave its premiere.

Hearing a tape made of this symphony, Leonard Bernstein wrote to Leplin, calling it "incredible music," and predicting, inaccurately, that he would program a performance of it in the near future.

Leplin also wrote, with his three mobile fingers, a Third Symphony, a Violin Concerto, and several other large works - unable to hear them other than in his head.

A mouth painting of Carmel Mission, in Carmel California, by Emanuel Leplin

An accident in 1972 led to Leplin's death. Under Seiji Ozawa, the Symphony performed a short work of his the following week, dedicated to Albert Elkus, and there was a moment of silence. The moment has continued up until the present day, for there has been no orchestral performance of a Leplin work since then.

Due to his inability to conduct and travel, the career of this brilliant musician came to a short and sudden end. However, Leplin's physical circumstances had no effect at all on his ability to write music based on the models of Beethoven and Brahms, while using hypercharged orchestration and an inspired outpouring of ideas. His premature and arbitrary dismissal from the concert hall is an oversight, the magnitude of which will only be comprehended when his music is once again discovered and performed.

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