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Born in Lyon, France, the son of a German doctor and lepidopterist, Gieseking first started playing the piano at the age of four, but without formal instruction. His family travelled frequently and he was privately schooled.
From 1911 to early 1916, he studied at the Hanover Conservatory. There his mentor was the director Karl Leimer, with whom he later co-authored a piano method. He made his first appearance as a concert pianist in 1915, but was conscripted in 1916 and spent the remainder of World War I as a regimental bandsman. His first London piano recital took place in 1923, establishing an exceptional and lasting reputation.
During World War II Gieseking continued to reside in Germany, while continuing to concertize in Europe. Because he performed in Nazi-occupied countries such as France, he was later accused of having collaborated with the Nazi Party. He was severely criticized for this by pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who, in the book Evenings with Horowitz, calls Gieseking a "supporter of the Nazi". Like many German artists, Gieseking was blacklisted during the initial postwar period. By January 1947, however, he had been cleared by the U.S. military government, enabling him to resume his career although his U.S. tour scheduled for January 1949 was cancelled owing to the protest of a number of organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Veterans Committee. Although there had been other protests (in Australia and Peru, for example), his 1949 American tour was the only group of concerts actually cancelled due to the outcry. He continued to play in a great many other countries, and in 1953 he finally returned to the United States. His concert in Carnegie Hall was sold out and well received, and he was more popular than ever.
Because of his gifts — he had a natural technique, perfect pitch, and an abnormally acute faculty for memorization — Gieseking was able to master unfamiliar repertoire, however difficult, with relatively little practice. From his early instruction in the Leimer method, he usually studied new pieces away from the piano. It became well-known to the public, for instance, that he often committed new works to memory while traveling by train, ship or plane. Sometimes, according to Harold C. Schonberg's book The Great Pianists (1963), he could even learn an entire concerto by heart in one day.
Gieseking had a very wide repertoire, ranging from various pieces by Bach and the core works by Beethoven through to the concertos of Rachmaninoff (the composer himself was impressed with his interpretation of the Third) and more modern works by the likes of Busoni, Hindemith, Schoenberg and the lesser-known Italian Petrassi. He gave the premiere of Pfitzner's Piano Concerto in 1923. Today, though, he is particularly remembered as one of the greatest interpreters of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the two French impressionist masters Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, virtually all of whose solo piano music he recorded on LP for EMI in the early 1950s (the Mozart and Debussy sets have recently been re-released on CD), after recording much of it with even greater youthful vitality for Columbia in the 1930s and 1940s, some of which have also been re-released on CD.
Gieseking's historic 1944 performance of Beethoven's "Emperor" Concerto, in which anti-aircraft fire is audible, is one of the earliest stereo recordings, although his just-as-historic "Emperor" rendition in 1934 for Columbia, with Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, is not only decidedly superior but one of the greatest concerto recordings ever made. His later 1930s Columbia concerto recordings of Mozart K. 271, Grieg and Beethoven Op. 15 under Hans Rosbaud in Berlin are just as outstanding in their own right, as is his early-1930s Franck Symphonic Variations under Henry Wood in London. His last recording project was the complete cycle of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas. Gieseking suddenly fell ill in London, however, while recording Beethoven's "Pastoral" Sonata in D Piano Sonata No. 15 for HMV. He had completed the first three movements and, the following day, was due to record the rondo finale but died a few days later of postoperative complications. HMV released the unfinished recording, and since then broadcast recordings of Gieseking playing all of Beethoven's Piano Sonatas (with the exception of Op. 54) have been issued. Although some of his readings - particularly the live ones - can at times be erratic and marred by wrong notes, when Gieseking was at his best, especially in studio recording sessions, he was technically superb to the point of virtual flawlessness with immaculate, effortless ease. The subtle shadings of his piano tone, at its finest, seemed extraordinary in so physically large a man.
Running parallel to Gieseking's performing activity was his much lesser known work as a composer. Even in his own lifetime his original creations were hardly known, and he made no attempt to give them publicity although a few of them have recently been recorded on CD.
As Gieseking's father had earned a living as a lepidopterist, Gieseking, too, devoted much time to the collecting of butterflies and moths throughout his life. His private collection can be seen in the Natural History Collection of the Museum Wiesbaden.
Notable students 
- Mary Louise Boehm
- Albert Ferber
- Marian Filar
- Werner Haas
- Hans Otte
- Peter Schmalfuss
- Ward Swingle
- Narciso Yepes
- Stewart L. Gordon
- Dean Elder, Pianists at Play, Kahn & Averill, 1989
- Gieseking, Walter: So wurde ich Pianist (autobiography), Wiesbaden, Brockhaus 1963
- Leimer, Karl and Gieseking, Walter: The Shortest Way to Pianistic Perfection, Philadelphia, Presser 1932
- —, Rhythmics, Dynamics, Pedal and Other Problems of Piano Playing, Philadelphia, Presser 1938
- Leimer, Karl and Gieseking, Walter: Piano technique, New York, Dover 1972 (contains both books of 1932 and 1938)
- Schonberg, Harold C.: The Great Pianists, 1963
- Youngrok Lee's appreciation pages
- Piano Rolls (The Reproducing Piano Roll Foundation)
- Free scores by Walter Gieseking at the International Music Score Library Project