“Completely Unmasked at All Times”: On the Complete Piano Recordings of Oscar Levant




BEFORE “HERE’S JOHNNY!,” late-night TV meant The Jack Paar Tonight Show. Paar was as emotionally unbuffered as Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and Conan O’Brien were caustically remote; simply but knowingly, he wore his heart on his sleeve — and never more than when his guest was Oscar Levant. Paar variously called Levant “a man for whom living is a sideline,” “my favorite far-outpatient,” and “one of America’s true geniuses.” He also quipped: “He’s as nervous as he is clever — for every pearl that comes out of his mouth, a pill goes in.” He enjoined his audience to bear in mind that “appearing here is good for Oscar; he looks forward to it. He enjoys an audience’s warmth again. Just coming here is therapy for him.”

The object of these observations would sit slumped in a chair, his legs carelessly crossed to disclose a swath of flesh above the sock. He smoked and grimaced helplessly and continuously. His discourse consisted entirely of impromptu one-liners, delivered offhandedly with occasional eye contact. His thick features were saggy and sleep-deprived. That he was self-evidently a wreck of a man excited Paar’s interest and compassion in equal measure.

Levant said: “You know, the only reason I’m appearing here is there are no more beds in the mental institution.” And: “You have the most responsive audience since Adolf Hitler in the good old days.” Asked what he did for exercise, he replied: “I stumble, and then I fall into a coma.” Informed that “we have a bunch of pills here,” he interrupted impatiently: “I took them, they’re nothing.”

By the time Paar invited him on his show in 1958, Levant was in one of his final retirement phases. His career had embraced the piano, radio, television, and film — at all times playing Oscar Levant or a fictitious pianist distinguishable from Levant in name only. He was chiefly renowned for his intimate personal and professional association with George Gershwin; after Gershwin’s early death in 1937, Levant virtually owned Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F. For a time, during the 1940s, he was the highest-paid concert pianist in the United States, spicing his performances with banter and self-lacerating quips. Assaying Beethoven’s “Tempest” sonata, he might promise to play “with my customary arthritic abandon” and add: “This piece has never had a worthy interpretation. And it still won’t.”

Levant’s films, meanwhile, notably included Humoresque (1946), in which he appeared opposite Joan Crawford and John Garfield. The Levant persona is here named Sid Jeffers, whose bons mots include: “It’s not what you are but what you don’t become that hurts.” On the radio, he was the star of Information Please, an urbane 1940s quiz show whose participants showed what they knew about sports and popular culture — as well as literature and the performing arts. Clifton Fadiman, the show’s host, considered Levant “in my wide experience […] the quickest wit I knew.”

Levant’s disruptions held nothing sacred, including sponsors. But his commercial value was as irresistible as his talent. His tales of mental and emotional derangement were basically true. He quit or resumed his public activities as he wished. He last performed in public in 1958. He died in 1972 at the age of 65.

That Oscar Levant was what he seemed was doubtless a key to his appeal. His authenticity has never appeared more exceptional: no present-day mainstream media personality — not even our president — is as heedlessly controversial as was Levant every time he opened his mouth.

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A handsome new box from Sony Classical, titled A Rhapsody in Blue: The Extraordinary Life of Oscar Levant, contains eight CDs: Levant’s complete keyboard discography, from 1942 to 1958. The 124-page booklet of clippings and illustrations also includes an essay by the music-theater maven Michael Feinstein, who knew Levant’s widow. The recordings, mostly long out of circulation, contain more than a few clues as to what made the Levant career soar or stumble. They also incidentally chart his decline.

The repertoire at hand is itself revealing. Though Levant’s Gershwin recordings were his best sellers, he could hardly be summarized as a Gershwin pianist. Here are concertos by Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian, and — notably reviving a Romantic warhorse — Anton Rubinstein’s No. 4 in D minor, with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the New York Philharmonic. The solo pieces include lots of Chopin and Debussy, considerable helpings of Liszt and Ravel, and samplings of Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms. The 20th century is well represented by composers major and minor. And there are three American novelties: Copland’s Billy the Kid as excerpted by Lukas Foss; Franz Waxman’s Tristan und Isolde synthesis for violin, piano, and orchestra; and the first movement of Levant’s own Sonatina. The first is a justly unremembered piano transcription. The second, with Isaac Stern, is a shameless Hollywood pastiche from Humoresque. The third, verging on self-portraiture, casts disturbed Mondlicht on hurtling boogie-woogie; a memento of Levant’s sporadic composer’s vocation, it proves by far the most interesting.

Certainly Levant’s disappointed creative aspirations furnish one clue to his motley career. His exceptional facility at the piano, sight-reading and improvising, made him a favorite studio musician. He also wrote an enduring nightclub song, “Blame It on My Youth.” But, however fitfully, Levant wanted more. The composer David Diamond testified: “I put him in [the] genius category. Oscar had everything that genius had, that ability to read music immediately and make sense out of it.” And, supporting himself with film and radio work, Levant in fact studied composition with a fulfilled genius of intimidating assurance and reputation, Arnold Schoenberg. In their valuable 1994 biography, A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant, Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger write:

If George Gershwin was a kind of older brother [Levant] could worship, yet still feel competitive with, Schoenberg became the ideal father who would finally bless Levant’s yearnings to create his own music. At their first meeting, Schoenberg took one look at Levant and told him, “You have a very talented face.”

Levant even commissioned Schoenberg’s 12-tone Piano Concerto — though they wound up haggling over the price tag. He intended to perform the premiere, practiced the music — and gave up. Levant’s own Piano Concerto bristles with Schoenberg’s influence (you can hear Levant perform it on YouTube, with the NBC Symphony). Levant characteristically opined: “[T]his music reflects an arrogance and a pretentiousness based on an economic and emotional insecurity. However, those are days we now look back on as happy.” Virgil Thomson’s review, in the Herald Tribune, more plausibly summarized:

[T]he impact of Mr. Levant’s battling personality is not absent. His music, like his mind, is tough and real and animated by a ferocious integrity. […] [B]eneath its schoolboy homage to Gershwin and Schoenberg, [the concerto is] hard and lonely and original music, full of song and solitude.

That another qualified admirer of Levant’s music was Aaron Copland seals the singularity of Levant’s status: Gershwin’s disciple, Schoenberg’s student, and yet a beneficiary of Copland’s sympathetic interest. During American musical decades fractured by a schism between “popular” and “classical” — decades when Copland’s fledgling composers’ community rejected Gershwin as an interloping amateur tarnished by jazz — Levant barged his way through a multiplicity of musical worlds on both coasts. Gershwin and Copland, New Yorkers of the same generation, had never really met each other; it was Levant who escorted Copland to Gershwin’s lavish Los Angeles home, with its swimming pool, tennis court, and coterie of Germanic musical immigrants (he regularly played tennis with Schoenberg). Copland and Schoenberg, too, were inimical; Levant was a rare mutual colleague.

These relationships are illuminated in the first of Levant’s three memoirs, A Smattering of Ignorance (1939). A best seller in its day, now little remembered, it is much more than a period piece. Here is Levant on Copland’s circle:

[A]n atmosphere whose preciosity exceeded anything in my experience. The air was full of jeer for everything and everyone outside the closed shop of those present. This startled me somewhat, and I was at a further disadvantage because I was the only one present who had not either studied in Paris with Boulanger or D’Indy or was not scheduled to leave for France as soon as the festival was over.

Levant also writes: “Considering that I am a person who lacks no possible human failing, I have been constantly amazed by Copland’s generosity.” But it is the indispensable chapter on Gershwin that betrays the subtlety of feeling and observation underlying Levant’s blustering self-doubt. He confides “a certain undertone in our friendship, in which there was always a small element of nastiness, a fondness for putting the blast on each other.” Summing up:

George once remarked, after a Don Quixote tilt with a blond windmill in the form of a charming girl, “She has a little love for everyone and not a great deal for anybody.” Whether true of the girl or not, I feel that George had unconsciously mirrored himself in these words.

In this context of reckless sincerity and exaggerated bluster, high aspiration and abject denigration, what do Levant’s keyboard performances sound like on Sony’s eight CDs? Well, they sound like Levant: blatant, assaultive, unorthodox, but never naïve. The études of Chopin and rhapsodies of Liszt are seized by gusts of convulsive feeling. In Debussy’s jazziest preludes — “Général Lavine — eccentric” and “Minstrels,” admired by Gershwin — Levant’s droll readings dangle not a deft cigarette but a bulky cigar. Gershwin’s own performances of Gershwin (he was a formidable pianist) are sec, fleet, rigorously unsentimental. Levant’s Gershwin is bigger in sound and sentiment, but without sacrificing velocity and rhythmic bite. Only in his final recordings, from 1958, does Levant’s brashness decline toward nervous instability; physically and musically, his command is compromised.

In a brief introduction to A Smattering of Ignorance, S. N. Behrman attempted to sum up Oscar Levant with two anecdotes. The first: Oscar declares a mutual acquaintance “agreeable and intelligent.” But wasn’t that fellow a particular object of Oscar’s antipathy? Oscar replies: “Well, you know I hate ’em till they say hello to me.” The second: Fired from a radio job, a “shambling Mercutio,” Oscar is effusively greeted by a young acquaintance but flees abruptly. “That’s my protégé,” he says. “When I’ve just been fired, […] I don’t feel like being a patron!” Behrman observes “a hard-bitten integrity in Oscar which if it does not spare his friends, does not spare himself either.” His stories cherish Levant’s lurking humanity and uprightness. They also point to a public community of erudition that no longer exists.

A final Levant memento is the last and purest of his TV manifestations, the short-lived Oscar Levant Show. Levant presided at his Steinway with wife, June Gale, alongside. The guests included Brendan Behan, Eddie Cantor, Jack Dempsey, William O. Douglas, Aldous Huxley, Linus Pauling (who waltzed with June), and Levant’s psychiatrist. Neither pacing nor concision were encouraged. Rather, an intimate live audience adored unadulterated Levant — and this at a time when his illness had grown more pronounced. When Philco withdrew sponsorship, Levant erupted on live television: “There’s only one way to fight power, and that’s with power! None of you buy Philco products until it returns to my show!” Frank Lloyd Wright sent a telegram: “Have just cancelled order for my 15th Philco.” Levant was fired, then reinstated with a new sponsor.

There is a shaky surviving video of The Oscar Levant Show, accessible via YouTube. Fred Astaire is the guest — not dancing, but inimitably singing and reminiscing about Gershwin and Irving Berlin: a feast. At one point the performers switch places — Astaire at the piano, Levant shuffling his big feet. When Astaire complains about an Oskar Kokoschka portrait of his sister Adele, Levant adds: “He was once married to Alma Mahler, who married four geniuses. I wasn’t one of them.” Introducing a new sponsor: “It’s something I need very much: it’s a Jacuzzi whirlpool bath, not to be confused with Brancusi the sculptor.” His confessions include: “I’m just gregarious, I’m full of love, and a lot of it is illicit”; “I’m supine in my admiration for my sponsors.”

Levant’s veneration for Astaire becomes a binding motif. Responding to an iconic rendition of the Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day (In London Town),” Levant puts his hands to his face, smothering his eyes, then to his heart, then turns them outward beseechingly. “I’m quite serious about the very exciting emotion I have with Mr. Astaire,” he stammers — and departs the set. Later, with time running out, he requests a reprise of “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” Ira Gershwin’s refrain goes:

The memory of all that —
Oh no!
They can’t take that away from me.
No — they can’t take that away from me.

Christopher Isherwood once compared Oscar Levant to a character out of Dostoyevsky: “completely unmasked at all times.”

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Joseph Horowitz is an author, concert producer, and teacher. He is one of the most prominent and widely published writers on topics in American music. His 10 books include Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall.


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