Oscar Levant



  • Date of Birth: 27 December 1906
  • Place Of Birth:  Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA


Oscar Levant’s own versatility may have helped to cloud his memory as a sort of Hollywood utility man, perhaps in the worst sense; people tended to see him as one among many personalities, but he was so much more. It is unfortunately forgotten that he was first and foremost, a brilliant musician and very competent composer. He was from an Orthodox Jewish Russian family, growing up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Like his siblings, he started music lessons at an early age and on various instruments, first taking piano lessons from his older brother Benjamin. At seven he continued piano under Martin Miessler, originally of the Leipzig Conservatory. Levant was giving public recitals within a year. He attended music lessons at the Fifth Avenue High School, where he was exposed to classical performance by his instructor, Oscar Demmler. This included going to recitals of the great Polish pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski and concerts conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Demmler invited Levant to accompany him in violin and piano repertoire, which was Levant’s first public playing – he was only twelve. Levant dropped out of high school (Fifth Avenue) in 1922 when his mother decided to take him to New York to continue music instruction. There he studied with Zygmunt Stojowski, a compatriot and disciple of Paderewski and a student trained by Wladyslaw Zelenski, Louis-Joseph Diemer and Clement Philibert Léo Delibes. By early adulthood, Levant had evolved an engaging and opinionated personality that was attracted to the social life of the city. One great influence on him was the glamor and allure of Broadway, which he saw firsthand while hiring out as a pianist for the stage pit and the many nightclubs in the area. He was in the musical play “Burlesque” (1927) and had his first stint at Broadway composing as co-composer for “Ripples” (1930). Though he gave a private recital in early December 1922 for Paderewski and kept up a schedule of attending mainstream classical musical events, he was also becoming something of a bon vivant in popular music circles, and became attracted to the seamier side of New York society, developing acquaintanceships with a variety of the city’s mobsters. His mobility in social circles was, to say the least, surprising. Later Levant became a member of the Algonquin Round Table, the exclusive circle of New York wits and writers that met regularly at the Algonquin Hotel and included such luminaries as Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott. It would seem natural that Levant would eventually be attracted to the glitter of Hollywood. He had a taste of “the movies” in 1923 when he appeared with popular orchestra leader Ben Bernie and his band, All the Lads, in a little-known experimental sound effort by DeForest Phonofilm in New York City. Touring in cabaret in London from 1926, Levant heard about New York composers and musicians going west to Hollywood, where music was coming into big demand. He left for the coast in 1928. He quickly secured employment as a composer, and from that year to 1929 his compositions appearing in 21 films. From 1929 to 1937 he composed regularly for films, and a bit more sporadically from 1939 to 1948, for a total of 19 films. His mingling with the musical elite in town resulted in his developing a close friendship with legendary composer George Gershwin. The association resulted in a profound musical relationship. He was still keeping a foot in the New York music scene, mainly in Broadway and on Tin Pan Alley (he co-wrote many pop songs). He also returned to some concertizing (1930 and 1931) at two large venues: the Hollywood Bowl and Lewisohn Stadium in New York. By 1932 Levant was turning his attention to classical composing and limiting his concertizing. His “Sonatina for Piano” caught the ear of composer Aaron Copland, who persuaded him to premiere it in April 1932 at Copland’s festival for contemporary American music. Gershwin asked him to play second piano in a duet version of the “Second Rhapsody” under conductor Arturo Toscanini. He also played – almost as his own – Gershwin’s signature “Concerto in F” in 1932. Although Levant launched into a crowded schedule of radio performances of popular and easy listening classical music, he did no more public concerts for some five years. He did take Gershwin’s advice and refreshed his theory skills with Joseph Schillinger, a Russian who was a resident Hollywood theorist/composer. Levant was not alone in using Schillinger’s music school services; at that time some of the Big-Band era’s most famous names appearing on the silver screen, including Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, were also using the Russian. This was in 1934, the same year Levant’s “Sinfonietta” (in three movements) premiered with Bernard Herrmann conducting in New York. Levant was back in Hollywood in 1935 for more film composing, but part of the time was spent studying under one of the great musical minds to arrive in Southern California, Arnold Schönberg. Schoenberg’s time was already crowded with local academia commitments and studying with some of Hollywood’s brightest composers, including Alfred Newman and Franz Waxman. Levant’s study ranged from 1935 to 1937. Part of the result was the inspiration for completing his “Piano Concerto”, his first of several string quartets (among other pieces he composed, including a woodwind trio), and the “Nocturne for Orchestra” (premiered in L.A. in 1937). The latter was released by New Music Editions in 1936 – this was his only orchestral score to be published. In the meantime Levant was doing music for Hollywood. His “Crayon est sur la Table”, (“The Pencil is on the Table”) was a sort of parody of French opera in the style of Claude Debussy. It was a centerpiece (though transformed as “Carnaval” with an Italian libretto) for the 20th Century-Fox film Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936). In July of 1937 Gershwin passed away. This opened a new period of recognition for Levant, for he was immediately crowned sole interpreter and virtuoso performer of Gershwin’s music, the beginning of a quixotic 20-year reign. That same year Levant started his “Suite for Orchestra” and finished its orchestration by early 1938. In October of that year he returned to the east to debut as a Broadway conductor while replacing his brother Harry for 65 performances of George S. Kaufman and Lorenz Hart’s “The Fabulous Invalid”. He augmented that by seeing to the Broadway stage as composer and conductor a new Kaufman and Hart work, “The American Way” in January of 1939. By the middle of that year Levant had returned to concertizing in all the big American cities, showcasing not only such Gershwin works as “Concerto in F” and the “Rhapsody in Blue”, but also a whole repertoire including an occasional work of his own, including his two 1940 pieces “Caprice for Orchestra” and “A New Overture and Polka for ‘Oscar Homolka'” (the actor). “Caprice” was particularly showcased by British conductor Thomas Beecham. But these were his last major concert works. Nevertheless, this marked a decade of concertizing, radio broadcasts and recording significantly with Columbia Records and great conductors such as Reiner, Eugene Ormandy, Andre Kostelanetz, Wallenstein, Efrem Kurtz and Morton Gould. Occasionally Levant appeared on film in a showcase piano piece, but there are only a handful of film roles where he showed his substantial skill as an actor. He played himself in the highly fictionalized Gershwin bio Rhapsody in Blue (1945), highlighted by his playing of the piece. He was still himself but convincingly in character in one of his best dramatic roles as wisecracking (he often wrote his own lines for his film characters) concert pianist Sid Jeffers in Humoresque (1946) with John Garfield and Joan Crawford. He went into the studio to record a set of excerpts from Richard Wagner’s “Tristan” arranged for piano, violin, and orchestra with violinist Isaac Stern, and conductor Franz Waxman as part of the sound track for the film. He was able to play two of his favorite pieces (Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1” and Aram Khachaturyan’s “Sabre Dance”) when he got around to doing the sophisticated comedy The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). A few years later he did his last two films. In An American in Paris (1951) the focus is on Gene Kelly, but a close second was Gershwin’s music, the title of the movie taken from his extraordinary montage of movements visualizing Paris. Levant was his usual carefree pianist character, but during a fantasy concerto sequence, he is spotlighted as playing the piano soloist, the conductor, and representative musicians for each orchestra instrument, a great sight gag tour de force of his musical know-how. In his final film Levant is a caricature of himself mixed with the film’s co-screenwriter, Adolph Green. This was the comedy musical The Band Wagon (1953) in which friend Fred Astaire was also a caricature of himself as a legendary but essentially washed-up song and dance man who has a stellar comeback. Levant seemed to have fun with this film and its bright script that poked fun at entertainment in general, but his dialog, obviously more of his own input, included hints at his progressive decline, including his accumulative neuroses and accompanying hypochondria. His extraordinarily glib and incisive tongue had evolved from earlier life-of-the-party witty repartee to increasingly self-critical and acerbic patter which showed up sometimes most inappropriately in his recitals from the late 1930s. His spontaneous remarks bordered, and often flowed over into, downright rudeness and sometimes only slightly veiled invective. He seemed unable to resist putting down his own musical efforts, a compulsion to parody himself, revealing his insecurities and a rather knee-jerk need to be funny and play the clown at his own expense. He had renamed his “Poeme for Piano”, “Insult for the Piano” or “The Lone Ranger in Vienna.” In answer to friend/musical promoter Robert Russell Bennett’s radio interview with Levant (1940) asking what he thought about the reception of his first string quarter, he replied: “Violently. It not only brought me obscurity but many enemies.” Such was typical of his sometimes inextricably extreme one-liners. During the height of his concertizing, Levant was the highest paid concert performer, but after 1951 he canceled many commitments, which finally brought a temporary banning by the American Federation of Musicians. There were still occasional concerts in the 1950s, one of the most memorable being Royce Hall at UCLA (1958) when he launched into the first movement of the second piano concerto of Dmitri Shostakovich only to forget his place and stop, turning to the audience and quipping,”I don’t even know where I am. I’m going to start all over again”. He did, and with great triumph. His final public effort that same year was the “Concerto in F” in which it took all the urging of conductor Andre Kostelanetz to keep Levant from simply stopping mid-course and walking off stage. Levant prefaced his encores with the quip that he was “playing under the auspices of Mt. Sinai” (the high-profile Los Angeles hospital often patronized by the stars). That statement was rather pathetically true. Along with real and imagined illnesses, Levant’s mental state, always fragile at best, developed into classic stage fright. By this time he was long-addicted to prescription drugs and was in and out of the hospital on a regular basis. His faithful second wife of 33 years, actress/singer June Gale, had to commit him to mental institutions on several occasions. Yet Levant continued onward. There was a series of album recordings in the late 1950s. He made the rounds of a few prime-time game shows and late-night TV talk shows, particularly that of friend Jack Parr. Between 1958 and 1960 he had his own prime-time local Los Angeles TV show called “The Oscar Levant Show”, which sometimes offered a rather subdued and intimate look at the restive mind of Levant. As a talk show with guests and Levant, usually ringed in a cloud from his chain smoking, playing impromptu pieces on the piano, it was inevitably canceled because of Levant’s controversial monologues and off-color, inflammatory remarks about personalities. He wrote three memoirs: “A Smattering of Ignorance” (1940), “Memoirs of an Amnesiac” (1965) and “The Unimportance of Being Oscar” (1968), each incisive as well as outlandish in the context of Levant’s lifelong self-analysis and skewed view of humanity. He increasingly retired from any sort of public exposure over the last decade of his life. A composer of vital and original music and an extraordinary individual in whatever interpretation one might use, Oscar Levant was one of the most intriguing entertainment enigmas of the 20th century.