A smattering of ignorance
By David Amos
SAN DIEGO–As a writer of this column, I get to go to concerts, hear new recordings, read new books, and share with you insights and personal observations which may shed light on musical subjects. But this time, it is different. For some unexplained brainstorm, I felt the urge to go to my library and pick up an old book that I have owned for decades, but for whatever reason, never got around to reading.
The result was the delightfully witty A Smattering of Ignorance by Oscar Levant. In case you are not familiar with this name, here is a brief summary as to who he was.
Oscar Levant was born in Pittsburgh in 1906 to Orthodox Jewish Russian immigrants, and became a respected and popular Jazz pianist, composer, arranger, and a relentless promoter of his idol, George Gershwin. What made him such an entertaining personality and a favorite of the press was his outrageous behavior, colorful, witty vocabulary, and hilarious quotes which are in still use today. Levant acted in several films, most notably in An American in Paris, and is recognized as one of the greatest Gershwin interpreters. In the 1950’s he hosted a television talk show from a Los Angeles station (which I remember seeing as a teenager), but his program was discontinued after he made off-color, but clever remarks about other famous stars. He was a frequent guest in NBC’s Tonight Show, which at the time was hosted by Jack Paar.
I have his memorable long-play recording of the Rhapsody in Blue, and the Concerto in F. He was seen in thirteen films, playing the piano and acting, and recorded over 100 albums.
Levant’s first book, A Smattering of Ignorance, was published by Doubleday in 1939, quickly became a national best seller, and was called “brilliant” by Clifton Fadiman of the New York Times. It is a series of essays on Levant’s various life experiences, his early days, his studies (which included years of lessons with none other than Arnold Schoenberg), his encounters with famous musicians and show business personalities, such as Harpo Marx, and above all, his relationship with Gershwin and his family.
There are a few aspects of this book which I found fascinating. First, were Levant’s explanations on how music was scored for films. He details the relationships between the producers, directors, composers of film scores, and the roles of the arrangers. In the 1930’s and still today, not all film composers write all the music, all the tunes, and choose which instruments of the orchestra will play the arrangement. Many times, the latter is the job of the orchestrator, or arranger, who may actually be the person to bring out the greatness of a particular film score. For example, in many of the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit Broadway musicals, the orchestrations were done by a composer who may be remembered as the best ever at what he did, Robert Russell Bennett. Just look at your R&H musicals in albums which you may have at home, and you’ll see Bennett’s name there.
Also Levant details how film composers relied on familiar sounds already created by famous classical composers. You want a “French” sound? Imitate Debussy. You want the open prairie for a Western? What could be better than the familiar sound of Copland? Many other examples are given, together with entertaining and at times amazing anecdotes. He called these musical scores “generic” or “derivative”, probably differentiating between imitation of other styles, and open-faced stealth of musical material. He also credits truly original material.
He spoke of the famous producer, Daryll Zanuck, whom he described as “a man who knows, unfortunately, what he wants”. He wrote about the Russian born composer Sam Pokrass who struggled to be understood: “His mother tongue was broken English!” His detailed descriptions of being a guest many, many evenings at the home of Harpo Marx are also revealing. During the 1930’s Hollywood and Los Angeles became the home of many great creative minds, in music and other disciplines. This was in part driven by the many refugees from Nazi Germany who sought refuge and work in the U.S., the emergence of Hollywood as the film capital, and the changing opportunities in the New York area. The nicer weather helped too.
Just imagine the cccollection of great musicians which sought refuge and work opportunities in the West Coast: Arnold Schoenberg, Miklós Rósza, Erich W. Korngold, Otto Klemperer, Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, Artur Rubinstein, Gershwin, Bronislaw Kaper, Max Steiner, and many, many others, to say nothing of other artists, authors, scientists, entrepreneurs, and actors. The list is endless. All of the above met socially, played tennis and ping-pong, exchanged ideas and opinions, artistic and political, worked with each other, and enjoyed each others’ company. They also received frequent visits from Easterners, Copland, Morton Gould, publishers, and impresarios. All of this is vividly explained in the book.
It’s hard for me to visualize an encounter between Fanny Bryce and Schoenberg, possibly the most austere and misunderstood of the great composers. But, at the death of Gershwin, Schoenberg delivered this eulogy in a broadcast: “George Gershwin was one of this rare kind of musicians to whom music is not a matter of more or less ability. Music to him was the air he breathed, the food which nourished him, the drink that refreshed him. Music was what made him feel, and music was the feeling he expressed. Directness of this kind is given only to great men, and there is no doubt that he was a great composer. What he achieved was not only to the benefit of a national American music, but also a contribution to the music of the whole world.” These words ring true even more today.
Oscar Levant was married twice, first in the 1930’s, a marriage that as expected, lasted less than seven months, and then to June Gale, with whom, in spite of their highly publicized spats, he remained married until his death in 1972, . He was notorious for speaking about his prescription drug addictions, neuroses, mental hospital treatments, and hypochondria. They had three daughters. Levant is credited with so many quotes and quips that are worth recalling. I will share some of them with you in the next issue of San Diego Jewish World. Meanwhile, all the best for the New Year, Shana Tova, and Tizku L’Shanim Rabot.
Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra in San Diego and has guest conducted numerous professional orchestras around the world.