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More about Oscar Levant

September 16, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By David Amos

David Amos

SAN DIEGO–In my last column, I shared with you my comments and enthusiasm upon reading a book by Oscar Levant, A Smattering of Ignorance.

Here are some more quotes from the book that I found informative and entertaining:

“In the musical Damsel in Distress, Gershwin wrote a big, robust song called Sing of Spring, which has the circumstance, if not the pomp of Elgar.”

“During an evening at Harpo Marx’s home, composer Erich W. Korngold took his place at the piano to play some music of his own. I remember in particular a waltz which Korngold played so lustily and with such enthusiasm, with a manner truly “Wienerisch”, that the ivory, (somewhat loosened by the Santa Monica sea air) began to peel from the keys. Unperturbed, Korngold brushed them away and continued to play as though it were an everyday occurrence for the ivory to come off the keys when he played.”

” It was authoritatively reported that all Santa Monica reeled under the impact of his bass, and the seismograph at UCLA registered a major tremor.”

Commenting on the work of a famous producer: “Now I know why he can make those instantaneous decisions; he is never deflected by thought.”

In reference to the group of composers who regularly met with Aaron Copland: “It was the outcome of a little group of which I was a member, whose leitmotif was bad manners.”

On programming modern and American music in concerts: “The public was less than apathetic; it was largely speaking, frankly hostile”.  And, “The greatest quantity of American music  in the beginning of the twentieth century and the experimental styles that followed was so lacking in individuality that I often wondered if the composer himself would recognize a piece of his own if he didn’t know it was going to be played. The complete characterization of the average American “modern” work of that period was pronounced by an unregenerate listener who remarked, after hearing one, It sounds like an accompaniment to something.”

But, for another view, Aaron Copland is quoted as saying  “That attitude is a result simply of the fact that for years American music was not very good, and everybody knew it. But now the situation is different. Our composers have craftsmanship and the greater competence of their writing is a commonplace. Therefore, a new attitude toward it by the critics must be formed.”

Levant studied piano with Leopold Stokowski. He recalls that at a lesson, he told his teacher, “I think I’ll play Debussy’s Reflets dans L’Eau, or Poissons d’Or. To which Stokowski, after looking at him intently for a moment, responded, “Your piano playing has not improved, but your French is.”

On the subject of the many books that have been written on how to listen to music, he commented that “The thesis here is that every scrap of information bearing upon a symphony, a tone poem, an overture, or a concerto, when added together, will total a sum of knowledge equal to the one thing that the reader lacks: a liking for music.”

On his own compositions: “An orchestra was brought together and began to rehearse my Sinfonietta. Mine was the kind of piece in which nobody knew what was going on (including the composer, the conductor, and the critics). Consequently, I got pretty good notices.”

On the music of Henry Cowell: “I have a particularly fond recollection of his piece called Angels, scored for six trumpets and played by a half-dozen bald Italians of indeterminate poundage from the Metropolitan Opera House Orchestra. Indifferent to the surroundings and almost visibly contemptuous of the music they were present to perform, they went about their duties in a patronizing manner that portrayed more vividly than words how much they rather would be playing the Triumphal March from Aida.”

On the affluent patrons of the arts: “I don’t mean to identify myself with such men, but if the problem is acute for them, how much more so was it going to be for me? Even patrons and patronesses are not much help, for the cultivation for them is an occupation even more exacting than trying to earn a living. Also, their interest is much overrated. Most of them prefer horses.”

On Noel Coward being able to extract a huge amount of money for the rights to his work Design for Living: “Only an artist could drive such a bargain. A businessman wouldn’t have the nerve!”

And, here are a few quips and witty remarks for which Levant became famous:

When Frank Sinatra Jr. was kidnapped, he said, “It must have been done by music critics.”

“What the world needs is more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left”.

“I’m a concert pianist. That’s a pretentious way of saying that I am unemployed at the moment.”

“I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”

“The only difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Democrats allow the poor to be corrupt too.”

“Leonard Bernstein is revealing musical secrets that have been common knowledge for centuries.”

When asked by Jack Paar to describe his reaction to Milton Berle converting to become a Christian Scientist, he said “Our loss is their loss.”

“I’m a study of a man in chaos in search of frenzy.”

“Happiness isn’t something you experience; it’s something you remember.”

“Every time I look at you I get a fierce desire to be lonesome!”

“I don’t drink. I don’t like it. It makes me feel good.”

“I’ve given up reading books. I find it takes my mind off myself.”

“So little time, and so little to do.”

“I only make jokes when I’m feeling insecure.”

Almost every page is full of clever, wise, and enlightening bits of information. Very refreshing.

Oscar Levant wrote two other books, The Memoirs of an Amnesiac, and The Unimportance of Being Oscar. I look forward to reading these books, and sometime in the future, sharing with you some insightful comments and outrageous quotes from their contents.


Amos is conductor of the Tifereth Israel Community Orchestra in San Diego and has guest conducted numerous professional orchestras around the world.


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