Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Following George Gershwin’s death in 1937, his friend and fellow pianist Oscar Levant (1906-1972) constructed a multifaceted professional career across many forms of modern media that not only helped him build and maintain his popular status as a Gershwinite, but also helped establish Gershwin’s piano music in the American concert hall canon. For nearly twenty years, Levant – more often than any other pianist – performed Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F in concert halls, in outdoor stadia, on radio, and in films. He first came to national attention in 1938 as a regular panelist on the radio quiz show Information Please. His weekly demonstrations of his vast musical memory amazed listeners, and his rapport with his fellow panelists and penchant for a smart jibe or quick retort earned him popularity as a wit. With 1939, he used his radio fame to launch an additional career as a touring pianist, and by 1942 many Americans recognized him as the leading interpreter of the Rhapsody and the Concerto in F. Levant performed works by other composers, as well, but none so often as Gershwin, and he maintained his popular status as top Gershwin pianist for many years. Levant’s success as a pianist hinged upon his identity as a culturally fluid musician, one who moved effortlessly between the popular and serious musical spheres. In the early twentieth century, American middlebrow consumers sought cultural self-improvement – including a better understanding of classical music – in their spare time and through easily accessible means, like the radio, recordings, affordable concerts, and films. As a radio pianist, Levant often played Gershwin’s music on many different radio programs, particularly the variety and symphony concert formats. As a touring pianist, Levant often appeared as a symphony guest musician in “pops,” benefit, or other special concerts the general public could afford. One particular popular venue, the outdoor Lewisohn Stadium in New York City, featured Levant as pianist for its annual Gershwin Nights for many years. Levant was the first pianist to record all of Gershwin’s large works for piano, and his recording of Rhapsody in Blue remained a bestseller for many years. Finally, Levant was the only pianist in the 1940s and early 1950s to play Gershwin’s piano music in major motion pictures, like Irving Rapper’s Rhapsody in Blue (1945), Lloyd Bacon’s You Were Meant for Me (1948), and Vincente Minelli’s An American in Paris (1951). At a time when Gershwin’s brand of classical-jazz was not considered concert-hall canon, Levant used his celebrity status to build a successful wide-ranging career, and he brought performances of his friend’s music to vast audiences eager to hear it. Levant’s work during this period helped establish Gershwin’s piano music in the American concert-hall canon. Until now, there has been no academic inspection of Levant’s career and his importance to the legacy of George Gershwin’s music. Levant himself wrote three humorous autobiographies: A Smattering of Ignorance (1940), The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965), and The Unimportance of Being Oscar (1968). Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger’s A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant (1998) is currently the only Levant biography available. Due to the mass digitization of numerous national newspapers and periodicals, this dissertation uncovers new information particularly concerning Levant’s boyhood in Pittsburgh, his early career as a pianist in New York City, his work as a radio pianist, and his hundreds of recitals and symphony orchestra guest appearances from the late 1930s to the mid-1950s. Finally, this document draws upon Levant’s personal papers and documents available at the Library of Congress and the University of Southern California.
Chair and Committee
Ben Duane, Howard Pollack, Alexander Stefaniak, Gaylyn Studlar,
Boyd, Caleb Taylor, "Oscar Levant: Pianist, Gershwinite, Middlebrow Media Star" (2020). Arts & Sciences Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2169.