By J. Bryan Lowder
Was Liberace really that great of a piano man?
In Behind the Candelabra, the first time we encounter Michael Douglas’ Liberace is, naturally, on stage, treating his Vegas audience to a little bit of the boogie-woogie. He deftly carries the jaunty rhythmic bass line in his left hand while adding the melodic riff in his right between bouts of patter with the audience. And if you didn’t think talking and playing (and grinning) at the same time was impressive enough, how about that little “experiment,” as Liberace puts it, where he effortlessly plays the tune double-time—you know, 16 beats to the bar instead of 8?
Soderbergh’s Liberace clearly knows his way around the keyboard, but what about the actual man? He’s remembered primarily as the paragon of kitschy taste, but was Liberace actually a good pianist?
It depends on what you mean by “good.” In assessing Liberace’s skill as a musician, the problem is one of aesthetic perspective—are we using high-art concert criteria or measuring him by entertainment value? In terms of the latter, Liberace was undeniably one of the most successful and impressive performers of the 20th century. He regularly played sold-out shows at all the major venues (Hollywood Bowl, Radio City, etc.) and revolutionized the use of television as a medium for musical entertainment with his weekly program. (In Candelabra, Liberace claims to have been the first performer to look, and wink, directly into the camera.) But as far as “proper” piano technique goes, the reviews were mixed.
What’s certain is that Władziu Valentino Liberace had the potential to be a great concert pianist. He was described as a prodigy during his teenage years in the suburbs of Milwaukee, often eschewing typical social activities to practice instead. His father was himself a semi-professional musician who seems to have ignored family duties in favor of attending concerts and buying records. Liberace studied piano under the guidance of his dad from an early age; when he’d outgrown him, he moved on to the tutelage of noted performer and teacher Florence Kelly. Under Kelly’s direction, Liberace entered and won a series of performance competitions and prestigious auditions, culminating in a 1940 performance of Liszt’s A major piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony. He was 20 years old.
Critics at the time raved. “One always felt the sure hand of the craftsman, and sometimes there came the transfigured moments which only genius can create,” wrote Richard Davis of the Milwaukee Journal. However, another reviewer, writing about an earlier concert, suggested that though Liberace was poised to earn “a considerable place in [classical] music” given his “talent for flair and showmanship,” he needed “the toning of years and deeper experience.” In other words, his penchant for bombast needed to be tempered with the musical sensitivity and nuance that the best concert performers develop over time. This is where Liberace and serious concert pianism part ways.
According to biographer Darden Pyron, even when Liberace performed classical repertoire from the likes of Beethoven and Bach, he took a cue from his idol, the Polish piano star Ignacy Paderewski, and enhanced the show with “dramatic and, literally, spectacular playing.” He favored technical sparkles like hand-over-hand maneuvers, unnecessarily large lifts—and not only at the end of a piece, where they often appear—and an almost slap-like approach to large chords. Later, Liberace was not above tarting up a classic by adding sweeping glissandi, flashy (and impressively accurate) full-keyboard “run” passages, and other ornamentations to enliven the music, which he also almost always shortened from more stuffy lengths to a few minutes at most. Such excerpting worked well for his emerging act, which—after the surprisingly popular inclusion of the ditty “Three Little Fishies” as an encore an otherwise classical program—eventually became a mix of popular forms and technically showy and/or sappily romantic classical-lite.
Of course, Liberace’s personal style was far more popular—and lucrative—than high-art piano playing could ever be. But that didn’t mean that critics had to like it. In a hilariously catty 1954 assessment of the entertainer (“A Square Looks at a Hotshot”), New York Times music critic Howard Taubman remarked on Liberace’s talent for “compression,” lily-gilding, and other… gifts:
“What kind of a pianist is Liberace? Don’t ask a square with Horowitz and Rubenstein on the brain. He’ll say that Liberace is not much more than a parlor pianist who ought to be kept in someone else’s parlor. Such a bilious critic will point out a lot of flaws—slackness of rhythms, wrong tempos, distorted phrasing, an excess of prettification and sentimentality, a failure to stick to what the composer has written.”
And that’s not the end of what Taubman imagines this square of a critic might say. But then, who cares what a critic thinks? It’s probably best to end with Liberace’s impact on musically inclined children: According to a 1954 item in the St. Petersburg Times, while piano teachers were mixed on the showman’s influence overall, certain tics were clearly a problem. Henry A. Mullines of Atlanta said that his students “frequently lose their place when they lift their hands like their hero,” and that he “even has pupils beg to talk between numbers on a recital program, as the television star does.” Show-offs.