There’s a book shelved in my public library’s music section titled Exciting Easy Classics for Piano. It’s a compilation of 49 well-known classical pieces like “Flight of the Bumble Bee” by Rimsky-Korsakov and the theme from Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.” These are greatly simplified versions of the originals, focusing on their memorable melodies. Maybe that’s supposed to be the “exciting” part.
Liberace—man of fur capes, jewels, and sequined costumes—knew the importance of melody. For his performances, he edited classical pieces down to about five minutes. Some say that by knowing how to bring the melody forward, he turned classics into pop music. Liberace claimed he was simply taking out the boring bits:
“The whole trick is to keep the tune well out in front. If I play Tschaikovsky I play his melodies and skip his spiritual struggles. Naturally I condense. I have to know just how many notes my audience will stand for. If there’s time left over I fill in with a lot of runs up and down the keyboard.”
Crime-fiction author Elmore Leonard gave similar advice to aspiring writers: “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”
Liberace wasn’t always glitter and fluff. Early on, he wore a tux when performing. But wanting to stand out from other musicians, he soon developed a flamboyant style some described as “dress for excess.” He loved to borrow a quote from Mae West in response: “Too much of a good thing is wonderful.” Sartorial extravagance aside, Liberace was an accomplished pianist and inimitable showman.
The beloved World War II–era ballad “I’ll Be Seeing You” served as the closing theme for Liberace’s radio program in the 50s. There was a 1944 movie by the same name, starring Joseph Cotten, Ginger Rogers, and Shirley Temple, and a popular recording of the song by Bing Crosby later that year.
For nonagenarian Phil, hearing me play “I’ll Be Seeing You” brought back a memory he said hadn’t surfaced in years. As a teenager, he and the boys he hung around with used to change the words to the song and serenade their girlfriends: “I’ll be seizing you, in all the old familiar places.”
Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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