, ,

The Blessing of a Broken Leg


Sometimes a musician to make a tremendous effort just to go through with a performance. In the case of pianist Oscar Levant, a broken leg helped.

In 1955 Levant had a thirty-year performing career to his credit, but in recent seasons he had become better known for his cancellations than for his playing. In June of 1955 Howard Mitchell of Washington’s National Symphony did what few other conductors would do. He invited Levant to perform with the symphony. A year earlier Mitchell had run afoul of Levant’s nervousness when the pianist ran from the stage during a rehearsal. The planned concert had not happened.

Touched by this new vote of confidence, Levant accepted the invitation and began an effort to regain the coordination in his fingers. He practiced a few basic yoga breathing exercises learned from the English novelist Christopher Isherwood. He freed himself from all but one of the tranquilizers that he had come to rely on.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

The orchestra he faced for the rehearsal was the same one that had seen him run from the stage a year before. Much to his relief, Oscar Levant played beautifully, had never played better in his life. The orchestra stood up and cheered.

The next night, for the performance, the auditorium was filled. Levant waited nervously in the wings as the big concert Steinway was wheeled onstage. Then its back leg snapped and the instrument crashed to the floor. Would it become a symbol of Levant’s career?

Stagehands returned and propped the Steinway up with a sawhorse. The sight of the glamorous piano leaning on its ungainly crutch made Levant laugh, and in that instant, his tension broke.

He walked onstage to thunderous applause, shrugged at the tilting Steinway, sat down and delivered a magnificent performance of Gershwin’s piano concerto. It was a flash of the old brilliance for a man at the twilight of his career, thanks to the support of a friend, the performer’s own determination, and a broken piano leg