I doubt that many people under the age of forty remember Victor Borge, the comedian-pianist who died in 2000 at the miraculous age of ninety-one. He was a star for a very long time, first on radio, then TV, and Comedy in Music, his 1953 one-man show, ran for 849 consecutive performances on Broadway, a record which so far as I know remains unbroken. From there he went on the road and stayed there, giving sixty-odd concerts in the season before his death. Borge spent his old age basically doing Comedy in Music over and over again, which never seemed to bother anybody. I reviewed it twice for the Kansas City Star in the Seventies, and loved it both times. His Danish-accented delivery was so droll and his timing so devastatingly exact that even the most familiar of his charming classical-music spoofs somehow remained fresh, as you can see by watching any of the various videos of his act.
It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when so popular a comedian started out as a serious musician, much less one who became popular by making witty fun of the classics. Such a thing could only have happened in the days when America’s middlebrow culture was still intact and at the height of its influence. Back then the mass media, especially TV, went out of their way to introduce ordinary people to classical music and encouraged them to take it seriously–which didn’t mean they couldn’t laugh at it, too, as Borge proved whenever he sat down to play.
Borge’s act resembled a straight piano recital gone wrong. He’d start to play a familiar piece like Clair de lune or the “Moonlight” Sonata, then swerve off in some improbable-sounding direction, never getting around to finishing what he started. Yet he was clearly an accomplished pianist, though few of his latter-day fans had any idea how good he’d been (he studied with Egon Petri, Busoni’s greatest pupil). He usually made a point of playing a piece from start to finish toward the end of every concert, and I remember how delighted I was each time I heard him ripple through one of Ignaz Friedman’s bittersweet Viennese-waltz arrangements, which he played with a deceptively nonchalant old-world panache that never failed to leave me longing for an encore. Alas, he never obliged, and in later years I found myself wondering whether he’d really been quite so fine as my memory told me.
This story has a happy ending. I saw Borge on an old What’s My Line? episode the other day, which inspired me to look him up on the Web. Within a few clicks I’d made my way to a YouTube video consisting of unpublished recordings on which he tcan be heard playing (surprise) Friedman waltzes. Nowadays I know a whole lot more about golden-age piano playing now than I did back in the Seventies. Among other things, I’ve gotten to know Friedman’s own recordings, including his marvelously mercurial performances of three of the same waltz arrangements that Borge liked to play. Could he possibly have been up to the standard set by Friedman? I played the video with some trepidation, only to discover that my youthful ear hadn’t played me false: Borge, it turns out, could play with the utmost stylishness and sensitivity whenever it suited him to do so. You’ll never hear more elegant piano playing–not even from Ignaz Friedman himself.
I can’t tell you how glad I am to know that. It would have been too sad to find out long after the fact that Victor Borge’s playing had been no better than adequate. Life is hard enough without having to suffer purely gratuitous disillusionments. What joy, then, to discover that some things in this world really are as good as they’re cracked up to be.