Skip to main content Accessibility help

Beyond the Candelabra: The Liberace Show and the Remediation of Beethoven


Liberace entered the sprawling scene of US pop culture in 1952 emceeing a TV show that initially garnered higher ratings than I Love Lucy. The Liberace Show presented staples of the classical piano repertoire in abridged versions that cut the “dull parts” and liberally added orchestrations. Liberace's heterodox practices outraged prominent music critics, who soon deemed him the very incarnation of kitsch. Turning from aesthetic criticism to an archaeological analysis of media, I discuss the show's presentation of classical music, taking as its main case study Liberace's iconoclastic rendition of Beethoven's “Tempest” sonata, and examine it through the theory of remediation advanced by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. Analyzing archival videos, I show how the alterations exerted on the musical text were inextricably tied to the telegenic mise-en-scènes staged for each episode while situating them in the new media landscape that emerged in the 1950s. The show remediated not only the pieces Liberace performed but also his own TV persona to nurture an intimate bond with home viewers who became captivated by the host's enchanting presence. I contend that Liberace's remediations drastically collapsed the specificity of performance medium that modern critics construed to be immanent to the musical work. This collapse entailed a proliferation of musical and audiovisual media that afforded Liberace's devoted viewers an alluring experience of immediacy and ultimately retrieved the domestic intimacy that had been integral to the genealogy of the piano sonata.

Hide All
Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Edited and translated by Hullot-Kentor, Robert. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
Albrecht, Theodore. “Beethoven and Shakespeare's Tempest: New Light on An Old Allusion.” Beethoven Forum 1 (1992): 8192.
Beethoven, Ludwig van. Piano Sonatas Volume II. Edited by Wallner, Bertha Antonia and Hansen, Conrad. Munich: G. Henle Verlag, 1980.
Benjamin, Walter. The Origin of German Tragic Drama. Translated by Osborne, John. New York: Verso, 1998.
Bergé, Pieter et al. , ed. Beethoven's “Tempest” Sonata: Perspectives of Analysis and Performance. London: Peeters, 2009.
Bolter, Jay David and Grusin, Richard. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000.
Candee, Marjorie Dent, ed. Current Biography Yearbook 1954. New York: H. H. Wilson, 1954.
Carroll, Noël. “The Specificity of Media in the Arts.” The Journal of Aesthetic Education 19, no. 4 (1985): 520.
Caves, Richard E. Switching Channels: Organization and Change in TV Broadcasting. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.
Cooke, Mervyn. A History of Film Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Corliss, Richard. “Liberace: The Evangelist of Kitsch.” Time November 3, 1986, 96.
Doty, Alexander. “The Cabinet of Lucy Ricardo: Lucille Ball's Star Image.” Cinema Journal 29, no. 4 (1990): 322.
Edgerton, Gary, ed. The Columbia History of American Television. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
Fletcher, James. “Syndication.” In Encyclopedia of Television, 2nd ed., edited by Newcomb, Horace, 4:2247–48. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004.
Fuller-Seeley, Kathryn H.Learning to Live With Television: Technology, Gender, and America's Early TV Audience.” In The Columbia History of American Television, edited by Edgerton, Gary, 90110. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
Fried, Michael. “Art and Objecthood,” in Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Gimbly, Robert S., and Wayne, John L.. When Liberace Winks at Me. Toronto: BMI Canada, 1954.
Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.
Head, Matthew. Sovereign Feminine: Music and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Germany. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Translated by Lovitt, William. New York: Garland Publishing, 1977.
Greenberg, Clement. “Towards a Newer Laocoon.” Partisan Review 7 (1940): 296310.
Goehr, Lydia. The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Jagoda, Patrick. Network Aesthetics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Krauss, Rosalind. A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999.
Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim. Laokoon, oder über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie: Studienausgabe. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2012.
Loesser, Arthur. Men, Women, and Pianos: A Social History. 2nd rev. ed. New York: Dover, 1990.
Pyron, Darden Asbury. Liberace: An American Boy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Reed, Robert M. The Encyclopedia of Television, Cable, and Video. Boston: Springer, 1992.
Schindler, Anton. Beethoven As I Knew Him. Edited by MacArdle, Donald W.. Translated by Jolly, Constance S.. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1996.
Severo, Richard. “Howard Taubman, 88, a Times Music Critic,” New York Times, January 9, 1996.
Spigel, Lynn. Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001.
Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966.
Taubman, Howard. “A Square Looks at a Hotshot,” New York Times, March 14, 1954.
Teachout, Terry. “The New-Media Crisis of 1949: Network Radio's Fate Has Some Lessons for Today,” Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2009.
Thomas, Bob. Liberace: The True Story. New York: St. Martin's, 1987.
Thompson, Michael. Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Thorson, Scott. Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace. New York: Dutton, 1988.
Thym, Jürgen. “The Instrumental Recitative in Beethoven's Compositions.” In Essays on Music for Charles Warren Fox, edited by Graue, Jerald C., 230–40. Rochester, NY: Eastman School of Music Press, 1979.
Tibbetts, John C. Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.
White, Rosie. “Funny Peculiar: Lucille Ball and the Vaudeville Heritage of Early American Television Comedy.” Social Semiotics 26, no. 3 (2016): 298310.
Witt, Edythe. “Mature Women Are Best: TV's Top Pianist Reveals What Kind of Woman He'd Marry.” Coronet 37 (1954): 7983.
Wyatt, Sally. “Technological Determinism is Dead; Long Live Technological Determinism.” In The Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, edited by Hackett, Edward J. et al. , 165–80. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.
Brendel, Alfred. Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas. Philips 446 909-2. CD set, 1996.
Chopin, Frédéric. Liberace Plays Chopin. Columbia CL 723, 1952.
Liberace. Liberace: Classic Piano Favorites. SYN-067. Compilation of episodes from The Liberace Show (1952–55). CD and DVD. New York: Synergy Entertainment, 2007.
Liberace. Liberace TV Classics. FC 488. Compilation of episodes from The Liberace Show (1954–56). Whittier, CA: Film Chest, 2013.
Rubinstein, Arthur. Rubinstein Chopin Waltzes. Recorded 1963. RCA Victor Red Seal LM 2726. Vinyl LP.
Soderbergh, Steven, dir. Behind the Candelabra. Burbank, CA: HBO Home Entertainment, 2013.
Vidor, Charles, dir. A Song to Remember. Columbia Pictures, 1945. Burbank, CA: Sony Pictures, 2008, DVD.
Liberace, “TV Show opening credits NBC 1952,” YouTube video, 1:46, posted by “Gilmore Box,” November 3, 2012,
Liberace, “Liberace Beethoven's First movement D minor Sonata,” YouTube video, 4:10, from The Liberace Show, posted by “showmanlee,” August 7, 2008,
“Peggy King: ‘When Liberace Winks at Me’,” YouTube video, 3:04, posted by “Eben Adams,” March 7, 2014,
“What's My Line? Liberace,” YouTube video, 3:15, What's My Line, episode broadcast on May 3, 1964, posted by “romeman01,” January 30, 2014,×8.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Journal of the Society for American Music
  • ISSN: 1752-1963
  • EISSN: 1752-1971
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-society-for-american-music
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed