David Bruce: Music Anecdotes



A common occurrence at many classical music concerts is discovering that the program is incorrectly printed. Unfortunately, this happens even at the highest level of the music world. Famed conductor Sir Thomas Beecham once told his audience during a concert: “Ladies and gentlemen, in upwards of fifty years of concert-giving before the public, it has seldom been my good fortune to find the program correctly printed. Tonight is no exception to the rule, and therefore, with your kind permission, we will now play you the piece which you think you have just heard.”

Leonard Bernstein was rehearsing Falstaff when the trombone choir failed to hit a note in unison. This surprised Maestro Bernstein, as it wasn’t a hard note to hit in unison. Caricaturist Sam Norkin was watching rehearsal, and from his seat, he could tell what the problem was. The music stands of the trombonists did not contain the music of Falstaff; instead, they held such reading matter as the Racing Form, the National Enquirer, Reader’s Digest, and the sports page from the New York Daily News.

Opera singer Leo Slezak’s son Walter toyed with the idea of becoming a composer. Unfortunately, he was not a very good composer. Once, he wrote a flute solo that was 64 bars long. His music teacher examined the solo, then asked, “When does the flute player breathe?” On another occasion, he tried to write an opera titled Nero, which opened with Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Unfortunately, Walter didn’t know what to write to follow such an exciting beginning.

A Hollywood producer wanted Arnold Schoenberg to compose incidental music for the movie version of Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth. To get Mr. Schoenberg interested, the producer described a scene — a storm rages, an earthquake occurs, and in the middle of all this, the character Oo-lan gives birth. After the very vivid description, Mr. Schoenberg asked, “With so much going on, what do you need music for?”

David Raskin was a music composer for the movies. One day, a couple of friends teased him, saying that his work was unimportant. After all, the great director Alfred Hitchcock had decided not to have any music in his new movie, because it took place on a lifeboat, and there wouldn’t be any music out there — where would it come from? Mr. Raskin replied, “You go ask Mr. Hitchcock where his cameras come from out in the middle of the ocean and I’ll tell him where the music comes from.”

Billy Rose once tried to impress choreographer Agnes de Mille with his plans for an arts production. Among other things, he asked what she would think if Leopold Stokowski came out in his theater and conducted a symphony orchestra in Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” Ms. de Mille replied that she would be surprised, as no doubt would Mr. Stokowski, since “Clair de Lune” was written for solo piano, not for a symphony orchestra.

The Russian Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Modest Altschuler, was playing Beethoven’s Leonore No. 3 at an outdoor park. Just as the first trumpeter, stationed away from the orchestra, raised his horn to his lips to play the offstage fanfare, a park policeman ran over to him and grabbed the trumpet away from him, saying, “You can’t do that here! Don’t you know there’s a concert going on?”

Father Bob Perella was known as the priest to the stars. Frequently, he hung around with Perry Como. One day Father Bob and Mr. Como met Vic Damone, who was also with a priest. When Father Bob asked Mr. Damone what was up, he replied, “If you can make Perry such a big star, you must have a pretty good connection. I figured I’d use somebody from the same agency.”

Avant-garde composer John Cage created a piece titled 4’33” in which the musician sits without playing for four minutes and 33 seconds. This piece was first performed on August 29, 1952 by pianist David Tudor in Woodstock, New York. (The piece can also be played by any instrument and by any ensemble.)

Tenor Gilbert Louis Duprez once sang a high C in Gioacchino Rossini’s apartment. Mr. Rossini checked to see if any of his glassware had shattered; later, he said that the tone of the high C had been like “the squawk of a capon whose throat is being cut.”

African-American singer Marion Anderson was a huge success in Europe before she became a success in the United States. One day, she visited composer Jean Sibelius, who hugged her and said, “My child, my roof is too low for you.”

Among the many debts that we owe to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is that he inspired Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. When Tchaikovsky was about 10 years old, he saw a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni; the opera so impressed him that he decided to devote his life to music.

After George Bernard Shaw heard a young Jascha Heifetz play the violin, he sent him this note: “Young man — Such perfection annoys the gods. You should play one or two wrong notes after each performance to appease them.”

While dancing with the Diaghilev Ballet, young ballerinas Alicia Markova and Alexandra Danilova used to be taught privately by George Balanchine, who hummed marches for them to dance to because they didn’t have a pianist.

John Banner of TV’s Hogan’s Heroes used to perform at state fairs with a rock and roll band while dressed in his Sergeant Schultz (“I know nothing! I see NOTHING!”) uniform.

Enrico Caruso, the great opera tenor, once appeared at a benefit with comic Joe Frisco, who told him, “Don’t sing ‘Darktown Strutters Ball’ — I use it for my finish.”

George Frideric Handel composed some Royal Fireworks Music for a fireworks display honoring King George II. The evening was spectacular — the fireworks box caught on fire.

Ludwig van Beethoven concentrated on the important things. His young student Carl Czerny often would show up for a piano lesson, but Beethoven would cancel it because he was busy composing.

Arturo Toscanini enjoyed listening to music on records — while listening, he had a habit of holding his baton and conducting.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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