David Bruce: Music Anecdotes


In 1956, Elvis Presley was a recording phenomenon, turning out hit after hit, and songwriters — including friends and colleagues Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, writers of “Hound Dog” — really, really wanted him to record their songs. Mr. Stoller was on the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria when it sank, and he was one of the fortunate people who managed to survive. When Mr. Stoller arrived back home, safe and sound, meeting him was Mr. Leiber. However, rather than talking about Mr. Stoller’s recent escape from death, Mr. Leiber wanted to talk about a more pressing matter: “Elvis Presley’s recorded ‘Hound Dog’! Elvis Presley’s recorded ‘Hound Dog’!”

Kirsten Flagstad once recorded a number of arias in three hours of hard work, then she and Arthur O’Connell, the man in charge of the recording, went to lunch. He asked if she were tired, and she explained that she was not tired vocally, but that a certain muscle ached from standing. She then took his hand, put it on her inner thigh, and said, “The muscle is all stiffened up. Can’t you feel that muscle?” Mr. O’Connell could feel the muscle, and he almost died of embarrassment as all the people in the Waldorf dining room stared at them.

For a while, Marc Cherry, the openly gay creator of TV’s Desperate Housewives, named every episode after a song title by Stephen Sondheim. This got him Mr. Sondheim’s attention, and Mr. Sondheim sent him this note: “Next time you’re in town, give me a call and you can tell me how much you like my work.” (Mr. Sondheim can get away with messages like that because he is so successful and because he is over 75 years old.) In fact, Mr. Cherry did get to have dinner with and spend five hours talking to Mr. Sondheim.

During World War II, opera singer Helen Traubel offered her services to a Chicago servicemen’s canteen. Of course, not everyone likes opera music, and she overheard a sailor groan and tell a friend, “Oh, no! Not more of that long-hair stuff!” Therefore, she told the audience, “I shall begin with a song by a composer who has made the peasants of my home town famous among music lovers all over the world” — then she turned torch singer and belted out the “St. Louis Blues.”

Not everyone likes chamber music. Arthur Catterall used to lead the BBC Symphony. One day, he was in a taxi when the driver looked at his violin and asked if he ever played on the radio. When Mr. Catterall replied that he did, the cabbie asked, “Do you ever take part in those Sunday afternoons of chamber music?” Mr. Catterall replied in the affirmative, so the cabbie stopped his taxi, opened the door, and said, “Well, you can jolly well walk!”

Pierre Monteux once conducted pianist Artur Schnabel and the San Francisco Symphony in Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. All went excellently, and at the end both Mr. Monteux and Mr. Schnabel were weeping. Mr. Schnabel took Mr. Monteux’s hands in his own and whispered to him, “We are two old fools who love music very much, Monteux.” Too overcome with emotion to say anything, Mr. Monteux nodded in agreement.

Composer Giuseppe Verdi, composer of La traviata, Aida, and Otello, was greatly loved by the Italian people. When he was old, he entered a buffet at a railroad station, and all present stood up with their hats off until he sat down. After he had finished his meal, all present stood up again and lined his path to the train with their cloaks, which Verdi stepped on as he bowed and acknowledged his countrymen’s compliment.

Pianist Artur Schnabel disliked the tempo that conductor Otto Klemperer was setting for a Beethoven concerto, so he signaled — behind the maestro’s back — the tempo he preferred to the other musicians. Mr. Klemperer noticed, and he pointed to the podium, then told Mr. Schnabel, “Klemperer is here!” Mr. Schnabel replied, “Klemperer is there, and I am here. But where is Beethoven?”

As a boy, Richard Goode practiced at the piano, playing of course the same pieces over and over. A neighbor, Rabbi Ginzburg, once asked Richard’s father why his son did this. Mr. Goode replied, “Rabbi, haven’t you been saying the same prayers over and over since you were a child?” Afterward, Rabbi Ginzburg often could be heard humming to himself Richard’s piano music.

Roy Henderson once sang with a small town choral society in Yorkshire. At the end of the concert, the conductor asked what he thought of the choir. Of course, Mr. Henderson replied that it was a very good choir, and the conductor said, “Aye, an’ I don’t mind tellin’ ee that we ’ad four basses ready to taak thy part if tha’d conked out.”

When Mabel Wagnalls interviewed opera singer Lilli Lehmann, she was shocked when Ms. Lehmann mentioned her date of birth, so she said, “The American ladies so seldom give their age that your frankness is a revelation.” Ms. Lehmann smiled, then replied, “Why not? One is thereby no younger.”

Musicians can get tired of playing the same music — even great music — over and over throughout an opera season. Critic Patrick J. Smith remembers seeing a musician at the end of a performance of Götterdämmerung lean over and kiss the last page of the score.

Sid Caesar’s father wanted him to become a musician and not be forced to work in a restaurant. One day, his father came home carrying a saxophone and told him, “Sidney, you’re going to learn the saxophone.” Sid asked, “Why?” His father answered, “Because someone left one in the restaurant.”

Claude Debussy listened to the very first playing of his String Quartet, then told the musicians, “You play the movement twice as fast as I thought it should go.” He paused and let the faces of the musicians fall, then added, “But it’s so much better your way.”

The music of a jukebox in a bar can get annoying after a while. That’s why CBS in 1953 produced a record titled “Three Minutes of Silence,” which gave exactly that when a customer selected it from the records in a jukebox.

Outdoor church sign: “Wanted: Large Mouth Bass for Church Choir.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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