Richard Strauss had a rocky relationship with his wife, Pauline, and often there were senseless scenes with his wife yelling at him. Once, the Strausses and Lotte Lehmann were having coffee in a garden when rain suddenly arose, upsetting Pauline so much that she began yelling at her husband. Ms. Lehmann tried to defend him, saying, “But, Pauline, how can your husband stop the rain?” However, Mr. Strauss was used to bearing his wife’s outbursts patiently and told Ms. Lehmann, “Don’t defend me — that always makes it much worse.” While conducting Walküre in Vienna, Mr. Strauss kept making faces. Ms. Lehmann thought that he was making faces at her because he didn’t like the way she was singing, so she confronted him with an outburst after the opera. However, Mr. Strauss told her that he was making faces at a musician, then he added that her outburst had amused him because it showed that not just his wife was capable of such senseless scenes.
André Previn made his debut as a conductor at age 20 in Hollywood. At his first rehearsal, he stood in front of the orchestra, well aware of his youth, and wondering how he would be able to command the respect of the musicians in the orchestra, many of whom were his friends. He asked the oboe player for an A for the orchestra to tune up to, and he was shocked to hear an A-flat. He told the members of the orchestra, “Now everybody transpose a half-tone up.” Everybody laughed, and Maestro Previn had the respect of the orchestra.
Early in her career, Ernestine Schumann-Heink studied the lead role of Carmen. At first, she learned the part by ear, then she studied various performances of Carmen, learning something from each performance. Unfortunately, after she sang the role professionally for the first time — in an emergency and without a rehearsal — the conductor, Gustav Mahler, laughed and said that she had memorized the mistakes of all the different Carmens she had seen. (She was a hit, nevertheless.)
While in New Brunswick, conductor Pierre Monteux stopped at a group of cabins where he wanted to stay the night. However, a woman in the office told him, “Sorry, I have nothing!” Just then, a young girl went to the woman and whispered to her, telling her who Mr. Monteux was. The woman then said, “Excuse me, sir, I did not know that you were Someone. I think that I can accommodate you.” Mr. Monteux bowed to the woman and said, “Madame, everyone is Someone. Au revoir.”
What if you were in a plane, a storm arose, and you realized that your life could possibly end in a few minutes? What would you think? What would you say? What would you regret not having done? André Previn was in a plane with the conductor Sir John Barbirolli when this situation happened. Sir John, dismayed, said, “Oh it’s too awful! I haven’t even done all the Bruckners!’” Fortunately, the plane landed safely.
William McDermott became a music conductor because he could stand working in high altitudes. During a trip with a ballet troupe to La Paz, Bolivia (located at an altitude of 14,000 feet), Mr. McDermott, who was a pianist, felt fine, but the regular conductor, Eugene Fuerst, fell victim to altitude sickness. Ballerina Illaria Obidenna Ladré suggested that Mr. McDermott conduct, and so he began his career as a conductor.
While on tour with the Cleveland Symphony, violinist Josef Gingold was playing Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony — which frequently appeared on programs during the tour. Conductor George Szell leaned toward him after the first movement to ask, “Joe, take it easy. What are you giving so much for?” Mr. Gingold said, “George, I love this piece.” Mr. Szell replied, “I love it, too. But not every night.”
A conductor once tried to use poetic language to describe how some music should sound: “The music should sound as if you were playing on top of a high mountain, overlooking a bank of clouds. You are fanned by the winds ….” The concertmaster, however, thought that this was nonsense and said, “Look, just tell us whether you want the music played loud or soft.”
Theodore Thomas conducted a concert at which the 9,000 people in the audience were so enthusiastic that they applauded, stamped their feet, yelled, and made it impossible for the concert to continue. Finally, Mr. Thomas conducted his trumpets in a blast that drowned out the audience and made them quiet, then he continued with the concert.
Erich Leinsdorf was a competent conductor, but one fault he had was a small beat. This was a problem for dancers because dancing at a fast pace left little opportunity for catching his small beat. Some of the musicians in his orchestra also thought his beat was too small. At one rehearsal, one musician—a member of a strong union—used a telescope to focus on Mr. Leinsdorf’s beat.
One advantage of being a prominent conductor is being able occasionally to get advice from the prominent composer whose work you are conducting. Pierre Monteux occasionally worked with Claude Debussy, who used to stand behind him at rehearsals and sometimes shout, “Monteux, that’s a forte, and when I write a forte, I want a forte!”
Early in his career, Leonard Bernstein worked as an accompanist for choreographer Agnes de Mille’s dance classes. However, one day Ms. de Mille’s ballet master fired Mr. Bernstein because, the ballet master said, he could not keep time. Later, of course, Mr. Bernstein became the renowned conductor of the New York Philharmonic.
Charles O’Connell once visited the home of Arturo Toscanini, stayed late, and then telephoned for a taxi to take him home. He told the taxi company to send a cab to the home of Mr. Toscanini, but then felt a tap on his shoulder. The great conductor reminded him, “MAESTRO, not mister.”
Conductor Arturo Toscanini and soprano Helen Traubel once had a disagreement about how a phrase should be sung. Maestro Toscanini decided, “We will try it my way and try it your way.” After hearing both ways the phrase could be sung, Maestro Toscanini thought for a moment, then told Ms. Traubel, “Your way is better — we will do it your way.”
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
250 ANECDOTES ABOUT OPERA — LULU PAPERBACK