David Bruce: Music Anecdotes

As a young boy, pianist Carl Czerny heard a family friend named Gelinek talk about how he was looking forward to meeting a pianist later that night at a party and how he and his friends were going to “thrash him” in a piano competition. The next day, however, Gelinek had to admit that he had been defeated: “That young man is possessed of the devil. Never have I heard such playing! He improvised on a theme I proposed like I never heard even Mozart improvise. Then he played compositions of his own, which are wonderful and grandiose to the highest degree.” Czerny’s father asked about the rival pianist’s name. “He is a short, ugly, swarthy, and obstinate-looking young man,” Gelinek replied, “and his name is Beethoven.”

Sometimes conductors can make mistakes. While conducting Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Eugene Ormandy was displeased with the horns, so he asked first horn Anton Horner to rehearse them. Mr. Horner did, but at his own tempo, not Maestro Ormandy’s. Afterward, Mr. Horner spoke to Maestro Ormandy, saying that the accelerando was in the music, and requesting that in conducting this passage, he follow the tempo established by the horns. Maestro Ormandy didn’t want to do that, but Mr. Horner pointed out, “If you were accompanying a Heifetz or Horowitz, you would follow him … Just follow the horns.” Maestro Ormandy did follow the horns, and the music sounded fine.

In 1597, Thomas Morley published a book titled A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musickethat stressed that the ability to sing is a necessary part of every well-born person’s education. As evidence, Mr. Morley relates this story about himself: “Supper being ended, and the Musicke bookes, according to the custome being brought to the table, the mistresse of the house presented mee with a part, earnestly requesting mee to sing. But when, after many excuses, I protested unfainedly that I could not: everie one began to wonder. Yea, some whispered to others, demanding how I was brought up.”

Early in his career, James W. Morrissey hired Russian pianist Anton Rubinstein to give a series of concerts in New York. Seeking something that would appeal to the public, Mr. Morrissey arranged for a program of light music by Johann Strauss. However, when Mr. Rubinstein saw the program shortly before he was scheduled to perform, he absolutely refused to go on stage, explaining that he was a serious artist and would be disgraced if he were ever to play such music. Fortunately, Mr. Morrissey was able to arrange a substitute program of suitable serious music.

A mother once asked George Bernard Shaw what musical instrument her son should learn to play, adding that she hoped that Shaw could specify an instrument which would save her the discomfort of the early learning stage during which her son would not have mastered the instrument. Shaw suggested that her son learn to play the bagpipes, because they sound exactly the same whether or not the musician knows how to play them.

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) was composing some music in bed when a page of the music he had composed fell on the floor. Since he didn’t feel like getting out of bed and picking up the sheet of music, he composed a duet. Later, a friend stopped by and picked up the sheet of music. Rossini didn’t want to throw it away, so he added it to the duet he had just composed and made it a trio.

Pianist Vladimir de Pachmann once dined with fellow musicians Leopold Godowsky (an especially good friend), Hans Richter, and Fritz Kreisler. In the course of the evening, Mr. de Pachmann said, “I am happy to be here with my four friends. There are four great musicians in the world. There is me. There is Godowsky. And then there is Bach and Chopin.”

Composer Arthur Sullivan enjoyed drinking. In fact, one day he was so inebriated that he found it difficult to tell his house from the other houses on his street. Therefore, he kicked the metal shoe scraper on each top step he came to. Eventually, he murmured, “E flat,” and then went to his door and let himself in.

Sir Thomas Beecham once had to cancel a week of rehearsals for a concert at which Brahms’ Second Symphony would be played. This made a young musician nervous because, as he told Sir Thomas, he had never played Brahms’ Second Symphony before. Unperturbed, Sir Thomas replied, “Then you’ll just love it when you play it at the concert.”

Unfortunately, at some operas, the music and the singers don’t finish at the same time. Orchestra leader Gottfried Schmidt once told of finishing five full seconds before the singers in the second act of a 1981 performance of Carmen. In fact, Mr. Schmidt boasted, “Next time we shall beat them by 10 seconds.”

Sometimes symphony musicians don’t like the new music they are playing. At a rehearsal for the premiere of Claude Debussy’s La Mer, the musicians grew bored with the music. One of the musicians took the score, made a paper boat of it, and then used his foot to push it along the floor. Soon many other musicians followed suit.

As a young girl of 16, Emma Abbott was so eager to hear opera singer Parepa-Rosa in New York that she played her guitar and sang to earn money while traveling from Illinois to New York — and did not hear Parepa-Rosa, because the prima donna was ill.

Pianist Moriz Rosenthal disliked much modern music. He once listened to three piano students rehearsing three different pieces of music at a school for pianists, then said, “Ah, modern music.”

Arturo Toscanini was annoyed by a musician who continually tuned his violin during each pause in a rehearsal. He told the violinist, “It’s not the A that counts, but the B.”

In 1787, Ludwig van Beethoven, then a teenager, played the piano for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who said, “Someday he will make a big noise in the world.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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