David Bruce: Music Anecdotes



Marietta Alboni (1823-1894), a contralto, once heard of a plot by some Italian patriots to have her hissed off the opera stage simply because she had been singing in foreign countries to foreigners. She learned that the conspirators were meeting at a certain tavern, so she put on men’s clothing, went to the tavern, and while pretending to be a man, joined the conspirators. They gave the new conspirator a whistle and said that it should be blown at a certain point in the performance, which would signal to everyone that the hissing should begin. After Ms. Alboni made her entrance on stage that night, wearing the whistle on a chain around her neck, a couple of conspirators began to hiss without waiting for the signal. Ms. Alboni walked to the front of the stage, held up the whistle, then said, “Gentlemen, are you not a little before your time?” Recognizing that they had been tricked, but being good sports, the conspirators gave her an ovation.

The New York City Ballet once appeared in Bologna, Italy, where they hired a orchestra that had been put together from musicians who played in local restaurants. Unfortunately, this orchestra did not know the music the New York City Ballet was performing, so choreographer George Balanchine told associate conductor Hugo Fiorato to get a machine gun and shoot them all! Although Mr. Balanchine wanted to cancel the performance, it was sold out and management convinced him to soldier on. The New York City Ballet performed to the music that was easiest to play, but even so, during “Serenade,” the musical instruments stopped playing one by one. Mr. Fiorato sang the music for the dancers, and the musical instruments began to play again one by one — but the dancers onstage were laughing.

Despite being a world-famous operatic tenor, Leo Slezak once spent a short time on the music hall stage and enjoyed it very much. (Music halls are places of popular entertainment, including dog shows, comedy acts, singers, etc. Think of USAmerican vaudeville.) Once a hotel chambermaid asked for a couple of free tickets for her and her boyfriend, which he readily provided. The next day, he asked her how she had enjoyed his performance, and she went on and on about his dancing dog and how she couldn’t understand how he had taught the dog so many tricks. Mr. Slezak realized, of course, that she had confused him with the man who had the dog act, so he asked what she had thought of the opera star on the same bill. “Oh,” she said, “I didn’t listen to him much — he seemed a bit wet.”

As a young man, Arturo Toscanini was able to meet Giuseppe Verdi and go over the score for Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces. Before their meeting, Toscanini studied the score carefully and was very puzzled over a passage. When he met Verdi, Toscanini played the passage, slowing down despite a temptation to maintain the tempo. Verdi was very pleased and slapped him on the back, saying “Bravo!” Toscanini replied, “But, Maestro, you don’t know what anguish that place has caused me. You gave no indication of a retard.” Verdi replied, “And can you imagine what some asses of conductors would make of it if I had marked a retard?”

Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky once agreed to write a piece of music a month for a publication, but he was afraid that he would forget to meet his obligation, so he told a servant to remind him each month when the piece was due. Unfortunately, his servant often told him, “Pyotr Ilich, tomorrow is the day,” forcing Tchaikovsky to quickly write a piece of music. Still, the 12 pieces of music, collectively known as “The Seasons,” are very listenable.

Anna Russell narrowly missed being an opera singer. Unfortunately, her career ended before it began after her nose was bashed with a stick in a school field hockey game. Still, she earned a living singing comic songs, and in her spare time, puttered around the house while the 14 hours of Wagner’s Ring cycle play in the background. (To perform the Ring cycle takes approximately 22 hours, but with records or CDs you don’t have to wait for the scenery to be moved or the singers to take a break.)

Robert Schumann wished to be a concert pianist, and he invented a device that he thought would help him develop independence in the fourth finger of his right hand. Unfortunately, the device crippled the finger, rendering it useless for playing the piano. As a consequence, he gave up his dream of being a great concert pianist and instead became a great Romantic composer.

As a young man, Felix Mendelssohn visited Munich in 1831, where he was dismayed by the quality of the music — at that time and that place, there was an indifference to serious music, and the works of Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart were not played. Therefore, at a party, Mendelssohn sat at a piano and performed Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. This was a big hit, and serious music became fashionable in Munich once more.

As a young conductor, Thomas Beecham gathered together a small orchestra of fine, spirited young players. They did a lot of traveling by train in the north of England, and each time they arrived at Preston Junction, they lit fireworks. Because of this habit, they became known as “The Fireworks Orchestra of Lancashire.”

Alfred Einstein enjoyed playing violin in an amateur quartet. One night, he was having great difficulty getting the count right in a piece by Joseph Haydn despite trying several times. Finally, one of his fellow musicians told the great physicist and mathematician, “The problem with you, Alfred, is that you simply can’t count.”

Austrian Emperor Joseph II once said about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, “Too beautiful for our ears and a great many notes, my dear Mozart.” Mozart replied, “Exactly as many as are necessary, Your Majesty.”

Not everyone likes modern classical music. As a teenager, caricaturist Sam Norkin was playing Jean Sibelius’ First Symphony when his father demanded to know how the record player got broken. After that experience, Mr. Norkin played Sibelius only in the basement.

Lionel Barrymore, who played many, many different roles as an actor, once said that he wanted his epitaph to read: “Well, I’ve played everything but a harp.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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