David Bruce: Critics Anecdotes

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VOLTAIRE

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Voltaire could be an outspoken critic. When Jean Jacques Rousseau sent him a copy of his “Ode to Posterity,” asking for his opinion, Voltaire replied, “I do not think that this poem will reach its destination.”

J.R.R. Tolkien had an unfinished children’s story which the London publishers George Allen & Unwin heard about. The chair of George Allen & Unwin got hold of a copy and gave it to Raynor, his 11-year-old son, to read. He also said that he would give a shilling to young Raynor if he wrote a review; thus, Raynor became the first critic of the manuscript that would become The Hobbit—he liked it. As a result of Raynor’s one-paragraph, somewhat misspelled review, George Allen & Unwin decided to publish the novel, and Mr. Tolkien, of course, went on to write The Lord of the Rings. After he had grown up, Raynor said, “I earned that shilling. I wouldn’t say that my report was the best critique of The Hobbit that has been written, but it was good enough to ensure that it was published.”

Joan Hammond once starred in a BBC radio performance of an opera at which she was not present. The opera was Turandot, and she was scheduled to sing two performances. The first performance went well, but the second performance a few days later found Ms. Hammond ill and in bed. Fortunately, the BBC was able to use the recording of Ms. Hammond’s part which they had made in recording the first performance and integrate it with the live singers in the radio studio. Ms. Hammond states, “Some kind people even thought that I had sung better on the second night!”

Bruno Walter could be a very good critic as well as a very good conductor. He once saw Lotte Lehmann perform Elsa in Lohengrin. The next day, Ms. Lehmann waited to hear what he had to say about her performance, but he remained silent, so she asked him point blank for his opinion. He told her, “Yesterday I saw something which I don’t ever want to see in you, which doesn’t go with you at all: routine.” Ms. Lehmann listened seriously to his comments, and she wrote later, “Never again did I sing Elsa with ‘routine.’”

Even a dog can be a critic. Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed a number of mansions, but he also designed a number of modest houses. After schoolteacher Robert Berger built his own house using Mr. Wright’s design, his 12-year-old son wrote Mr. Wright asking him to design a matching doghouse. Mr. Wright did exactly that, and Mr. Berger and his son built the doghouse. However, their labrador retriever, Eddie, apparently did not like the doghouse and so never went into it.

John Martin, dance critic for The New York Times, once wrote of Alicia Markova, “She is not only the best living ballet dancer, but probably the greatest who ever lived.” Asked how she felt about such high praise, Ms. Markova replied, “It’s easy to write something like that, but it’s I who have to live up to it. What am I going to do the next day, I ask you? I must work all the harder. The audience is going to expect something after reading that bit. It will be hard lines if I let them down!”

If you pay for a ticket, you are entitled to express your opinion. After the Notre Dame football team was held to a tie by a much weaker team, coach Knute Rockne was accosted by a man who told him, “What’s the matter with your team? It stinks!” Mr. Rockne asked the man if he had paid to see the game. The man dug in his pocket and pulled out a ticket. Mr. Rockne looked at the ticket, then replied to the man, “You’re right. We stink.”

The people who make money from dance and the people who criticize dance sometimes have somewhat different perceptions of the role of dance criticism. Dance impresario Sol Hurok once told dance critic Clive Barnes, “You know, Clive, the critic’s job is to sell tickets.” He replied, “Sol, you are absolutely right, but we get to choose the tickets we feel are worth selling.”

Modern dance pioneer Martha Graham came in for her share of criticism during her career. One critic called her dancers “Graham Crackers,” and another critic, noting that she often created dances that stressed linear and geometric shapes, suggested that if she ever got pregnant, she would give birth to a cube.

How can one criticize a king? King Louis XIV wrote several poems, then asked satirist and critic Nicolas Boileau for his opinion of them. Mr. Boileau knew the poems were bad, but he turned the criticism into a compliment: “Sire, nothing is impossible for Your Majesty. Your Majesty has set out to write bad verses—and has succeeded.”

During one tour, Sir Rudolf Bing and the Metropolitan Opera was criticized mercilessly for five days in a row in the Chicago Tribune by Claudia Cassidy. On the 6th day of the Met’s stay in Chicago, Sir Rudolf met Ms. Cassidy as she was entering the theater and said to her, “Oh, Miss Cassidy. I didn’t know you were in town.”

The pediatrician of opera critic Patrick J. Smith was very good at giving his own criticisms of bad productions at the New York Metropolitan Opera. He once stated about a certain production, “It needs a collective glycerine suppository up the rear.”

The Met once played at the Paris Opera, where some French critics panned Roberta Peters. Sir Rudolf Bing defended Ms. Peters by saying, “Miss Peters may have had a bad night, but the Paris Opera has had a bad century.”

Birgit Nilsson once got angry and left London because a critic complained that her performance as Brünnhilde was not yet perfect. As Ms. Nilsson was leaving, she said, “If I’m not perfect, let them find somebody who is.”

A critic once complained that Richard Strauss had conducted with a too-fast tempo the finale of a Mozart symphony. Mr. Strauss observed, “These gentleman of the press seem to have a direct wire to Olympus.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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