David Bruce: Music Anecdotes


Pablo Casals

When he was a very young man in Barcelona, cellist Pablo Casals performed in a production of Carmen. During intermission, a double bass player asked him what was the most beautiful part of Carmen. Mr. Casals mentioned both the prelude to the third act and the flower song, but the double bass player said that the most beautiful part occurred when the tenor sang, “Vous pouvez m’arrêter. C’est moi qui qui l’ai tuée.” Mr. Casals replied that yes, that was beautiful, but then the double bass player added, “Listen to me, Pau. That is beautiful, because when I hear that I know that I will be going home in a few minutes.” Mr. Casals said many decades later to Plácido Domingo, “Do you know, after more than eighty years, I cannot forgive that man for what he said that evening.”

Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler took the tempo of Wagner’s Ring cycle quicker than the London Philharmonic Orchestra was used to, and this almost led to a triangle player not performing. In Rheingold, triangle player Charlie Turner had a long wait before he played, so he used to disappear into a nearby bar while keeping a close eye on the time so he could get back to the orchestra and play. One night, the members of the orchestra were getting quite worried because Mr. Turner had still not made an appearance with only a few bars to go. Suddenly, they heard running footsteps. Just in time, the door to the orchestra pit opened and a hand reached out and struck the triangle, then disappeared again. The next day, Mr. Turner had his stopwatch out, timing the faster-tempo music to make sure that he would arrive at the pit with time to spare.

At age 13, William F. Buckley was sent to an English boarding school, where his piano teacher offered to teach him the first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” However, William’s old piano teacher had warned him that playing the “Moonlight Sonata” before one was ready was simply wrong; therefore, he wrote her for permission to learn to play its first movement. Soon, he received a letter from her in reply, and she did not give him permission to learn the first movement. She explained that if one was unable to learn the third and difficult movement, then one should not learn the first movement. She also explained that the first movement required a “maturity” that William was too young to have acquired. Mr. Buckley writes that this letter helped teach him that “good music is a very serious business.”

During the 1930s, African-American contralto Marian Anderson sang several spirituals and other religious songs in the USSR, where religion was outlawed. Therefore, she was not surprised that the interpreter announcing her program tried to play down their religious nature. For example, the interpreter would say that Ms. Anderson was going to sing “an aria by Schubert” instead of saying that she would sing Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” However, the audience knew exactly what she was singing, and when they wanted an encore, they shouted out religious titles such as “Ave Maria,” not “an aria by Schubert.”

Jenny Lind, the 19th-century singer known as the Swedish Nightingale, once went for a walk in her native country and asked a villager for some water. The villager, a woman whose life was obviously difficult, gave her a drink, and they started to talk. After some minutes, the woman began to talk about the famous celebrity Jenny Lind, and she asked her visitor if she had ever heard her sing. Ms. Lind replied, “Yes. I, too, am a singer, and if you like, I will sing you one of Jenny’s songs.” After singing the song, she gave the woman £5 and said, “Now, you, too, may say that you have heard Jenny sing.”

While Jimmy Stein and other members of the band were playing Latin American music in a restaurant, a waiter grabbed the maracas and started shaking them — out of tempo. Mr. Stein stopped playing and asked the waiter, “What do you think you’re doing?” The waiter said that he always played the marimbas during Latin American music, but Mr. Stein told him, “Not with my instruments, you don’t.” As the waiter was leaving, Mr. Stein called after him, “I don’t come into your kitchen and play with your bloody knives and forks, do I?”

On December 30, 1862, the Confederate and the Union forces camped near each other by Stone’s River, which is located close to Murfreesboro, Tennessee. That night, the military bands of the two armies competed against each other, with the Confederate band playing patriotic songs of the South and the Union band playing patriotic songs of the North. Eventually, however, the Union band started playing “Home Sweet Home,” and quickly the Confederate band joined in, so that both bands were playing the same song together.

Otto Klemperer concentrated on the music while he was conducting. Once, he was conducting a Beethoven symphony at the Royal Festival Hall in London when his violinists noticed that the famous conductor’s fly was undone. The first violinist attempted to get Mr. Klemperer’s attention by rolling his eyes, and at a break in the music, Mr. Klemperer asked what was wrong. After hearing that his fly was undone, Mr. Klemperer merely asked, “What’s that got to do with Beethoven?”

Should junior high and high school musicians regularly clean their instruments? Trey Reely, the band director of Paragould High School in Paragould, Arkansas, thinks so. To persuade his students to do this, he tells a story that a repair technician told about a student who brought him a trumpet that would not produce a sound no matter how hard he blew into it. The technician disassembled the trombone and discovered, clogging the bottom of the slide, three mice.

Conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler once ordered the musicians of the London Philharmonic Orchestra not to cross their legs as he felt that it looked unprofessional. At the very next performance, without any planning, every member of the orchestra whose instrument permitted it had his or her legs crossed when Mr. Furtwängler came out to conduct. When he raised the baton, they all uncrossed their legs. Later, Maestro Furtwängler apologized to the orchestra.

When she was young, Mariah Carey had a bad teacher. Mariah told her teacher that she wanted to be a singer when she grew up, and the teacher snapped, “There are millions of people out there who can sing. What makes you any different? Don’t get your hopes up.” Fortunately, her mother told her to follow her dreams, and Ms. Carey recorded five Number One hits in a row.

John von Neumann was a child prodigy, but not in music. His parents made him take music lessons, but they were surprised at his lack of improvement. Then they discovered that as their son practiced music scales on his cello, he was reading a science or history book that he had placed on his music stand.

The Roman emperor Nero thought that he was a fine singer, but members of his audience disagreed. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, at Nero’s recitals, some members of the audience would pretend to die so that their friends could carry them away from the recital.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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