David Bruce: Music Anecdotes

• When the German soprano Erna Sack prepared to perform Gilda in Rigolettoin Chicago, debuting there on November 16, 1935, she made herself unpopular. She was unable to converse in any language but German, and the American baritone John Charles Thomas asked tenor Joseph Barton, aka Giuseppe Bentonelli, loudly during the final rehearsal, “What in the … is she jabbering at me?” Despite the rehearsals, her performance was a disaster. During her first performance, she decided suddenly to sing her part an octave higher than was written and to sing all phrases fortissimo. No one had praise for her after her debut, and she left the windy city the next day and never sang there again.

• Tenor Hugues Cuenod sang a very long piece on a recording of works by Francois Couperin. Igor Stravinsky heard and enjoyed the recording, so he asked Mr. Cuenod to sing his Cantate. However, Mr. Cuenod knew that the tenor would have to sing a 13-minute aria with no pauses, so he declined. Mr. Stravinsky complained, “But you sing 22 minutes without stopping in your Couperin recording; then why can’t you sing 13 minutes of mymusic?” However, Mr. Cuenod says, “He had forgotten that it is possible to stop, start and splice in making a recording, or even to do it in several takes; but that’s obviously what I couldn’t do in a live performance.”

• In September of 1969, tenor John Brecknock was given the role of Paris in Jacques Offenbach’s La Belle Hélèneat the London Coliseum. This was an important role for him at the time, and it was in an important venue. Of course, he got stage fright, and just before he was supposed to go on stage, he turned to baritone Derek Hammond-Stroud and said, “I can’t go on. I don’t want to make a fool of myself.” The next moment he was flying onto the stage — Mr. Hammond-Stroud had given him a mighty shove. Of course, once he was on stage, Mr. Brecknock was forced to sing.

• Siegfried Jerusalem entered the world of opera a bassoon player, but became a tenor. While playing bassoon for the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, he and the orchestra started to record Zigeunerbaronfor television. Unfortunately, the tenor failed to show up. His colleagues urged Mr. Jerusalem to offer himself as the tenor. He did, and he won the part, thus beginning a major career as a tenor in opera.

• The orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera is made up — as you would expect — of highly skilled and educated musicians, and it has been for a long time. Gabriel Peyre, a violinist for the Met during the mid-1950s, remembered that the lights went out during a concert where the orchestra performed the SemiramideOverture. No problem. The orchestra finished the piece from memory.

• A couple of women — tenor Leo Slezak, whose story this is, calls them Fräulein Meier and Fräulein Schulze — hated each other. One day, Fräulein Meier was lunching with the wealthy artist, Bela Haas, and she asked what would happen to his money when he died. Because Mr. Haas disliked any mention of death, he replied, “I’ve made my will, and I’m leaving all my money to Fräulein Schulze.”

• Tom Waits has been a successful singer-songwriter for decades, but he is far from being a sell-out. In her book Tom Waits, Cath Carroll includes a discography but does not include information about how high the songs or albums reached on the record charts. Mr. Carroll writes, “ … noting chart positions on a Tom Waits discography is like putting Barbie clothes on a bulldog.”

• As a famous singer, Nat King Cole was besieged by songwriters who wanted him to record their songs. He was once trapped in a men’s room by a songwriter who showed him his manuscript. Mr. King told the songwriter, “Please! Not here!” On another occasion, his bus was pulled over by an Oklahoman deputy sheriff who gave him a song manuscript instead of a ticket.

• Even as a young teenager, Victoria de los Angeles sang well. Her father worked at the University of Barcelona, where young Victoria would go into the classrooms after class had let out and sing. Sometimes, the professors chased her out because their students preferred to listen to her than do their own work.

• The singer and composer Nicola Porpora took the castrato Gaetano Caffarelli as a pupil, and made him sing for six years a single lesson based on vowel sounds. At the end of the six years, Mr. Porpora told his pupil, “I have nothing further to teach you — you are the greatest singer in the world.”

• Avant garde composer John Cage once created a music piece titled 4’33” in which the pianist sat at a piano for exactly four minutes and 33 seconds without playing a note. The music consisted of the sounds that the audience heard while the pianist was not playing.

• At a recital, tenor Richard Lewis once gave an encore in which he sang the “Oliver Cromwell” song (folk text; set by Benjamin Britten). After singing the line — “If you want any more, you can sing it yourself” — he disappeared.

• In England, a song about Mae West was titled “If Those Hips Could Only Speak.” When Ms. West heard about the song, she commented, “What do they mean ‘if they could only speak’? I can make mine talk anytime.”

• When Marilyn Manson first met Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson, she told him, “You remind me of my ex-boyfriend.” Of course, Mr. Manson asked, “Is that good or bad?” She replied, “He gave me VD.”

• Niccolo Paganini was such a gifted violinist that after hearing him play, a professional musician by the name of Mori raised his own violin over his head and offered to sell it for only eighteen cents.

• Pop singer Jewel — Jewel Kilcher — was raised in Alaska on her family’s 800-acre homestead. Wherever she travels, she carries a container filled with earth from her family’s homestead.

• Arturo Toscanini’s ears were very sensitive. Once, he listened to a broadcast by another conductor and was so upset that he knelt and begged, “Please, please! No more ritenuti!”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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