David Bruce: Music Anecdotes

• From her Paris teacher, Cécile Gilly, soprano Marjorie Lawrence learned that when asked if she knew a certain opera, she should always say that she knew it. That way, she would get more jobs; after all, she could always learn the opera after getting the job. Therefore, early in her career, when Ms. Lawrence was asked if she knew the Tétralogie, she replied that she did, although she has never heard of it. Later, when she met Ms. Gilly, she asked what the Tétralogiewas, explaining that she had said that she knew it. Ms. Gilly laughed, then explained, “Do you realize, young woman, you told the man you knew the whole of Wagner’s Ring? Here we call it the Tétralogie.” Ms. Lawrence was kept quite busy learning the Tétralogie.

• Opera singers Emma Calvé and Elena Sanz once sang a duet incognito in a courtyard, where a man shouted at them from a window, “How long is this howling going to continue? Who are these witches, destroying my peace with their hideous voices and false notes? Concierge! Concierge! Turn these women out!” Ms. Calvé and Mr. Sanz ran away. Wondering whether they had really sang badly, they went that night to a party at the Spanish Embassy, where they again sang the duet, this time to great applause. In a happy coincidence, the man who had shouted at them from his window earlier in the day was present, and he had the grace to be greatly embarrassed.

• One of soprano Rita Hunter’s early voice teachers was Eva Turner. Unfortunately, when the two parted company, Ms. Turner told Ms. Hunter, “My dear, you will never make a singer — you will have to scrub floors for a living.” This turned out not to be true, although Ms. Hunter did continue to scrub her own floors. In fact, when a contract to sing for the Metropolitan Opera arrived in the mail, Ms. Hunter was scrubbing a floor. And after the Queen made her a Commander of the British Empire because of her singing, Ms. Hunter told a reporter that being made a CBE had made little difference in her life because “they still let me scrub the floors.”

• English tenor Alfred Piccaver was greatly beloved in Vienna. After an October 1924 concert which Mr. Piccaver gave to the Viennese before departing for a season in Chicago, the audience refused to leave. Thinking to solve the problem, the hall manager turned out the lights and the hall electrician left the hall, carrying with him the keys needed to turn on the lights. Nevertheless, the audience still refused to leave. Eventually, Mr. Piccaver satisfied the audience by borrowing a flashlight, going on stage, and singing seven encores. Then, and only then, did the audience leave.

• As a very young child, soprano Geraldine Farrar started taking piano lessons, but she played only the black keys. Asked why she didn’t play the white keys, she replied, “Because the white keys seem like angels and the black keys like devils, and I like devils best.” In an early autobiography, she wrote, “It was the soft half-tones of the black keys which fascinated me, and to this day I prefer their sensuous harmony to that of the more brilliant ‘angels.’”

• When Marian Anderson was young, she showed great talent as a singer, but of course she needed special training to develop her talent. Her church raised money so she could be trained for a year by famous voice coach Giuseppe Boghetti. He was so impressed by her talent that he coached her a second year for free. Ms. Anderson became a world-famous singer and the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera.

• Tenor Richard Lewis and some colleagues were going to sing at a concert in Wales. The concert committee had set up the program, and when Mr. Lewis looked at it, he noticed that it was exactly the same program that they had sung there the previous year. When he inquired why they wanted the singers to perform the same songs as last year, the committee replied, “Oh, we just wanted to see if you could sing them any better!”

• At the height of his powers, tenor Mario de Candia cast a spell over the young women in his audience as he sang. While in a Paris salon, he performed a song whose last line was, “Come, love, with me into the woods.” At the end of the song, a half-hypnotized young woman stood up and walked toward him, murmuring, “I am coming.”

• Opera soprano Emma Albani once sang at a free Christmas dinner given to impoverished newsboys in New York. At the dinner and concert, a small boy listened to Ms. Albani intently, ignoring the plate of food placed before him. A woman asked the small boy why he was not eating, and he replied, “I can’t eat — I’ve got enough.”

• When giving a concert, Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin used to give the audience a long numbered list of songs. He would look at the list during the concert, decide what to sing next, then announce the number of the song to his audience. (His accompanist carried around a huge pile of sheet music!)

• Oscar Levant was set to play the Brahms Concerto for the movie Humoresque, but the producer, Jerry Wald, asked him if he could cut the concerto from eight minutes to two. Mr. Levant replied, “Sure, I can do it — but you’ll be hearing from Brahms in the morning.”

• Blues singer Muddy Waters first heard his voice on a recording in the early 1940s. His impression of his voice was positive; afterward, he said, “I thought, man, this boy can sing the blues. And I was surprised because I didn’t know I sang like that.”

• When she was in high school, Al Gore’s wife Tipper used to play drums in an all-girl band called the Wildcats. It’s no wonder that the code name given to her by Secret service agents when her husband was Vice President was “Skylark.”

• When he was general manager of Covent Garden, Henry Higgins worried that the orchestra would drown out the voice of Irish tenor John McCormack. Mr. McCormack’s reply is a classic: “Then make your damned orchestra play softer.”

• Sometimes a singer-songwriter will have a long wait between albums. When a reporter for MTV asked Tom Waits why six years had passed before he recorded a new album, he replied, “I was stuck in traffic.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved




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