David Bruce: Music Anecdotes

• Following a rehearsal with the London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn was having a drink in a hotel bar when he noticed an American composer he respected, so he ordered him a drink. The American composer complimented him, saying that the orchestra had sounded marvelous a few nights ago when the program included Beethoven’s Sixth in the first half. Mr. Previn replied, “That was the night Pollini was supposed to play the Fourth Piano Concerto in the second half, and he canceled, and we were stuck with one of those last-minute substitutions, that really appalling third-rate lady pianist. I’m really sorry you had to suffer through that.” The American composer coldly replied, “I didn’t mind. The pianist is my wife.”

• In Vienna, operatic tenor Leo Slezak knew a cabbie with one horse — a blind one. Although it wasn’t fashionable to go about the streets of Vienna in a one-horse cab — two horses were the fashion — Mr. Slezak so liked the cabman, Johann, that he used his cab. One day Johann prepared a special treat for Mr. Slezak — he brought a musical clock that played the Radetzky March. Mr. Slezak was appreciative of the gesture, but after the clock had played the Radetzky March a dozen times, he asked Johann to stop the clock. Unfortunately, Johann replied that when the clock had been wound up, it would play for two and a half hours, and there was no way to stop it. Mr. Slezak was forced to get out of the cab and walk.

• Tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) once seriously studied the flute. A man tried to sell him a new recording machine, and to test the machine, Mr. Caruso played the flute, then listened to the recording. He then asked the salesperson, “Is that how I sound?” The salesperson replied, “Yes, can I sell you the recording machine?” Mr. Caruso said, “No, but I’ll sell you the flute.”

• The Ramones were known for playing short sets early in their careers and for playing faster than any other band—and they speeded up their playing as they got older. Someone asked guitarist Johnny Ramone why the Ramones’ songs were so short. He replied, “They’re actually fairly long songs played very, very quickly.”

• Italian lyric tenor Beniamino Gigli (1890-1957) was known for his coolness under fire. At Covent Garden, while he was singing in La Bohème, a small fire broke out onstage. While still singing, Mr. Gigli walked to the side of the stage, where he was handed a bucket of water by a stagehand, and then he put out the fire.

• Addison Mizner once snuck away from a musical entertainment at a party in order to play pinochle with his host in another room. His hostess, Mrs. E.T. Stotesbury, tracked him down and complained, “You sneak away when Rachmaninoff is playing!” Mr. Mizner replied, “I thought it was the piano tuner.”

• Vladimir de Pachmann, a classical pianist, enjoyed performing a joke on stage. He would walk on stage, sit on a stool that was too low, and then call for a book to sit on. He would then sit on the book, grimace, stand up, tear out one page from the book, sit down on the book again, smile, and begin playing.

• During church service, Barbara McKeever’s grandson told her that a woman singing a solo couldn’t sing very well. She answered, “She sings from her heart, so it’s good.” Afterward, she was singing along with the car radio, and her grandson told her, “You sing from the heart, too, don’t you?”

• Count Basie was once told that he was influenced by the English composer Frederick Delius, even though Count Basie had never heard of Delius. However, Count Basie bought recordings of Delius’ works, played them, liked what he heard, and then proudly told friends, “That’s my influence.”

• Jimmy Durante and Eddie Cantor worked together in restaurants for a while. Mr. Durante was a piano player, while Mr. Cantor was a singing waiter. Often, they played requests from customers. If they didn’t know a song, they created one on the spot, then feigned innocence: “You mean there’s two ‘South Nebraska Blues’?”

• George Bernard Shaw could be quite caustic in his criticism. Once, he attended a recital by an Italian quartet. During a pause in the recital, a friend remarked, “These men have been playing together for 12 years.” Mr. Shaw replied, “Surely we have been here longer than that.”

• An inferior singer was about to sing an aria from Semiramidebefore the composer Gioacchino Rossini. She pretended to be frightened by his presence and even said, “Oh, I am so frightened.” Mr. Rossini asked, “What about me?”

• Not all singers in church congregations are talented. A New York churchgoer sang the closing hymn with the rest of the congregation, but afterward a visitor turned to the singer and joked, “Don’t give up your day job.”

• In 1770, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart visited Rome, where he attended a performance of Allegri’s Misererein the Sistine Chapel. After hearing it performed once, he went home and wrote out the entire score from memory.

• A woman once asked the second violinist of the Flonzaley Quartet to let her see his violin. After inspecting it carefully, she said, “Why, it looks exactly like a first violin.”

• The Duke of Wellington was once asked if Beethoven’s composition titled “Battle of Vitoria” resembled the battle. He replied, “By God, no. If it had, I should have run away myself.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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