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David Bruce: Music Anecdotes

• In 1842, Franz Liszt played some concerts in Berlin. He realized that many of the university students in that city were impoverished, so he scheduled a student concert for which the tickets were sold at a very low price. Unfortunately, the university professors considered themselves invited to the concert, and they bought so many tickets for themselves, their families, and their friends that few if any students could attend the concert. Liszt noticed this and was made unhappy by it, but he performed as usual. After the concert, Liszt met some students and promised them a concert for students only — no professors allowed. He kept his promise, and a few days after the students-only concert, he took 800 students to a near-by castle for a lunch that was provided by a wealthy friend. At the lunch, List made a speech and said to the students, “If at any time any of you meets me anywhere, he is my invited guest.”

• When she was 18, Ethel Merman first starred on Broadway in a musical by George Gershwin. Mr. Gershwin invited Ms. Merman to his penthouse, where he played the two songs she was to sing in Girl Crazy. After hearing the songs, Ms. Merman sat quietly, thinking about how she would phrase the lyrics while singing. Mr. Gershwin joked, “Miss Merman, if there’s anything about these songs you don’t like, I’d be happy to make any changes.” The 18-year-old unknown replied, “I think these’ll do very nicely, George.” (One of the songs was the hit “I Got Rhythm.”)

• On April 6, 1759, shortly before his death, George Frideric Handel conducted his Messiahat Covent Gardens. One of the singers, Matthew Dubourg, didn’t like to sing his part the way Handel had written it; instead, he preferred to add his own embellishments. While singing, Mr. Dubourg got off key, and it was quite a while before he got on key again. When he did, Handel shouted to the amusement of the audience, “Welcome home, Mr. Dubourg!”

• Early in his career, Jimmy Durante played piano at the Chatham Club in New York’s Chinatown. Part of his job was to be on the lookout for customers trying to sneak away without paying their check. Each waiter was assigned a certain tune, and if Mr. Durante noticed a customer sneaking away he would play the tune of the waiter assigned to that customer. When the waiter heard his tune, he knew one of his customers was trying to sneak out without paying.

• English entertainer Joyce Grenville knew a couple of sisters who were interested in music. Whenever they needed a housemaid or a cowman, they would advertise for a housemaid or a cowman with a particular musical talent; for example, a contralto-housemaid or a tenor-cowman. These servants formed a choir for which the sisters provided professional direction. Frequently, the choir composed of servants gave concerts.

• Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987) was a great violinist, who often performed music with pianist Arthur Rubinstein and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. Always, Mr. Rubinstein received top billing. Once, Mr. Heifetz said, “If the Almighty Himself played the violin, the credits would still read Rubinstein, God, and Piatigorsky, in that order.”

• At the height of Beatlemania, it was impossible to hear the Beatles perform in concert because of all the screaming teenyboppers. John Lennon once told journalist Arthur Unger that he and Paul McCartney would sometimes make up “wild lyrics” and sing them, knowing that no one would ever hear the lyrics.

• Buddy and Vera Ebsen were a famous brother-and-sister dance team during the 1930s. They danced to arrangements by Glenn Miller, who put a lot of brass into the arrangements. Sometimes, the brass players in small towns would object to playing the arrangements, so Buddy would ask his sister, “Would you go give them your brass-section smile?”

• Actor Robert Morley was once sent to a record store to purchase a copy of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” for use in a theatrical production. Unfortunately, when the time came for the “Hallelujah Chorus” to be heard, the audience heard Ethel Merman singing “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum.” Mr. Morley had purchased the wrong record.

• Lou Costello had a brother named Anthony Cristillo (“Cristillo” was Mr. Costello’s real name). Their father, Sebastian, was convinced that Anthony would become a virtuoso on the violin. Once, a teacher punished Anthony by rapping him on the knuckles. Sebastian went to see the teacher and told him, “You want to hit, you hit — but never hit his hands!”

• Jack Benny was not a virtuoso violinist, but neither was he as bad as he pretended to be to get laughs. After Mr. Benny played the violin well at a benefit, a friend said, “Jack, I didn’t know you played the violin so beautifully.” Mr. Benny modestly said, “When I was younger, they used to call me another Heifetz. Not Jascha — anotherHeifetz.”

• George Kaufman once saw Marc Connelly coming from a concert by Jascha Heifetz and asked how he had liked it. Mr. Connelly shrugged, then said, “It was all right, I suppose, if you happen to like absolutely superb performances.” 

• Marian Anderson was a famous singer of opera and African-American spirituals. Occasionally, someone would tell her that they would do anything to be able to sing like her. In answer, she would smile, then ask, “Would you practice eight hours a day?”

• At a party, Charlie Chaplin once brilliantly sang an aria from Rigoletto. After he was finished, friends congratulated him, saying that they didn’t know he could sing. “I can’t,” Mr. Chaplin explained. “I was just imitating [Enrico] Caruso.”

• Ignace Paderewski practiced many hours each day for several years to develop into a world-class pianist. After Queen Victoria heard one of his concerts, she told him that he was a genius. “Perhaps,” Mr. Paderewski replied, “but before I was a genius, I was a drudge.”

• While in London, Groucho Marx once interrupted a heated debate in Parliament by standing up in the visitors gallery and singing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” He and his family were thrown out.


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