David Bruce: Music Anecdotes

• Arturo Toscanini played second cello in an orchestra that played the music of Giuseppe Verdi — with Verdi conducting! While playing Verdi’s opera Otello, Toscanini played the music as Verdi had written it, including a pianissimoin the last scene of Act 1. During intermission, Verdi came toward the cellists and asked, “Who plays the second cello?” Toscanini was so frightened that he could not move, so another cellist pushed him and said, “Ignoramus, when the great Verdi talks to you, stand up!” Toscanini stood up, and Verdi said to him, “Don’t play too soft — play stronger.” Toscanini objected, “Maestro, you marked pianissimo.” Verdi replied, “Never mind. It must be heard — play naturale.” From that experience, Toscanini concluded that a pianissimoin Italian music is different — louder — than a pianissimoin German music. Usually, of course, Toscanini closely followed the markings of composers. A famous conductor once led an orchestra in Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony and then asked Toscanini for his opinion. Toscanini replied, “It was bad — all too slow. Why don’t you follow Schumann’s markings?” The famous conductor replied, “The markings are wrong. No good. They’re too fast.” Toscanini shouted, “I’d rather be wrong and close to Schumann than right and close to you!”

• Sergei Rachmaninoff and Frances Alda are two famous names in music. One you would especially like to hear play the piano, and the other you would especially like to hear sing. Ms. Alda, a soprano, was playing piano at a get-together of musical notables when Mr. Rachmaninoff remarked to tenor John McCormack, “John, I want to play piano.” Mr. McCormack picked up Ms. Alda and deposited her on a couch. She was going to protest, but seeing that Mr. Rachmaninoff was replacing her at the piano, she happily listened to him. By the way, Mr. Rachmaninoff and Mr. Cormack once listened together to a recording of Mr. McCormack singing “None But the Lonely Heart.” Mr. Rachmaninoff said, “Is too slow.” Mr. McCormack insisted that the tempo was correct. They argued for a while, and Mr. Rachmaninoff’s wife finally went to him and whispered a few words of Russian. Mr. Rachmaninoff then told Mr. McCormack, “My wife tells me that you have a perfect right to your opinion — but you are wrong!”

• Not everyone likes new ideas in music; many people like only the music they grew up with or helped to develop. During World War II, many established musicians were drafted into the army, and younger musicians with new ideas took their place. Some bandleaders, such as Woody Herman, welcomed the new musical ideas. Other bandleaders, such as Tommy Dorsey, did not. The old music is always square, and the new music is always avant-garde. Mr. Herman went to a men’s clothing store in San Francisco and bought the squarest jacket that he could find. It was a garish plaid and had a belt in the back. Then he sent it to Mr. Dorsey with this note: “If you want to play that way, why not dress that way?”

• Joseph Barbera and William Hanna are famous for their Hanna-Barbera cartoons, featuring such stars as Yogi Berra, Huckleberry Hound, Tom and Jerry, and — of course — the Flintstones. Mr. Barbera was in an elevator with some people, including a lawyer wearing a buttoned-down collar. The lawyer began to hum The Flintstonestheme song, and Mr. Barbera bet him $100 that he couldn’t sing it all the way through. The lawyer sang it all the way through with gusto, and by the way the elevator had reached the lobby, everyone else in the elevator had joined in the singing. Mr. Barbera said, “It was the most satisfying hundred dollars I’ve ever spent — though I’m just as glad I hadn’t offered a thousand.”

• Johnny Dunn, who played trumpet for Mamie Smith, is reputedly the first person to use a plumber’s rubber plunger to make music. The plungers come in two sizes — sink and toilet — that are perfect to use as mutes for trumpet and trombone. Charlie Small once needed a mute for a trombone, and so he bought a toilet plunger at a hardware store. But he took only the plunger part and not the wooden stick, saying, “I don’t need the stick.” The man waiting on him did not know that Mr. Small is a musician, and every time Mr. Small came into the hardware store after that, the man let someone else wait on him.

• Influences are important. Jimmy Rabbitte, a fictional character in the novel and movie The Commitments[Roddy Doyle wrote the novel], asked applicants to be in the soul band he was forming about their influences. If he didn’t like their answer, they didn’t get in the band — or even a chance to audition. The saxophone player who did get in the band listed his influences as “Clarence Clemons [a tenor saxophonist aka The Big Man], the Muppets, and the man from Madness [a video game].”

• Neil Spencer, editor of New Music Express (NME) from 1978 to 1985, points out that for a long time, female vocalists and musicians were expected to be eye candy. That changed with punk music and Poly Styrene and the Slits. Suddenly, female vocalists and musicians were not playing that game. Mr. Spencer remembers about the Slits, “Guys would shout at them. ‘You look ugly,’ and they’d reply, ‘We’re not here to look nice for you.’”

• Chicago tenor saxophonist Von Freeman started playing professionally at age 12. When he showed up for his first day at work, he gave this note from his mother to the nightclub manager: “Don’t let him drink, don’t let him smoke, don’t let him consort with those women, and make him stay in that dressing room.” The nightclub manager told him to do something to make himself look older, so he drew a mustache on his face.

• Opera singer Nellie Melba once watched Walkyrieat Covent Garden. In the seat behind her was Alfred de Rothschild. Ms. Melba was completely absorbed in the opera, but then she heard a sound that was definitely not from the opera — Alfred de Rothschild was snoring. She looked at him, and he woke up and asked, “What key is it?” Ms. Melba replied that he had been snoring in a different key.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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David Bruce’s Smashwords Bookstore: Retellings of Classic Literature, Anecdote Collections, Discussion Guides for Teachers of Literature, Collections of Good Deed Accounts, etc. Some eBooks are free.



John Ford’s The Broken Heart: A Retelling, by David Bruce





William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure:A Retelling in Prose, by David Bruce




Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist:A Retelling in Prose


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