David Bruce: 250 Music Anecdotes — Composers, Conductors


• 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. McCormack 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!”

• Some music is created simply because the conditions are right. After the Harriott Quintet thought that they were finished recording one day, some of the musicians got ready to dismantle their equipment. However, Pat Smyth doodled at the piano, and Phil Seaman picked up his cowbell and hit it. It was pitched in A, and Mr. Smyth began playing in A. Shake Keane was having a drink, and he tapped the tumbler with a pencil — and the tumbler rang out with A. Coleridge Goode, the bassist, had a feeling that something good could come out of this, and he told the recording engineer, “Run the tape. Run the tape. We’ve got something here. We’re going to play something.” Joe Harriott came out of the control box, and everyone started playing, and the result was “Modal,” a slow and pretty piece that appeared on the jazz album Abstract.

• Many artists and musicians are concerned about money and about how many people are in the audience. Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff was one of these creative people. Conductor Walter Damrosch once asked Mr. Rachmaninoff what he was doing when he stared at the gallery. Mr. Rachmaninoff replied, “Counting the standees in the balcony. The manager told me they were not allowed, but there were forty-three.” Mr. Damrosch’s daughter Gretchen Finletter wrote that a manager “may grow nostalgic for the dreamy artist who does not understand about money, but he seldom has the pleasure of dealing with one.”


• Arturo Toscanini played second cello in an orchestra that played the music of Giuseppe Verdi — with Verdi conducting it! 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!”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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