David Bruce: The Coolest People in the Arts — Composers, Conductors

Composers

• Avant-garde composer John Cage created a piece titled 4’33”in which the musician sits without playing for four minutes and 33 seconds. This piece was first performed on 29 August 1952, by pianist David Tudor in Woodstock, New York. (The piece can be played by any instrument and by any ensemble.) Mr. Cage also created a piece titled Imaginary Landscape No. 4— in it, 12 radios are tuned to 12 different radio stations. The stations are randomly chosen by tossing a coin.

• George Frideric Handel occasionally “borrowed” from other composers. After being told that something he had supposedly composed was actually written by Bononcini, Handel merely remarked, “It was much too good for Bononcini.”

Conductors

• Occasionally, conductors have trouble with singers. Once, Arturo Toscanini instructed soprano Geraldine Farrar in how to sing a particular aria, but she ignored his instructions. When he told her again how to sing the aria, she replied, “You forget, Maestro, that I am the star.” Maestro Toscanini shot back, “I thank God I know no stars except those in heaven which are perfect.” By the way, the premiere of Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisandewith music by Debussy was given at La Scala — to the hooting of the audience. Throughout the performance, Maestro Toscanini conducted with dignity, ignoring the noise made by the audience, even though it was impossible to hear one note of the music.

• Sir Adrian Boult once accepted an invitation to conduct British music with a famous American orchestra that was known for a few eccentric qualities. Sir Adrian and the orchestra practiced well together, and he was able to remove the eccentric elements of the orchestra’s performance and replace them with elements of nobilmente. However, at the concert, the orchestra played with all of its original eccentricity and with none of Sir Adrian’s nobilmente. Following the concert, an annoyed Sir Adrian asked the concertmaster why the orchestra had played one way during rehearsal and a very different way during the concert. The concertmaster replied, “The rehearsal’s all yours — but the concert’s all ours.”

• Anton Horner was first horn of the Philadelphia Orchestra for decades. Because of his great competence on the horn, he was secure enough to stand up to famous conductors. When Leopold Stokowski began to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1912, he always criticized each performance and told the musicians what they had done wrong. After a few weeks of constant criticism, Mr. Horner spoke up, telling Maestro Stokowski that he should tell the musicians what they had done right as well as what they had done wrong. Shortly afterward, Mr. Horner was moved from first horn to third horn. However, he was so competent a musician that he soon returned to first horn.

• Thomas Beecham once conducted Camille Saint Saëns’ Third Symphony in C Minor. Beecham thought that Saint Saëns’ tempi had become depressingly slow in his later years, and so he livened things up through accentuation as much as possible during the performance. Later, he asked Saint Saëns what he had thought of the performance. Saint Saëns replied, “You mean, what do I think of your interpretation? My dear young friend, I have lived a long while, and I have known all the chefs d’orchestre. There are two kinds; one takes the music too fast, and the other too slow. There is no third!”

• Sir Thomas Beecham was once asked to conduct the orchestra on a ship. Afterward, the ship’s captain asked him his opinion of the orchestra. Sir Thomas replied, “Wait until I get ashore first.” By the way, Sir Thomas joked sometimes at the expense of great composers. After Sir Thomas had conducted an opera by Mozart, Fritz Reiner congratulated him, saying, “Thank you for a delightful evening with Beecham and Mozart.” Sir Thomas replied, “Why drag in Mozart?”

• Conductor Arturo Toscanini once wrote composer Richard Strauss for permission to give the first performance in Italy of Strauss’ Salome. After receiving permission, Toscanini began to prepare the piece. However, he later discovered that Strauss himself was going to conduct Salomein Italy the week before Toscanini was scheduled to conduct it. Immediately, Toscanini took the train to Vienna, where he called on Strauss and said to him, “As a musician I take off my hat to you, but as a man, I put on 10 hats.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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