David Bruce: The Funniest People in Music, Volume 2 — Composers, Concerts, Conductors

Composers

• Claude Debussy listened to the very first playing of his String Quartet, then told the musicians, “You play the movement twice as fast as I thought it should go.” He paused and let the faces of the musicians fall, then added, “But it’s so much better your way.”

• Arturo Toscanini respected the intention of the composers whose music he conducted. Once, a musician asked him if he wanted a crescendo at a certain point in the music. Toscanini replied, “Brahms wants that crescendo — not Toscanini!”

Concerts

• Cellist Pablo Casals and organist Gabriel Pierné were once supposed to do a concert at which the Dvorak Concerto for ’Cello would be played, but Mr. Casals withdrew from the concert when Mr. Pierné insulted the concerto by calling it “dirty music.” Because Mr. Casals had signed a contract to perform at the concert, he was sued, and he lost the lawsuit. Nevertheless, Mr. Casals had a lot of support from the music community for his refusal to perform with Mr. Pierné. Conductor Pierre Monteux told him, “The adagio of the Dvorak ’Cello Concerto is one of the most beautiful slow movements ever written. You were quite right in your refusal, cher ami.”

• Tenor Richard Lewis and some colleagues were going to sing at a concert in Wales. The concert committee had set the program, and when Mr. Lewis looked at it, he noticed that it was exactly the same program that they had sung there the previous year. When he inquired why they wanted the singers to perform the same songs as last year, the committee replied, “Oh, we just wanted to see if you could sing them any better!”

• The orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera is made up — as you would expect — of highly skilled and educated musicians, and it has been for a long time. Gabriel Peyre, a violinist for the Met during the mid-1950s, remembered that the lights went out during a concert where the orchestra performed the Semiramide Overture. No problem. The orchestra finished the piece from memory.

Conductors

• Meredith Willson, author and composer of The Music Man, once played in a symphony orchestra that used to hire itself out to anyone with money and the desire to say that he had been a guest conductor of the Philharmonic. Many of these guest conductors were not only monied and proud — they were bad. One such guest conductor used to insist on personally tuning each instrument before the concert. So he would tell the first cello to play his A string, then tell him, “Ah-ah-ah-ah, it’s juuuuust a little sharp — that’s better. There we are. Thenk yo veddy much. Next!” However, the guest conductor didn’t realize that the cello section was on to him. All 10 members of the cello section, one after another, brought the exact same cello — just tuned by the guest conductor — out to the guest conductor, and each time the guest conductor had the cellist retune the cello.

• At one time, many operas were performed with many cuts so that they would end quickly; however, Arturo Toscanini wanted the operas to be performed with every note intact exactly as the composer had written them. One day, he was rehearsing the Metropolitan Opera orchestra when the musicians played the music as they were accustomed to play it — with deep cuts. Mr. Toscanini stopped them, crying, “But you do not play your parts!” The musicians stated that they were playing their parts, and when Mr. Toscanini looked at their sheet music, he said, “True, true. You play what is written — only it is not what the composer wrote. Let us open up those cuts, now, and hear the music as the composer intended it to be.”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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