David Bruce: The Funniest People in Music, Volume 2 — Old Age, Opera, Parties

Old Age

• Professional violinists seldom like to give up their instrument even after their playing days are over. Josef Gingold met Joseph Szigeti after he had retired, and he noticed that Mr. Szigeti was carrying a violin case with him, so he asked him if he was still playing. Unfortunately, Mr. Szigeti had gotten so old that the violin strings cut his fingers, but he explained, “Since I was six years old, I’ve been traveling with the violin. It feels so nice to hold it.”

• Pierre Monteux once conducted pianist Artur Schnabel and the San Francisco Symphony in Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. All went excellently, and at the end both Mr. Monteux and Mr. Schnabel were weeping. Mr. Schnabel took Mr. Monteux’s hands in his own and whispered to him, “We are two old fools who love music very much, Monteux.” Too overcome with emotion to say anything, Mr. Monteux nodded in agreement.

Opera

• Although Jon Vickers had made a name for himself as a tenor in Canada, his career was not advancing internationally, and so he decided to get out of opera on June 30, 1956, unless he had made a major breakthrough by that time. In the meantime, he went to New York to work with coach and accompanist Leo Taubman, who frequently invited colleagues to listen to Mr. Vickers sing. This led to a few good offers to sing in New York Town Hall, in Philadelphia, and in New Orleans. More importantly, on May 9, 1956, Mr. Vickers received a telegram inviting him to sing in Covent Garden — this telegram saved him from a too-early retirement. (Ironically, because of previous engagements, he was unable to go to Covent Garden immediately, as the telegram requested. Instead, he went to Covent Garden a month later, sang two auditions, and was offered a contract.)

• Rutland Barrington, despite being a not particularly good singer, created many comedy roles in Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas. During the opening night for Patience, one of Sir William Schwenck Gilbert’s friends said to him, “Barrington’s in good voice. He’s singing in tune.” “Yes,” replied Sir William, “opening night nerves.”

• Among the many debts that we owe to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is that he inspired Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. When Tchaikovsky was about 10 years old, he saw a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni; the opera so impressed him that he decided to devote his life to music.

• When he was general manager of Covent Garden, Henry Higgins worried that the orchestra would drown out the voice of Irish tenor John McCormack. Mr. McCormack’s reply is a classic: “Then make your d*mned orchestra play softer.”

• For a while, the Met had two African-American sopranos: Martina Arroyo and Leontyne Price. One day at the Met, Ms. Arroyo was mistaken for Ms. Price. She replied, “I’m the other one, honey.”

• The Italians are serious about opera. In 1876, Giacomo Puccini walked a long distance — nearly 50 miles one way — with some friends to hear the opera Aida by Giuseppe Verdi.

Parties

• Elsa Maxwell once held a party at which she invited modernists such as Darius Milhaud, Arthur Honegger, and Igor Stravinsky, as well as traditionalists such as Anton Rubinstein and Jascha Heifetz. At first, the two groups stayed apart, and the traditionalists declined to perform with the modernists. However, the traditionalists listened to the music of the modernists, reluctantly at first then with growing admiration, and at the end of the night members of the two groups hugged each other and swore to be friends eternally.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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