Criticism can be funny, it can be devastating, and it can be educational. (So can insults.) Sometimes the accompanist is much better than the singer: Henry Bird once told a singer, “Young lady, I have tried playing for you on the white notes, I have tried playing for you on the black notes, but I simply cannot play in the cracks.” At first, cellist Emanuel Feuermann received bad reviews of his concerts in London — he even thought of no longer playing in London. After reading one review of his playing, he told accompanist Gerald Moore, “If a pupil of mine received that notice, I would tell him to give up the cello.” While Feodor Chaliapin was rehearsing Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Mozart et Salieri, he wanted the orchestra to play at the tempo he wanted, so he gestured at the orchestra and stamped his feet in the tempo he wanted. The conductor said to him, “Kindly remember that I am the conductor,” and Mr. Chaliapin replied, “In a garden where there are no birds, a croaking toad is a nightingale.” The insulted conductor left the building, and the rehearsal ended. Gerald Moore accompanied Mr. Chaliapin during concerts, and they respected each other. Mr. Chaliapin was never impatient with Mr. Moore, but he did criticize him when he felt that criticism was needed. During one rehearsal, he said to Mr. Moore after he played the long pianoforte introduction to the classical French love song “Plasir d’amour” by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini, “Not just the notes. Not just the notes.” In Am I Too Loud?, his autobiography, Mr. Moore wrote, “It can be so beautiful if played thoughtfully and expressively but my uninformed strumming made it sound commonplace. I took it home to think about it and ever since that episode I have devoted more time, more practice, more concentration to the music that looks easy. The average accompanist, I am afraid, only practises with diligence that which looks difficult.” Of course, some critics can be partial. After a concert by contralto Astra Desmond, her 10-year-son told a bunch of taxi drivers outside the concert hall, “My mother is the greatest singer in all space.”
Music critic Henry T. Finck enjoyed collecting anecdotes and stories. For example: 1) Lilli Lehmann used an interesting method to teach Geraldine Farrar how to act without the use of extravagant hand gestures. She would tie Ms. Farrar’s hands behind her back, and then say to her, “Now express your feelings.” 2) Some artists dislike encores. Conductor Arturo Toscanini was one. On occasion, so was Enrico Caruso. Once, members of an audience kept clapping their hands, yelling, and stamping their feet because they wanted an encore of “Una fertiva lagrima.” Mr. Caruso did not wish to oblige. He kept saying, “Hush,” to the audience, which ignored him. Finally, he carried a chair onto the stage and sat in it with his back to the audience until he was able to continue without singing an encore. 3) The Australian explorer Carl Lumholtz once told Mr. Finck about an encounter with a cannibal who asked him to walk in back because when Mr. Lumholtz walked in front, the cannibal was tempted to put a spear in his back and make a meal of him. Mr. Finck and Mr. Lumholtz once ate supper together; the main dish was terrapin liver, a delicacy, but Mr. Lumholtz confessed that although it was good, he liked python liver better.
Lotte Lehmann once sang the role of Elsa in Lohengrin and later learned that conductor Bruno Walter had been in the audience to listen to a new singer. She saw him the following day and waited for a few words about her performance, but he said nothing. Finally, she asked him if her performance had been so bad that he could say nothing about it. He replied, “Yes! Yesterday I saw something which I don’t want to ever see in you, which doesn’t go with you at all—routine.” She listened to him. Later, she said, “Never again did I sing Elsa with routine.” Like Mr. Walter, Ms. Lehmann believed, “Whatever we do or however often we do it, it must be each time reborn—each time a new creation. It is only when we are able to do this that we deserve the title Artist.”
Musician and impresario Maurice Strakosch once took opera singer Adelina Patti, before she was famous, to sing to Gioachino Rossini. She sang for him a song from Rossini’s Barber of Seville: “Una vove poco fa.” However, Mr. Strakosch had embellished the song greatly with fancy “improvements.” Mr. Rossini kept praising the singing: “Brava! Bravissia!” After Ms. Patti had finished singing, Mr. Rossini said to her, “Beautiful voice! Excellent method!” Then Mr. Rossini, a master of sarcasm, added, “And what a brilliant and effective song! Pray tell me the name of the composer.”
In 1975, Beverly Sills made her Metropolitan Opera debut in The Siege of Corinth, which also starred Shirley Verrett and Justino Diaz. This production was much anticipated, and Ms. Sills wondered aloud during a rehearsal whether the critics would think the production had lived up to the anticipation. In those days of political correctness, Mr. Diaz said, “How can we miss? I’m a Puerto Rican, Shirley is black, and you’re a Jew. Who would dare to criticize us?”
As you would expect, Hans von Bülow took music seriously. At a concert, Emma Thursby sang some German songs by Schubert and Schumann to accompaniment by the piano. This was fine. But as an encore, she sang a song that was popular but was not in the class of the Schubert and Schumann songs. The trivial song infuriated von Bülow, and when he came out to play piano, he ostentatiously wiped off the keyboard before he improvised on part of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Rudolf Bockelmann, a German dramatic baritone best known for his roles in Wagner’s operas, did not read English, but he closely examined his critical notices in London newspapers. Classical record producer Walter Legge wrote that Mr. Bockelmann would search for the word but: “If he found it, he grunted in German, ‘It’s all sh*t anyway.’”
“If you have no critics you’ll likely have no success” — Malcolm X.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved