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Musical Anecdotes

In a production of Boris Gudunof at Covent Garden shortly after World War 2, bass Michael Langdon was assigned the part of a grotesquely crippled peasant in the Revolution scene, a complex surge of choristers and small principals. The producer Peter Brook had no time to give detailed instructions. "Can you crawl on," he asked Langdon, "using perhaps your left elbow and your right knee?" This was all Langdon had to work with. He threw himself into it, nonetheless, dragging and heaving about the dusty stage while trying to avoid the other singers' feet. After a bit Langdon found himself utterly lost in the vicinity of a rock upon which was mounted an imperious contralto singing "Death to Boris!" Thinking he might trouble her for further instructions on the playing of the scene, Langdon tugged at her skirt. Whereupon she immediately hefted a great big stick and whacked him on the head.

Hilde Konetzni, a sizable woman, was singing Chrysothemis in Strauss's Elektra with Beecham in London in 1938. She was unsure of her entry at the line, "Kinder will ich haben bevor mein Leib verwelkt": I want to bear children before my body withers; and therefore moved closer to the condductor to discern his beat more easily. Seeing this hunk of soprano suddenly bearing down on him, Beecham called over his shoulder to Walter Legge and asked him what she was saying to him - she certainly seemed to be saying something.
"She wants you to be the father of her child," Legge translated.
"Send word to her," replied Beecham, still leading his men as he eyed Konetzni with bemusement, "that I'll reconsider her offer on some very cold winter's night."

Bing on Nilsson:
Is Nilsson difficult?
"Not at all," says Bing." You put enough money in and a glorious voice comes out."

Nilsson on Bing:
Nilsson's accountant, preparing her tax form for the IRS, asked her if she had any dependents.
"Yes," she said. "Rudolph Bing."

Modern medicine's most dramatic contribution to opera was surely that made in 1961 by a party of local medical students recruited to play the walk-on firing squad in the last act of Tosca at the San Francisco opera house....
The students, chosen for height rather than stage experience, knew nothing of the opera or it's plot, and the producer had little time to brief them. He wasn't worried because they didn't have to sing. Five minutes before the start of the dress rehearsal, he told them: "You're a firing squad. Just follow the officer. Slow march on in time to the music, line up, and when the officer lowers his sword, shoot."
"And how do we get off ?"
"Just wait on stage and, at the end, exit with the principals."
The dress rehearsal ran out of time and never reached the final scene, so, on the first night, the San Francisco audience saw Tosca end in an unusual way.
When, at the tragic denouement, the firing squad marched slowly on, it's members were momentarily confused by the fact that that there were both a man and a woman on stage. However, when Cavaradossi stepped bravely in front of them they decided he was the one they had to shoot. Yet as they lined up their sights they noticed he kept nodding in a conspiratorial way towards the woman. So, as the officer dropped his sword, they swung their rifles through 180 degrees and shot Tosca.
They were clearly discomforted when she remained standing and they heard Cavaradossi, now directly behind them, hit the stage as he dropped. They gawped nervously as Tosca rushed to him as if he were still alive, and then screamed. And they began to grow panicky when they heard the shouts off-stage and saw Tosca mount the battlements. Then, as she flung herself off, they remembered their final instruction. As the curtain slowly descended, they rushed upstage and threw themselves after her.

The great contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink was Czech by birth and German by musical training, but American by cultural adoption; she must have been one of the few public figures to have sons fighting on both sides in World War 1. Schumann-Heink was hefty, lovable, and a superb artist - but in this vignette, passed from buff to buff over the years, she is simply a woman with a German accent in that Great American Invention, the drugstore.
"I'd like some powder, please," she tells the clerk.
"Mennens ?"
"No. Vimmens."
"And would you like it scented ?"
"No, I'll take it vit me."

Strolling Paris with a friend, Rossini ran into Meyerbeer, who asked after his health. Rossini cited a string of calamities. Meyerbeer expressed all due dolor, and moved on; Rossini's friend then urged him to speed homeward to bed.
"My dear fellow, I feel perfectly fine," Rossini said. "But it so cheers our friend Meyerbeer to think that I'm at death's door that I hadn't the heart to disappoint him."

When Beecham didn't like a singer he could be quite callous in his manner, even in purely artistic situations. Frieda Hempel, one soprano Beecham didn't care for, was singing Pamina in Die Zauberflote under Sir Thomas and sent a deputy to inform him that she was not feeling her best. Would Sir Thomas transpose "Ach, ich fuhl's" for her ? Sir Thomas agreed. Obviously she wanted it transposed down, so she wouldn't have to reach for the higher lines. But if the woman wants it transposed down, she should say she wants it transposed down.
Beecham told the orchestra to transpose it up.

Not long ago, a Met Aida offered two quite celebrated sopranos who were somewhat less than the best of friends. In the first scene of Act Two, wherein the Egyptian princess confronts the Ethiopian princess, rival to rival, there is a moment in which Aida falls to the floor in supplication to Amneris. When the moment came, those sitting in the first rows of the orchestra heard the Amneris whisper to the Aida, "On your knees, bitch !"
The two never shared a stage again.

In Adelina Patti's day, the more glamorous divas affected false eyebrows, shaving off the natural ones, and donning creations more suitable to greatness. Patti thought this rubbish; as Rossini said, opera was voice, voice, and more voice - not costume. One time, a rival prima donna was enjoying her false eyebrows, her claques ovations, and herself far too much for Patti's comfort. Patti started to stare at the upstarts face in a kind of fascinated horror.
"What's the matter?" the rival whispered.
"Your right eyebrow has fallen off!"
In dismay, the rival turned her back to the public and deftly removed her left eyebrow. In fact, there had been nothing wrong with the right one - and the rival played the rest of the act with part of her face missing.

Richard Tauber spent his twenties at the Dresden Opera, logging his experience and building up his repertory. Narraboth in Salome was one of his favourite parts, for the curtain is not long up before the officer kills himself - freeing the young tenor for a night out with his light of love instead of sending him home late (and exhausted), as Don Ottavio or Rodolpho did. Tauber used to tease the four men who played Herod's soldiers, for after they carried his corpse offstage, they had to march back on and stand at attention for the rest of the opera while Tauber went off partying.
One night they took revenge. As usual, Narraboth stabbed himself and fell, Herod made his entrance, saw the body, and ordered it taken away. Instead of carrying Tauber into the wings, the soldiers dumped him upstage, in full view of the audience. Tauber tried curses, pleas, and threats, but they left him there for the entire show.

Meyerbeer couldn't work; a street musician was playing a barrel organ in the street, just outside the window of Meyerbeer's study. Worse yet, he was grinding out nothing but Rossini. Aiming a servant at the disturbance, Meyerbeer offered two francs if the nuisance would go play somewhere else. No - wait! Oh, how droll of Meyerbeer, Meyerbeer thought : four francs - if the nuisance would go play Meyerbeer's tunes in front of Rossini's house!
A moment later the servant returned. " I'm sorry, Monsieur. The organ grinder says no."
"No? To four francs?"
"He says Rossini gave him eight francs - to play for you!"

Thomas Beecham programmed the Four Sea Interludes at an Albert Hall concert. Benjamin Britten was there. Next to him, a young man was following the music from the published score. Proud and gratified, Beecham felt that a few words of amity were indicated, and began with, "I see you're interested in Benjamin Britten."
"Of course I am."
That sounded nice. "Why 'of course' ?" Beecham asked the stranger.
"Because I am Benjamin Britten."
Nonplussed, Beecham came out with "Oh, are you?" and there the encounter ended. Later he told the tale to a friend, who disturbed him greatly by remarking, "Maybe he was Benjamin Britten."

Two traditional tales of audience participation in a regrettable performance have best been rendered by raconteur Walter Slezak, who places both in a Pagliacci in Naples. The first episode finds the baritone delivering a questionable Prologue; anyway, this audience questions it, with jeers and yells.
"Perche fischiate a me?" the singer responds. "Aspettate il tenore!"
Why whistle at me? Wait till you hear the tenor!
Then comes the poor soprano, who makes a rough job of the Ballatella, after which, astonishingly, comes cries of bis! - the demand for an encore. She grants the repeat, no less unevenly than the first time, and still the gallery screams for an encore while those downstairs protest in horror. "Bis!" screams the gallery. "Basta!" cries the orchestra: Enough! At last a lone voice calls out from upstairs, "Deve cantarla fina che non lo cocnosce!": She'll sing it till she gets it right !

Francesa Cuzzoni, they say, was sometimes difficult for the sport of it; but Handel was tougher. One day, Cuzzoni announced that she didn't like a certain piece Handel had just played for her.
"I would like a fresh air to sing," she haughtily told him. "That one doesn't suit me, if you please!"
Handel flew at her in a rage, shouting, "I alvays knew you vere a fery tevil. But I shall now let you know zat I am Beelzebup, zez prince of de tevils! You vant fresh air! I giff you some fresh air!"
He then dragged Cuzzoni to an open window and was about to heave her into the street when she suddenly decided that she'd be thrilled to sing that delightful little aria after all.

The Emperor of Austria-Hungary, Joseph II, supported Mozart's belief that German lands needed German opera, but wondered if Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail was the breakthrough work the culture needed. Joseph found it a little too fancy, too highly developed. He told Mozart, "There are too many notes in it."
"Just as many, Your Majesty," Mozart replied, "as there should be."

Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber was one of those composers who outraged Rossini by rising to fame in post-Tell Paris on a wave of twice-told tunes and situations. Still, Rossini retained his sense of humour. Attending Auber's latest opera comique, Rossini kept saluting every time a major tune was heard, and at last a companion asked what he was up to.
"Oh," said Rossini. "It's nothing, really. I'm just greeting old friends."

A Great Critic visited Verdi as he was putting the finishing touches on Il Trovatore.
"What do you think of this?" Verdi asked him, playing the Anvil Chorus.
"Trash," announced the Great Critic, for he loved only the finest things.
"Now try this," said Verdi, offering the Miserere.
"What rubbish!" the Great Critic observed, for his nuanced sensibility could accept only the most profound art.
"One last test," said Verdi. He presented the tenor's aria, 'Di quella pira'.
"It's beastly," noted the Great Critic, for anything less than nobility made him shudder.
Verdi rose from the piano and embraced the Great Critic in momentous joy.
"What is the meaning of this?" asked the Great Critic.
"My dear friend," Verdi told him, "I have been writing a popular opera - an opera for the public, not for purists and classicists and solemn judges, like you. If you liked this music, no one else would. But your distaste assures me of success. In three months, Il Trovatore will be sung, whistled, and played all over Italy!"

During one of his occasional wars with Toscanini, Puccini forgot to strike the conductor's name from the Puccini's Christmas pannetone (fruit-cake) list. Realizing his error, he wired Toscanini: PANNETONE SENT BY MISTAKE PUCCINI. Came the answer: PANNETONE EATEN BY MISTAKE TOSCANINI.

Like Beecham, Knappertsbusch, and some other giants of the podium, Richard Strauss was not a dedicated rehearser. He would often disconcert orchestras by reading through on of his own works - even the most complex - without a stop and without comment. In England on a guest jaunt, he rehearsed in exactly this way, and, to his players' bewilderment, said nothing afterward, either.
Finally the concertmaster approached to ask, "Maestro, is there anything you would like to suggest to us?"
Strauss considered this. "Yes," he replied. "Bar 336, violins: up bow."

Madame Henriette Meric-Lalande, singing Donna Anna, was uneasy at her Don Ottavio's habit of throwing off phlegm when he sang - especially as she was wearing her own costly gown rather than theatre trunk material. Anxiety over her costume threatened to ruin her performance, until at last, during the Mask Trio, she whispered to him, "Voyons, mon cher ami, ne pourriez-vous pas, une foi par hasard, cracher sur la robe de Donna Elvira?" : My dear friend, do you suppose you could spit on Donna Elvira for a while?"

An overweight Giovanni became stuck in the trapdoor on his way to the nether regions in the banquet scene. Though he squirmed and ooched and puffed at the galop, he could not squeeze through. Nor, by then, could he pull himself up. He was trapped at the waist, neatly and permanently.
"Hurrah, boys!" cried a voice from the gallery. "Hells full!"

Here is a story about the composer Anton Rubinstein who is not to be confounded with the pianist Artur. Anton played the piano very well and one day he decided to give a concert with the great violinist Leopold Auer. During the rehearsal Leopold Auer said to Rubinstein: "Please, don't play so loud, I can't hear me." Rubinstein looked at him and answered: "Well, you are very lucky."

Karajan, Furtwaengler and Boehm sit together and talk. "Yes, my friends, it's quite clear, I am the best conductor" Furtwaengler says. "Wait a minute" Boehm replies. "Yesterday I had a dream. God pointed at me and said: "You are the best conductor of all times". Karajan then says: "I beg your pardon but I never said that".

The conductor Artur Nikisch was rehearsing a symphonic concert meant to take place in a town in England. Beethoven's "Leonor III" overture was on the programme. Everything was working well but here came the famous wings trumpet - call and, at the maestro's amazement, a deep silence replaced the expected veiled burst. What's going on? Nikisch left his music stand like a mad man, rushed behind the scenery and there saw he stage manager fighting with a trumpeter and telling him: "You, fool, can't you hear they are rehearsing on the stage?"

On the occasion of the "premiere" of Siegfried one of the singers was to sing in the "teatro communale" for the first time and was scared. Short before the curtain was raised, maestro Toscanini walked in front of him, morose and wrinkling as usual. "Good evening, Maestro" said the singer greeting him. "How will it do?" "Well!" Toscanini answered, "I don't really know. There are too many animals in this opera. There are the birds, the dragon, the bear and there's... you! " And he quickly headed toward the orchestra.

The director of the Metropolitan opera of New York, Sir Rudolf Bing, once exclaimed when seeing the fee that Maria Callas was asking to sing at the Met: "Why, even the President of the United States doesn't receive so much money in one year". To what the soprano retorted: "Then let him sing for you".

Patti was a fantastic singer and a master in the art of obtaining from a manager the greatest amount of money he could possibly continue to pay her. Mrs Patti had a parrot which she took with her every time she was touring America. It had been taught by Nicolini, the singer's second husband, to cry "Cash! cash!" whenever the impresario appeared.

The Czech tenor Leo Slezak had just finished singing his "Farewell" in "Lohengrin". He walked towards the boat drawn by a swan but the backstage staff made it move away too fast and he was unable to board it. Slezak strolled towards the audience and with a wonderful presence of mind asked: "Tell me, please, what time is the next swan?"

The great French guitarist Alewandre Lagoya was walking along in Paris. A woman, convinced that she had recognised him said: "Good morning Mr.Brassens" (a famous French singer ). Lagoya answered the lady: "I'm sorry Madam, my name is Lagoya" and the lady replied: "How funny. You have the same name as the guitarist".

The famous German conductor Otto Klemperer who was making records for the Vox company was complaining to its director George Mendelssohn, a descendant of the composer, that he could not find any of his - "That can't be" - Mendelssohn answered. - "I will take you to the biggest record shop downtown and you'll see by yourself". They both arrive at the shop. Klemperer asked a shopgirl Beethoven's 5th symphony conducted by Klemperer. The shopgirl looked at the records and said: "I am sorry. I have it by Toscanini, by Walter, by Furtwaengler but not by Klemperer". Then Klemperer turned toward Mendelssohn and shouted: "You see, I never can find any of my records in the shops and it is the same thing everywhere in the world". He turned toward the shopgirl again and said: "You are stupid, you must have records by Klemperer, they are wonderful records and I am Klemperer myself". Then the shopgirl thinking she was dealing with someone more or less insane said to him: "Oh yes, and your friend must be Beethoven". Klemperer shouted: "No, you are stupid. He is Mendelssohn".

A reviewer, as arrogant as little connoisseur, wrote naughty lines about the composer Max Reger. The latter replied by letter: "I am in a charming little rest room and I am holding your article in front of me. It will soon be behind me"

In order to assess their suitability for adopting a Vietnamese orphan, a Miss Taylor, who had run a Saïgon orphanage, stayed with the Previn family for a week-end. At breakfast on the first morning, she asked if she might have a bowl of cereal. Eager to please, Previn reached for the health - food cereal that his two small sons consumed with delight every morning and poured Miss Taylor a generous bowlful. While she ate, he held forth on the nutritional value of the cereal. Miss Taylor made no reply, however, until her bowl was empty. - "To be quite honest", she admitted, - "I'm not crazy about it". Previn's glance happened to fall on the jar from which he had served Miss Taylor. "I'm not surprised", he said slowly, "I've just made you eat a large dish of hamster food".

The Capet quartet, one of the most famous in the world, was on a tour in Switzerland. It was its first important tour and, as it stopped in Bern on the occasion of a concert, it was invited to a big reception given in its honour at the French embassy. Of course, it was asked to play some music. At the end of the reception, after having listened to an excerpt of a quartet by Beethoven, the ambassador's wife approached the quartet with a small envelope in her hand and gave it to Capet saying: "Here's to you, Maestro. It will help to increase your little orchestra."

In the Unter der Linden avenue in Berlin, Hans von Bülow meets a very boring lady whom he is used to avoiding. She gets close to him and smirks: "Good morning, Maestro. I bet that you did not recognise me." Hans von Bülow looks at her from head to toe and says: - " You win, Madam!"

George Gershwin decided to take some orchestration coaching with Maurice Ravel. Taking advantage of Ravel being in New York, Gershwin goes to see him and asks him to give him orchestration lessons on his own works. Ravel surprised asks him: "How much money do you earn each year?" Gershwin replies: "About 200,000 dollars." Ravel tells him: - "In this case, I think it would be better that I took lessons from you."

A cello teacher asks his young pupil to play a piece of her own choice to test her talent. The young girl tells him: "I will play the "Swan" from Saint-Saëns "Le Carnaval des Animaux" and she begins to play. At the end of the piece she asks the teacher: "Well, what do you think of it?" to which the teacher sadly replies: - "Poor beast!".

Sir Thomas Beecham was travelling in a non-smoking compartment on a train belonging to the Great Western Railway. A lady entered the compartment and lit a cigarette, saying, "I'm sure you won't object if I smoke." "Not at all", replied Beecham - "provided that you don't object if I'm sick." "I don't think you know who I am," the lady haughtily pointed out. "I'm one of the directors' wives." "Madam," said Beecham, - "if you were the director's only wife, I should still be sick"

As a celebrated composer, Brahms conducted his two piano concertos in Berlin and attended a dinner given for him. His host proposed a toast to "the most famous composer." Brahms, seeing what was coming, interposed hastily, - "Quite right: here's to Mozart!" and clinked glasses all round. A great wine connoisseur invited Brahms to dinner and in his honour brought out some of his choicest bottles. - "This is the Brahms of my cellar", he announced to the company as wine from a venerable bottle was poured into the composer's glass. Brahms scrutinised the wine closely, inhaled its bouquet, took a sip, and then put down his glass without comment. - "How do you like it?" anxiously asked the host. "Better bring out your Beethoven," murmured Brahms.

In the 1950s the Venice Festival commissioned Stravinsky to write an original composition. When the piece was submitted, its length (only fifteen minutes) was found unsatisfactory. Stravinsky was unruffled. "Well, then," he said, "play it again."

The great tenor Francesco Tamagno was very famous for his powerful voice. Though he made a lot of money, he was extremely mean. Once, after dessert at a dinner in NY, he took a bag from his pocket and proceeded to fill it with almonds, chocolates and some orchids from the table. He explained to the Italian ambassador's wife that he wished to take a little gift to his daughter who was sick. Some days later he and Nellie Melba were invited to lunch in a restaurant. After the main dish, Tamagno asked the waiter a newspaper. Once he had it he wrapped the veal cutlet that the prima donna had not eaten saying: "My dog, he love cotoletta alla milanese." Next morning, Mancinelli, the conductor who had invited Tamagno and Melba came unexpectedly to visit Tamagno at his hotel. It was twelve o'clock and the tenor and his wife were eating a sort of picnic lunch in their bedroom. As you probably have already guessed, they were feasting on the "cotoletta alla milanese."

Once Saint-Saëns accepted to listen to a singer who was rather an "amateur" but a lady! Before she began to sing a melody by the composer himself, she said to him, smirking: - "O maestro, you know, I am shivering, I am so scared!" Saint-Saens looked at her and answered: "Not as much as I am myself, Madam."

In Vienna, Moskowsky is walking along with his friend Glazunov. They pass in front of Schubert's house on which Glazunov notices a memorial plaque. He asks Moskowsky: "Do you think that when I die they will also put a plaque on my house?" "But of course" Moskowsky answers. "And what will they write on it?" "Oh, just House to rent."

At the end of a diner he was attending by a lady in Liege, Eugene Ysaye was asked to listen to a young violinist. Although he felt tired and was longing to go back home he could but accept his hostess' request. The young man played several pieces from his repertoire. Then, after a long while, everybody was waiting for the maestro's sentence. "What do you think of his execution?" asked the delicious hostess to Ysaye. "Oh, dear Madam, I must confess that he reminds me Paderewsky." "But Maestro, Paderewsky doesn't play the violin!!!" "Well Madam, neither does he."

Debussy had just finished rehearsing the first movement of his new orchestral piece "La Mer" called "From dawn to midday at sea". He noticed that his fellow composer Erik Satie was seated in the rows, went up to him and asked: "What did you think of it?" Satie who was a very humorous man answered him: "I liked especially the bit around a quarter to eleven."

Mischa Elman was attending Jascha Heifetz's debut at Carnegie Hall in New York. He went to this concert with his friend Godowsky. During the interval Elman turned towards Godowsky and said: - "Hey, don't you think it's hot around here?". And Godowsky answered, smiling: "No, not for a pianist."