IT is difficult to imagine how orchestral music and opera earned a reputation for being elitist and boring. Those who have made quality music their calling have added much to our lives but their behaviour was often less than inspirational. At least they do have a sense of humour and their wit is often aimed at colleagues. The percussion sections of an orchestra are often referred to as the kitchen department and by the more profane are known as the bang gang.
Musicians can be scathing of their colleagues: One was asked what he would have been had he not chosen music as a career. ‘A drummer’ he replied. Culture can change perceptions. Before any concert the players tune their instruments. It is difficult to imagine a more discordant sound; it is audio-anarchy. An Asian statesman was asked which part of the program he liked best. ‘The beginning,’ he replied: ‘Just before the man with the stick came in.’
Music doesn’t necessarily bring people together. Sir Thomas Beecham, one of England’s great conductors, on finishing his Australian tour was asked by a reporter when he would be returning. He replied: ‘Does anyone ever return to Australia?’
A quote attributed to Beecham is the comment made to an unfortunate cellist during a rehearsal: ‘Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands – and all you can do is scratch it.’
Great divas are under no illusions as to their value. When the great soprano, Maria Callas named her fee for appearing at the Metropolitan Theatre in New York, she was curtly told that even the President of the United States doesn’t get that much. Callas replied: “Then let him sing for you.”
I COUNT IN ENGLISH
Born in the U.S. of Greek parents, living in Italy and fluent in French and English Callas was asked what language she thought in. She replied, ‘I count in English.’
Johannes Brahms was a petulant wit. A young composer asked if he might play a funeral march in memory of Beethoven. When he had finished the master told him: “I would be much happier if you were dead and Beethoven had written the march.’
After finishing her set piece Anton Rubenstein was asked by a pupil what she should do now: “Get married,” he replied. Pity the hapless violinist who asked George Bernard Shaw what he should play next: “Dominoes” was the playwright’s retort.
Mark Hambourg, the noted pianist, was not amused to see a man reading his newspaper during a piano recital. Aware of the maestro’s penetrating glare the man looked up from his newspaper and said: ‘Do go on playing; you do not disturb me in the least.’
Those who think Eastenders and other soaps are going too far with their storylines may be mollified by the overview of George Bizet.
The composer of Carmen, the world’s most popular opera wrote: “As a musician I tell you that if they were to suppress adultery, fanaticism, crime, evil, the supernatural, there would no longer be the means of writing one (opera) note.”
By Mike Walsh