The witty side of music and musicians

By December 2, 2012History, Humour, Music, Society

This has been a hard week, and I like to relax on Saturday, so today’s post is about the witty side of music. I grew up on Spike Jones and Danny Kaye, long before I encountered Dvorak’s New World Symphony, and I went on to enjoy Tom Lehrer, Gerard Hoffnung and P. D. Q. Bach. I think that music is not so important that we cannot see that it has, or could have, a funny side.

Composers and performers also have their witty side, and and in my reading about music and the history of music I have come across some gems. John Holmes, the long-serving teacher of the U3A Music Class in Canberra, was an avid collector of these jewels, and produced a booklet of them a decade or so ago, which he gave me. Some of what follows comes from this wonderful little volume, and I dedicate this essay to his great skill as a collector.

Money is a constant theme in the lives of composers and performers. Let’s start with a story about the violinist Fritz Kreisler, during the days when the wealthy engaged musicians to play to their guests. The hostess asked how much Kreisler would charge, and was told $3,000. The money was not a problem, explained the hostess, but she would rather that the violinist did not mix with the guests, many of them VIPs. ‘Oh well, in that case,’ said Kreisler, ‘my fee will be only $2,000’. That story reminds me of Mozart’s disdain for his employer the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, who treated him, too, like a lowly servant. Beethoven disdained to bow to nobles whom he passed in the street.

The great Paderewski, pianist and later President of Poland, was once mistaken by the hostess at another such party for a polo-player, also invited. No, he explained, ‘He is a rich soul who plays polo, and I am a poor Pole who plays solo.’ Oscar Wilde would have liked that one. And Oscar, who seems not to have had much interest in music, once complained that ‘musical people always want one to be perfectly dumb at the very moment when one is longing to be perfectly deaf’.

Nadia Boulanger, harpsichordist and fabulous teacher, said that she had a method for selecting students. She did not accept those who had no talent, or no money. Those who had little talent but much money she did accept, along with those who had neither talent nor money. Of the remaining group, those with much talent and much money, she had never found a representative. Alexandre Dumas, her compatriot, once said that music was the only noise for which one had to pay, while Dr Johnson said that of all the noises, music was the least disagreeable.

Away from money for a moment. W.S. Gilbert, asked by a friend about what so-and-so was doing, so-and-so being a composer lately deceased, replied that he was doing nothing. ‘Surely, he is composing?’ persisted the friend. ‘On the contrary,’ replied Gilbert, ‘he is decomposing.’

Back to money again. George Frederick Handel was offered a honorary doctorate by Oxford, but declined. ‘Why should I spend my money to be like those idiots?’ he is believed to have said. Otto Klemperer remarked, when he learned that Bruno Walter had died, and that he was now the last of the great German conductors, ‘Ah, now I can raise my fees!’

And three more. Horowitz once asked Rachmaninov whether an auditorium in Providence,   Rhode Island, was any good. ‘If the cheque’s good, the acoustics are good,’ was the reply.

Gershwin went to Paris seeking (among other things) some lessons from Maurice Ravel. Intrigued, Ravel asked the American, ‘How much do you earn in a year?’ There was a pause, and then Gershwin replied, ‘Oh, about a hundred thousand dollars.’ There was another pause. ‘Hm,’ said Ravel, ‘perhaps I should take lessons from you!’ (I have to say that John attributed this quip to Stravinsky, not Ravel, but I heard the story long ago, so I’ve kept to my version).

I finish with the Australian Taxation Office, which once questioned an opera conductor about why he claimed a deduction for dress shirts. The conductor added up the number of bars in Don Giovanni, and calculated that a conductor raises and lowers his arms 77,000 times in each opera. The ATO accepted his claim.



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