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David Bruce: Don’t Fear the Reaper — Music, Names


• Thea Phillips was asked by Sir Thomas Beecham to sing soprano solo in George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. She confessed that she did not know the part, and she was afraid to attempt to sing it because the concert was only a few weeks away, but Sir Thomas convinced her to undertake the part. Later, the two met again, and Ms. Phillips was carrying the score for Messiah with her so she could study wherever she was. She told Sir Thomas, “It goes everywhere with me, to work, at meals, up to bed at night.” Sir Thomas asked, “Then may we trust that you will have an Immaculate Conception of the part?”

• Conductor André Previn has in his office a cartoon showing a music stand marked “L.A. Symphony.” On the music stand is a Help Wanted Notice: “Resident Orchestra Conductor; Party Goer; Gladhander; Fundraiser; High Visibility; Some Knowledge of Music Desirable.” Mr. Previn also has in his office a cartoon of a conductor standing at a podium and reading a set of instructions: “Wave the stick until the music stops, then turn around and bow.”

• English entertainer Joyce Grenfell knew a couple of sisters who were interested in music. Whenever they needed a housemaid or a cowman, they would advertise for a housemaid or a cowman with a particular musical talent; for example, a contralto-housemaid or a tenor-cowman. These servants formed a choir for which the sisters provided professional direction. Frequently, the choir composed of servants gave concerts.

• Conductor Arturo Toscanini was having difficulty — musically and linguistically — with a star tenor in a Swedish opera house, and finally he asked a friend who spoke Swedish, “Ask that man if he knows who I am, and tell him to get the hell off the stage.” The tenor listened to the two requests, then replied, “Yes and no.” After hearing the translation of the tenor’s reply, Mr. Toscanini laughed and went on with the rehearsal.

• Jazz musician Louis Armstrong used to sing “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” although the lyrics contained such words as “mammies” and “darkies.” When singing the song, Mr. Armstrong frequently either changed the offensive words or substituted “scat” (nonsense) syllables in place of them.

• Some people live their life well. Asked what he was most proud of in his life, jazz saxophonist Benny Carter, who played with Charlie Parker and Fletcher Henderson, replied, “I can’t think of anything I’m not proud of.”

• Pianist Richard Goode became famous in part by playing Beethoven’s sonatas. A fan once told him, “You are Beethoven.” Mr. Goode responded by leaning toward the fan, cupping his ear, and asking, “What did you say?”

• In 1968, Josef Krips conducted the San Francisco Symphony in “The Star-Spangled Banner.” When the song was finished, a member of the audience yelled, “Play ball!”


• Names in ballet are often interesting: 1) According to ballet lingo, a particularly demanding dance is called a “puff,” because the dancer will huff and puff after dancing it. Of course, no matter how strenuous the role, the dancer must wait until after exiting to huff and puff. 2) A dance writer once flattered Maria Tallchief by writing, “There’s only one Tallchief.” Other, more clever people reminded the writer that Ms. Tallchief’s sister, Marjorie, was also a noted ballerina. 3) In the ballet Giselle, two Wilis (vampires) are given prominent roles. They are named Moyna and Zulma, but American ballet companies often give them nicknames, such as Laverne and Shirley. 4) George Balanchine once joked that all ballets should be named Swan Lake — that way, they would be guaranteed a large and interested audience. 5) People who are intensely devoted to ballet are known as balletomanes; people who are intensely devoted to melodic Italian opera are known as melomanes. 6) Ballet dancers need to cover their skin yet reveal the form of their body. A person who helped them do this was Jules Léotard, a French acrobat and trapeze artist who invented the body-fitting suit that bears his name.

• When H. Algeranoff was dancing with Anna Pavlova in Australia, a man named Bobbie Helpman came to him for lessons. The man showed talent, and Mr. Algeranoff told him, “This is a country where they don’t take easily to men dancing. I think you’d find it would be helpful if you called yourself Robert instead of Bobbie, and added a second N to your surname; it would give it a slightly foreign sound, which would be more acceptable to the general public.” Mr. Helpman — make that Mr. Helpmann — took his advice, and he made the new more foreign-sounding name famous.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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