Monday, June 30, 2014


When Peter Tchakovsky described his 1812 Overture as “noisy”, he had no idea how loud – and dangerous – it could get.

In 1908, more than a hundred years after Tchaikovsky wrote and disdained his overture, the Seattle Times carried the remarkable story of Paolo Esperanza. Esperanza was the bass trombonist with the Simphonica Mayor de Uruguay. He was performing in an outdoor children’s concert and hoped to add a little excitement to the sixteen cannon shots that punctuate the finale of the 1812.

Esperanza decided to add to Tchaikovsky’s pyrotechnics by inserting a large firecracker, equivalent to a quarter-stick of dynamite, into his aluminum straight mute, which he then stuffed into the bell of his new Yamaha in-line double-valve bass trombone.

From his hospital bed, through bandages on his mouth, Esperanza explained to reporters that he had expected the bell of the trombone to funnel the blast away from him while firing the mute in an arc high above the orchestra.

The laws of propulsion physics were not on his side. A superheated shaft of air shot backwards from the blast, burning his lips and face. The explosion split the bell of his trombone, turning it inside out and launching the trombonist backwards from his perch on the orchestra riser. The hot gases shooting through the trombone forced the slide from his hand, hurling it into the back of the head of the third clarinetist, knocking him out.

Because Esperanza didn’t have time to raise his trombone before the concussion, the mute went low, shooting between the rows of woodwinds and violists, and caught the conductor in the stomach, propelling him into the audience, where he knocked down the first row of folding chairs in a kind of domino effect.

It was probably the first performance of the 1812 Overture in which the cannons were upstaged.

Sunday, June 29, 2014



Robert Schumann and Clara Wieck wanted to marry, and when Clara’s father Friedrick Wieck, raised objections, most of them having to do with money, Schumann wrote a Leipzig attorney named Einert on June 30, 1839:

A few weeks ago, to our surprise, Clara received his written permission with certain conditions, which I hope will not give you the wrong impression of me:

1.    That we should not live in Saxony during his lifetime, but that I should make an effort to earn as much elsewhere as I do through editing a musical paper here.
2.    That he should keep Clara’s money, paying four percent interest, and not paying the capital until five years from now.
3.    That I should have the statement of my income, as submitted to him in September 1837, legally verified and place it in the hands of attorney of his choice.
4.    That I should make no attempt to communicate with him verbally or in writing until he so desires.
5.    That Clara should give up all claims to inherit any inheritance from him after his death.
6.    That we should be married by Michaelmas.

We cannot agree to these conditions, except for the last one, and so we are resorting to legal remedies.

Schumann added that he and Clara wanted the matter settled as quickly as possible and were willing to make another attempt to reason with Friedrich Wieck if it seemed advisable. “Failing that”, he concluded, “we shall apply to the court, which cannot refuse us permission since our income is assured.”

A year later, after taking the matter to court, Robert and Clara married, despite Wieck’s objections. Three years afterward, Clara’s father initiated a reconciliation.

Saturday, June 28, 2014


INSULT TO INJURY          0129

Was it the crowning of the new king, George II or something in the air that made London audiences tire of Italian music, operas in particular, in 1727? Whatever it was, George Frederick Handel pressed on in spite of it and continued to produce operas until he and his backers ran out of money. As receipts dwindled, the quality of the audiences fell, too. After competing sopranos got into a fistfight during a performance of Handel’s Astinatte, genteel theater-goers retreated at the first sign of trouble, leaving the theater to those whose pleasure in music was second to their enjoyment of a good brawl.

During Handel’s Richard I the offending sopranos behaved themselves, but the opera closed after only eleven nights. He tried again with Siroe, King of Persia, much of it recycled from an opera he had written twenty years earlier.

It never stood a chance against a new unstoppable force.

The competition was an entertainment called The Beggar’s Opera and Londoners got their first look at it on January 29, 1728. John Gay’s play was a clever satire based on Jonathan Swift’s suggestion of a comedy based on the story of London’s criminal underclass. It made fun of Italian opera by using ordinary street-wise characters and replacing grand musical themes with popular tunes adapted by Johann Pepusch. The show was outrageous and it was lewd; it drew London audiences in such droves that it threw the city in a carnival mood.

Handel’s new opera opened three weeks after the debut of The Beggar’s Opera. It had a wonderful libretto and a sensational cross-dressing role for its lead soprano. After nineteen nights, it folded.

The hot-tempered Handel no doubt went livid when he heard one hit tune from The Beggar’s Opera. The rousing song of the highwaymen, “Let us take the road”, was a standout. And Pepusch had stolen it note for note from Handel’s opera, Rinaldo.

Friday, June 27, 2014


HEALTHY PESSIMISM                    0428

Thanks to a decree from the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Soviet music took some hardknocks in 1948. Four major composers were accused of writing “formalistic” music that didn’t serve the needs of the people, the result being that their music was blacklisted from performance.

The four were Dmitri Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev, Aram Kachaturian and Nikolai Miaskovsky.

The accusations were so serious that after conducting Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony for what he presumed would be the last time, Evgeny Mravinsky kissed the score and held it high above his head.

The reasons for the condemnation were nothing secret. Shostakovich had written an opera that dictator Joseph Stalin didn’t like. Prokofiev had emigrated to the West for a time and was quite popular there. Khachaturian had headed the politically suspect Soviet Composers Union. Miaskovsky was accused of writing works that were too tragic.

The faultfinding trickled down into every aspect of music.

At the same time, pianist Dmitry Paperno was a student at Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory. At first, he and his classmates found it entertaining to see professors accusing each other of kowtowing to the West, but after a while it became apparent that awful things were going on before their eyes. Often as not, the charges came from people who knew nothing about music. Often the accusers had something to gain from bringing down the accused.

Paperno particularly admired Miaskovsky, a greatly respected composer and teacher accused of writing music imbued with a “pessimism void of ideas”. He grew angry as he heard the charges repeated by accusers who obviously had been rehearsed.

The dreary litany came with only one moment of comic relief, when a fellow musician, slightly tipsy, made his way onstage, stamped his foot and said to the audience, “You see, comrades, his isn’t the kind of pessimism to condemn – it’s our healthy Soviet pessimism”.

Dmitry Paperno tells the story in his Notes of a Moscow Pianist.



Would the composer and the president catch on to the trick? In 1914, at an evening’s entertainment for the German Sailors Home and the Magicians Club of London, after the Ritz Carlton orchestra’s performances of excerpts of Puccini operas, the agenda moved on to the great magician Houdini. 

Houdini began with some simple close-up illusions – changing the colors of silk handkerchiefs and turning water into wine, and he noticed that sitting next to composer Victor Herbert was a very intent Theodore Roosevelt. He was sure the former president had been able to see through every trick – so far.

The magician proposed a spiritualistic slate test “in the full glare of light”.

Houdini invited the audience to seal into envelopes questions they wanted answered from the spirit world. When Roosevelt began to write his question with the paper in the palm of his hand, Houdini took an atlas from the ship’s library and offered it to him as a support.

Thinking that Victor Herbert was onto the ruse, the magician gave him a wink.

“Turn around”, Herbert told Roosevelt. “He’ll discern what you write from the movements of the pencil.”

After Houdini had collected all the questions, he said, “I am sure that there will be no objection if we use the Colonel’s question.” The audience readily agreed.

He had Roosevelt place his sealed question between two blank slates and asked him what his question had been,

“Where was I last Christmas?” the Colonel replied.

Houdini opened the slates and held them up for all to see. One slate had a detailed map in colored chalk of Brazil’s River of Doubts in the Amazon. The other slate contained the message, “near the Andes” and was signed by W.T. Stead, a spiritualist journalist who has drowned when the Titanic sunk.

The next morning, when Roosevelt asked Houdini if the whole thing had been spiritualism or sleight of hand, the magician confided, “It was hocus-pocus”.

Thursday, June 26, 2014



On June 27, 1847, Giuseppe Verdi was in London , hoping to further the cause of his operas when he wrote to Giuseppina Appiani:

Glory to the sun, which I have always loved so much, but which I now worship, since I’ve been dwelling in the fog and smoke, which chokes me and blinds my spirit! Nonetheless, what a magnificent city! It has things that stop you in your tracks. But the climate ruins all the beauties. Oh, if only there were a Neapolitan sky here, you’d have no need to wish for Paradise.

I have yet to begin the rehearsals for my new opera because I haven’t yet had time to do anything. Not a thing. That’s it in a nutshell! By the way, Jenny Lind still makes the same impression on me: I am the very embodiment of loyalty! …. If you laugh, by heaven, I’ll blow my top.
The theaters are crowded to overflowing. The English enjoy such performances – and they pay so many lire! Oh, if only I could stay here for a couple years, how I’d like to carry off a bag of those oh-so-holy lire! But there’s no point in getting ideas like that into my head, holds no particular charm for me, but which I will enjoy greatly from the start because there I’ll be able to live as I please! When I consider that I’ll be several weeks in Paris without getting tangled up in musical business, without hearing anyone talk about music (I shall throw all publishers and impresarios out the door), I all but lose my senses, and the thought is so  consoling.

My health is not half bad in London, but I’m always afraid that some misfortune will swoop down on me. For the most part, I stay home to write (or at least intend to write). I go into society very little, very little to the theater, to avoid annoyance.

Monday, June 23, 2014



SCORES TO SETTLE is a collection of Stories of the Struggle to Create Great Music by Norman Gilliland. There are 365 stories about colorful moments in Musical History, some of these composers and performers telling them in their own voice.

I thank Mrs. Sallee De Paz for giving me this book and truly enjoying every page of it. I would like to share them therefore in this blog and hope I can share all the 365 wonderful stories in them. Enjoy!

DEPEND ON YOURSELF                0326

He was determined and innovative and, at twenty-two, California-born Henry Cowell was also trying to establish his musical reputation. His mentor, John Varian, who was quite a nonconformist himself, advised young Cowell that “you will have to depend on yourself and very few other musicians to develop your music … you will have to forget the public and their demands altogether and only write to your best ideas.”

It was the summer of 1919 and Cowell the innovator took some of his music to an unlikely appraiser, the famous neo-romantic pianist and composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, who had just moved to Menlo Park. Cowell took a stack of manuscripts to Rachmaninoff’s house, but the Russian, once described as a six-foot scowl, opted to look ast just one of them. It was a piece called “Fleeting” that, more than any of Cowell’s other pieces, resembled Rachmaninoff’s own style.

Cowell recalled later that Rachmaninoff “looked at it intently with no comment for two hours, upon which he marked tiny red circles around forty-two notes, saying, ‘You have forty-two wrong notes’.” Seeing that the young composer was taken aback by the criticism, Rachmaninoff added, “I too have sinned with wrong notes in my youth, and therefore you may be forgiven.”

Cowell asked what was wrong with those forty-two notes. Rachmaninoff informed him that they “were not within the rules of harmony”.

Cowell asked if composers still needed to feel bound by those rules, to which Rachmaninoff replied, “Oh yes. Those are divine rules.”

Cowell spent the rest of 1919 working out a new set of rules, the result being a slender book called New Musical Resouces. When he finally got it published, sales of the book fizzled; and yet it went on to be considered one of the most influential books on composing written during the twentieth century.


Having heard the news of Abraham Lincoln’s death, Louis Moreau Gottschalk and some of his fellow passengers en route to San Francisco came to terms with the loss. He wrote in his journal in 1865:

We are to have a meeting on board to give official expression to the sentiments of grief, which, with merely two or three exceptions are felt by all the passengers. I have said with merely one or two exceptions, because a lady whose opinions are Secessionist, has pushed her forgetfulness of the respect due tohumanity so far as to qualify the assassination of Lincoln as a judgment from God; and one or two other female parrots ( a species of female dolls, who are dying for sorrow in not having put on their last new dress), who are exclaiming, with philosophic profundity, that “Lincoln would have had to die sooner or later!”

Where now are those frivolous judgments on the man whome we are weeping for today? His ugliness, his awkwardness, his jokes, with which we reporoaced him: all have disappeared in presence of the majesty of death. His greatness, his honesty, the purity of that great heart which beats no longer, rise up today and in their resplendent radiance transfigure him who we called the “common rail splitter”.

O Eternal Power of the true and beautiful! Yesterday his detractors were ridiculing his large hands without gloves, his large feet, his bluntness; today this type we found grotesque appears to us on the threshold of immortality, and we understand by the universality of our grief what future generations will see in him.

After the meeting, the Italian singers who are on board sing the Hymn of the Republic, which I accompany on the piano, Miss Adelaide Phillips sings with electric feeling the patriotic song “The Star Spangled Banner”. I play my piece, Union. The enthusiasm aroused is without doubt less owing to our music than to the actual circumstances.

EVEN ONE NOTE                 0623

It wasn’t that Pablo Casals was always kind. After all, the fiery-tempered Spaniard had once published a double-dealing manager with some rough turns in a revolving door. But when it came to judging students, the celebrated cellist could be gentle almost to a fault.

In the late 1920s he was staying at the Berlin home of Francesco von Mendelssohn, a distant relative of composer Felix Mendelssohn, who invited up-and-coming cellist Gregor Piatigorsky to come over and meet Casals and another guest, the young pianist, Rudolf Serkin.

Casals said that he always enjoyed meeting young, talented musicians. He wanted to hear Piatigorsky and Serkin play. The two twenty-something musicians were nervous enough as it was, but being asked to perform together for the great Casals when they had just met made them all the more ill-at-ease. With reluctance they took on Beethoven’s Sonata in D.

Somewhere in the middle of it, they gave up.

“Bravo!” cried Casals, clapping.

Then they played Schumann’s cello concerto and some things by Bach, both badly.

Casals embraced Piatigorsky, “Splendid, Magnifique!”

Piatigorsky left confused, wondering why such bad playing had elicited apparently sincere praise from Casals.

Several years later, Piatigorsky met Casals in Paris. They played cello duets long into the night, and, feeling relaxed, Piatigorsky reminded Casals of his praise for the bad playing in Berlin.

Now the Casals temper came out. He snatched up his cello and played a phrase from the Beethoven sonata. “Didn’t you play this fingering? Ah, you did! It was novel to me … it was good … and here didn’t you attack that passage with up-bow, like this?” He went on to point out what he liked about everything Piatigorsky had played that night.

“Leave it to the ignorant and stupid who judge by counting only the faults, “ he said. “I can be grateful, and so must you be, for even one note, one wonderful phrase.”

THE IMPOVERISHED ROMANTIC                     0624

Felicien David is remembered as one of France’s great romantic composers. At the age of twenty-one, he already had a strong sense of romanticism and the hardships that came with trying to make a living from it.

In 1831 David was writing a comic opera but his financial situation was no laughing matter. He had just lost the financial support of his uncle and was penniless in Paris. David managed to find a few students in harmony and piano, and fell in love with one of them, which left him “dreaming, timid, wondering, and more than a little confused”, according to a friend.
David longed for the recognition that would come with winning the prestigious Prix de Rome, but didn’t apply for it because he feared the loss of self-esteem that would come with the failure he thought inevitable, given the back room scheming that affected the outcome of the competition.

When he began to lose pupils, David expressed his romanticism in a worried but light-hearted letter to his sister and brother-in-law:

Unless my luck gets better, I’ll be as naked as a rat at the morgue. For some reason my mind has been rather fallow of late, maybe because of my persistent piano practicing. I’m working on some piano pieces - not sonatas- that term is too old. You understand that I’m a romantic. That’s what everyone tells me, even my teachers. Entre nous, it’s true. I have little patience with theory. I’d be delighted to be romantic like Beethoven, and Weber – new and original. That’s where my romanticism is. I hope it won’t detract from my severe principles. You would marvel at my chin – dark with a black beard. It’s the secret emblem of the romantic – or at least those who intend to be so.

Felicien David would go on to make a comfortable living as one of France’s great romantic composers.

SHIFTING ALLEGIANCE                 0625

Although he was born in Glasgow of an English mother, Eugene d’Albert never considered himself an Englishman. His father, who was a ballet master in London’s King’s Theatre anad a Covent Garden, was German-born, but was of French and Italian descent, and had among his forbears two 18th-century composers, Giuseppe Matteo Alberti and Domenico Alberti.

If young d’Albert had a constant in his life, it was probably music. His first teacher was his father, who apparently was quite effective, because at the age of twelve the boy won a scholarship to the new National Training School for Music, where he became well-known not just as a bravura pianist, but also as a capable composer, and by the age of seventeen he was credited with writing the overture to Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Patience.

During the same year 1881, d’Albert won a scholarship that enabled him to study in Europe, where he made the acquaintance of Liszt and Brahms. Under the spell of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, he moved to Germany and changed his name from Eugene to Eugen. He said that one hearing of Wagner’s opera had taught him more than everything he had learned from his father or the National Training School of Music.

A year later, at eighteen, he became the youngest soloist to perform with the Vienna Philharmonic when he played his own piano concerto. After years of International touring, d’Albert devoted more and more time to composing, and produced a total of twenty-one operas, the seventh of which, Tiefland, found a permanent place in the repertory.

In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, d’Albert’s lonstanding favoritism toward Germany made him a controversial figure in England, and he later softened some of his statements, saying with a curiously foreign syntax, “The former prejudice which I had against England, which several incidents aroused, has completely vanished since many years”.

Eugen d’Albert’s personal allegiance also tended to drift. In 1932, having long since become a Swiss citizen, he died in Riga, Latvia, where he had gone to divorce his sixth wife.

A SUMMER PRANK             0626

Muzio Clementi was one of the most diverse musicians of his time. He was a celebrated pianist. He manufactured and sold pianos. He was a major composer. He was a publisher. And if one account is true, Clementi was also focused to a fault.

In his memoirs, oboist William Parke wrote of a hot summer day in 1796 and an outing during which Clementi and a cellist named John Crosdill went swimming while visiting the estate of the Earl of Pembroke. Hearing of Clementi’s absent-mindedness, Crosdill decided to test it. While Clementi continued to swim, Crosdill sneaked off with his shirt and took it into the house and let Lord Pembroke in on the joke. Parke continues:

At the expiration of half an hour Clementi returned, perfectly dressed as he believed, and while he was expatiating largely on the pleasure he received by his immersion, a gentleman and his lady (friends of the peer) arrived on an evening visit. After the usual introductions had taken place, the lady expressed a desire to hear Clementi play one of his own sonatas on the pianoforte, to which he readily assented.

Having taken his seat, and fidgeted a little in his peculiar way, he played the first movement of one of his most difficult pieces, and was about to begin the adagio when, being oppressed with heat, he unconsciously unbuttoned nearly the whole of his waistcoat, and was proceeding, when the lady greatly surprised, hastily retired to the farthest part of the room while Lord Pembroke, almost convulsed with laughter, apprised Clementi of his situation, who, staring wildly, darted out of the room, and could not by any entreaties be prevailed on to rejoin the party.

The absent-minded Muzio Clementi was also known for going out in the morning wearing one black and one white stocking.