Friday, July 18, 2014



English violist William Primrose made a policy of never making excuses for his performances, no matter how difficult the circumstances surrounding them.

While he was a member of the prestigious London String Quartet, the ensemble was scheduled to perform at New York’s Town Hall. The program included works that had particularly hard viola parts – the B-flat Quartet by Brahms and the Debussy quartet.

Before the concert, Primrose stepped outside to relax. While taking in the fresh spring air, he decided that a cigarette would be just the thing, so he lit a match. But he neglected to close the cover, and the whole book of matches went up like a torch, giving his left hand a severe burn.

He hurried to a drugstore to kill the pain and got some medicine that made the hand feel somewhat better, but the stuff was so sticky that when he played, the ball of his left thumb kept getting stuck to the viola. The process of getting his thumb stuck and unstuck was so noisy that Primrose could imagine everyone in the audience, back row critics included, squirming at the sound of it.

The friction against the burn between his first and second fingers caused him considerable suffering every time he played a half-step.

Nonetheless, at the post-concert reception, he received nothing but praise and congratulations for his execution of the difficult viola parts.

But cellist Warwick Evans took him to task for being rude, especially while talking to the ladies at the reception. “You’ve had your left hand stuck in your pocket all evening,” he said.

Primrose reminded him about the burn and explained that he wasn’t trying to hide it for appearance’s sake, but because he didn’t want people to think of it as an excuse and deduce that the performance wasn’t as good as it might have been under better circumstances.

Primrose tells the story in his 1978 memoir Walk on the North Side.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


DON’T EVER LEAVE IT       0311

Like many a great musician before him, Argentine composer Astor Piazolla went to Paris to take lessons from the celebrated Nadia Boulanger. Although his lessons with her went on for less than four months, long after they were over he would declare that he owed her “absolutely everything”.

He was born on March 11, 1921, and so was already thirty-three years old when he came to take his first lesson from Boulanger. She had tutored some of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, and she spoke of them without awe. She dismissed a package in the mail as the latest work by Stravinsky, who sent her a copy of every new work he wrote, and added, “I don’t have time to look at them all!”

Piazolla showed her a hefty stack of his own manuscripts, and as she sifted through them she concluded, “This music is well-written. Here you are like Stravinsky, like Bartok, like Ravel, but you know what happens? I can’t find Piazolla in this.”

She asked him what sort of music he played in Argentina.

Reluctantly, he admitted that he played tangos in nightclubs.

“I love that music!” she exclaimed. She asked him what instrument he played.

He confessed that he played a concertina-like instrument called the bandoneon. He had images of her throwing him out of her fourth floor window.

She had heard of the bandoneon. She convinced Piazolla to play one of his tangos on the piano.

He chose one called “Triumfal”. At the eighth bar she stopped him, took him by the hands, and told him in no uncertain terms, “That is Piazolla. Don’t ever leave it!”

It was a formative moment. “I took all of the music I had composed,” Piazolla said later, “ten years in my life, and sent it to hell in two seconds.”

*    *   *

This story reminds me of a friend of mine who decided to go to the University of the Philippines College of Music, to pursue a degree of Masters in Music Composition.

At the first day of class, he and his classmates were excited to meet their composition professor, eagerly armed with each of their own stack of musical compositions. But, after asking the class to put out their compositions, the next thing the professor said was throw them all out. The stunned class waited for the explanation which was just that they should then simply forget about all they ever learned about composing music.

This composer-professor is well-known for his avant-garde compositions and bold dissonances – we had the “privilege’ of studying one of his choir composition, “Alamat”, and that was really nose bleed for me and my choir at that time.  He probably was thinking along the same lines as Nadia Boulanger on this and I’m not sure what sort of products has come out of his classes but it’s just good to know that if his premise is true, there is yet a composer in all of us after all.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014



As World War I spread through Europe, the famous Australian-born pianist and composer Percy Grainger described himself variously as a conscientious objector or a coward. He had arrived in New York from London as the United States was entering the war. Because of what friends considered his unpatriotic attitude, he couldn’t go back to England. So he took a perfectly logical next step.

He bought a saxophone.

On June 9, 1917, he walked to Fort Totten and enlisted as a bandsman in the U.S. Army. He was fitted for a uniform, his billowy hair was cut to military specifications, and the following day he was transferred to Fort Hamilton, South Brooklyn, where he became a member of the 15th Band of Coast Artillery Corps.

The only catch: The virtuoso pianist couldn’t play the saxophone, And, as it was, the band already had plenty of saxophonists, so he was given an oboe, and got by well enough to be promoted to Bandsman 2nd Class.

The brilliant but eccentric Grainger would later describe the first few weeks in the army as the happiest time of his life. He was paid $36 a month to study all kinds of brass and reed instruments and even get to conduct the band a few times. He was most pleased with the anonymity the army gave him and the freedom from the pressure of playing professional concerts.

The idyll was note to last though. Before long a reporter caught sight of him performing in one of the band concerts, and soon the New York papers revealed that one of the world’s great pianists was masquerading as a humble bandsman.

He was reassigned to be a star pianist for Red Cross benefit concerts and Liberty Loan and War Bond drives.

But at least his army experience helped him to make up his mind about one issue. Within three weeks of joining the band, Percy Grainger applied to become a U.S.citizen.

RESURRECTION        0509

In 1965, twelve years after his last stage appearance, virtuoso pianist Vladimir Horowitz felt again the urge to “communicate directly” with the audience. He decided to perform at Carnegie Hall.

The sixty-one-year-old Horowitz worried about being physically up to resuming his concert career and feared that his memory would fail him during the performance. He selected a new Steinway, had it delivered to the hall, and practiced for a couple of months without committing himself to scheduling a concert. Finally he settled on Sunday, May 9.

He worried that not many young people would come to the recital, and he insisted that plenty of $3 student tickets be made available. He was astonished to hear that hundreds of people, many of them young music students, had waited four abreast through a cold rainy night to buy tickets. He arranged for the entire crowd to have coffee and received a grateful telegram from a hundred of them.

Horowitz chose a tough program – Robert Schumann’s Fantasie in C and Alexander Scribin’s Ninth Sonata, plus the Bach-Busoni Toccata and Fugue in C, with short pieces by Chopin, Debussy, and Schumann for encores. In his bedroom he practiced bowing. As the day for the recital approached, he diverted himself with mundane details. He chose a formal cutaway jacket with handkerchief, black pants with faint white stripes, white shirt, gray vest, and silk tie.

He walked onstage to a standing ovation and shrugged with upturned hands as if to say, “I haven’t even played yet”. In an emotional whirlwind, he played the Bach-Busoni piece too fast and hit wrong notes. Sweat in his eye made him miss notes in Schumann. During the Scriabin he aimed for grandeur and lyricism rather than speed, and by the end of the encores the response was deafening. The audience refused to leave until the stage lights were dimmed and the piano lid closed.

“I don’t know what to call it,” Vladimir Horowitz told a friend. “Resurrection, I think, is all right …”

Monday, July 7, 2014


IT      0708

Eighteen-year-old Sergei Rachmaninoff was hoping that his opera Aleko would make his reputation as a significant composer, but that major effort was quickly overshadowed by a miniature piece of music – his Prelude in C-sharp minor.

The year was 1891, and as a recent graduate in music theory from the Moscow Conservatory, Rachmaninoff was scrambling to make a living. He had no great confidence in his opera, and the delay of payment for its publication had made him glad to accept an invitation to play a set of piano pieces for the Electrical Exposition in Moscow for a fee of 50 rubles. He played the first movement of Anton Rubinstein’s D minor piano concerto and a group of solo pieces, including a Berceuse by Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt’s transcription fo a section from Charles Gounod’s opera Faust.

But one piece from the concert went on to attract attention to last a lifetime. It was one of Rachmaninoff’s own – his slender Prelude in C-sharp minor.

A reviewer remarked at the end of his commentary that the prelude “aroused enthusiasm”. It continued to do so. With its powerful opening of descending chords and Slavic brooding, it quickly became an international favorite in concert performances and piano lessons alike. Rachmaninoff dismissed its creation, saying, “One day the prelude simply came to me and I wrote it down. It came so forcefully that I couldn’t shake it off despite myself. It had to be and so there it was.”

The more audiences demanded the Prelude in C-sharp minor, the more Rachmaninoff began to resent the piece, which he started referring to as “It”. At the end of a concert, yielding to the audience’s demand for the prelude, he would pound “It” out with a violence borne by resentment, which only made the prelude that much more memorable, so that “It” soon became synonymous with Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Sunday, July 6, 2014


RADIO WON’T WAIT         0307

According to its producer, The Ford Sunday Evening Hour was a way for radio audiences “to feel cultured without really being so.” Beginning in 1934 it provided classical music, popular opera arias, familiar ballads and hymns. Henry Ford hired most of the Detroit Symphony as the house orchestra. The conductors were some of the best – Sir John Barbirolli and Fritz Reiner. The soloists were the finest, although, in the case of pianist Myra Hess, the encounter with radio was not graceful.

Hess was booked to play Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor for a March 7, 1937 broadcast. A representative of the Ford Motor Company suggested a fee of $3,000.

It was a fortune. “That’s ridiculous!” Hess declared.

Taking her surprise for disappointment, the man from Ford said, “All right then. Make it $4,000.”

The rehearsal was timed so precisely that Hess got rattled. She went back to her hotel suite, shut herself up in the sitting room, and practiced until it was past time for her to leave for the broadcast. When she got up to go, she found that the door had jammed, trapping her in the room. With the aid of a friend, she forced the door open, did a quick change, and managed to get to the concert hall on time – barely.

The orchestra was already playing an overture as she was led to a small gilt chair on the stage. When the overture ended, she stood up and headed toward the piano, but she was only halfway to it when the time-conscious conductor signaled for the drum roll that began the concerto. She made what was described as “a running dive” for the keyboard and got there just in time to hit the dramatic opening chords.

The ordeal had its compensations. After the broadcast Myra Hess told a backstage policeman that no one had any right to the outlandish fee she was getting for performing the radio concert.

SHOWMANSHIP       0408

In 1832, after attending a concert by Niccolo Paganini, twenty-year-old Franz Liszt had been inspired to raise the level of his virtuosity by applying Paganini’s violin technique to the piano. At the same time, Paganini’s charismas made Liszt realize that showmanship would take him to even greater heights. A description of a Liszt concert of ten years later shows that the pianist had taken his lessons to heart.

On April 8, 1842, Russian critic Vladimir Stasov attended a Liszt concert at the Assembly Hall of the Nobles in St. Petersburg. He described a stage in the middle of the concert hall on which stood two pianos facing in opposite directions.

Liszt, noticing the time, walked down from the gallery, elbowed his way through the crowd and hurried toward the stage. Instead of using the steps, he leapt onto the stage. He yanked off his white kid gloves and tossed them on the floor, under the piano. Then, after bowing low in all directions to a din of applause, such as probably had not been heard in St. Petersburg since 1703, he sat down at the piano. A hush fell over the hall at once. He went straight into the opening cello phrase of the William Tell Overture. As soon as he finished, while the hall was still ringing with applause, he rushed to the second piano facing in the opposite direction. Throughout the concert he alternated pianos, facing first one, then the other half of the hall.

He played the Andante from Lucia, his fantasy on Mozart’s Don Giovanni, piano transcriptions of Schubert’s Standchen and Erlkonig, Beethoven’s Adelaide, and ended with his own Galop chromatique.

Never in our lives had we heard anything like that; we had never been in the presence of such a brilliant, passionate, demonic personality, at one moment rushing like a whirlwind, at another pouring and cataracts of pure beauty and grace.

Saturday, July 5, 2014



At age twenty, Franz Liszt was already a spectacular pianist. Paris had plenty of virtuosi, but seeing a spectacular violinist perform took him to a new summit of musicianship.

In April 1832 Liszt attended a benefit concert for cholera victims. The performer was Niccolo Paganini, who, to Liszt’s way of thinking, not only played the violin better than anyone else, but played the instrument as well as it could be played, and seemed to be at one with his violin.

The stunned pianist wrote a letter to his student, Pierre Wolff, Jr., attributing to Michelangelo an utterance generally believed to have come from Correggio:

For two weeks now my mind and my fingers have been working like two lost souls. Homer, The Bible, Plato, Locke, Byron, Hugo, Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Beethoven, Bach, Hummel, Mozart, Weber are all around me. I study them, meditate on them, devour them with fury. Besides this, I practice four or five hours of exercises (thirds, sixths, octaves, tremolos, repetition of notes, cadences, etc. etc.) Ah! As long as I don’t go mad, you will find an artist in me. Yes, an artist such as the one you desire, such as is required these days.
“And I too am a painter!” cried Michelangelo the first time he beheld a masterpiece. Your friend, though insignificant and poor, can’t stop repeating those words ever since Paganini’s recent performance. Rene, what a man, what a violin, what an artist! Heavens! What sufferings, what misery, what tortures in those four strings!

As far as his expression and his style of playing are concerned, they come from his very soul!

Liszt’s new goal was to create a piano repertory that would enable him to emulate some of Paganini’s most dramatic effects – leaps, glissandos, and bell-like harmonies. But from watching Paganini on that spring evening, he also learned that the artist himself could become a work of art. Next we’ll see how Liszt dazzled concert-goers with his showmanship…

Friday, July 4, 2014



As an established concert pianist, Cyril Smith was accustomed to overcoming the routine obstacles that inevitably arose during performances in England.

In 1937 he was invited by the British Council to undertake a six-week swing through Denmark, Sweden, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Romania. With the honor of his first tour of the Continent came the responsibility of representing all British musicians, which became a challenge when he encountered a remarkable piano.

By the time he arrived in the Romanian city of Cernauti, winter cold had set in with a vengeance. The piano he was to play was kept in an unheated room in a music shop, tuned just before the concert, and then brought into the warmth of the opera house. When Smith began playing, it became apparent that an hour or two of heat had stretched the strings enough to drop the pitch three semitones. The first piece was in C Major, but sounded like A Major.

The result was what Smith termed “an agonizing evening”.

The last piece on the program was a polonaise by contemporary composer Arthur Bliss, and Smith recalled that “this very modern composition sounded like nothing on earth on my flat piano”. The performance was not the desired representation of British music and musicians.

When the end of the concert finally came, the entire audience stood up and hissed.

Smith beat a retreat to the exit, but in the wings somebody intercepted him and pushed him back onto the stage. Even though he sympathized with the displeased crowd, or mob as it now seemed to be, Smith said that he had no desire to go back out and face them again. Then someone explained that the audience wasn’t hissing, but shouted “Bis!” by which they meant “Encore!” So with mixed emotions, Smith returned to do battle with the piano again.

Cyril Smith tells the story in his 1958 reminiscence, Duet for Three Hands.

Thursday, July 3, 2014


THE PAYOFF      0304

Felix Mendelssohn conducted the Dusseldorf revival of Luigi Cherubini’s opera The Water Carrier. A letter that he wrote to his father on March 4, 1832 shows how hard he worked to get the performance right:

A good performance in the Dusseldorf theater does not find its way to the general public – in fact, rarely beyond the Dusseldorfers themselves. But if I succeed in thrilling and rousing my own feelings and those of everybody in the house who’s in favor of good music, that’s worthwhile too.

The week leading up to the performance of The Water Carrier was exhausting. Every day we had two long rehearsals, nine or ten hours I was supposed to supervise everything – the acting, the sets and the dialogue – or the whole thing would’ve faltered. So on Friday I came from my desk feeling a little worn out. We had been committed to a whole dress rehearsal in the morning, and my right arm was quite stiff.

The audience hadn’t seen or heard of The Water Carrier for fifteen or twenty years, and had the idea that it was some old forgotten opera, which the committee felt like reviving, and so everyone on stage felt very nervous- which turned out to be just the right mood for the first act. The emotion and excitement were so stirring that by the second piece of music the Dusseldorf resistance burst into enthusiasm, and at one time or another, everyone applauded and shouted and wept.

It has been quite a while I have had such a wonderful night at the theater, for I participated in the performance just like an audience member, and laughed and applauded and cried out “bravo” while conducting enthusiastically the whole time.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


TAKING IT IN STRIDE          0703

How did Hector Berlioz cope with the pressures of life as a composer and conductor? With a lively sense of humor. It comes out in a letter he wrote from London to Theodore Ritter on July 3, 1855.

A ghastly rehearsal at Exeter Hall yesterday. Glover’s cantata in a piquant style, but difficult, and I was sweating enough to engorge the gutters in the Strand, and the finale of my Harold in Italy, a ferocious concerto by Henselt played by Mr. Klindowrth in a free style, which kept me dancing on a slack rope for an hour, and Cooper, our first violin, who couldn’t take it any more, sang out, “Sempre tempo rubato!”

… Glover gave a soiree at which Meyerbeer was expected. The great man send his regrets, pleading a terrible colic … then, finally, he shows up just as everyone had finished regretting his absence. Congratulations on the end of his colic. Moseying through the streets of London in the moonlight, I go to Ernst’s house to join my wife …

Wagner has gone, after the esteemed Mr. Hogarth had introduced him to Meyerbeer, asking the two celebrities whether they were acquainted. Wagner’s delighted to be leaving London, a new salvo of ranting against him from the critics after the latest concert in Hanover Square. It’s true that he conducts in a free style, like Klindworth playing the piano, but his ideas and conversation are enchanting. We went to drink punch with him after the concert. He reserved me as to his friendship, embraced me ferociously, saying he used to have all kinds of prejudices against me. He wept, he capered around, and no sooner had he left than the Musical World published the passage in his book in which he cuts me to pieces with wry wit. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014


SQUARE ONE        0402

As World War I ended, Romanian composer Georges Enesco had two reasons to be worried.

He had turned his concert earnings over to his father to invest, thinking that the earnings would enable him to retire to the country and spend his time writing music.

The elder Enesco had invested the money in land, and the deterioration of the Romanian economy during the war had wiped out his savings. And then land reforms promised by King Ferdinand resulted in the confiscation of much of his father’s estate. Financially, Enesco was back to square one. He would have to go back to the concert stage and build up his savings all over again.

A bigger concern came from a curious mishap with his music.

In the summer of 1917 the beleaguered Romanian government had send its gold reserves to London for safekeeping via a train to Moscow. Traveling with the bullion was an assortment of crates containing documents, including a large wooden box labeled “Musique Manuscrite Georges Enesco”. The box contained a generous collection of the composer’s compositions, some of them going all the way back to pieces he had written as a child. The box contained the only copies of his Second Orchestral Suite, his Second Symphony, and his opera Oedipe, which he was planning to finish now that the war was over.

A revolution was brewing in Russia. As soon as the box arrived in Moscow, it disappeared. Seven long years passed.

In 1924 conductor Bruno Walter made an appeal to the Soviet authorities on behalf of the distraught composer. Playing, perhaps, on their war experiences, he likened Enesco to “a father who assumes his sons are missing in action,” and offered to bring the box back to Enesco personally.

After more delays, someone found the missing box in the Kremlin and returned it to Paris with the help of French diplomats, and a greatly relieved Georges Enesco was reunited with his music.