FUN WHILE IT LASTED 0609
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.
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 …”