Friday, August 8, 2014



Pianist Harold Bauer had never heard of the young woman dancing at the home of an acquaintance and took no notice of her name. But he watched with fascination as she gestured and posed to the sound of familiar classical music. He had never seen a performance quite like it. Her gestures seemed to illustrate the dynamics of the music, and he hit upon the idea of letting his gestures at the piano bring forth corresponding dynamics in the music.

His first efforts to bring tone out of gesture were ridiculous, but he persisted and eventually used the approach whenever he played. 

Thirty years later, after he had given a recital in Los Angeles, his friend, violinist and composer Eugene Ysaye greeted him in the artists’ room by introducing a companion. “Of course you know Isadora”, he said. 

“Isadora who?” Bauer asked.

Isadora Duncan,” said Ysaye.

When Bauer realized that she was the dancer from all those years ago, he told her how greatly she had influenced his method of performing, and before long, the two of them planned to give a concert together.
It was to be entirely pieces by Chopin, and while rehearsing the Etude in A-flat, Opus 25 No. 1, they had a falling out.

“You are playing that wrong,” Isadora said. She explained that the crescendo had to continue to the very end of the phrase and be softened later.

With some annoyance, Bauer said that he was playing the piece the way it was printed on the page.

Isadora didn’t care. She said that the music had to build to a climax at the end of the phrase or else she’d have nothing to with her arms. “Anyway,” she insisted, “you are quite mistaken.”

After a long discussion, Bauer gave in for the sake of allowing her the indispensable dramatic gesture.

Afterward, when he had a look at Chopin’s original manuscript of the piece, he found that it had the precise dynamics the dancer had instinctively required, and he played it that way ever after.

Monday, August 4, 2014



Twenty-first century neurologists have determined that the pleasure a musician derives from playing the climax of a composition compares with the enjoyment of eating chocolate. If they’re right, Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf had a double reason to remember a reward he received as a young violinist.

In 1761 Dittersdorf was accompanying the famous composer Christoph Willibald Gluck to Bologna, one of the music capitals of Europe. Years later, when Dittersdorf dictated his autobiography, he recalled an occasion when his playing brought him a particularly sweet return.

A distinguished musician of the day, Giovanni Battista Martini asked the young violinist to play a concerto in his church during an upcoming service. He asked if Dittersdorf would be satisfied with the usual fee of twelve double ducats. Dittersdorf replied that he would play only on condition that he was not paid.

“What I prized beyond money,” he said, “was the honor of being chosen to play by the Father of Music.”

During the three-day festival Dittersdorf and Gluck went to church to hear Vespers, which featured music by Martini. Dittersdorf thought it was magnificent. In one Psalm Martini had written the Amen in the form of an eight-part fugue- all the more glorious since the orchestra consisted of 160 people  and the chorus was 80 strong.

The next morning Gluck and Dittersdorf went to see Martini, who invited them to drink chocolate with him.

“I think it likely,” Martini said, “that yesterday’s Vespers and today’s High Mass will be my Swan Song, because I am already aware that my powers, physical and mental, are beginning to fail.”

After Dittersdorf had played his concerto, he and Gluck went home and sat down to dinner, after which the landlord came in and said, “Padre Martini sends you both a few pounds of chocolate.”

In a shaky hand, the old priest had written on the packet: “12 pounds for my dear friend Cavalier Gluck and 12 pounds for my dear son Signor Carl Ditters.”

Saturday, August 2, 2014



The two composers would be major forces in late nineteenth-century music and great friends, but not before some preliminary missteps.

In 1857 Camille Saint-Saens began seeing small notices announcing Paris performances by an unknown Russian named Anton Rubinstein. Rubinstein was unknown in Paris for a very good reason – he avoided press coverage. His Paris debut took place in an elegant hall – without a single paying listener in attendance.

With power and artistry, Rubinstein wowed his first audience, and for his next performance the hall was, as Saint-Saens put it, “crammed to suffocation”. In his memoirs, Saint-Saens gushed, “I was bowled over, chained to the chariot of the conqueror!”

Despite his admiration, Saint-Saens avoided meeting the great pianist. The twenty-two-year-old was terrified at the prospect, despite Rubinstein’s reputation for kindness and gentility. For a year, mutual friends continued to invite Saint-Saens to meet Rubinstein, but Saint-Saens turned them down. The following year, though, during Rubinstein’s next visit to Paris, Saint-Saens finally got up his courage for an introduction and the two hit it off at once.

They got together often to play flamboyant piano duets. Saint-Saens was taken not only with Rubinstein’s artistry, but also with his lack of jealousy when it came to his fellow musicians. Rubinstein planned to solo in performances of some of his works for piano and orchestra and invited Saint-Saens to conduct. Again reluctant, Saint-Saens eventually agreed, and found the experience to be his primary education as a conductor.

It was a baptism by fire because Rubinstein paid no attention to the orchestra and sometimes drowned them out, forcing Saint-Saens to follow him by watching his hands. And Rubinstein provided scores that were marked up beyond comprehension because he found it amusing to see Saint-Saens conduct his way into and out of trouble.

During later Paris visits, the bold, broad-shouldered Anton Rubinstein and the shy, delicate Camille Saint-Saens became almost inseperable friends.


Richard Strauss admired the music of Richard Wagner, and so he felt honored in 1839 when he received an invitation from Wagner’s widow Cosima to conduct during the consummate Wagnerian event, the Bayreuth Festival.

But the honor would come with strings attached.

Part of Cosima’s motive for the invitation came from the formation of a rival festival in nearby Munich. The director of the Munich festival put it into direct competition with Bayreuth by announcing a new production of Wagner’s Lohengrin, the same opera Bayreuth had presented on its season’s opening night.
The Munich director also invited Strauss to conduct two of their operas.

His willingness to work with the competition put Strauss at odds with Cosima’s increasingly resentful son Siegfried, a composer who also did some conducting. Strauss was not reluctant to voice his criticisms of Cosima and her family. He and Siegfried had a quarrel about artistic control that prompted Strauss to break off his associations with the Wagners. Cosima asked that Strauss not return to Bayreuth as a conductor.

In August 1896 he did return – as an audience member – to hear Siegfriend conduct Wagner’s Ring Cycle for the first time, and he found the Wagners amiable, although he thought that Siegfried’s conducting was awful.

Siegfried rekindled the animosity by publishing a letter in which he stated that the ultimate authority in the theater at Bayreuth was the stage director, who got to give orders to the director. Strauss took the letter as a personal insult.

But despite his break with the Wagners and his condemnation of Bayreuth as “the ultimate pigsty”, Strauss remained steadfast in his admiration of Wagner’s music and saw the festival as its greatest safeguard, in fact, the consummate safeguard of all German art. And in 1933, after the deaths of Siegfried and Cosima, when the invitation came to conduct again at Bayreuth, neither the needs of his own music nor the grim Nazi politics of the times kept him from accepting it.