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Sunday, May 08, 2005

Hector the Humorist

I've just started reading Hector Berlioz's book Evenings with the Orchestra, which I've always wanted to read and a review copy of which fell into my hands unexpectedly (God bless GMR!). My copy is Jacques Barzun's translation. Berlioz's wit is legendary, and I already found just such an example on the first page, which I quote here:

[The set-up is that Berlioz posits the existence of an opera-house orchestra where the musicians spend their time in performance when they're not actually playing reading books, talking about the weather, and basically paying no attention at all to what's going on.]

One man only in this orchestra does not allow himself any such diversion. Wholly intent upon his task, all energy, indefatigable, his eye glued to his notes and his arm in perpetual motion, he would feel dishonored if he were to miss an eighth note or incur censure for his tone quality. By the end of each act he is flushed, perspiring, exhausted; he can hardly breathe, yet he does not dare take advantage of the respite offered by the cessation of musical hostilities to go for a glass of beer at the nearest bar. The fear of missing the first measures of the next act keeps him rooted at his post. Touched by so much zeal, the manager of the opera house once sent him six bottles of wine, "by way of encouragement." But the artist, "conscious of his responsibilities," was so far from grateful for the gift that he returned it with the proud words: "I have no need of encouragement." The reader will have guessed that I am speaking of the man who plays the bass drum.


I love wit in which long, ornate paragraphs that seem to be headed one place suddenly end up someplace completely different.

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