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Sunday, February 19, 2006

Conductors: the last refuge of true sarcasm

Sarah has a brief but funny collection of quotes, some pithy and some not, from the conductor of the choir in which she sings. I've always been fascinated with conductors, and the best ones seem to offer the most wonderful quotes, none moreso, I think, than Sir Thomas Beecham. Here are some Beecham faves I've culled from the Interweb (just about all of which I've seen before in books). They're not all pithy and sarcastic, by the way.

A musicologist is a man who can read music but can't hear it.

All the arts in America are a gigantic racket run by unscrupulous men for unhealthy women.

Composers should write tunes that chauffeurs and errand boys can whistle.

Great music is that which penetrates the ear with facility and leaves the memory with difficulty. Magical music never leaves the memory.

I didn't know he'd been knighted. I knew he'd been doctored.

I have just been all round the world and have formed a very poor opinion of it.

Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands, and all you can do is scratch it! [spoken to a cellist]

Most of them sound like they live on seaweed.

Movie music is noise... even more painful than my sciatica. [Grrrrr!]

No operatic star has yet died soon enough for me.

The English may not like music, but they absolutely love the noise it makes.

There are two golden rules for an orchestra: start together and finish together. The public doesn't give a damn what goes on in between.

Try everything once except folk dancing and incest.

If an opera cannot be played by an organ grinder, it's not going to achieve immortality.

If I were a dictator I should make it compulsory for every member of the population between the ages of four and eighty to listen to Mozart for at least a quarter of an hour daily for the coming five years.

The sound of the harpsichord resembles that of a bird-cage played with toasting-forks. [I have to admit: I've never much enjoyed listening to the harpsichord. Purism be damned; I'll take my Bach on a piano.]

Like two skeletons copulating on a corrugated tin roof. [Again referring to the harpsichord. Now I wouldn't go THIS far.]

They are quite hopeless – drooling, driveling, doleful, depressing, dropsical drips. [On the subject of music critics]

I think I trod in some the other day. [On being asked his opinion of Stockhausen]

As a violinist he has a certain defect: He can't play the violin. [I have no idea to whom this is in reference.]

We do not expect you to follow us all the time, but if you would have the goodness to keep up with us occasionally... [Addressing an orchestral musician whose attention span was not up to Sir Beecham's standard]

[An exchange with a Wagnerian tenor]
Sir Thomas: Have you ever made love?
The Tenor: Yes, Sir Thomas.
Sir Thomas: Do you consider yours a suitable way of making love to Eva?
The Tenor: Well, there are different ways of making love.
Sir Thomas: Observing your grave, deliberate motions, I was reminded of that estimable quadruped, the hedgehog.

Are you producing as much sound as possible from that quaint and antique drainage system you are applying to your face? [To a trombone player]

The English people are not educated enough to appreciate opera. They are the most commonplace, uncultured race in Europe.


I own several of Beecham's recordings. I adore my two-disc set of him conducting the music of Frederick Delius (music with which Beecham is said to have had a strong affinity), and I also love his version of Handel's Messiah, even though it's a recording that would probably cause second-degree burns on the fingers of a musical purist were they to accidently touch it. Beyond that, though, I'm only familiar with Beecham in passing, through hearing his recordings on the radio or occasionally borrowing one from the library. I should really investigate his Berlioz some day; as George Bernard Shaw once said, "Call no conductor sensitive in the highest degree to musical impressions until you have heard him in Berlioz and Mozart."

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