Skip to Main Content

Book of Musical Anecdotes

About The Book

Here is one of the most enjoyable and illuminating books ever published for the music lover, a feast of delightful anecdotes that reveal the all-too-human side of the great composers and performers.

There are stories of appetites (Handel eating dinner for three), embarrassments (Brahms falling asleep as Liszt plays), oddities (Bruckner's dog being trained to howl at Wagner), and devotions (a lovely admirer disrobing in tribute to Puccini). There are memorable accounts of Stravinsky telling Proust how much he hates Beethoven, of Tchaikovsky's first bewildering telephone call, of Dvorak's strange love of pigeons, and of Verdi's intricate maneuvering to keep the now-famous melody of "La donna è mobile" top secret.

There is also wonderful trivia (Beethoven loved to cat "bread soup" made with ten raw eggs), along with eccentric strategies (Verdi, disturbed by the sound of street organs playing arias from his operas, hired them all for a season and kept them locked in a room). There are examples of musicians munificent generosity (Haydn called Mozart "the greatest composer known to me, either in person or by name"), and scathing dismissal ("Have you heard any Stockhausen?" the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham was asked. "No," he replied, "but I believe I have trodden in some").

Collected from thousands of books, articles, and unpublished manuscripts (with historical sources provided in extensive notes), these anecdotes appear in their original form, throwing fresh light on familiar figures in the musical hall of fame. For browsing, reading, research and amusement, this book is a grand entertainment for concert-goers, record-buyers, operamanes, gossips and music lovers everywhere.


Chapter 1

Thomas Augustine ARNE (1710-1778)

The composer of 'Rule Britannia!', Arne wrote extensively for the London theatre.


Charles Burney, Arne's pupil

He never cd pass by a woman in the street, to the end of his Life without Concupiscence or, in plain Engl. picking her up, if her look was not forbidding, & impracticable. It has frequently happened in walking home with my Wife of a Night, if we have by some accident been separated for a few minutes, that she has been accosted by the Dr with that design, ere I cd overtake her or he knew to whom she belonged.'


Doctor Arne once went to Cannons, the seat of the late Duke of Chandos, to assist at the performance of an oratorio in the Chapel of Whitchurch; but such was the throng of company, that no provisions were to be procured at the Duke's house. On going to the Chandos Arms, in the town of Edgeware, the Doctor made his way into the kitchen, where he found only a leg of mutton on the spit. This, the waiter informed him, was bespoken by a party of gentlemen. 'The Doctor determined to have the mutton, took a fiddle-string, cut it in pieces, and, secretly sprinkling it over the mutton, walked out of the kitchen. Then, waiting very patiently till the waiter had served it up, he heard one of the gentlemen exclaim -- 'Waiter! this meat is full of maggots: take it away!' This was what the Doctor expected. -- 'Here, give it me,' he said. 'O, sir,' says the waiter, 'you can't eat it -- 'tis full of maggots.' -- 'Nay, never mind,' cries the Doctor, 'fiddlers have strong stomachs.' So, bearing it away, and scraping off the catgut, he got a hearty dinner.


The father of Dr Arne was an upholsterer in Covent Garden; and, finding that his son was bent on music, engaged a foreigner of some abilities to give him lessons on the violin. The master coming one evening, as usual, discovered, to his astonishment, young Arne practising with his desk on a coffin in the wareroom. Upon this, he expressed some surprise, and added, that he should not be able to study for thinking it contained a corpse. 'So it does,' replied the juvenile musician; and, pushing the lid off, exposed the body; which so affected the master, that he never could be prevailed upon to visit his pupil again.

CAFFARELLI (1710-1783)

[b. Gaetano Majorano]

Italian castrato for whom Handel wrote his famous 'Largo'. His celebrity was second only to Farinelli's.


Like many of his neutered kind, Caffarelli was attractive to women, offering virility without risk of conception. He was not safe, however, from the other dangers of illicit carnality. Apprehended in flagrante delicto by a returning husband in Rome in 1728, the castrato narrowly escaped vengeance in authentic opera buffa style, by hiding all night in a disused water tank where he caught a cold that incapacitated him for weeks. Moreover, the husband was sworn to revenge and Caffarelli had to spend the rest of his time in Rome under the protection of four bodyguards hired by his anxious beloved.

FREDERICK the Great (1712-1786)

Friedrich II of Prussia

Flautist, composer and conqueror, who established Berlin as a musical centre by providing a court orchestra and building an opera house. C. P. E. Bach was his harpsichordist; his father's Musical Offering was composed on a theme of the king's invention.


Frederick to his Swiss companion, Henri de Catt

After dinner I play on the flute to aid digestion; I sign my letters and I again read until four o'clock. At that hour you will come to me; we will talk until six when my little concert begins. If passable music can amuse you, it only depends on you to hear it; everything is over at half-past seven. After the concert, which I have only in country quarters, I pitilessly scribble paper with prose and verse until nine o'clock, when I put myself into the arms of Morpheus.


Frederick II, personally fond of music and literature, had a special liking for the philosopher Mendelssohn grandfather of the composer, and would often seat him at his own side at dinner. An ambassador, jealous of the privilege accorded to a commoner and a Jew, insinuated to the King that Mendelssohn was 'a man who would consider nobody, and would offend your Majesty if it so happened that for some imaginary reason he thought himself hurt.'

'I should like to see that,' said the King, 'but I shall give him no reason for feeling hurt, and, any way, he would not offend me.'

'Is it a wager?' asked the Ambassador.

'Certainly,' replied the King.

'Will your Majesty at the next supper-party write on a piece of paper, "Mendelssohn is an ass," and put that paper, signed by your own hand on his table?'

'I will not; that would be a gratuitous rudeness.'

'It is only to see what he would do,...the paper must be signed "Frederick the Second" so that he cannot afterwards say he did not know that they were written by the King.'

Reluctantly, but with a feeling of curiosity as to how it would all end, the King wrote and signed the paper as required.

The evening came; the table was laid for twelve, the fatal paper was on Mendelssohn's plate, and the guests, several of whom had been informed of what was going on, assembled, eager for the fray.

Mendelssohn sat down, being rather shortsighted and observing the paper, he held it very near his eye, and having read it, gave a start.

'What is the matter?' said the King. 'No unpleasant news, I hope, Mendelssohn.'

'Oh no,' said Mendelssohn, 'it is nothing.'

'Nothing? Nothing would not have made you start. I demand to know what it is.'

'Oh, it is not worth while --'

'But I tell you that it is; I command you to tell me.'

'Oh, if your Majesty commands me, I will say that some one has taken the liberty to make a joke of rather bad taste with your Majesty; I'd rather not --'

'With me? Pray do not keep me waiting any longer. What is it?'

'Why, somebody wrote here, "Mendelssohn is one ass, Frederick the second."'

Jean-Jacques ROUSSEAU (1712-1778)

The Swiss philosopher was a competent composer (his opera Le Devin du village was widely performed) and historian of music (Dictionnaire de musique, 1768).


One morning when I was at his house I saw various domestics either coming for rolls of music, or bringing them to him to copy. He received them standing and uncovered. He said to some, 'The price is so much,' and received the money; to others, 'How soon must I return my copy?' 'My mistress would like to have it back in a fortnight.' 'Oh, that's out of the question: I have work, I can't do it in less than three weeks.' I inquired why he did not take his talents to better market. 'Ah,' he answered, 'there are two Rousseaus in the world: one rich, or who might have been if he had chosen; a man capricious, singular, fantastic; this is the Rousseau of the public; the other is obliged to work for his living, the Rousseau whom you see.'


Rousseau was especially hated by the French orchestral players, of whom, in his writings, he always speaks with unmeasured contempt. Grétry, in his Mémoires, says, that while Rousseau was superintending the rehearsals of his Devin du village, he treated the band so cavalierly, that they, in revenge, hanged him in effigy. 'Well,' said Rousseau, 'I don't wonder that they should hang me now, after having so long put me to the torture.'


Rousseau, at the age of twenty, sets out to win fame and fortune from music

From the name Rousseau I made the anagram Vaussore, and called myself Vaussore de Villeneuve. I knew nothing about composition and boasted of my skill to everybody; and although I could not score the simplest drinking song, I claimed to be a composer. That is not all. Having been introduced to M. de Treytorens, professor of law, who was a music-lover and held concerts at his house, I decided to give him a sample of my talents, and began to compose a piece for his concert with as much boldness as if I had known how to set about it. I had the persistence to work for a fortnight on this fine composition, to make a fair copy of it, write out the parts, and distribute them with as much assurance as if they had been a musical masterpiece. Finally -- a fact that will be hard to believe, though it is really true -- to crown this sublime production in a fitting manner, I tacked on a pretty minuet, which was sung in all the streets...

Venture had taught me this air with its bass accompaniment, I tacked [it] on to the end of my composition, and claimed it as my own with as much confidence as if I were addressing the inhabitants of the moon.

The players assembled to perform my piece. I explained to each the method of timing, the manner of interpretation and the cues for repeats. The five or six minutes spent in tuning up were five or six centuries to me. At last all was ready. I gave five or six premonitory taps on my conductor's desk with a handsome roll of paper. Attention! All was quiet. Gravely I began to beat time. They began. Throughout all the history of French opera never was there heard such a discordant row. Whatever they might have thought of my pretended talents, the effect was worse than anything they seem to have expected. The musicians were choking with laughter; the audience goggled their eyes, and would gladly have stopped their ears; but they had not the means. My wretched orchestra, who were out to amuse themselves, scraped loudly enough to pierce a deaf man's ear-drums. I had the audacity to go right on, sweating big drops, it is true, but kept there by shame, I had not the courage to bolt and make my escape. For my consolation, I heard the audience around me whisper into one another's ears, or rather into mine: 'It's absolutely unbearable'; or 'What crazy music!'; or 'What a devil of a din!' Poor Jean-Jacques, at that cruel moment you could hardly expect that one day your music would excite murmurs of surprise and applause, when played before the King of France and all his Court, and that in all the boxes around the most charming ladies would say half aloud: 'What delightful sounds! What enchanting music! Every one of those airs goes straight to the heart!'

Copyright © 1985 by Norman Lebrecht

About The Author

Norman Lebrecht is a historian, cultural commentator, broadcaster and award-winning novelist. His 12 books about music have been translated into 17 languages.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (May 1, 2010)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439199947

Browse Related Books

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images