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The Wit Of Composers

Never, surely, was composer more witty than the master who gave us an immortal setting of “William Tell.” Rossini’s whimsicality extended even to his birthday. Having been born in leap year, February 29, he had, of course, a birthday only once in four years, and when he was seventy-two he facetiously invited his friends to celebrate his eighteenth birthday. The maestro seldom went to the opera or to any place of amusement, but he could not resist the temptation of hearing one of Wagner’s works. It was “Tannhauser.” Afterward, when asked to give his opinion of the opera, he said, “It is too important and too elaborate a work to be judged after a single hearing, but so far as I am concerned, I shall not give it a second.”

Upon amateurs he was especially severe. A few days after Meyerbeer’s death a young admirer of his called upon the composer of “William Tell” with an elegy which he had written in honor of his idol.

“Well,” said Rossini, after hearing the composition played over, “if you really want my honest opinion, I think it would have been better if you had died and Meyerbeer had written the elegy.” A budding composer once accompanied his new composition with a Stilton, hoping, of course, to have a letter praising the work. The letter came, but all it said was: “Thanks; I like the cheese very much.”

Rossini’s witticisms indeed bubbled forth at all times and under all circumstances. On one occasion a gentleman called upon him to enlist his aid in procuring for him an engagement at the opera. He was a drummer and had taken the precaution to bring his instrument. Rossini said he would hear him “play,” and it was decided that he should show off in the overture to “Semiramide.” The very first bar of the overture contains a tremolo for the drum, and when this had been performed the player remarked: “Now I have a rest of seventy-eight bars; these, of course, I will skip.” This was too good a chance to be lost. “Oh, no,” said the composer; “by all means count the seventy-eight bars I particularly wish to hear those.”

Some of these anecdotes of Rossini remind us that composers, as a rule, have not figured amiably as critics of one another. Händel swore that Gluck knew no more about counterpoint than his cook. Weber pronounced Beethoven a madman; and Haydn said of a brother musician that “he played the fiddle like a hog.” Liszt was particularly severe upon fellow-artists. Some one was once playing to him a composition he evidently did not care for. “What is that? ” he asked.

“It is Bennet’s ‘Maid of Orleans’ sonata,” was the reply.

“Ah,” said the virtuoso, “what a pity that the original manuscript did not meet with the same fate as Joan.” In this connection a good story is told of the late Victor Masse. He was informed one day that a rival composer took every opportunity of declaring that his (Masse’s) music was execrable.

“He maintains I have no talent,” said Masse; “I always declare he has plenty. We both know we lie.”

But perhaps better than this was the opinion of Wagner expressed by Offenbach. Wagner had just published his “Rienzi,” and off went a copy to Offenbach, with a request that he would say what he thought of it. Now, Offenbach had previously read some of Wagner’s poems and had made fun of them, a circumstance well known to Wagner. After some three weeks the score of “Rienzi” was returned to its composer with a slip on which was written: “Dear Wagner—Your music is trash; stick to poetry.” This, of course, enraged Wagner greatly, and some months later he was out with one of his celebrated brochures denouncing the Jews. It was a fine opportunity for revenge—Offenbach being an Israelite—and the brochure was in the hands of Offenbach in no time. Two days elapsed and Wagner had the pamphlet back. When he opened it, this is what he found written on the front page: “Dear Wagner—Your brochure is rot; stick to music.”

Haydn was a great admirer of the fair sex, and some of his prettiest things were said about women. One specimen must suffice. The celebrated Mrs. Billington was a great friend of his, and Sir Joshua Reynolds had painted her portrait. Haydn went to see the picture when it was finished. “Yes,” he said to the artist, “it is very good. But you have made one mistake; you have painted Mrs. Billington listening to the angels, whereas the angels should be listening to her.”


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You are reading The Wit Of Composers from the July, 1898 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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