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“IF ONE HEARS bad music,” Oscar Wilde said, “it’s one’s duty to drown it in conversation.” Natural philosopher and polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz commented, “Music is a calculation performed by the mind without knowing it is counting numbers.”
However, William Shakespeare was rather more sympathetic: “That man that hath no music in himself nor is not moved with the concord of sweet sound is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils. Let no such man be trusted.”
These three are from my growing collection of Words on Music, gleaned from books, online sources, vaguely remembered quips by friends, and commentaries on SiriusXM’s most urbane “Symphony Hall” satellite radio station.
A recent example from “Symphony Hall” shared French composer Hector Berlioz’s advice to conductors: “Never encourage the trombones.”
Like many one-liners, this quote has more than one alleged source: maybe Berlioz, maybe Richard Wagner, maybe one of the waltzing Strausses.
Overeager trombones lead directly to jazz musician quips. Here’s one of them: “If two trombonists are in a car, who’s driving?”
Answer: “The cop.”
Another: “Why is it so ominous when the drums stop?”
“Because it’s time for the bass solo.”
One more: “What do you call a guy who hangs out with musicians?”
French composer Erik Satie offered a more profound observation: “The musician is perhaps the most modest of animals, but he is also the proudest. It is he who invented the sublime art of ruining poetry.”
On the other hand, Russian-American composer Igor Stravinsky advised of his own avant-garde works, “To listen is an effort, and just to hear has no merit. A duck also hears.”
What’s more, maybe musical distinctions such as “avant-garde,” “classical,” and “folk” aren’t all that crucial: “All music is folk music,” said jazz great Louis Armstrong, “I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.”
Words on music have offered droll humor: Said one wit, “A true music lover is one who upon hearing a blonde soprano singing in the bathtub puts his ear to the keyhole.”
Professor John McGann, Berklee College of Music, has a collection of actual conductor quotes offered at mandolincafe.com:
“Violas, let your true piggish sides come out.”
And: “That was a drive-by viola solo.”
Words on music can be devilish. Previously cited at “Musical Malfeasance” here at SimanaitisSays: A hand-written note in the second oboe’s score suggested, “Play B flat on Wednesday matinees only. It drives him bloody mad!”
Some musical words can be sharp indeed: Metropolitan Opera head Rudolf Bing responded to a comment that “George Szell is his own worst enemy” with “Not while I’m alive.”
In his entertaining book A Night at the Opera, Denis Forman offers insight on the gloomy, brutish Icelandic-Nordic sagas inspiring the Ring Cycle: “When one reflects that only a couple of hundred years later the witty and sophisticated Chaucer was writing stuff that would have rated a fourteenth-century New Yorker we can be thankful we lived in warmer climes.”
Let’s conclude here with something exhilarating: the Bible’s word on music, Psalm 150 as it appears in the 1611 King James Version.
“Hallelujah! Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his Sanctuary; Praise him in the firmament of his power. Praise him for his mightie actes; Praise him according to his excellent greatnesse. Praise him with the sound of the Trumpet; Praise him with the Psalterie and Harpe. Praise him with the timbrell and dance; praise him with stringed instruments, and Organes. Praise him upon the loud cymbals; praise him upon the high sounding cymbals. Let every thing that hath breath, praise the Lord. Praise yee the Lord.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018