THE TORTURES OF A MUSICIAN
In addition to the concerts I had agreed to conduct, I had promised Mlle Aimée to lead the band at some of the performances which she expected to give in America. To fulfill my promise, I had waved my baton in New York at the theatre where she was singing. I thought I had fulfilled my promise to her; but when I had finished my series of concerts in Philadelphia, she came and told me that she was leaving for Chicago and begged me to conduct one last performance at X . . . I won’t name the city for a good reason. I was expecting to go to Chicago, X . . . was on the way, and so I consented to do what she asked.
One morning I arrived at X ... . They were giving La Jolie Parfumeuse that evening. I went to the theatre to conduct my orchestra at least once. I installed myself on my podium; I raised my baton; the musicians began.
I knew the score by heart, so what was my surprise when I heard instead of the tunes I expected something strange which bore only a distant family resemblance to my operetta. With good will, I was able to make out the tunes but the orchestration was completely different from mine. A local musician had thought fit to compose a new one! My first impulse was to stop the rehearsal immediately and to refuse to direct the orchestra that evening; but Mlle Aimée pleaded with me, pointing out to me that I had been advertised, that the public would be angry if I did not appear, that the performance would be impossible without me; and I ended by letting myself be persuaded.
I picked up my baton and once again gave the signal for my orchestra to begin. What an orchestra! It was small, but execrable. Out of twenty-five musicians there were eight who were pretty good, six quite mediocre, and all the rest absolutely bad. To prepare for all contingencies, I asked one of the second violins to take a drum, and I gave him some instructions in a low voice. It didn’t do me a bit of good as will be seen from what follows. There was no bass drum in the orchestra or the orchestration.
The rehearsal was so deplorable that after the last measures I made renewed efforts to get permission not to conduct. In vain. Impossible to escape the execution . . . of my work. “Whatever may happen,” I said to myself, “I have promised to conduct two acts. I will conduct them by God’s grace.”
What a performance! You should have heard it. My two clarinets quacked at every moment . . . except when they should have done so. In the comic march of the blind men in the first act, I have written down a few false notes which always produce an amusing effect. When they came to this passage, my clarinets stopped and began counting the measures; the fool who had orchestrated my music had written this part for quartet alone. Previously, during the rehearsal, I had asked the clarinetists to play anything at all at this place, knowing in advance that the quacks would come quite naturally, but I had reckoned without my host. Fortified with their text, the scoundrels absolutely refused to go along. “We have rests to count. We’ll count them. There’s nothing written for us.” “But, gentlemen, the quacks that you make when there aren’t any pauses are not written in either, and nevertheless you make them to your heart’s content.” They couldn’t be convinced. That’s how the clarinets were.
As for the oboist, he was a capricious fellow who played from time to time whenever the fancy took him; the flutist played whenever he could; the bassoonist was asleep half the time; the violoncello and the bass, sitting behind me, skipped measures. Frequently, while I was conducting with my right hand, I stopped with my left the bow of the bass player or that of the violoncello, and I warded off some of the false notes this way. The first violin—a good one—was always too warm. It was more than forty degrees centigrade in the hall The poor fellow was always trying to wipe his brow, but I said emotionally, “If you fail me, my friend, we are lost!” He put down his handkerchief sadly and took up his instrument, but the sea of cacophony kept mounting. What a lot of false notes! Fortunately, the first act was coming to an end. An enthusiastic success! I thought I was dreaming.
But that was nothing compared to thè second act. With my own orchestration in mind, I kept turning to the left toward the flutist who, according to my score, should make an entrance. Not at all, it was the trombone on my right that answered me. My two clarinets, very excellent at. . . quacks, had, according to my score, a major third to play. The local musician had taken this part from the string instruments and given it to the trombones, who played flat, and to the bassoon, who was always asleep. So painfully we reached the finale. I was in a sweat, telling myself that we would never reach the end.
The duet between Rose and Bavolet went haltingly, but it went. The finale consists of a duet, which finishes in C. Naturally, for the entrance of Clorinde who begins in B major, I made a modulation to C sharp, F sharp, and E. The bass plays in A sharp. My little harmonic march had been orchestrated by the great musician of X ... for the two clarinets, the oboe who never played, and the bassoon. That damned bassoon! He was sleeping more profoundly than ever. I made desperate signs to his neighbor who woke him suddenly. If I had known, I would have let him sleep. That donkey, instead of giving A sharp, gave E sharp with the whole strength of his lungs. Five notes too high! The unfortunate singer playing Clorinde naturally followed the key and attacked the melody five notes too high. The orchestra, which was not concerned in these details, continued to play five notes lower. One can imagine the cacophony. I was hopping around on my podium, sweating freely, making desperate gestures to Clorinde and my musicians. At this point an inspiration came from heaven. I waved to my drummer with an energetic and desperate sign. He understood and started a roll on the drums! Ah! What a fine roll, loud enough to break the glass in the windows, a roll thirty measures long which lasted until the end of the duet and which covered God only knows how many false notes. The public certainly did not understand why in the middle of the night in a scene full of mystery the drummer suddenly burst out with such strength and such persistence. Perhaps it was a stroke of genius on the part of the composer? Such it was indeed and one which enabled me to save the situation. I cannot think without shuddering of the antimusical horrors which this roll on the drums so effectively hid.
After this bit of eccentricity, I was expecting a flood of insults in such newspapers as reviewed the performance. Quite the contrary, praise, nothing but praise, for the masterly way in which I had conducted!