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From the archive: how to annoy a great composer

In an extract from his memoirs, published in The Strad, January 1914, orchestral violinist William Quirke recalls Richard Wagner's arrival in London in 1877 for a series of concerts of his own work

December 22, 2013

“RECOLLECTIONS OF A VIOLINIST”
BY W. M. QUIRKE

THE immortal Wagner is coming to London when at the zenith of his glory. A large orchestra is engaged for a series of ten concerts.

On a particular day, the first rehearsal is held in the lower room of St. James’ Hall (now demolished), beginning at 10 o’clock, and expected to last till about 3 in the afternoon, the work selected being “Das Rheingold,” and Herr Wagner to take the baton, although Hans Richter is looked upon as the probable conductor of the festival. The orchestra members containing something like fifty first, and fifty second violins. The descriptive music of the Rhine, which opens the work, gives a deal for the second violins to do, and is exceedingly difficult to perform.

The members of the orchestra are all in their places when Herr Wagner appears, descending some steps, followed by Herren Richter and Franke. By some strange accident, in descending Herr Wagner has his hat crushed though coming in contact with some projection, and this gives a most undignified, if not comical appearance, as, strutting into the room, he approaches the orchestra, assuming a very haughty air. Those in his immediate presence seem to look at him with too much awe to propose taking off his hat and restoring it to a proper shape. Amongst the English members of the orchestra the incident provokes unmistakable signs of merriment, as the individual players call each other’s attention to the condition of the hat. But this is not shared by the German members of the orchestra, who view the English conduct in the matter as almost sacrilegious and most reprehensible. Herr Wagner, noticing this hilarity, and not divining the cause, glares at the perpetrators with surprise and disgust. However, a tap with the baton, and the rehearsal begins.

The second violins with their long, rolling arpeggi, like waves, make the atmosphere quite damp with the water of the Rhine, and this is more strongly emphasised, as, after the rehearsal, I see two or three members of the orchestra causing a small crowd to collect as they pretend to wring water from the tails of their frock coats. The work has not proceeded far before the conductor taps his desk violently, and shouts, “Zuruck” (“Again”). A fresh start is made, but ere long another misunderstanding, this time through the conductor, who, carried away by the music, relinquished his baton, expecting this huge machine to follow a beat, given only with one of his fingers on his shirt-stud. This time, white with ill-concealed rage, the composer turns to Richter, and walking to and fro, repeats the word “Schlecht” two or three times. This little performance is not lost on the English portion of the orchestra, who, seemingly, unable any further to control their mirth burst into an unmistakable chuckle, to the consternation of the German and other foreign elements.

Here Herr Deichman, leader of the second violins, springs to his feet, and passionately tapping the music stand with his bow, says, in bad English, “It is no tink to laugh.” So violently does he strike his deck, that the little piece of ivory at the top of his bow flies across the room, and strikes Herr Wilhelmj in the face. This last occurrence draws perfect howls of laughter, in which a good number of the foreign section freely join. Herr Wagner is by this time in a frenzy of passion. But this is the opportunity for that perfect tactician, Herr Richter, who, taking the great composer by the arm, leads him away, speaking in a soothing, conciliatory tone. The orchestra in the meantime indulge in unrestrained jubilation. In a few moments the conductor returns, without Herr Wagner, and with the baton in his hand, says only two words:  “Now, boys!” Every man in that orchestra looks back to the eye which seems to read into their very souls, as, electrified by the wonderful personality of the great conductor, each one pushes his chair nearer to his music-stand, and a volume of sound, as if from one instrument, conveys to the ear the glorious effects in that wonderful conception of one of the greatest musical and dramatic geniuses of the century.

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