musical tales

In this lovely old book about musicians and food, Charles Nielsen Gattey relates some interesting anecdotes.

“In his impoverished youth, Irving Berlin was employed as a waiter cum pianist in a shabby Bowery restaurant. Visitors would later be taken there during tours of New York, and guides would point at an ancient, ill-treated piano in a corner and allege that Berlin had composed some of his best tunes there.


Drawn to the place by a fit of nostalgia one evening when he had become famous, the composer sat at the piano and began to play. Just then, a coach arrived and unloaded its sightseers. “This historic place is where Berlin wrote his immortal melodies on that very piano. Listen, the song that Bowery bum is playing is one of his, though if he heard how he’s murdering it he’d turn in his grave.”


The pianist Paderewski displayed his sense of the ridiculous when replying to an invitation to perform after a dinner party being given for King George V and Queen Mary. He had asked for a fat fee which she agreed to pay, adding in her letter

“Please accept my regrets for not inviting you to the dinner. As a professional artist, you will be more at ease in a nice room where you can rest before the concert.”

The great pianist wrote back: “Dear Duchess, Thank you for your letter. As you so kindly inform me that I am not obliged to be present at your dinner, I shall be satisfied with half my fee.”


Yet another clueless member of high society issued a thoughtless invitation to the Spanish violinist Pablo Sarasate

“Dearest Maestro, how lovely to have you back in town. Can you dine with us tomorrow? P.S. Please don’t forget to bring your Stradivarius!”

Sarasate replied “Delighted to see you. I most certainly accept your invitation to dinner tomorrow. P.S. My Strad does not dine.”


Published in: on September 4, 2010 at 7:01 am  Comments (48)  
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48 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Lovely! I should look for that book;it’s the sort of can’t-sleep-tonic I love.

    • Yes, you would really like it. I got my copy from the local library.

  2. I know you didn’t want comments, but yesterday’s ‘Corset Friday’ post was deep, a little sad, very personal and just beautiful. Today you are back to being NurseMyra – welcome back, you are great!

    • Thanks Affer xx

  3. I was going to email you yesterday but I thought, maybe it would be better to give you some space. I hope your day was wonderful.

    Is this where Billy Joel go the idea for Piano Man? It sounds a lot like him.

    • The anniversary is always hard but I’m getting better at dealing with it now.

      Downtown guy? Don’t be putting earworms in my head!

  4. Hugs for yesterday.

    Thank you for reminding me that muso’s are smarter than the average person. (And I include Lady Gaga in that – don’t like her music – love her sense of show)

    • I love Gaga’s videos – they’re so theatrical.

  5. Sarasate wins. Everything.

    • Especially moustache competitions

  6. I wonder if the Paderewski approach would get me out of meetings?

    • try it. Then report back to me.

  7. Amazing how people tend to treat artists and musicians like commodities rather than people. Great stories!

    • ….and when they invite a nurse to dinner it’s all about the free tracheotomies and standby cpr duty

  8. In a piece about music and wit you should never forget the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham who once said to one of his cellists “Madam, you have between your legs an instrument capable of giving pleasure to thousands – and all you can do is scratch it.”

    • Haha… I’d forgotten that one. What a wit.

  9. I’d have bought the book just for it’s cover…

    • Yes, the pink really is that bright. It screams “buy me buy me”

  10. musicians do have it rough – no one invites a gynecologist to dinner and asks him to perform. well, except that one time when i was in grad school…

    • daisyfae you crack me up. and it’s early Sunday morning over here. i don’t usually laugh before midday.

  11. …hey gal, long time without passing by,
    only to say that I really liked the way you leave those White flowers under the Tree.

    Keep on going

  12. …and I dont know why an avatar
    I dont have one and thats not me
    I dont know how get rid of that stupid thing

  13. Irving Berlin’s first wife, caught Typhoid on their Honeymoon and died like 5 weeks later.

    • I didn’t know that, how sad.

  14. I lovelovelove Irving Berlin. Makes me sad most people my age probably think “an Irving Berlin” is a gerund. Except most people are stupid and don’t know what gerunds are. Sigh. It’s tough being me.

    • I like Berlin. And I know what a gerund is.

      • I’m Irving right now.

  15. Dudley Moore was a very small pianist ….. and I was very pleased to see that Stephen’s tree is doing well … *hugs*

  16. Great stories – pianists seem to be the best source x

  17. Maybe if I was a musician I’d be invited to dinner. No-one seems to want civil servants. We dine alone or in unloved herds.

    • If you ever come to Oz, I’ll make dinner for you Madame.

  18. I just love musician stories! The one about Berlin is priceless.

  19. Obviously that Strad is anorexic.

  20. If I write a book or become a musician and send you a picture of me in sepia tone, will you write about me one day? Not right away, of course. I know there’s more pressing stories in your cooker, but I want to be immortalized in your words. I’ll pay you half your fee, and you don’t have to even bring your Stradivarius!!

    • I always double my fee so I can halve it for the right people… no wait, that’s Jemaine from Flight of the Conchords who does that…. I love his lips… where was I again?

  21. At least Irving Berlin didn’t start of playing piano in a brothel! I’ve always wondered about why brothels would have pianos in the first place…

  22. Dear Myra

    Not really for publication – just to say how much I gain from what you write. It is one of the happiest websites I have met, and I admire you for dealing with the sad things in your life in such a generous way. Keep it up!

    Best wishes
    Henry (not my real name…but then Myra isn’t yours… The email is real))

    • Is it a happy website? I think of it as entertaining, but if you view it as happy that’s even better!

  23. dear nurse myra,
    i shall gladly accept your invitation to dine.
    p.s. may i bring a dessert?
    p.s.p.s. foo in those high society types.

  24. I always bring my sceptre to a feast, and I’m told it has a nice ring to it.

    The King

    • queenwilly gives your sceptre a ringing endorsement Your Majesty

  25. Ha! My Strad does not dine…

    If I had any musical talent whatsoever, I’d consider taking up the violin just so I could use that line.

    ps. I was touched by Friday’s post. I recently had a similar anniversary as well. Just wanted you to know I was thinking of you. xob:)

  26. Wasn’t Charles Nelson Gattey on The Gong Show?

  27. Witty musicians aren’t they? You know there was a similar story here just a few years back (although it could be urban legend) about Joshua Bell playing in a Metro stop and receiving little attention.

  28. Kind of rude for these people to expect them to just drop everything and perform while at dinner.

  29. I love smartass intelligentsia.

  30. I’m not entirely sure of Paderewski’s logic in halving his fee. If it had been me, I’d have doubled it. Or I’d have written back to the Duchess:

    “Dear Duchess, thank you for your letter. You will not be required to attend my performance. As a professional Duchess, you will be more at ease in a nice room where you can sit and digest your dinner.”

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