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By the way ...

with Richard Graves

3. Macabre Dance

All performers presumably have nightmares from time to time, but conductors probably have more than their fair share. After all, they are answerable for the actions and possible shortcomings of maybe a hundred other folk as well as themselves. Imagine, for instance, the potential for disaster implicit in being on tour with a large orchestra and playing at a different venue each night.

Everything appears to be going smoothly. The players have all turned up and some have already begun to take their seats on the platform. Double basses have been set in place, so have the timps, the cymbals, and the big bass drum. The concerto soloist is safely ensconsed with a coffee in the Green Room, the orchestral parts are in position on the music stands and the conductor is straightening his bow tie and giving a final touch to his buttonhole carnation. He is just about ready to stride on to the podium for the opening item, Danse Macabre, when there is an urgent tug at his sleeve. One of the percussionists has something to say and is plainly in a real panic.

'Sorry, sir, but they have forgotten to send on the xylophone. It simply hasn't arrived....'

As we all know, the xylophone provides some of the most memorable eerie touches in the Saint-Saens score. To omit its brittle sound from the performance would suggest a boneless skeleton and be unthinkable. Too late at this stage to change the programme, so what to do?

This is precisely what happened to the splendidly versatile Sir George Henschel (1850-1934) who in his autobiography Musings and Memories (Macmillan 1918) records what happened next.

'All of a sudden it came to me: I knew that in the score nearly every note given to the xylophone was duplicated by the same note in the oboe; it was not so much the actual musical note of the xylophone which mattered, as rather the mere sound of the wood struck by the hammers. So I called for the gentlemen of the play the whole of the part on the leg of a chair!....Nobody saw the chair, everybody heard the sound of the wood.....The result was an unqualified success...

Henschel added that when he met Saint-Saens in Paris a bit later and recounted the story, the composer was much amused. Has the same trick ever been tried since, one wonders? After all, touring the whole gear for a big orchestra is a cumbersome and expensive business... and whereas you can't expect to come across stray xylophones all that often, any old hall can produce a wooden chair leg...

Copyright © Richard Graves, April 29th 1999

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