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By the way ...




Street buskers are still with us even in these relatively prosperous days. At least their activities are curbed and we no longer have to put up with itinerant brass bands, cornettists and barrel organ players (with or without monkeys) in residential areas. A century or so ago such performers constituted a real menace - they disturbed your sleep, they interrupted your work and, in short, were a confounded nuisance. It was bad enough for any householder - but imagine what it was like for a composer in the grips of inspiration yet suddenly having to contend with the off-key bleatings of a street musician outside the window.

This was a problem throughout the Western world. Poor Guiseppe Verdi suffered from it more than most - particularly when the buskers chose arias from his own operas which had quickly become an essential part of the street musician's repertoire.

The conductor and pianist Wilhelm Ganz (1833-1914) was a great admirer of Verdi. He had previously heard the maestro conduct the Requiem at the Albert Hall and, not surprisingly, had been greatly impressed. Much later when the aging composer was working on Falstaff, Ganz visited Verdi at his house in Genoa. In his Memoirs of a Musician (John Murray, London 1913) Ganz recalls that Verdi told him that he still enjoyed composing - and even gave the visitor his autograph. Verdi usually was very chary about doing this, so Ganz felt justifiably pleased with himself. Later Ganz met a friend who had recently visited Verdi in a rented villa in Moncalieri. Strangely, Ganz's friend found that the revered and prosperous composer was living in just one room - sleeping, eating and working in the same small area.

  I have two other large rooms - but they are full of things I have hired for the season.  

was the only explanation offered. When the visitor expressed some surprise at this display of unwonted economy, Verdi threw open two other doors. The friend looked in. Both rooms were indeed full - filled with several dozen barrel organs. Verdi hastily tried to explain

  When I arrived here, all these organs were playing airs from 'Rigoletto', 'Trovatore' and my other operas from morning till night. I was so annoyed that I hired the whole lot for the season. It has cost me about a thousand francs, but at all events I am left in peace.  

And thank heavens he was - otherwise we might never have had Falstaff, Otello and so much more.


Copyright © Richard Graves, October 14th 1999


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