Handel had such a remarkable irritation of nerves, that he could not bear to hear the tuning of instruments, and therefore at a performance this was always done before he arrived. A musical wag, who knew how to extract some mirth from Handel's irascibility of temper, stole into the orchestra, on a night when the Prince of Wales was to be present, and untuned all the instruments. As soon as the prince arrived, Handel gave the signal for beginning, con spirito; but such was the horrible discord, that the enraged musician started up from his seat, and having overturned a double bass, which stood in his way, he seized a kettle-drum, which he threw with such violence at the leader of the band, that he lost his full-bottomed wig in the effort. Without waiting to replace it, he advanced bare-headed to the front of the orchestra, breathing vengeance, but so much choked with passion, that utterance was denied him. In this ridiculous attitude he stood staring and stamping for some moments, amidst a convulsion of laughter; nor could he be prevailed upon to resume his seat, until the prince went in person, and with much difficulty appeased his wrath.
Handel being only a musician, was obliged to employ some person to write his operas and oratorios, which accounts for their being so very defective as poetical compositions. One of those versifiers employed by him, once ventured to suggest, in the most respectful manner, that the music he had composed to some lines of his, was quite contrary to the sense of the passage. Instead of taking this friendly hint as he ought to have done, from one who (although not a Pindar) was at least a better judge of poetry than himself, he looked upon the advice as injurious to his talents, and cried out, with all the violence of affronted pride, "What! you teach me music? The music is good music: confound your words! Here," said he, thrumming his harpsichord, "are my ideas; go and make words to them."
Handel became afterwards the proprietor of the Opera House, London; and presided at the harpsichord in the orchestra (piano-fortes not being then known). His embellishments were so masterly, that the attention of the audience was frequently diverted from the singing to the accompaniment, to the frequent mortification of the vocal professors. A pompous Italian singer was, on a certain occasion, so chagrined at the marked attention paid to the harpsichord, in preference to his own singing, that he swore, that if ever Handel played him a similar trick, he would jump down upon his instrument, and put a stop to the interruption. Handel, who had a considerable turn for humour, replied: "Oh! oh! you vill jump, vill you? very vell, sare; be so kind, and tell me de night ven you vill jump, and I vill advertishe it in de bills; and I shall get grate dale more money by your jumping, than I shall get by your singing."
Although he lived much with the great, Handel was no flatterer. He once told a member of the royal family, who asked him how he liked his playing on the violoncello? "Vy, sir, your highness plays like a prince." When the same prince had prevailed on him to hear a minuet of his own composition, which he played himself on the violoncello, Handel heard him out very quietly; but when the prince told him, that he would call in his band to play it to him, that he might hear the full effect of his composition, Handel could contain himself no longer, and ran out of the room, crying, "Worsher and worsher, upon mine honour."
One Sunday, having attended divine worship at a country church, Handel asked the organist to permit him to play the people out; to which, with a politeness characteristic of the profession, the organist consented. Handel accordingly sat down to the organ, and began to play in such a masterly manner, as instantly to attract the attention of the whole congregation, who, instead of vacating their seats as usual, remained for a considerable space of time, fixed in silent admiration. The organist began to be impatient (perhaps his wife was waiting dinner); and at length addressing the performer, told him that he was convinced that he could not play the people out, and advised him to relinquish the attempt; which being done, they were played out in the usual manner.
In 1741, Handel, who was then proceeding to Ireland, was detained for some days at Chester, in consequence of the weather. During this time he applied to Mr. Baker, the organist, to know whether there were any choir men in the cathedral who could sing at sight, as he wished to prove some books that had been hastily transcribed, by trying the choruses. Mr. Baker mentioned some of the best singers in Chester, and among the rest, a printer of the name of Janson, who had a good bass voice, and was one of the best musicians in the choir. A time was fixed for this private rehearsal at the Golden Falcon, where Handel had taken up his residence; when, on trial of a chorus in the Messiah, poor Janson, after repeated attempts, failed completely, Handel got enraged, and after abusing him in five or six different languages, exclaimed in broken English, "You schauntrel, tit not you dell me dat you could sing at soite?" "Yes sir," said the printer, "so I can, but not at first sight."
Mozart, walking in the suburbs of Vienna, was accosted by a mendicant of a very prepossessing appearance and manner, who told his tale of woe with such effect, as to interest the musician strongly in his favour; but the state of his purse not corresponding with the impulse of his humanity, he desired the applicant to follow him to a coffee-house. Here Mozart, drawing some paper from his pocket, in a few minutes composed a minuet, which with a letter he gave to the distressed man, desiring him to take it to his publisher. A composition from Mozart was a bill payable at sight; and to his great surprise the now happy mendicant was immediately presented with five double ducats.
When Haydn was in England, one of the princes commissioned Sir Joshua Reynolds to take his portrait. Haydn went to the painter's house, and sat to him, but soon grew tired. Sir Joshua, careful of his reputation, would not paint a man of acknowledged genius, with a stupid countenance; and deferred the sitting till another day. The same weariness and want of expression occurring at the next attempt, Reynolds went and communicated the circumstance to his royal highness, who contrived the following stratagem. He sent to the painter's house a German girl, in the service of the queen. Haydn took his seat for the third time, and as soon as the conversation began to flag, a curtain rose, and the fair German addressed him in his native language, with a most elegant compliment. Haydn, delighted, overwhelmed the enchantress with questions; his countenance recovered its animation, and Sir Joshua rapidly seized its traits.
Haydn could be comic as well as serious; and he has left a remarkable instance of the former, in the well known symphony, during which all the instruments disappear, one after the other, so that, at the conclusion, the first violin is left playing by himself. The origin of this singular piece is thus accounted for. It is said that Haydn, perceiving his innovations were ill received by the performers of Prince Esterhazy, determined to play a joke upon them. He caused his symphony to be performed, without a previous rehearsal, before his highness, who was in the secret. The embarrassment of the performers, who all thought they had made a mistake, and especially the confusion of the first violin, when, at the end, he found he was playing alone, diverted the court of Eisenstadt. Others assert, that the prince having determined to dismiss all his band, except Haydn, the latter imagined this ingenious way of representing the general departure, and the dejection of spirits consequently upon it. Each performer left the concert room as soon as his part was finished.
Recipe for an orchestra leader:
Four hundred and twenty-two movements—
Emanuel, Swedish and Swiss—
It's a wonder the hand can keep playing,
You'd think they'd die laughing at this!—Life.