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From Mario Del Monaco being buried in his Otello costume to Lauritz Melchior shooting arrows down the hallways of the Ansonia hotel, the history of serious music in the last two centuries is rife with colorful stories of genius and eccentricity. Every now and then, a figure emerges whose larger-than-life personality helps to establish a passionate cult of followers, as rabid as any bobbysoxers or rock groupies. As a summer diversion, it is just plain fun to stop a moment and recollect a few of the more outrageous of these mythical characters. At the end of this essay you will discover a method of telling us all about your own personal cult heroes and heroines. For now, here are a few of my own personal favorites:

Rossini once reported that he only cried three times in his life: once when his first opera failed, once when he heard the young Paganini play, and once when, during a boating trip, a turkey stuffed with truffles fell overboard! Niccolo Paganini was the epitome of the Romantic ideal. Handsome and extraordinarily talented, Paganini chose to live life to excess. He was a gambler and a libertine as a youth and seemed to possess talent that only the Devil could have granted him. Even as a child of nine, he could make people weep. Paganini was a master showman and secretly encouraged the rumor that he was the spawn of Satan, even going so far as to perform a series of concerts with his mother sitting on the stage, daring his public to challenge his paternity. He had all of the instincts of a modern rock star, dressing flamboyantly and cutting the strings of his violin with a scissors onstage to prove that he could still play extremely difficult pieces with only one string. He tuned his a string up a semitone to produce mysterious and supernatural sounding harmonies. He forged the image of the tortured virtuoso, a brilliant and misunderstood outcast performing for a swooning female public that could not get enough of him. He retired early due to ill health and lived out his life as a darling of the Paris salon.

Posthumous fans can be even more rabid than contemporary ones. Two pianists who died young are rhapsodized as men who were on their way to exceptional careers. Dinu Lipatti was a student of Nadia Boulanger who was in the process of forming a dual career as a pianist and composer when he was struck down at age 33 by cancer of the lymph nodes. William Kapell was an American pianist who seemed destined for superstardom until his life was cut short at the age of 31 in a plane crash off the coast of Australia. Lee Liberace was a student of Paderewski and therefore an heir to the Leschetizky tradition. His career veered off in the direction of popular music, but his masterful technique made critics wonder what his playing would have been like if he had pursued a more classical (and less flamboyant) path. And Glenn Gould, whose life was ultimately lost to drugs, died at 51 after an extremely brilliant and unconventional life spent in the service of music. Gould was one of those rare savants who did not need to practice and could work out complex mathematical problems in his head. He burst onto the classical music scene in 1955 with a brilliant recording of the Goldberg Variations of Bach performed on a modern piano. The performance was not only extremely impressive, but lovably idiosyncratic, with Gould’s audible humming in the background. He had a stormy concert career (once immediately prior to a performance of the Brahms’ First Concerto, Leonard Bernstein addressed the New York audience to state how strongly he disagreed with Gould’s interpretation of the work) from which he retired at a very young age to devote his time to the recording studio. Gould would arrive at the studio even in midsummer with a heavy coat, scarf and gloves and then plunge his hands into water before performing endless takes of a particular piece, seemingly never satisfied with the final result. However, the recordings are intensely fabulous and range from the pre-Baroque works of Sweelinck and Gibbons to the modern pieces of Schoenberg and Webern. Gould loved controversy (he wrote on one of his record jackets that Mozart died too late rather than too early) and was interested in all of the electronic media, particularly radio drama and filmmaking. A true original, he praised the music of pop singer Petula Clark, denigrated the music of Chopin and Liszt, and sued the Steinway company when one of its employees dared to shake his hand. He experimented with different tempi for standard works (his playing and conducting of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll is extremely slow and yet strangely effective and moving) and recorded much music that would otherwise have languished in obscurity. He left behind a great body of recorded performances and many of these recordings have yet to be issued. Each new release of a Gould performance is awaited with great anticipation by the record buying public.

The most famous clarinetist of the twentieth century is undoubtedly Benny Goodman. Goodman and his brother, Israel (a string bassist), were equally at home in the jazz and classical repertoires. Goodman was the most famous exponent of swing music and became wildly successful. The “King of Swing” was internationally famous and even had a Hollywood movie made based on his life. Goodman was the first jazz musician to appear at Carnegie Hall. He never allowed his celebrity to compromise his classical music standards and appeared with the New York Philharmonic in 1940 as soloist in the Mozart concerto. He recorded much of the standard repertoire including the Mozart quintet, the Beethoven Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano and the Weber quintet. His recording of the two Weber concerti with the Chicago Symphony under the direction of Jean Martinon is by far the best version ever. No one brings out the élan of these pieces like Goodman. He inspired much of the significant repertoire of the twentieth century and was the dedicatee of Bartok’s Contrasts. He recorded this monumental work with the composer himself at the piano and the legendary Hungarian Joseph Szigeti playing the wickedly difficult violin part, although he previously had premiered it at Carnegie Hall with a different pianist. Goodman was the inspiration for works by Copland, Bernstein and Morton Gould. Far from being a crossover or novelty act, Goodman would have been an excellent classical clarinetist even if he had never played any jazz.

There is a marvelous video of a performance of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet featuring five friends who would each go on to classical music superstardom. The violinist is Itzhak Perlman, the violist Pinchas Zukerman, the pianist Daniel Barenboim, the double bass player Zubin Mehta and the cellist is the amazingly talented Jacqueline Du Pre. It is a joy to see these five young people play with such exuberance, but the eye returns again and again to the photogenic cellist. A classical record marketing executive’s dream, Jacqueline Du Pre combined great physical beauty with an uncanny musicianship and a larger than life aristocratic personality. Her storybook romance with Barenboim, which culminated in a celebrated wedding and was deconstructed in the film Hilary and Jackie, was much publicized by the record companies.

Jacqueline Du Pre was born at Oxford, England on January 26, 1945. Her mother, a concert pianist, encouraged her to play the cello, which she did from the age of four. Her sister Hilary reports that she made the entire audience cry when she played Faure's Elegie at the age of eight. She attended the London Cello School but was bored by it and became the private pupil of William Pleeth. Later she studied with Paul Tortelier, Casals and Rostropovich. At sixteen, she made her professional debut and was an instant success. Some anonymous donor gave her the famous “Davidov” cello made by Antonio Stradivarius and she embarked on a whirlwind career as a soloist. She was most famous for her highly emotional reading of the Elgar Cello Concerto, which she recorded twice, first with the London Symphony under Sir John Barbirolli and then, some years later, with Barenboim and the Philadelphia Orchestra. There is an extremely poignant opening for the solo cello in the Elgar concerto, and Jacqueline Du Pre was its greatest interpreter. Her discography includes performances of the Brahms Sonata #2, recorded when she was 17, fine performances of the standard concerto repertoire and an extremely passionate reading of the Schumann concerto.

Du Pre embodied the spirit of the 1960’s for many young people. Her long blond hair and her devil may care style of playing were in keeping with the rebellious rock music of the time. “I love the physical thing of being on the earth that bore you…”, she said in a magazine interview in 1968, “…I have the same feeling when I walk in a very beautiful place that I have when I play…” She was in the midst of a brilliant career when she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to curtail her concert schedule in the 1970’s. She died in 1987.

One of the greatest voices of the 20th century belonged to Paul Robeson, a multi-talented African- American bass-baritone who spent his entire career searching for, and never quite discovering, his niche. Graduating as a lawyer from Columbia in 1923, Robeson began his professional career in the theater, where his booming voice (the closest equivalent for a modern audience would be James Earl Jones) assured him success as the star of two Eugene O’Neill plays, The Emperor Jones and All God’s Chillun Got Wings, and as the lead character of Porgy in the folk play by Dorothy and DuBose Heyward. In 1925, he began another career as a song recitalist, at first limiting himself to spirituals but eventually including a large art song repertoire. As an actor he became known for his powerful portrayal of Othello on the stage and after the success of his film version of The Emperor Jones, he began to star in many Hollywood productions. His most memorable moment on film is the singing of Ol’ Man River in the 1936 production of Showboat. He began to encounter much political resistance in the United States, however, both for his strong stance on civil rights and for his espousal of Stalinist Communism. He emigrated for a time to the Soviet Union, even winning the International Stalin Peace Prize in 1952. Robeson eventually became disillusioned with Russia and returned to the United States after his voice had begun to deteriorate. On the occasion of his 75th birthday there was an emotional tribute to him at Carnegie Hall. Contrary to popular legend, he never appeared on the operatic stage (the white Lawrence Tibbett had a huge success with the opera version of Emperor Jones) but did include arias in his concert programs. His was a voice of unlimited potential and, if coupled with his theatrical intelligence, it is interesting to speculate what a great artist he could have become had he been more focused and had the political climate been more tolerant.

Two Afro-American women achieved cult status in very different ways. Shirley Verrett accomplished an unbelievable feat of endurance when, on October 22, 1973, she sang both Cassandra and Dido in the same performance of Les Troyens at the Met. Either of these roles is a test of a singer’s fortitude as each contains an extremely emotional scene of high intensity, Cassandra’s Jeremiad at the battlements of Troy and Dido’s death on the funeral pyre. Ms. Verrett was literally onstage for almost five full hours that night. Blessed with a voice of great range, she often sang two roles in a run of an opera, such as Norma and Adalgisa, but never again on the same evening. Grace Bumbry, rebelling against the notion that there were prescribed black roles in the repertoire (Aida and Eboli in particular), created an international sensation when she sang the role of the love goddess Venus in Wagner’s Tannhauser at the Bayreuth festival in Germany in 1961. There were still a number of ex-Nazi patrons at Bayreuth in those times and the portrayal of the ultimate in Aryan sexuality by a black woman was truly revolutionary (Bumbry threatened to return as Bruennhilde but never made good on her ambition). She concentrated on the sensual in her many performances as Carmen and Salome and repeated Verrett’s feat of dual roles in the same opera, performing often as both Aida and Amneris or Venus and Elisabeth (though never on the same night).

Music history may have more than its share of cult figures, but none has inspired more ecstatic loyalty or vituperative criticism than La Divina, Maria Callas. Born in New York City (there is a plaque honoring her at her elementary school in the Bronx) she went to Greece with her family when she was thirteen and studied her craft there. As a young singer she weighed 210 pounds and was cast in the heavy voiced roles of Isolde and Aida. Her voice was rich in the lower register, enabling her to sing not only soprano roles but the lower mezzo-soprano parts as well. Her musical apotheosis came when she lost 80 pounds and began to study with the great Rosa Ponselle. Callas chose to perform the florid roles of the obscure operatic past, and in the 1950’s revived the characters of Cherubini’s Medea and Bellini’s Norma. It was then that the great debate began. Critics of Callas pointed out her less than beautiful voice while legions of loyal supporters (this reviewer among them) concentrated on her amazingly effective vocal characterizations, filled with an emotive power not previously experienced in the recording age. Maria fanned the flames of the debate by canceling many performances, behaving badly at rehearsals and arguing publicly over contracts. One thing was certain: a Callas performance was always an event. She was once booed at her entrance during a performance of Norma in Italy but surprisingly did not react. She sang all of the first act without incident and most of the second as well. There is a moment towards the end of the second act in this highly dramatic work when the Druid priestess finally avenges herself on her faithless lover, Pollione. At this moment, “Preghi alfine?” (“At last you are begging?”), Callas turned to the audience, pointed, and then laid them out in Bellinian lavender. She stormed off of the stage and did not return for the conclusion of the opera! This type of behavior only added to the Callas legend.

It is hard to be dispassionate about Maria Callas, but the fact is she was a tremendous innovator, beginning the revival of the florid repertoire which later saw the Rossini revolution spearheaded by the mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, and which allows artists like Cecilia Bartoli to ply their ornamental craft today to a sympathetic audience. Callas was unquestionably a great actress (even her critics acknowledge this) and pushed her less than perfect instrument to its limits. Her performances, perhaps flawed, were always of a white-hot intensity (Nicolas Slonimsky called her “the incarnation of carnality”) and it is hard to imagine a more human Tosca, Carmen or Medea. Once a listener accepts the fact that her voice was not pure and bell-like, he or she can settle in and appreciate the finest combination of acting and singing on record. Callas excelled in the serious Verdi and Puccini repertoire as well as the comedies of Rossini and made a large number of recordings with the great tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano and the even more celebrated baritone Tito Gobbi. She even recorded the major arias of roles which she never performed on stage, such as Tu Che la Vanita (Elisabeth) and O Don Fatale (Eboli) from Verdi’s Don Carlo. Callas became a tragic icon in later life, eerily similar in her late solo concert appearances to Judy Garland, and there was even a Broadway play, entitled Master Class, about her time at Juilliard. Her personal life was very haunted and sad, and after her companion Aristotle Onassis left her for Jacqueline Kennedy, she sank into deep depression. Her friend and neighbor in Paris, the actress Catherine Deneuve, still believes that she took her own life.

But perhaps no singer ever captured the homespun American imagination as securely as the aforementioned singing cowboy Lawrence Tibbett. Tibbett emerged from the Wild West (Bakersfield, California) where his father was the town sheriff and was actually gunned down by desperados. The young Lawrence dreamed of an acting career and joined a traveling Shakespearean company which also included the youthful Tyrone Power. He drifted to New York where he eked out a living by lending his glorious deep baritone to a quartet that sang at weddings. In typical Hollywood fashion, he burst onto the operatic scene when he sang the supporting part of Ford in a production of Falstaff at the Met in 1925 and the audience would not stop applauding him. His voice was unique, very rich and burnished, and towards the lower end of the baritone register. Eventually he became a consummate singer of opera and reigned in the 1930’s as the great Rigoletto and Scarpia. He was also an extraordinary performer of lieder (his performance of Loewe’s song Edward is hair-raising) and popular ballads and recorded very successfully in the 78 rpm era. Tibbett came along at just the right time to exploit the new medium of the talking picture and he had a lucrative second career as a celluloid troubador, starring in such potboilers as The Rogue Song, New Moon, The Southerner, Cuban Love Song and Metropolitan. He was the first American opera singer to sound like an American and, as such, helped to popularize the medium with a broader audience. There had been other opera stars born in America before, but they were always European trained and so they presented themselves as products of the Old World culture. Tibbett was the John Wayne of opera, always speaking in a down home style and never “putting on airs”. He was a noted entertainer of the troops in World War II. Probably his greatest electronic achievement is the 1935 Rigoletto recorded live at the Met. He was a great actor of the voice but sometimes his impressive physique was a detriment on stage. He was criticized for being too hale and hearty a portrayer of Iago, however his athleticism often worked in his favor and he was a thoroughly imposing Scarpia as well as a solid performer in roles written expressly for him, such as Colonel Ibbetson in Deems Taylor’s Peter Ibbetson, Wrestling Bradford in Howard Hanson’s Merry Mount or his signature piece as the title character in Gruenberg’s The Emperor Jones. Tibbett inspired many young Americans to study opera and is really the father of the American style of singing now so eagerly espoused by Thomas Hampson.

Most percussionists are not known as individuals to the general public but in recent years the proliferation of drum music has created several notable ensembles such as Canada's Nexus, Denmark's Safri Duo and England's Ensemble Bash. However, one remarkable woman has become justly famous. Evelyn Glennie was born in Aberdeen, Scotland and began study at the Royal Academy in London in 1982. She quickly displayed her mastery of all percussion instruments from anvil to Zildian cymbal and won a Grammy in 1988 for her work on the recording of Bartok's Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion with Sir George Solti and Murray Perahia. She was voted Woman of the Decade in 1990. Ms. Glennie, who also plays the highland bagpipes, has had over twenty concerti written for her unique talents including City Adventures by Geoffrey Burgon, Concerto for Percussion and Orchestra by Joseph Schwantner and Veni, veni, Emmanuel by James MacMillan. She has become a celebrity on British television, has written many pieces for media re-creation, and collaborated with Bjork on the pop song My Spine. Particularly adept at the difficult fast mallet instruments like the marimba and xylophone, she tunes her tympani by feeling the vibrations that the heads make when struck. In fact her autobiography is entitled Good Vibrations. Incidentally, Evelyn Glennie is deaf.

Adolph Arthur Marx was born in New York in 1888 and made a living as a teenaged comic actor on the vaudeville circuit, eventually appearing in a film, Too Many Kisses, in 1925. As Harpo he spent many years as a member of the troupe consisting of his famous brothers, but always retained his serious approach and dedication to his instrument. Even in the raucous comedies of the Marx Brothers there is almost always an interlude where Adolph played his harp without any comedic interference, and he teamed with the operetta composers Walter Jurmann and Bronislaw Kaper for the music of A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Harpo Marx was the master of ornamental embroidery and the modern style of performance of the glissando in Scheherazade is a legacy of his influential finger technique. He also invented the pedal trill for his own virtuoso use.


An artist can qualify as a cult figure as the result of achieving a lifetime of performance excellence, by possessing an armamentarium of entertaining peccadillos, or may simply launch themselves into this special firmament in one shining moment of glorious inspiration. In all cases, they remain in the roseate memory as shining comets, the highest form of aesthetic life, whose pursuit makes all of the sifting through mountains of dross ultimately worthwhile. Please let us know who you think deserves enshrinement in this pantheon and provide us all with a paragraph or two of anecdotal praise. I promise to compile and publish your responses (hopefully unexpurgated, so watch your language!) in the near future.

Please send your candidates and stories to fkirshnit@yahoo.com.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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