Drunk as a Skunk
July 8, 2013
I know of no one among all my musician friends and colleagues who will drink anything alcoholic before performing. Even those who enjoy an occasional glass of wine, beer, or an enticing margarita are very, very careful to imbibe only after rather than before a concert. Simply put, it’s hard enough to play well while sober.
Still, one hears stories from time to time about musicians past and present who have been known to cherish a nip of booze, or two, or maybe even twenty just before walking on stage. A renowned and flawless violinist of the very recent past—someone I knew personally and heard in performance many times—had the reputation of being a heavy drinker late in life. Stories abounded of his downing an entire bottle of wine directly before a solo concert with orchestra, then being unable to walk in a straight line onto the stage, and yet still being capable of playing the Brahms Violin Concerto masterfully.
The pianist Arthur Rubinstein, with whom our Guarneri String Quartet had the unparalleled privilege of performing and recording, often entertained us during rehearsal breaks with wonderful stories about artists from his past. One concerned the German pianist Alfred Reisenauer (1863—1907), a pupil of Franz Liszt and one of the most important piano teachers and performers of his time.
Rubinstein told us Reisenauer was an alcoholic and that the trick to getting an unforgettable performance out of him when he toured was to keep him from drinking beforehand. In one city, a young man was assigned the task of meeting Reisenauer at the train station, escorting him to his hotel, and making sure the pianist stayed in his room until concert time. Reisenauer assured him that he was too tired from the trip to do anything but take a long afternoon nap and study his scores. The young man took no chances, however. He sat in the hotel all afternoon and kept an eye on the entrance to make sure Reisenauer didn’t slip past him. But when concert time approached and Reisenauer failed to appear in the lobby, the hotel clerk first tried unsuccessfully to reach him by telephone and then, alarmed, rushed up to his room and opened the door with the hotel master key. The window to the fire escape was open and Reisenauer was gone. A short while later, he was found dead drunk in a nearby saloon.
With the concert only an hour away, the panicked escort managed to get Reisenaer back to his hotel room, undress him, shove him into a cold shower, dress him in concert clothes, and get him to the concert hall in time. The pianist, semicomatose, sat in his dressing room without saying a single word to anyone backstage. Finally, concert time arrived. Reisenauer was lifted to his feet, then led to the wings of the stage, and asked whether he was capable of playing. The great man nodded.
At this point, Rubinstein, who was telling the story seated at the piano, got up in order to act out what happened next. He moved to the side of the room and without fanfare became Reisenauer standing in the wings of the stage. Rubinstein very deliberately and slowly walked to the piano, turned to us, his audience, bowed solemnly, and turned again to face the open piano. Then, suddenly and without warning, he mimicked Reisenauer retching violently and loudly onto the piano strings.
I myself have never intentionally performed while under the influence of alcohol, but I call your attention to that innocent sounding word, “intentionally,” for it played a memorable if regrettable role in a personal story.
During my participation in the 1963 Queen Elisabeth International Violin Competition, I came to know a Belgian physicist and enthusiastic amateur violinist who regularly attended the competition’s various rounds. After I won a bronze medal at the finals, the physicist and his Swedish wife kindly invited me to a dinner party at their home to celebrate my success.
Upon arriving, I was introduced to the other guests and handed a glass of white wine to complement the smoked salmon awaiting us at the table. Normally, one glass would have been more than enough to last the entire evening for me, but this wine was particularly inviting. My host immediately refilled my glass and excused himself in order to bring up several bottles of vintage Bordeaux red from his personal wine cellar. They were intended to go with an assortment of cheeses that had just arrived. I had never tasted wines this seductively full-bodied and interesting. Before long, I had downed two glasses of the red along with the cheese. At this point, our hostess called us for dinner and I made my way to the table on shaky legs. In all my life, I had never consumed so much wine at one go.
The hostess placed large plates filled with crayfish, a Swedish specialty, on the table. For starters, each guest received one crayfish accompanied by a glass of beer and a shot glass of aquavit, a spirit made in Sweden from potatoes and flavored with such things as fennel, anise, and a taste of citrus. We ate the crayfish while drinking the beer and then, according to tradition, we downed the aquavit or snaps (as it is called in Scandinavia) in one motion, all the while locking eyes with someone else at the table. Then came more crayfish one after another, each with more beer and each with another shot of aquavit. Our hostess burst into Swedish song before each shot—there are more than 200 snaps-specific songs in her country—and before long, I was singing enthusiastically along with her despite the fact that I knew not a single word of Swedish.
The table was then cleared, large bowls filled with plump, impossibly red strawberries appeared out of nowhere, and French champagne was poured into elegantly fluted glasses. The combination of fruit and bubbly proved irresistible. Now in a trancelike state, I lost count of how much of both I must have consumed.
Dinner might easily have ended there, but our host and hostess ushered us into the living room where we sat around the fireplace and were served Belgian chocolates with one last round of drinks, this time an exotic liqueur of some sort. I stared at the roaring fire, glass in hand, almost oblivious to the others chatting amiably. Having just imbibed no less than six different alcoholic beverages during the evening, I was certainly inebriated—you might even say drunk as a skunk—but no matter. Hardly ever in my life had I felt so glowingly happy. Life was good and everything seemed possible.
At that moment, the physicist stood up and approached me.
“Mr. Steinhardt, would you care to perform something for us tonight?”
In my altered state, this seemed like a perfectly reasonable request.
“I’d love to play, but unfortunately I don’t have my violin with me.”
The physicist smiled.
“Not to worry. I have a violin I’d be happy to lend you.”
I wrinkled my brow.
“That would be kind of you, but I’ve also brought no music with me.”
The physicist beamed.
“I happen to have the collected works of Johann Sebastian Bach in my library. Would you favor us with one of his violin concertos, Mr. Steinhardt?”
“Sir, that would give me great pleasure, but I would need an entire orchestra at my disposal.”
The physicist fairly jumped with joy.
“Problem solved, Mr. Steinhardt. I have in my possession a Music-Minus-One record for Bach’s A Minor Concerto. The disc supplies the orchestra part, you give us the solo.”
That night for the first but also the very last time in my life, I performed completely drunk, before a live audience.
The next morning I woke up feeling awful. My single wish was to remain in bed for ever, or at least until the evil forces of last night’s alcohol had dissipated enough for me to once again feel human. But that was not possible. The Van Leckwijcks, my host family during the entire Queen Elisabeth Competition, had generously invited me to go that very morning to see the painter brothers Hubrecht and Jan Van Eyck’s renowned The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, an exquisite many-paneled alterpiece finished in 1432. Roland Van Leckwijck, father of the family, a Belgian Supreme Court judge, a participant in the resistance against Hitler during the Second World War, and a kindly and highly educated man, was always available to answer at length any of my questions about his country. He had deemed one of his answers—concerning the Van Eycks’ most well-known painting—insufficient enough to warrant a special trip to the city of Ghent so that I could see the masterpiece for myself.
There was no way I could refuse the event that had been planned with some effort days before. There was also no way I could tell this proper Catholic family how sick I felt and why.
I survived the hourlong trip to Ghent, managed to climb the church steps, and for a single moment stood admiringly alongside Mr. and Mrs. Van Leckwijck in front of The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. Then, suddenly, I became extremely ill. Typically, the church had no bathroom, and in desperation and without so much as a word to the bewildered Van Leckwijks, I rushed out onto the streets of Ghent. A personal disaster was imminent if I didn’t find a public bathroom quickly. Thankfully, the city’s town hall across from the church did have one.
I emerged almost an eternity later, completely drained, grateful to be alive, and forever after wary of amateur fiddlers, alcohol, and that strange thing called Music-Minus-One.
When I think back on the physicist’s dinner party that took place exactly fifty years ago, I shudder to imagine what my performance sounded like. The guests must have wondered as they drove home that night how a violinist could win a competition medal yet play so badly for them only days later.
If only I could meet up with those guests now. I would counter with Arthur Rubinstein’s story about Alfred Reisenauer. Then I would tell them how lucky they were that I didn’t simply throw up all over the violin.
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Arnold — I’ll drink to that wonderful story. Hils
Thank you for these amazing stories. You help to keep the Classical music past alive with rich funny memories…..You are the BEST EVER storyteller!
Wonderful stories Arnold and of course I too remember Rubinstein’s rendering – all too realistic – of Reisenauer’s “performance” sound effects and all! What a beautiful photograph of you receiving your medal!
I know a wonderfull violinist who enjoied very much Bordeaux, but after a concert with zhe quartett in the Bahnhof Rolandseck near Bonn. It was the beginning of a friendship. Peter
It sure is a good thing they didn’t have smartphones back then. Your performance at the dinner party would have been recorded and uploaded to YouTube, and then definitely would have gone viral.
Great story Arnold. I’ve had one too many of those myself!
Tell Dodo I have a packet of lettuce seeds for her.
And as Suzy says Thank Heavens there was no YouTube in those days!
Mr. Steinhardt, as alcohol tends to remove any inhibitions we may have I am sure your performance must have been very emotional and passionate. Probably, Bach would not have been able to recognize his own composition but no doubt it must have been extraordinary. On the other hand maybe that was the only time someone interpreted Bach’s music as he intended it to be played. We will never know; nevertheless, it would have been an interesting performance.
Hey Arnold, thanks to a FB friend for turning this up, love your writing and keep at it. As to the probable reference to famous violinist drinking copiously, I’ve heard confirming stories from amazed students south of the border who brought bottles of whiskey to lessons and feat of draining said bottles leading to prolonged lesson-sleep.
Dear Sir, wonderfull story and the picture with Queen Elisabeth is taken by my granfather:Robert Kayaert.
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