Our book today is People of Note, written (in highly questionable verse) in 1940 by Laurence McKinney and illustrated by the mighty Gluyas Williams, whose sly, understated genius could often be seen in the New Yorker of the time. U.S. classical music concert attendance today is a mere fraction of what it was in the 1940s, when a cute little $2 hardcover like this one could be published by a house like E. P. Dutton & Company with a reasonable hope of people actually buying it even though it’s a quite ephemeral piece of fun.

The major – and some decidedly minor – faces of the typical symphony orchestra are on display here, accompanied by McKinney’s unleashed doggerel. For instance, there’s the Conductor:

This Backward Man, this View Obstructor
Is known to us as the Conductor.
He beats the time with grace and vim
And sometimes they keep up with him.
But though they’re eloquent and snappy
Conductors always seem unhappy.
Their strange grimaces on the podium
Suggest bicarbonate of sodium
May be, perhaps, the proper diet
To keep their inner fires quiet.
They have to think up countless capers
To keep them in the daily papers
Which help them in financial strictures
Or fit them for the motion pictures.
Conductors worry all the while
That’s why they bow, but never smile.

Or the lowly viola player:

Viola, there’s a pretty sound
Suggesting violets, and ground
All blossoming in early spring
But, bless me, it is no such thing.
A head cold – listeners confess
Is what it sounds like more or less
And though this virtue may present
A sort of nasal armament
Violists spend the livelong day
In helping others on their way.
The fiddle’s friend, the cello’s pal –
He helps the English Horn’s morale
With envy eating out his heart
For just a tiny solo part.
No better phrase describes him than
The orchestra’s forgotten man.

And speaking of the English Horn:

The English Horn I must reveal
Has no connection with John Peel;
In fact Old John would find it meaner
To play on than a vacuum cleaner.
Its tone would make his horses skittish
For it is neither horn – nor British.
Some call it – to increase this tangle –
The Cor Anglais – or horn with angle –
Concerning which I’m glad to state
The English Horn is long and straight.
Its misery and constant dwelling
On tragedy has caused a swelling
Just where the doleful note emerges;
Imbued with melancholy surges
This makes an English Horn cadenza
Sound fearfully like influenza.

At least the English Horn player can’t see the audience’s reaction to his melancholy playing – unlike the upright Double Bass player:

The men who have the saddest faces
Are those who play the Double Basses
Though deep in misery their cup
They have to take it standing up,
And sawing on a clothesline string
They grunt and groan like anything.
The orchestra’s last-line defense
They also see the audience
And, spying in the distant offing,
They spot the man who does the coughing –
The school girl in expectant dither –
The wife who dragged her husband with her –
The novice groping in a maze –
The critic whittling out a phrase –
And those who sleep – and those who snore
Which makes them groan and grunt some more.

These and other strange folk are immortalized in verse in this little gem of a book, the perfect bon-bon for anybody you know who’s psychologically damaged enough to like classical music – or worse, to play it recreationally.

  • http://www.bassguitarheaven.com Bill Wayan

    Sounds like the P.G. Wodehouse of music.
    Very British sound.

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  • Nance

    I first saw “The Conductor” in a program I got at Carnegie Hall in 1975 or 6 almost certainly at a performance of some Beethoven piece by The Berlin Philharmonic.

    I have always remembered the first and last two lines of this charming poem, but until today, I had been unable to find it on the internet.

    Thank you so much!

© 2007-2017, Steve Donoghue