Tag Archives: anecdotes

Alan Walker

Hans von Bülow once arrived in a small German town to give a piano recital. He was informed by the somewhat nervous organizers that the local music critic could usually be counted on to give a good review, pro- vided that the artist first agreed to take a modestly priced lesson from him. Bülow pondered this unusual situation for a moment, and then replied, ‘He charges such low fees he could almost be described as incor- ruptible’. On another occasion Bülow got back to his London hotel after dark. As he was climbing the dimly lit staircase, he collided with a stranger hurrying in the opposite direction. ‘Donkey!’ exclaimed the man angrily. Bülow raised his hat politely, and replied, ‘Hans von Bülow’!

Volumes could be filled with the wit and wisdom of Hans von Bülow, and the biography that follows teems with examples. His banter was woven into the very weft and weave of his complex personality. He had, moreover, the enviable gift of instant retort. A gentleman eager to be seen in his company once observed Bülow taking a morning stroll. He overtook the great musician, but was unsure of how to introduce himself. Finally he thought of something to say. ‘I’ll bet you don’t remember who I am.’ ‘You just won your bet’, replied Bülow, and walked on. Equally withering were Bülow’s observations on the follies of everyday life. Having heard that an eligible young bachelor wanted to improve his social station through marriage, he observed, ‘It will never work. The young lady wants to do the same thing’.

On orchestral players Bülow could be particularly hard, especially if he felt that they were incompetent. He once berated a trombone player who was failing to deliver the right kind of sound, and told him that his tone resembled roast beef gravy running through a sewer. In Italy, during a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Bülow found himself confronted by a timpanist who simply could not master the intricate rhythms of the Scherzo. There comes a moment in this dynamic movement when the timpanist must break through with force, hammering out the basic rhythm of the main theme. Bülow strove with might and main to pound the pattern into the poor man’s head, but to no avail. Suddenly the solution occurred to him. Timp-a-ni! Timp-a-ni! Timp-a-ni! he kept yelling. A smile of comprehension slowly dawned on the player’s face, as he caught the rhythm of the one word with which he was familiar, and in no time at all he was playing the passage in the correct manner.

Bülow could also be severe on fledgling composers, particularly if he suspected that they wanted him to endorse their music. During a visit to Boston, in the spring of 1889, a local composer of modest talent sent Bülow one of his compositions and was bold enough to request an opinion. The piece was titled ‘O Lord, hear my prayer!’ Bülow glanced briefly at the manuscript and wrote beneath the title, ‘He may, if you stop sinning like this!’

A more famous case was that of Friedrich Nietzsche who, in the summer of 1872, was indiscreet enough to send Bülow an ambitious orchestral composition of his own—a ‘Manfred Meditation’—for the conductor’s critical appraisal. It was one of the philosopher’s major blunders. He had witnessed Bülow conduct Tristan at the Munich Royal Opera House a few weeks earlier, and by way of thanking him for ‘the loftiest artistic experience of my life’ he had sent Bülow a copy of his newly published ‘The Birth of Tragedy’. When he heard that Bülow was sufficiently impressed with the book to carry it with him everywhere, he was emboldened to send him his ‘Manfred Meditation’, doubtless hoping that the famous conductor would favour him with the usual assortment of platitudes that professionals are sometimes apt to offer distinguished amateurs. If Nietzsche thought to secure some fine phrases from Bülow, proffered by virtue of who he was, rather than by virtue of what the music itself was worth, he was sadly mistaken. Bülow looked at the ‘Manfred Meditation’ and knew that he must do his duty. He told Nietzsche that his score was ‘the most unedifying, the most anti-musical thing that I have come across for a long time in the way of notes put on paper.’ Several times, Bülow went on, he had to ask himself if it were not some awful joke. Having inserted the blade, Bülow now twisted the hilt and used Nietzsche’s own philosophical precepts against him. ‘Of the Apollonian element I have not been able to discover the smallest trace; and as for the Dionysian, I must say frankly that I have been reminded less of this than of the “day after” a bacchanal.’ In brief, Nietzsche’s score had produced in Bülow a hangover.

Schadenfreude, too, was never far from the surface, for like most of us Bülow found occasional joy in the misfortune of others. Two of his orchestral players, named Schulz and Schmidt, were slowly driving him to distraction because of their evident inability to understand what he required of them. One morning he got to the rehearsal only to be met with the sad news that Schmidt had died during the night. ‘And Schulz?’ he inquired.

Alan Walker, Hans von Bülow: A Life and Times, Oxford, 2010, pp. 3-5

Charles Mackay

Raymond [Lull] married an early age; and, being fond of pleasure, he left the solitudes of his native isle, and passed over with his bride into Spain. He was made Grand Seneschal at the court of King James, and led a gay life for several years. Faithless to his wife, he was always in the pursuit of some new beauty, till his heart was fixed at last by the lovely but unkind Ambrosia de Castelo. This lady, like her admirer, was married; but, unlike him, was faithful to her vows, and treated all his solicitations with disdain. Raymond was so enamoured, that repulse only increased his flame; he lingered all night under her windows, wrote passionate verses in her praise, neglected his affairs, and made himself the butt of all the courtiers. One day, while watching under her lattice, he by chance caught sight of her bosom, as her neckerchief was blown aside by the wind. The fit of inspiration came over him, and he sat down and composed some tender stanzas upon the subject, and sent them to the lady. The fair Ambrosia had never before condescended to answer his letters; but she replied to this. She told him that she could never listen to his suit; that it was unbecoming in a wise man to fix his thoughts, as he had done, on any other than his God; and entreated him to devote himself to a religious life, and conquer the unworthy passion which he had suffered to consume him. She, however, offered, if he wished it, to show him the fair bosom which had so captivated him. Raymond was delighted.

Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, London, 1841

Jack Schwager

In his last trade, [Randy] McKay was going to reach his goal of making $50 million in the markets. This next-to-last trade was supposed to get McKay close enough to his target so that one more strong trade would achieve his goal. That is not quite how things worked out, however. The trade involved a huge long position in the Canadian dollar. The currency had broken through the psychologically critical 80-cent barrier, and McKay was convinced the market was going much higher. As the market moved in his favor, McKay added to his longs, ultimately amassing a 2,000-contract long position.

At the time, McKay was having a house built in Jamaica and would travel there every few weeks to supervise the construction. One Sunday evening, before he rushed off to the airport to catch his connecting flight to Miami, McKay stopped to check the quote screen. He cared about only one position: the Canadian dollar. He looked at the screen and was momentarily shocked. The Canadian dollar was down exactly 100 points! He was late for his flight, and the limo was waiting. The Canadian dollar rarely moves 20 points in the overnight session, let alone 100 points; it must be a bad quote, thought McKay. He decided that the market was really unchanged and that the hundreds digit in the quote was off by one. With that rationalization in mind, McKay rushed off for the airport.

It turned out that the quote that evening had not been an error. The market was down 100 points at the time, and by the next morning, it was down 150 points from the IMM Friday close. What had happened was that, with the Canadian election a month away, a poll had come out showing that the liberal candidate—who held some extreme views, including support for an independent Québec, and who had been thought to have no chance of winning—had closed most of the gap versus his opponent. Overnight, the impending election had gone from a foregone conclusion to a toss-up.

To make matters worse, although construction was sufficiently complete for McKay to stay at his new house, phones had not yet been installed. We are talking pre–mobile phone days here. So McKay had to drive to the nearest hotel and stand in line to use the pay phone. By the time he got through to his floor clerk, his Canadian dollar position was down $3 million. Since by that time the market was down so much, McKay got out of only about 20 percent of his position. The Canadian dollar, however, continued its plunge. A few days later, McKay was down $7 million. Once he realized the extent of his loss, he exclaimed to his clerk, “Get me out of everything!”

Jack Schwager, The Little Book of Market Wizards: Lessons from the Greatest Traders, Hoboken, New Jersey, 2014, pp. 65-67

Ben Rogers

At yet another party he had befriended [fashion designer Fernando] Sanchez. Ayer was now standing near the entrance to the great white living-room of Sanchez’s West 57th Street apartment, chatting to a group of young models and designers, when a woman rushed in saying that a friend was being assaulted in a bedroom. Ayer went to investigate and found Mike Tyson forcing himself on a young south London model called Naomi Campbell, then just beginning her career. Ayer warned Tyson to desist. Tyson: “Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” Ayer stood his ground. “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field; I suggest that we talk about this like rational men.” Ayer and Tyson began to talk. Naomi Campbell slipped out.

Ben Rogers, A. J. Ayer: A Life, London, 1999, p. 344

Paul Feyerabend

You [Lakatos] say that Sir K just messed up Hume’s problem. This is precisely what Schrödinger said, and I was there when he said it. It is a very interesting story. Karl wanted to dedicate the English edition of the Logic of Sci. etc. to Schrödinger. He had never given the book to Schrödinger to read and wanted to know, desperately, what he thought of it. Karl was sitting at the Böglerhof, Schrödinger was at another restaurant in Alpbach, in a very bad temper: “This Popper! There he gives me this confused book of his and wants me to consent to have my name on the first page. He says he does something about Hume’s problem – but he doesn’t, he just talks, and talks, and talks, and Hume’s problem is still unsolved”. So I tried to explain to him the difference between the problem of demarcation and the problem of induction. “Yes, yes,” he said, “I know, he solves the one BUT HE DOESN’T SOLVE THE OTHER and that is just what Hume said, that it couldn’t be solved…” etc. etc

Paul Feyerabend, Letter to Imre Lakatos, January 11, 1974, in Matteo Motterlini (ed.), For and Against Method: Including Lakatos’s Lectures on Scientific Method and the Lakatos-Feyerabend Correspondence, Chicago, 1999, p. 353