Victor de Sabata and the ladies

I first became aware of de Sabata being a ladies man after this anecdote, told to me by Felix Aprahamian who was on the staff of the LPO at that time but was later a writer for the “Times of London” and also a noted musicologist.

The LPO booked de Sabata into the Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge and Felix went round to see if de Sabata needed anything. De Sabata had forgotten his pyjamas so Felix went across the road to Harrod’s and bought him some silk pyjamas. When he got back he presented the pyjamas to de Sabata and asked him if he liked the colour. De Sabata replied , ‘Yes, but where is the woman!’.

On another occasion we were rehearsing the Verdi Requiem and de Sabata went over to the famous soprano soloist, an attractive woman with an ample bosom. De Sabata was pointing out the finer points in the score, all the while clutching her bosom in front of the orchestra. Naturally all the orchestra smiled, and one wag quipped that it was all asp and tit. I must explain that the soprano was famous for singing Berlioz’s “The death of Cleopatra”. Everyone knows Shakespeare’s play wherein Cleopatra commits suicide by clutching an asp (viper) to her bosom.

On another occasion Adolf Borsdorf, another member of the LPO staff accompanied de Sabata in a hired limousine to York Minster where we were to perform the Verdi Requiem. On the journey there was a motor bike in front with a girl riding pillion. She glanced back and de Sabata was fascinated with her looks so he asked to driver to follow the motor bike and said to Adolf, ‘You never know, it might be all right!’. Adolf remonstrated with him saying, ‘Maestro, you have a concert to conduct at York, we shall be late’. With reluctance the driver was ordered to drive straight to York. I was incredulous and very sceptical when Adolf told me this, but he repeated over and over again to me that it was true.

The next season de Sabata was amiable and all smiles. He had brought over an auburn haired actress with him to break the solitude.

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Victor de Sabata, his conducting style

At the first rehearsal he conducted with the London Philharmonic Orchestra he was ushered into the rehearsal hall and he limped onto the dais.  He then said ‘Good afternoon gentlemen, may we begin with the Dvorak?’  It was the “New World”  symphony.

He positioned himself very carefully, looked down at his feet making sure they were at a certain distance from the front of the podium, then he commenced, with no score in front of him – everything was from memory.  We went right through the symphony without stopping. After the intermission  he said ‘The Cockaigne Overture of Elgar, please’.  We went through that again without stopping.

At the end of the rehearsal I asked Victor Watson, the principal double bass (I was allowed to call him Victor by then) what he thought of de Sabata and he replied, ‘ He’s all right I suppose, just a typical Italian conductor’.

Next day however, de Sabata came into the rehearsal, mounted the podium and said ‘Gentlemen, yesterday I was getting to know the orchestra, now we rehearse’, and rehearse we certainly did.  He dissected the “New World” bar by bar, correcting mistakes in the printed parts that had been played countless times before, made sure that dotted notes were played properly and not like triplets, corrected notes not being given their full value, and encouraged real pianissimos and then fortes in contrast, these nuances gave a new life to any work he conducted.  He encouraged the woodwind to play together as a team.  Altogether the effect was stunning.  The “Cockaigne” Overture he made into a brilliant piece.  Hitherto everyone had thought of it as one of Elgar’s lesser works, but not so with de Sabata.

At the concert at the Royal Albert Hall the audience went wild.  He was recalled time and time again.

Ravel’s “Bolero” was played at the next concert.  The side drum starts very, very softly and the solo instruments come in one by one.  De Sabata beat a strict tempo for the side drum with his left hand, but with his right hand he made all kinds of rubato, he could beat independently with either hand.  I tried to do so in front of a mirror but failed.

He was at his best in such pieces as Berlioz’s overture “Roman Carnival” or his “Fantastic Symphony”… Moussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”, and much of Debussy and Ravel.  His “Ride of the Valkyries” that he always kept for an encore  brought the house down.

There was a certain personal magnetism, electricity, call it what you will that sent tiny shivers down one’s back, but the  crowning piece in his extensive repertoire was the Verdi “Requiem”.  In the Dies Irae he seemed to go wild, inciting the throng of trumpets that festooned all the rear boxes in the hall to blow their hearts out. The special huge bass drum he encouraged by boxing away in the air with his fists tightly clenched.  Naturally, the audience was very enthusiastic and recalled him many times.

At the end of that season the LPO crowned him on the stage with a laurel wreath and then put on a reception for him after the concert, the only one I can ever remember for any conductor’s performance.

When de Sabata left we were performing with lesser conductors such as Basil Cameron, who kept saying “Please, Please’ to the orchestra, who ignored him. After de Sabata everything was an anti-climax.