Sunday, June 14, 2009


This story was tucked away in a corner of a small publication for organ builders that appeared in our house when my father was building the organ. That makes my memory of it at least fifty years old.

It happened, if it did, at a performance of the 1812 Overture at Radio City Music Hall: large orchestra, the mighty Wurlitzer, something standing in for the cannon and Kremlin bells. According to the story, the mass of sound was too much for the leather thong attached to the center of the big cymbal. I would think that for the cymbal to land in a position to roll, its support must have given way when the percussionist whanged it. In any case, fall and roll it did.
The instrument in question is a couple of feet in diameter and most of an inch thick in the middle, tapering toward the edges -- solid, ringing metal, of course. There was no stopping it; the best anyone it its path could do was get out of the way. One fellow climbed halfway up the proscenium arch as the cymbal careened through the orchestra, scattering musicians, chairs, stands, and anything else in its path that couldn't get out of the way (not too many instruments, we have to hope). The roar of the mighty Wurlitzer fell to a whimper as the organist, turning to watch in horrified fascination, allowed his fingers to lift one by one from the keys.

The cymbal ran out of momentum, leaned, tipped, and fell in increasingly rapid, resounding clatters, like a silver dollar on the bar. That must have been the end of that concert.

If this yarn isn't an urban legend, it deserves to be. I wouldn't know how to verify it. I don't know what the publication was, or when the item appeared, or how long before that the alleged incident occurred. I do know that I didn't make it up. At no time in my life have I been familiar enough with orchestra instruments to invent a tale based on the physics of an escaped cymbal. Either this story really happened, or it was concocted by a bored percussionist waiting out many measures of rest in idle fantasy about how much damage this tool of his trade might do if it got loose.