Remembering Richard Horowitz

On Monday, November 2nd, 2015, former Principal Timpanist Richard Horowitz passed away at the age of 91. He was the MET Orchestra’s longest-serving member - indeed, his 66 year career was one of the longest of any orchestral musician on record. His section-mates remember him with the following tributes.

Drawing courtesy of Emmanuelle Ayrton

Drawing courtesy of Emmanuelle Ayrton

Greg Zuber, Principal Percussionist

Richard Horowitz was my friend and colleague at the Metropolitan Opera for 26 years. He was a dynamic figure in the orchestra and a fantastic, virtuosic timpanist who played with tremendous fire and great sensitivity. He had one of the most beautiful soft touches and, especially, soft rolls I have ever heard. He had fantastic (perfect) pitch and great ears in general. Richard was an avid “fixer” of timpani parts, known not only for correcting odd pitches, but actually rewriting many parts in whole, often to mirror the bass parts. I marveled at his many tremendous feats of rapid pedaling through scalar passages and adventurous trips around the circle of fifths and beyond. Given all of his years of performances, including the live Metropolitan Opera Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts, the 50-plus years of annual touring, domestically as well as internationally, and by virtue of playing in New York City at the Metropolitan Opera, surely Richard was one of the most-heard timpanists in history. 

Dick was creative and very mechanically knowledgeable, knowing his way around tools and a workshop. He was often the first person an orchestra member turned to for help with a repair or the loan of a special tool or glue of some kind. He oversaw the design, construction, and tuning of the aluminum pipe anvils that we have used to great effect in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. As a young man, he developed a very beautiful calligraphic hand and worked part-time as a copyist, creating scores for composers including Leonard Bernstein. Some of the percussion parts we continue to use at the Met are in his hand, including the score percussion part to Turandot that we are using this season. An avid photographer, Richard took advantage of his proximity to the stage, taking thousands of photographs from the pit, both of operatic scenes as they occurred in performances and, especially, of the singers during their bows. Giving these photographs to the singers allowed him to get to know many of the artists appearing at the Met, and to develop relationships with many of them. 

Dick had the gift of eternal youth, having good health and spirit for most of his 66-year career at the Met. Into his 70s, he was still biking around Manhattan and bounding down staircases two steps at a time. Over his historic, double-length career, Richard Horowitz's contributions to the Metropolitan Opera, to thousands of performances, to our orchestra community, and to the percussion and music world are incalculable. His passing truly represents the end of an era. I honor his friendship and memory with respect and fondness.

Jason Haaheim, Principal Timpanist

As the newest member of this great section, and as Richard Horowitz’s successor as co-principal timpanist, I never had the privilege of performing with him in the pit. But after I won the audition, he was incredibly warm and gracious to me. He clearly understood how immense and intimidating it is to step into a job like this, especially one whose previous occupant had been playing for 66 years! We had a couple of dinners and lunches, and it was amazing to hear stories, stretching back to 1946, about the MET Orchestra. Dick was able to rattle off encounters with six decades’ worth of legendary conductors as if they’d happened last week. When I told him I grew up outside of Minneapolis, he replied, “I got to know Dimitri Mitropoulos fairly well when we used to tour to Minneapolis. He told me he really liked my rolls. It was a nice compliment.” Or, “The first opera I ever played on timpani with the MET Orchestra was The Marriage of Figaro. That was 1948.” He told me that he’d actually started playing piano, but that around 1936 he was told, “If you play piano, you also need to focus on an orchestral instrument - how about timpani?” Yeah! Why not? He fondly remembered that he was able to give Carlos Kleiber a special Horowitz-made baton for Kleiber’s first performance at the Met. 

The first time I met Dick was over dinner at Sapphire Indian Cuisine on Broadway, near Lincoln Center - Monday, April 22, 2013. His lovely wife, Bernice, was also there, and it was both surreal to meet this icon whose chair I would soon occupy, and incredibly easy to converse and connect with such amiable people. The last time we spoke was on September 22, 2015, at the final dress rehearsal of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, an opera he had surely performed many hundreds of times. He told me, “It sounds good.” That was a nice compliment. Dick leaves behind an unparalleled recorded legacy; it would be hard to find any other timpanist whose sound is heard on so many recordings over such a long period of time. Last week, the timpani and the opera world lost a legend.

Rob Knopper, Percussionist

I’ll start with a story. At one point during my first year in the MET Orchestra, I was sitting behind the bass drum, wrapping timpani mallets. I had a slew of sticks lying in my stick case, and Mr. Horowitz came over to take a look. He was a craftsman in addition to being a musician, so he would often pull me aside and explain how different instruments were constructed or different techniques he’d used to make sticks. He looked over my sticks, pointed out a pair that stood out to him, and asked me what they were.

I perked up, thinking that I finally had something new to show him. I said, “Those are sticks made with layers of flannel. They’re popular in Europe and they’ve been getting popular in American orchestras recently, as well. I’m not sold on them but I’m trying some out.” He responded, “Yeah, I’m not sold either. I tried some of those in the 50s and didn’t like them, so I haven’t used them since.”

The final year of Dick’s career was the first year of mine. Although playing in the  MET Orchestra was brand new to me, I could sense the deep history and pride among orchestra members and everyone else in the institution. Normally, when you dive into learning about the history of the Met, you learn about all the famous singers who are no longer with us, like Maria Callas, Pavarotti, and others. But when you talked to Dick, you didn’t have to imagine. He was the history of the Met. He lived through it and he carried it forward. I spotted him many times taking pictures of singers during final bows, adding to his already-gigantic collection. 

More than anything, I’ll miss hearing some of the beautiful sounds that he was still capable of making on the timpani, 66 years after he started his career with the MET Orchestra.

Scott Stevens, Percussionist (ret.)

The idea of spending 66 years in any profession is almost impossible to grasp. For a musician, add on an additional 10-15 years of earlier study and practice and that number becomes mind-boggling. By the time of his retirement in 2012, Richard, (affectionately referred to as “King Richard” by many of us, after his long reign), had been a principal timpanist for virtually half of the history of the Metropolitan Opera. I can’t even begin to imagine how many performances that must have been, but he could have told you, immediately. His ability to recall details, statistics, people, and events, even decades in the past, was far beyond impressive. If you were to ask him who conducted Tosca on the second Thursday of February during the 1957-58 season, he’d know and could probably tell you who was in the cast (and whether or not there were any cancellations, that night). It was always a mistake to assume that you could stump him.

I think it’s safe to say that, after his family, Richard’s total dedication was to the Met. He was a constant for generations of opera goers in New York and for audiences around the world who would tune in to the Saturday afternoon Met radio broadcasts and, later, telecasts and live movie theater broadcasts. And let’s face it, how many of the rest of us, regardless of how hard we might try, will actually become an answer on Jeopardy? (“I’ll take ‘Music and Musicians’ for $40, Alex.”)

The stories, of course, are endless and legendary, but it was Richard’s friendship and his contribution to the timpanist’s art and to the legacy of the Metropolitan Opera that will long be remembered. 

Rick Barbour, Percussionist (ret.)

With Maestro Julius Rudel

With Maestro Julius Rudel

I worked with Richard for thirty seven of my thirty eight years at the Met. When I started, he had just been presented with a gold watch, for thirty years of service, having started playing there before I was born! Richard was extremely dedicated to his art, constantly studying works he might have played many times, refining parts he had edited, and often copied, himself.

I first met Richard when I was a student. I studied some with Abe Marcus, who was then the Principal Percussionist. At that time, the players could bring their students into the pit to watch rehearsals and performances. Little did I know I would soon be playing alongside these very musicians.

After a few years of being the new kid, not knowing much (how true!), we became good friends and had many interesting conversations about timpani and music in general. Once, while playing Rigoletto in the parks, I noticed that he hadn’t opened his music! Afterward, I asked him about it, and he replied that about halfway through, he had realized that, but thought he had played it enough to know it!

Richard was a superb timpanist and a huge part of the Metropolitan Opera. It was an education, a pleasure, and an honor to know him and to work with him.

Rafael Guzman, Percussionist

The music business has lost yet another of its great talents. Mr. Richard Horowitz, timpanist and percussionist of the Metropolitan Opera for 66 years, passed away on Monday, November 2. Blessed with perfect pitch, he could tune a kettle drum to such high degree of accuracy that the oboe could tune an “A” from the timpani. A skilled craftsman, he could repair any percussion instrument, and other non-musical items as well. As a hobby, he made exquisite batons for some of the world’s leading conductors. It was my honor and privilege to be his colleague for 37 seasons at the Metropolitan Opera.

Lynn Bernhardt, Percussionist (ret.)

I first heard Richard play in 1979, at a performance of Don Carlo at the Met. At the time, I knew little about opera, and less about Richard, circumstances which I'm happy to say began to change with that performance. I was profoundly impressed by the opera, of course, but perhaps equally amazed by Richard's work as timpanist. It was my great good fortune to begin working with him in the orchestra not long after that evening, and to come to appreciate his singular abilities and his dedication to every facet of his profession. It quickly became apparent that this high level of playing was routine with Richard, and that his mastery was the result of his complete immersion in the job. In addition to his technical and musical command, he applied his considerable talents and intelligence to as many aspects of the entire company as possible.

Richard's final performance of La Traviata, May 12, 2012 (Photo by Lynn Bernhardt)

Richard's final performance of La Traviata, May 12, 2012 (Photo by Lynn Bernhardt)

He studied scores and knew the operas perhaps as well as, or better than, some of the conductors who appeared on the podium. He not only made meticulously-edited (not to mention demanding) timpani parts for most of the operas he played, but also created beautifully copied score parts for the percussion in numerous operas. He was good with his hands, and was unfailingly available to help solve problems of all kinds that arose around the orchestra. He ranged all over the house and probably knew as much about the theater and the people in it as anyone there.

In short, I think that Richard’s tenure at the Met was about as perfect a fit between an employee and an institution as it is possible to imagine. The level of his musical and technical achievement, and the depth of his knowledge of the repertoire, is doubtless unsurpassed by any operatic timpanist. The breadth of his interest in the people and proceedings around him was singularly remarkable. That he maintained his position so successfully for so many years is unparalleled. I am grateful to have had the privilege of knowing and working with him