Richard Horowitz, Who Makes Timpani Sing, To Retire After 66 Years at Met

Friday, April 13, 2012 - 05:00 PM

Word is spreading through the opera community of an epochal change at the Metropolitan Opera. Richard Horowitz, principal timpanist of the company, will retire at the end of the season. While other members of the chorus and orchestra, as well as ushers, box office workers and other employees have maintained long associations with Met, the story of Dick Horowitz, as he is widely known, is of a dimension that is unheard of and seemingly without parallel.

Horowitz has performed at the Met for 66 of his 88 years, having made his debut in November 1946, a quarter-century before music director James Levine’s debut. Nine general managers have served the Met during Horowitz’s tenure and thousands of employees, not to mention singers, have overlapped with his career. Were longevity the only measure of his impact, his retirement would still be significant. But he has been an innovative musician and a valuable resource, in expected and surprising ways, to many of the world’s greatest conductors.

His first performance at the old Met (on Broadway and 39th Street) was in Delibes’s Lakmé with Lily Pons in the title role and Louis Fourestier making his debut as conductor. There were performances on Nov. 11 and 23 but the Met archives don’t indicate which one was Horowitz’s debut. He must have played thousands of times since, but no one seems to be counting. For Horowitz, the next performance is the most important one.

When I attend performances at the Met, I usually sit in one of the upper tiers. Financial considerations are one reason but another is that I love to watch the conductors and musicians in the orchestra. They are the anchor of every great performance. I am friendly with some musicians in the orchestra, including Horowitz, and it is my custom to use my binoculars to scan the pit and see that all the familiar faces are present and accounted for. Seeing him on the extreme right end of the pit is as normal and reassuring as seeing the Statue of Liberty still there in New York harbor.

His is a classic New York story and he is the embodiment of many of the best values of the city, and of musicianship. He can recount the changes he has seen but does it without any sense of living in the past. One of the many things I admire about Horowitz is the degree to which he lives and performs in the moment. Last month, he was still studying and refining his interpretation of the difficult percussion parts of Manon, which he considers more challenging than Wagner. The fact that the Met performed Manon 105 times during Horowitz's career before the current new production did not deter him from returning to the score to do an even better job this time. 

An illustrious part of the Met’s history, and Horowitz's, was the annual tour in America the company undertook until 1986. These meant that each company member could be a musical ambassador in delighting audiences and, often, teaching local students in cities that were visited. The Met was more fully a national company and its loyal friends were legion across the nation. There is nothing like a live performance of opera, hearing orchestra and singers in full cry and seeing the magic of stagecraft.

In the old days, the Met often crossed the country by train. Horowitz's wife, Bernice, joined him on many tours and both remember the tiring but pleasurable journeys from one city to the next. In a recent conversation, both recalled journeying all the way across the continent to Los Angeles in April 1948, traversing deserts and mountains along the way. Manon was one of the productions presented there, with Wilfred Pelletier leading the orchestra and a golden-age cast including Bidù Sayao, Giuseppe di Stefano, Martial Singher and Ezio Pinza. And a 24 year old Dick Horowitz playing timpani (also known as kettle drums).

Only in New York

Horowitz grew up at a time when New York City had valuable resources for children interested in music. He studied piano and was in the first graduating class of the High School of Music and Art (now LaGuardia High School). He studied at Brooklyn College and Juilliard, where he met Bernice in a class about the acoustics of music. “He missed one session and borrowed my notes," said Bernice Horowitz, a busy and accomplished harpist. "On the exam he got an A and I got a B!” The couple have been married for 68 years and proudly announce that they raised two sons, graduates of MIT and Stanford.

In high school and again later on, Horowitz studied with Saul Goodman, the legendary timpanist of the New York Philharmonic. “It took me a while to decipher what Goodman was doing," he said. "As a teacher he was not so good; as a player he was phenomenal. I had to watch him to figure it out. His technique was absolutely right for the instrument.” When James Levine arrived at the Met and listened to Horowitz play, he added , “this is the closest to Saul Goodman I have ever heard.”

When Horowitz began his career, he did not have certain resources musicians do today (Horowitz being a major resource unto himself). “When I started to play timpani in opera, there were practically no recordings available," he noted. "If I wanted to learn anything, I had to go to the Met and look at the scores. Opera scores, in general, are very bad in terms of notation for timpani. We just did Ernani this winter. We had to read twelve-sheet pages fast, play, and turn pages all at once. As one person said, the publisher’s employees were probably paid by the page.”

One of Horowitz's significant contributions to opera is that he has refined and written out scores in more concise and accurate ways. He has perfect pitch, which has enabled him to discern when there might be something inaccurate in a score. Before Richard Strauss and other 20th century composers, the markings for timpani in scores were often erroneous or vague. Early on, he noted to Bruno Walter that the timpani parts in the score of the Verdi Requiem might have been wrong or, at least, inaccurate. “When parts were written in the 19th century, you did not hear pitch as much as sound. Some of the Verdi Requiem might have been written for the bass drum, which has no pitch at all.” Through the decades, smart conductors have consulted Horowitz, who generously offers his opinion but noted, “I can only change these things if a conductor is amenable to doing it.”

On February 12, 1948 Horowitz made his first appearance on the Met stage during the company premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes. The conductor, Emil Cooper, did not feel confident that Philip Kinsman, the singer playing the role of Hobson, could play a drum. The line in the opera was to be, “Hobson, fetch the drum” but was changed to “Hobson, fetch the drummer” and Horowitz came onstage to play. As Horowitz told me, “the rhythms in Grimes are unusual and difficult. In the round in the first act in which singers sing ‘Old Joe has gone fishing’ it is in 7/4 time!”

A Master Craftsman

As accomplished as Horowitz is as a musician, he is just as well known for what he makes with his hands. He has produced better-quality drums than what existed before. He used his perfect pitch, erudition and instinct to create anvils for Das Rheingold as I detailed last year.  He makes notes in his datebook in a handwriting resembling that of a draughtsman, revealing a perfectionist’s precision you would not expect from a man of such gentle temperament.

Years ago, Karl Böhm broke a baton and a replacement could not be found. Horowitz examined the pieces and, like Siegfried’s sword, produced a new one. In so doing, he discovered another talent. He has hand-crafted batons for many top conductors, including Richard Bonynge, Sarah Caldwell, Colin Davis, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Plácido Domingo, Marek Janowski, Julius Rudel and Thomas Schippers. He made many batons for Leonard Bernstein, who liked to give them away as gifts. One of the ingredients in the Bernstein batons is corks from Champagne bottles. Bernstein was buried with one of Horowitz’s batons.

In a 1988 profile of Horowitz in The New York Times, James Levine said, "The baton-making flows directly from subtle skills, of intonation and rhythm and steady hands, as a timpanist...A baton is the conductor's instrument: the same as subtleties of reeds to a wind player, string quality or weight of a bow to a violinist. A stick that is too heavy, long or short, distracts me. I cannot summon the same body language. The music suffers."

Audiences can still hear Dick Horowitz perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in Manon (April 14-23), La Traviata (April 14-May 2) and Die Walküre (April 13, 28 matinee and, for the last time at the Met on May 7). He will also play at the Met Orchestra’s concert at Carnegie Hall on May 20. Bernice jokes that “Dick has been playing percussion for so long it’s more like repercussion.”  To which Horowitz gently responds, “It was a long life. I’m happy to say it’s not finished.”


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Comments [21]

Renate Perls from New York City

I't's been a while. Dick and I were friends for many years and he is sadly missed..... as is my time at the Met.
One grows older and time goes by too quickly. I am most grateful for all the time I spent at the Metropolitan
Opera House as agent, as listener, as friend. Wish it could have gone on forever.

My love to all those wonderful people who helped me learn and enjoy the beautiful music. I am forever grateful

Feb. 25 2017 08:54 PM

Mary Ellen Sands,
Sabina passed away around five years ago. She had a difficult life with mental health issues. My email is if you would like any more information.

Sep. 14 2015 09:01 PM
Mary Ellen Sands from Westchester, Il

I went to grammar school with Philip Kinsman's daughter Sabina, she was my very best friend and J would like to reconnect with her if she is still alive, she would be 84.

Jun. 16 2014 06:53 AM

I am the niece of Philip Kinsman. It was interesting to see his name in this article. I would like to find out more information about his days with the Met. Please respond if you know add anything. Thanks.

Aug. 24 2012 08:43 PM
mary and charlie shea

We have loved Dick and Bernice ever since we met them on a sailing trip in the Mediterranean visiting shrines of Apollo. We became instant fast friends and admirers. Since then we have enjoyed many lovely times together in NY and Chicago, We love hearing Dick on the radio and seeing him on HD. He often has the last note in the opera which seems appropriate for such a musician. Our friendship with Dick and Bernice has been a high point in our life. Mary and Charlie Shea

Apr. 29 2012 11:00 PM
Lynn and Stan Brooks


What a beautiful tribute!!! I'm so glad Bobbie sent it to us. Congratulations.

Lynn and Stan

Apr. 23 2012 11:11 PM
Renate Perls from New York City

During the time I was a manager in the music business, Dick Horowitz and I were friends for many years. Since I have not been to the Met recently, I have missed his friendship as well as his musical abilities. This master of the timpani has been beloved and appreciated not only by musicians but also by members of the audience. The Met orchestra will never be the same without him.

Apr. 22 2012 12:46 PM
Di from Chatham, New Jersey

Like you, Fred, I always scan the pit with my opera glasses before the chandeliers go up and the house lights go down ... Mr. Horowitz is the first person I look for. I had been wondering how much longer we would see his familiar figure down there on the right but it's still a shock ... there will be a pang when we no longer see him there but he has certainly earned his honorable retirement. I'll be sending him a fond farewell wish from the heart at Die Walküre next Saturday. Mr. H., you done noble!

Apr. 21 2012 10:02 AM

Tell Mr. Horowitz that since he's retiring, don't be surprised if someone tells him to take his drum and beat it! Should of had a better photo though. This one look like part of a Police mug shot.

P.O. BOX 92


Apr. 20 2012 04:12 PM

''BOOM''...''BOOM''...''BO0M!''......(CYMBAL CRASH)

Apr. 17 2012 02:01 PM
HYH from Westchester County

Thank you for a wonderful article on Mr. Horowitz. Having studied percussion, particularly timpani at HS of Performing Arts in the 70s, Mr. Horowitz was a "god" in the percussion world. Thanks for the beautiful tribute to a brilliant musician and exemplary human being. Thank you Fred Plotkin.

Apr. 17 2012 12:10 PM
Raymond Bisha from New York and Toronto

Thanks for the lovely portrait. I don't know the Met Opera orchestra people well, but reading this story tells me why they sound so incredible.

Apr. 16 2012 12:14 PM
Joe Silvestro

Just a grrrreat article. Thanks---Joe silvestro

Apr. 16 2012 08:53 AM

It's just a great joy to hear stories like Mr. Horowitz's because it restores your faith in mankind. His life's devotion and energy can only make you feel better about ourselves. This will be his greatest legacy.

Apr. 15 2012 10:56 PM

Mr. Horowitz is encyclopedic in of his knowledge of opera and timpani.

An oral history from his point of view and experience is one of the most important and untapped resources in the world of orchestral music. Hopefully, someone will be able to get this information in the form of a digital resource.

As a teacher he was "demanding" but always fair.

May he have a long and joyful retirement.

Apr. 15 2012 01:21 PM
Deborah Hofmann from Manhattan

Fred, your narrative of the meaning of this great man's life, this orchestral artist, exemplary in music and in his humanity, is you at your absolute best. Such nuanced reporting and such rich writing about such a dense and impactful who is not at the podium or singing -- one who is not known in the world by a single first name, such as, say, "Jimmy", or "Renee" - but whose name is nonetheless synonymous with a musician's musician.

What a tribute to Dick Horowitz, to this glorious art form, to life itself and its possibilities. The colors he evokes in every operatic style, from Puccini to Wagner, and for such a long arc -- how lucky i feel myself to be, to hear him each time I am at the Met or in those Carnegie Hall Met Orchestra concerts. His influence on the sounds we hear in years of recordings, as well, all these decades, well, it is breathtaking. He has made a mark on the world, on the arts.

You pulled off the impossible in this all-comprehending vivid piece -- but, then, you do it all the time.
Bravo, Brava. I love your column.

Apr. 15 2012 11:18 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

Congratulations, Fred, for your extensive, comprehensive detailing of RICHARD HOROWITZ's RENAISSANCE-MAN EXPERTISE AND PICH-PERFECT LIFE AND MARRIAGE. All the best wishes to the felicitist Horowitzs !!! 66 years as the timpanist for the Met Opera and his stamina and ever-delving concern for the composer's intentions to be revealed and appropriated executed is SO amazing. At Juilliard, I remember talking it over with SAUL GOODMAN my rehearsing my Wagner operatic rep on the 6th floor orchestral rehearsal room while SAUL GOODMAN rehearsed with his timpani. He said "We can both do our thing." We attracted a lot of students who entered the closed room, astonished at what evidently seemed to them to be viewing our separate activities as a survivor epic, both of us in full steam forte fortissimo and having a ball ! I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, opera composer: "Shakespeare" & "The Political Shakespeare" & the director, the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, where professional actors are trained for the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers are coached in the Wagner roles and voice production and dramaturgy techniques.
Website: where one may download, free, 37 complete "Live from Carnegie Hall" selections that I have sung in four concerts, three of them three hours-long solo concerts and one a Joint Recital with the dramatic soprano Norma Jean Erdmann,  in the main hall of Carnegie Hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium, by opening up, downloading from the "Recorded Selections" venue on the home page. My next concert in New York will be on Saturday, June 9th at the YOGA EXPO at the New Yorker Hotel. The title of the concert is 'BRING HIM HOME, with that song from the musical LES MISERABLES, encouraging the return of our armed forces and inspiring hope and love of country with This Land is Your Land, The House I Live In and 25 other selections.

Apr. 15 2012 11:13 AM
Gloria Schuster from Maspeth, NY

While i never "worked" with Richard Horowitz, I did work with his wife, Bernice when I was librarian For Queens Symphony. She arrived at the stage door in a Volkswagen Beetle convertible. The passenger seat was removed and her harp was securely inside. She said that Richard used a similar set-up to transport the tympani. VW wanted them to do a commercial, which they refused.

Apr. 14 2012 02:53 PM
moonspacey from Newport RI

Wow!! I didn't know Dick was still there. I knew him a long time ago. He gave me a ride once from the Opera in the parks back to the Met. I was then I volunteer who later was employed by the Met!! I moved to New England and now have to catch it in HD!! Always look for him too in the orchestra!!
Congratulations to a great human being and an extraordinary persona!!

Apr. 14 2012 01:19 PM

A wonderful recognition of the life's work of someone who is a heartbeat of opera. A thank you and best wishes to Mr. Horowitz-and his family- for the next new phase life. Thanks also, to you Fred, for yet another well written and interesting look into the human contributions, expertise and collaborations that make opera happen.

Apr. 14 2012 11:46 AM
Les Bernstein from Miami, Florida

It's great that the superb orchestra and chorus members are given their due and not only the lead singers in essays such as this one for Mr. Horowitz. What a joy to read! Many blessings to him and his family. He should write a book, if so inclined.

Apr. 14 2012 10:14 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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