Remembering Victor Borge

One of my favorite memories of my guitar-playing days was the time I played for Victor Borge. I was playing a Sunday brunch at a hotel in Los Gatos, CA. Mr. Borge had performed nearby the night before and had spent the night at the hotel.

His entrance into the dining room was a lesson in stagecraft. He came in through the french doors and just stood there a moment and looked around. Then he simply raised an eyebrow and caused half the room to start laughing. It doesn’t sound like much in the retelling, but it was very impressive in the moment.

He took a seat at a table near me. I’d been playing for quite a while and was due for a break. So I wondered what would be a good piece to finish with. I wanted something sophisticated, but short. Something a little different, but familiar. Something from the piano. Something charming.

Aha. It occurred to me. Debussy’s Maid with the Flaxen Hair. Perfect.

So I played it. When I finished, he gave me a nice smile and a nod. Then I put my guitar away and sat with him and we chatted for a minute, but I remember only one thing he said. It was about the Debussy. He said, lightly and with a smile, “You got the harmony right. That’s important!” It sounded just the way you’d imagine.

It’s not much of a story. There’s no punch line. But the meeting left me with an enduring, happy memory. And maybe that’s the point: In the end, when you’re dead and gone, what’s left is the way you are remembered. What’s left is the way others feel when they remember you.

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  1. Mark Wheeler

    This is such a wonderful story — Borge was a great entertainer, but everyone who listened to him knew he was a great musician, too. And his comment to you reveals that he was well aware of the difficulty of transcribing piano music for the guitar, retaining the essential character of a piece despite the inevitable compromises which must be made in transcription due to the limitations of the instrument. He was certainly a larger-than-life figure who lent new meaning to the term "serious music"!

  2. Mark Wheeler

    No, that's not me — I'm just an amateur nylon-string guitarist.

    There are lots of Mark Wheelers: one is an television actor, one (dead now) is a professional NFL football player, and now it seems one is a lutenist. I'd rather be any of these people than the Mark Wheeler I actually am — well, any of them but the deceased football player, anyway — but I find this option is closed to me!

  3. Len-Guitar Lessons

    that's a great story

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