Take a brief browse at social media today, and you might believe we live in an unrivalled age for sharp tongues and poison pens.

Advertisement

Think again. History is full of those who were masters of the withering put-down, not least the great composers. What’s more, rather than hide behind a pen name as today’s trolls do, they were only too happy to claim authorship.

Take this little gem by Tchaikovsky: ‘Brahms is just some chaotic and utterly empty wasteland.’ How do you come back from that? Perhaps composers’ enthusiasm for verbal blows flowed from the fact that they cared so much about music; enough to slug it out publicly, like boxers in a ring.

And the abuse didn’t stop at the occasional one-liner. It could go on for years, drawing in friends and associates so that both camps were soon dug in like armies facing each other across no-man’s land. Here, then, are 15 fine examples of composers willingly indulging in a war of words…

15 composer feuds

Brahms vs Tchaikovsky

You’ll have already gathered that Tchaikovsky didn’t rate Brahms. After playing over the German’s music, Tchaikovsky wrote in his diary, ‘What a giftless bastard!’ Strong stuff, but there was more: ‘It angers me that this conceited mediocrity is regarded as a genius. I can’t stand him.’

What had Brahms done to provoke such hostility? Well, he did fall asleep during a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and, musically, the pair were polar opposites. Strangely, on the few occasions they met, they got along famously, even if Brahms’s beery Viennese ways were at odds with Tchaikovsky’s more refined manners.

More like this

Brahms vs Liszt

Brahms and Liszt’s names may be forever joined as the rhyming slang term for having had a beer or two too many but, in reality, these two giants of 19th-century music couldn’t stand one another. Once again, Brahms let himself down by nodding off during a premiere, this time of Liszt’s B minor Sonata – given the demonic energy of the piece, an act of deliberate sabotage, surely. But Liszt wasn’t blameless. He once called Brahms’s music ‘hygienic but unexciting’.

Beethoven vs Haydn

Misunderstandings and imagined sleights, perhaps caused by a clash of egos, seem to have been the root of these two composers’ undoing at various times. For example, in an effort to bolster Beethoven’s credibility, Haydn suggested adding the phrase, ‘pupil of Haydn’ to the young composer’s Piano Trios Op. 1. Beethoven bristled at that, telling a friend he had ‘never learned anything from Haydn’.

Beethoven vs Hummel

Is anything more likely to get your goat than a customer criticising your work within earshot of a rival who finds the whole thing hilarious? That’s what happened to Beethoven when Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy collared him after a performance of his Mass in C. As Hummel, the Prince’s music master, looked on, his boss made a cutting remark to Beethoven about the performance, causing the obsequious Hummel to laugh out loud. Beethoven stormed off, and his grudge would grow with the passing years.

Beethoven vs Italy

Given his willingness to lob insults at all and sundry, it’s no great surprise to see Beethoven make a third appearance on our list. One of his most damning shots was directed specifically at Rossini but, for good measure, took in an entire nationality within its scope. ‘Opera is ill-suited to the Italians,’ he said. ‘You do not know how to deal with real drama.’

Mozart vs Clementi

‘I do not make acquaintances among other composers,’ Mozart once wrote sniffily to his father. ‘I know my job and they know theirs, and that’s good enough.’ However, that didn’t mean he was averse to sticking the knife in. In another letter he wrote, ‘Everyone who plays or hears [Clementi’s] compositions will sense their insignificance. Clementi is a charlatan, like all Italians. He has nothing to offer.’

Mendelssohn vs Berlioz

Affable in person, Mendelssohn’s letters and diaries reveal that he also possessed a poison pen overflowing with ink, with some scathing remarks directed at audiences in Munich, Rome and Paris. He saved his most toxic text for Berlioz, however, writing that ‘with all his efforts to go stark mad he never once succeeds’ and describing the Symphonie fantastique as ‘utterly loathsome’.

Clara Schumann vs Liszt

As Lisztomania swept Europe in the mid-19th century, it left a few damaged egos in its wake, among them those of Schumann and his wife, Clara. Concerned for her husband’s legacy, she recruited Brahms and the violinist Joseph Joachim to keep Robert’s flame alive. As they went to war in the salons and concert halls of Europe, Clara would launch the occasional rocket in Liszt’s direction, such as this: ‘[His music] is just meaningless noise. Not a single healthy idea anymore. Everything is confused. A clear harmonic progression is not to be found here any longer.’

Verdi vs Puccini

For composers at war, faint praise is akin to a pistol fitted with a silencer. Verdi deployed it to damning effect when he wrote, ‘I have heard the composer Puccini well spoken of. He follows the new tendencies, which is only natural, but he keeps strictly to melody, and that is neither new nor old. He is predominantly a symphonist; no harm in that.’

Debussy vs Ravel

Like all the fiercest enemies, Ravel and Debussy had once been friends, of a sort. ‘For Debussy, the musician and the man, I have had profound admiration,’ said Ravel. ‘Have had’ – note the tense. At some point in the early 1900s, the two fell out, at first over Ravel choosing to follow Fauré’s advice over Debussy’s with regards to changes to his String Quartet. Things escalated when Ravel helped to support Debussy’s estranged wife, Lilly. ‘It’s probably better for us to be on frigid terms for illogical reasons,’ concluded Ravel.

Prokofiev vs Stravinsky

These two Russians first hit a rocky patch when Prokofiev told Stravinsky there was ‘no music’ in The Firebird. Harsh, but things really kicked off over Prokofiev’s new opera The Love for Three Oranges. There had been no love lost at its world premiere when one wag wrote, ‘It pokes fun at those who paid money for it.’

But if, after playing the score to Stravinsky, Prokofiev was expecting some words of support, he was to be disappointed. ‘You’re wasting time composing operas,’ Stravinsky told him. ‘You’re not immune to error yourself,’ replied Prokofiev. Stravinsky blew his top. ‘Our relations became strained and for several years Stravinsky’s attitude towards me was critical,’ said Prokofiev.

Vaughan Williams vs himself

Vaughan Williams detested what he saw as Mahler’s tortured outpourings, describing the Austrian as a ‘very tolerable imitation of a composer’. However, he was equally harsh on his own abilities, describing his music as ‘lumpy and stodgy’ in 1907. Many years later, he was still down on himself. ‘I have struggled all my life to conquer amateurish technique,’ he wrote in 1948, ‘and now that perhaps I have mastered it, it seems too late to use it.’

Lutyens et al vs Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams was also on the receiving end of insults from others, most famously when his music was labelled the ‘cow pat school’ by Elizabeth Lutyens. The description in fact owes its origins to Peter Warlock likening Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony to a cow staring over a fence. Aaron Copland borrowed it to describe listening to RVW’s Symphony
No. 5 as like staring at a cow for 45 minutes. Not such sweet moo-sic.

Britten vs everyone

Benjamin Britten noted in his diary that he could listen to two minutes of Elgar’s Second Symphony ‘but could stand no more’. He laid into conductors, too, dismissing Adrian Boult as ‘terrible, execrable’. One of his tutors at the Royal College of Music was Vaughan Williams (again), whose conducting made Britten ‘depressed for English music’ and he once spent a happy afternoon laughing over the older composer’s music in the company of Lennox Berkeley. He also said listening to Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier ‘makes me almost physically sick’. Woe betide anyone who replied in like style, however – they quickly joined the ranks of ‘Ben’s corpses’: former friends and colleagues now cold-shouldered for life.

Advertisement

Salieri vs Mozart

Let’s end with a feud that was nothing of the sort. Thanks to Amadeus, the play by Peter Shaffer which sees Salieri confessing to poisoning the composer, and Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri, a short drama about envy, the two have become lumbered with the most misrepresented musical relationship of all time. The truth is that early in his career Mozart complained that Salieri had gained teaching positions over him, and that he and a group of Italians were obstructing his career. But later on, a mutual respect developed between them that saw Salieri teaching one of Mozart’s children, and the pair collaborating on a cantata and attending operas together.

Authors

John EvansJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine