music insults

7 Nasty Classical Music Insults

In this post we are going to read about some music insults traded by great composers. Before we get there, I should defend my interest in them. I was born at the end of the 1980’s and grew up in the 90’s – the era of baggy jeans, flannel and angst. In those days, movies were still stories. CGI was in the works, but it was “bad” enough not to distract you from the story. Video game consoles were clunky, blocky, human. They overheated easily, so you couldn’t play for hours. You also played them with other people – what happened to that?

You had to rewind your cassette tapes. If you were really lucky, you had a CD walkman and everyone at the movies – where your parents dropped you off without worrying about your safety – would envy you. Music had a long shelf-life, too: Ninja Rap.

It was also a time when musicians freely hurled insults at each other, either as individuals or at each other’s works. Prince versus Michael Jackson, Tupac versus Biggie. The whole absurd spectacle was enhanced by the personalities. In our present age, the era of cancel culture and indefinitely postponed adulthood, you just can’t have that kind of fun. I’ve written about this before and it really gets me down. Nowadays, musical culture is a blancmange of idiots copying each other, feigning outrage, and demanding apologies. I’m sick of it.

Classical Composers were Civil weren’t they?

One of the most common misperceptions about “classical music” – an amorphous term that has very little use – is that it was written by genteel, harmless toffs in powder wigs. Some of them were like that – Haydn seems to fit the bill. But most of them were as you’d expect creative types to be. They were spiky, jealous and tempestuous people. To disabuse my readership of this notion, I’ve listed a handful of my favourite insults in music history. In most cases, I think it’s safe to assume that the chief motivation was envy. And that’s all to the good, because when artists envy each other, it spurs them to create more. Our own stupid culture pathologies even this with the Orwellian neologism “cultural appropriation”. God help us.

Anyway, do feel free to use these on your friends and family. One day I’d like to write a piece of software like the Lutheran Insulter, but for musicians. In the meantime, enjoy:

1. “A Tub of Pork and Beer”

Hector Berlioz was a flamboyant character. He wrote something called Symphonie Fantastique, which you are supposed to like if you’re a musician. I don’t – and I’m not sure that anyone else does, either. Anyway, he clearly didn’t like Handel very much. Why might that be? Well, I think the problem here is both professional and ethnic.

Handel was a German who became British. That is bound to stick in the craw of a patriotic Frenchman. I think there is an undeniable ethnic overtone to the “pork and beer”, because that’s most definitely not what a sophisticated French Romantic would consume. But Handel also represents something like an antithesis to Berlioz’ over-the-top romanticism. The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah is everything the gloomy atheist Berlioz was not: rational, joyful and Christian. I’m with the receiver of the insult this time.

2. “It Sounds like Bach on the Wrong Notes”

This music insult is really cruel. Like the first one, I think there might be an ethnic tinge to the malice. But it’s definitely mostly professional. Stravinsky and Prokofiev were contemporaries. They were both dabbling in neoclassicism. This is a school or movement that grew up in reaction to the silly excesses of romanticism. We’ve touched on those before and I must say I have a certain sympathy for the neoclassical project. Neoclassical music feels structured, clear, light. You can hear a very neoclassical composition by Stravinsky in the introduction to my recent podcast.

Despite this cerebral, Apollonian ambience, it remains true that there is only room for one master of neoclassicism on the scene. Each of these men thought he was the one. Stravinsky is taking a stab at Prokofiev precisely on the ground where they competed. He’s saying that Prokofiev is just imitating Bach’s rhythm and style but with bad notes. This is obviously not the kind of thing composers like to hear. Prokofiev got his own back though, and frankly, his insult to Stravinsky is far, far more devastating. And it’s coming up next.

3. “Peregrinus Expectavi Pedes Meos in Cymbalis”

This one is my favourite music insult, and not only because it’s in Latin. We discussed it before. What does the phrase mean? Well, it’s hard to say. It’s something like “A stranger, I have waited, my feet in cymbals”. Prokofiev puts these silly words in the mouths of his German antagonists in his famous cantata Alexander Nevsky. It’s not completely certain, but many people believe that this phrase is a jab at Stravinsky, because it parallels some of the verses he chose in a composition of his own, based on the Book of Psalms. I say we should never err on the side of caution when it comes to musicians.

4. In Need of a Spanking

This list would not be complete without Beethoven: virtuoso, epoch-defining genius, curmudgeon. Most people agree, though, that this jibe was rather good-natured. Beethoven actually appreciated Rossini’s abilities. But he did criticise the Italian bon-vivant for lacking the seriousness that true opera requires. He was probably right, but I’m equally sure that the Germans ought to relax a little. This one is a bit of a lull between the savagery that we’ve seen so far and the sardonic takedowns we’re about to see. No blood drawn.

5. A Spoilt Child

This one is interesting and, I think, the most insightful of the bouquet of music insults I’m presenting to you. Clara Schumann was one of Europe’s great pianists. She lived in the era of high romanticism and took part in the so-called “War of the Romantics”. Only the romantics could have dreamed up such an absurd term for this spat between arty aristocrats. You can think of it like the graceless feud currently unfolding between the author of a popular children’s fantasy series and one of her acolytes. If you know what I’m referring to, you’re in on the joke. Personally I regard both parties to this contemporary literary squabble with a visceral contempt. But the disagreement between Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt is more complicated and more interesting because they’re both authentic artists.

Schumann believed that the artist should suppress his or her own personality, to allow the composer to emerge. If you’ve been around here for any length of time, you will know that that goes down very well with me. Liszt, on the other hand, thought the medium was the message, or to put it another way: it’s all about the performance (and the performer). He would strut around, sigh, flail at the piano – personally I find this revolting. Clara Schumann did too, and I think she was right.

6. “A very Tolerable Imitation of a Composer”

This is so terse, so biting, so…English. In his famous study of the English language, Otto Jespersen praised the English tongue for what he saw as its masculinity. The English need only a few words and syllables to communicate what takes the Danes twice as much. This English habit of keeping the powder dry means that when a skilled user of the language actually brings the adjectives to bear, they are all the more devastating. Vaughan Williams is saying to Mahler: your music is bad, but it’s nice.


7. Go Shovel Some Snow

I’ve saved this one for last because I wanted to give it all the malice I could muster. I’ll just come out and say it: I hate Schoenberg. I’m glad to find myself in such good company as Richard Strauss. We might think this insult is quite quaint and harmless. That’s just because of the formality. In this period, rival forces were vying for control of Europe and the world. Sadly, Schoenberg’s vision of life is regnant in our day. It’s all about formlessness, resentment and disorientation.

Anyway, we haven’t heard much music in this post and I can’t abide that. So let’s hear Clara Schumann’s Scherzo in C Minor to lighten the mood:

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