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Slander and Libel: Insults in Classical Music

We’re shouting at each other this week on Ether Game! (Photo credit: Pixabay)

There’s a famous book in the classical music world called the Lexicon Of Musical Invective by Nicolas Slonimsky. It’s basically a compendium of vitriol—a list of some of the many insults hurled at composers over the years. And this week, we’re using it as our jumping off point. We’re exploring insults in classical music in a show we’re calling “Slander and Libel.”

Here’s our insulting playlist below:

  • “Wagner has beautiful moments, but awful quarters of an hour” – Wagner is widely regarded as the most influential and controversial composer of the Romantic era. Many composers (Liszt, Mahler, Strauss, Debussy and Humperdink to name a few) referenced his music so often that “Wagnerian” became a common term to describe composing styles of the late 19th century. Wagner was also a radical, both politically and musically, and alongside his camp of supporters were flocks of critics, some more explicit in their insults than others. Writer Eduard Hanslick thought that Wagner’s music reminded him of “an old Italian painting of a christian martyr whose intestines are slowly unwound from his body on a wheel.” Fellow opera composers were especially harsh. After Rossini saw Wagner’s Lohengrin, he wrote that “Wagner has beautiful moments, but awful quarters of an hour.” If that wasn’t clear enough, he also mentioned that the opera could not be judged on a first hearing, but he certainly didn’t intend to hear it a second time.


  • Mozart insults his horn player Leutgeb in the score – Horn players are used to getting dirty looks or insults from other players. But it’s not that often that the insults comes from the composer on the score. That’s what Mozart did in several of his Horn Concertos written for his friend Joseph Leutgeb. Mozart was known for his silly sense of humor, and these inscribed insults are clearly some good-natured ribbing from one friend to another. The first page of his Horn Concerto No. 2, bears the dedication “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart takes pity on Leutgeb, ass, ox, and fool, in Vienna.” In Concerto No. 4, it seems like he tried to mess with Leutgeb’s head by writing his part in several different ink colors. And in his first concerto, Mozart includes a variety of insults, jibes, and taunts alongside the horn part, like calling him a donkey, a swine, and writing several times “are you finished yet?”


  • Stravinsky, the insult king – Stravinsky was described by many of his associates as having a large ego and an extremely intense personality. One could assume as much based on the amount of insults he fired off at fellow composers not only in his own musical circles, but also throughout the western canon. On one occasion, he complained “Why is it that whenever I hear a piece of music I don’t like, it’s always Villa-Lobos?”  On another, he said all you needed to write like Olivier Messiaen was “a large bottle of ink.” His criticisms stretched all the way back to the Baroque Era with slanders against Handel and Vivaldi, which is surprising because a large portion of Stravinsky’s style—like his Octet for Winds for instance, is defined by his interest in Early music. 


  • Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky calls Johannes Brahms a “giftless bastard” – During the 1870s and 80s, Brahms’s fame grew throughout Europe. By 1882, he was asked by famed conductor Hans Von Bülow to premiere his second Piano Concerto with Bülow’s Meiningen Symphony Orchestra. This sparked a five-year partnership between Brahms and Bülow, causing Bülow to praise Brahms as “the greatest, most sublime composer, after Bach and Beethoven” (making him the third of the legendary “Three B’s”). But not all felt that way about Brahms. In 1886, none other than Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote in a diary entry, “I played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! It annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius. … Brahms is chaotic and absolutely empty dried-up stuff.”


  • Hector Berlioz calls George Frideric Handel a “tub of pork and beer” – Composer George Frideric Handel was certainly a musical genius, the composer of hundreds of beloved works, including operas, oratorios, anthems and concerti grossi. But his legacy didn’t always resonate with everyone, namely 19th-century French composer Hector Berlioz. Berlioz visited London on several occasions and begrudgingly attended performances of Handel’s music there. He wasn’t shy about his poor opinion of Handel, either. In one letter, Berlioz said that a reading of Handel’s Samson gave him a migraine, and in another letter, he said when hearing Handel’s music, “I just clench my teeth tightly, until … I let off steam by hurling abuse at him.” And in yet another letter, he was insulting an acquaintance’s poor taste by saying she was “enamoured of the stolid, bewigged countenance of that barrel of pork and beer, Handel!” Berlioz’s music, thankfully, was as colorful as his insults.


  • Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 5 is like “staring at a cow for 45 minutes” (Aaron Copland) – For many years, Britain was criticized as a country without a national music style. Finally in the second half of the 19th century a pantheon of British composers like—Vaughan Williams, Holst, Elgar and Britten—emerged with a distinctively British style. All four of these composers incorporated English folk music into their music, which made their music popular in Britain and around the world. Vaughan Williams was labeled as the founding figure of the “Pastoral School” of British art music, because so much of his music evoked the idyllic English countryside. American composer Aaron Copland specifically despised this quality in Vaughan Williams’s music, supposedly saying that listening to his 5th Symphony was like “staring at a cow for 45 minutes.” That’s ironic, given that much of Copland’s music is also influenced by American folk music.


  • Sir Thomas Beechem, hater of the harpischord (and many other things) – It’s not just composers who felt compelled to insult each other’s music. After orchestral conducting became a full-time gig in the 19th century, a new hoard of conductor-critics became part of the public discourse. Sir Thomas Beecham, founder of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, was among the most vocal, not only because he was known for giving shouts of encouragement to the orchestra while he was on the podium, but because his insults were particularly salty. Most of them are too harsh for public radio, but we can share one on the instrument we just heard. Beecham hated the harpsichord, and apparently said the sound of it made him think of “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm”  Beechum pioneered the practice of interpreting Baroque music in a Romantic Era style, allowing him to completely avoid ever using the harpsichord.


  • Vicious criticism for Carl Ruggles’s Sun-Treader – The 20th-century American composer Carl Ruggles was a bit of an iconoclast. He was untrained, outspoken, and profane and he wrote music in a dissonant style that was not based in any true theoretical backing—just his own ear. His music (and his personality) as a result pushed a lot of buttons among both the progressive musical elite and more conservative listeners. Sun-Treader, based on a line from Robert Browning poem, might be his most famous work. But a contemporary German reviewer said of it, “Sun-Treader … should have been surely renamed ‘Latrine-Teader.’ This title comes nearer to the character of the music … I for one, had only the impression of bowel constrictions in an atonal Tristanesque ecstasy.” 


  • Constant in-fighting between Noel and Liam Gallagher in Oasis – The nastiest insults are often all in the family. The 90s Brit-rock band Oasis has become equally known for their throwback 1960s sound as for the in-fighting between lead singer Liam Gallagher and his songwriting brother Noel Gallagher. The feud likely started when they were children, but has escalated into several all out brawls, including a violent incident with a tambourine. In 1996, the band exchanged words during their MTV Unplugged performance, with Liam heckling Noel from the audience. In an interview in 2009, Noel called Liam, quote “rude, arrogant, intimidating, and lazy. He’s the angriest man you’ll ever meet. He’s like a man with a fork in a world of soup.” Most of Liam’s insults back at Noel are far too inappropriate to post here, but one of his more infamous (and funny) insults came on Twitter, when Liam tweeted a picture of Noel’s head with the one-word caption “Potato.”

Music Heard On This Episode


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