Top Five Classical Rivalries

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Feuds exist in sport, politics and art: both on the stage and behind the scenes. Muhammad Ali had Joe Frazier, Andrew Jackson had John Quincy Adams and, until their recent reconciliation, writer VS Naipaul had Paul Theroux. We’ve collected our five favorite fights from the classical music world.

1. Maria Callas vs. Renata Tebaldi

These two sopranos, at the height of their powers at the same time, first clashed in the 1950s as warring divas representing two archetypes of opera singers. Callas was a dramatic animal on stage while Tebaldi’s was said to have “the voice of an angel.” The media and publicists latched onto the controversy and pushed it farther — one Time magazine piece quoted Callas as saying that comparing herself to Tebaldi was like comparing champagne to Coca-Cola. Tebaldi quipped that she found champagne sour. The pair still inspires heated debates among opera aficionados.

 2. Herbert von Karajan vs. Wilhelm Furtwängler

The rift between the precocious upstart Karajan, and the towering maestro Furtwängler, began when members of the Third Reich pitted the two against each other in a convoluted game of political maneuvering. Their mutual dislike didn’t end after the war, however. The two competed for positions in Berlin and Vienna. Furtwängler leveraged his own fame to get Karajan essentially banned from the Salzburg Festival from the late 1940s through 1954.

3. Igor Stravinsky vs. Arnold Schoenberg

Stravinsky claimed that the enmity between these 20th century icons started with Schoenberg, whose Vielseitigkeit was a thinly veiled musical attack on the Russian (the lyrics mock a composer who mimics previous styles in his own work). For decades Stravinsky shunned serialism and Schoenberg begrudged Stravinsky’s talent. After Schoenberg died in 1951, his once rival reconciled any sore feelings and adopted a 12-tone style.

4. Lang Lang vs. Yundi Li

Though only four months separate them in age, the two Chinese pianists are often portrayed as opposites. Lang flings his body into his performances, perhaps at the sacrifice of artistry; while Li’s more restrained style has earned him the 2000 Chopin Award, as well as rave reviews. The tension boiled over in 2008 when British critic Norman Lebrecht reported that Deutsche Grammophon dropped Li from the label at the insistence of Lang, another DG artist. Furthermore, Lang would not perform with orchestras within the same calendar year that they had hired Li, according to Lebrecht.

5. Johannes Brahms vs. Richard Wagner

The Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick almost single-handedly fabricated this so-called “War of the Romantics.” On the conservative side stood Brahms who wrote a manifesto — directed primarily against Franz Liszt — criticizing the Music of the Future. Though Brahms’s acolytes and Wagner’s followers perpetuated the divide, Brahms actually was quite complimentary of Wagner’s operas. Meanwhile, Wagner reserved his ire towards Hanslick, who was the inspiration for the foolish Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger.

Weigh in: What are your favorite rivalries? Do rivalries make for better music? Leave your comments below.

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Comments [26]

Claude Michaud from Montreal

I was lucky to hear both Tebaldi and Callas live.
I do prefer Tebaldi and was not keen on Callas with all her wobbles in
her voice. Unfortunately i saw Callas in 1974 in Montreal she was not
at her best - i agree she is a good actress but i saw Tebaldi in Otello
with Del Monaco and Gobbi in Montreal and she was great also very
beautiful. Also saw Tebaldi in La Gioconda in New York, she was
fantastic, such a huge and powerful voice she had.

Dec. 28 2012 08:55 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

John Philip Sousa vs. Patrick Sarsfield "P.S." Gilmore. These two titans of the golden age of bands brought more classical and popular music to their audiences than any other musical organization at the time. The heated rivalry that could have been never developed however due to Gilmore's sudden death just two days before the initial appearance of Sousa's New Marine Band in 1892. Sousa, showman that he was, played Gilmore's own "Voice Of A Departed Soul" as his opening number. A better script could not have be written.

Dec. 11 2011 07:05 PM
j rosen from New Jersey

Boulez vs. Britten. I don't think it ever became public (since Boulez had a low opinion of practically everyone but himself...e.g. He called the Schoenberg Piano Concerto "Brahms with wrong notes") but I heard him say of the Britten War Requiem "weak tea". Evidently the fact that it was vaguely tonal over-rode its powerful emotional impact.

Also Milton Babbitt and his serialists vs. the whole musical world.

Dec. 11 2011 09:24 AM
L. Lubin from Fort Lee, NJ

In re the Callas vs Tebaldi contretemps: as to the Time Magazine quote:
"However, witnesses to the interview stated that Callas only said "champagne with cognac", and it was a bystander who quipped, "No, with Coca-Cola", but the Time reporter attributed the latter comment to Callas."
And moreore from Wikipedia:
During an interview with Norman Ross in Chicago, Callas said, "I admire Tebaldi's tone; it's beautiful—also some beautiful phrasing. Sometimes, I actually wish I had her voice."

Francis Robinson of the Met wrote of an incident in which Tebaldi asked him to recommend a recording of La Gioconda in order to help her learn the role. Being fully aware of the alleged rivalry, he recommended Zinka Milanov's version. A few days later, he went to visit Tebaldi, only to find her sitting by the speakers, listening intently to Callas's recording. She then looked up at him and asked, "Why didn't you tell me Maria's was the best?"
Callas visited Tebaldi after a performance of Adriana Lecouvreur at the Met in the late 1960s, and the two were reunited. In 1978, Tebaldi spoke warmly of her late colleague and summarized this rivalry:
"This rivalry was really building from the people of the newspapers and the fans. But I think it was very good for both of us, because the publicity was so big and it created a very big interest about me and Maria and was very good in the end. But I don’t know why they put this kind of rivality, because the voice was very different. She was really something unusual. And I remember that I was very young artist too, and I stayed near the radio every time that I know that there was something on radio by Maria." (from Tebaldi's memoirs)

Dec. 10 2011 04:36 PM
Richard Dumughn from UK

NY Phil v Kurt Mazur. NY Phil won.Kurt Mazur lost.

Dec. 10 2011 04:16 PM

Donizetti & Bellini though it was one sided, Bellini loathed and feared Donizetti, who never learned of the bad blood and considered him a colleague and a great composer, even wrote a gorgeous Requiem for him after his death.

Pavarotti never had to compete with Domingo, please. Pavarotti was a real tenor not a pushed-up baritone for starters. Pavarotti was also an incredibly popular singer outside of opera and outsells Domingo by millions, even dead. Pavarotti even outsells Callas and Caruso, combined. No rivalry in Pavarotti's case, from anyone.

Dec. 10 2011 02:51 PM
MaryEllen from Stamford, CT

Are these people all still in high school or something?

Dec. 10 2011 11:02 AM
Greg from Philadelphia

How about Christoph Eschenbach and the players of the Philadelphia Orchestra? They were able to drive him out of town with their acid remarks about his conducting style. Now the Orchestra is in bankruptcy. Ah, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune!

Dec. 10 2011 12:44 AM

If I am not wrong the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri is farfetched if not an ultimate literary forgery plotted by Pushkin as a telling "as if" allegory.
There is another fundamental rivalry though which is neither interpersonal nor aesthetic but much most authentic: the large audience knows the names of the three Viennese classics but the general myth is that Mozart is inventor and innovator whereas it was Haydn who is the genuine creator of the new harmonic style applied in a perhaps more attractive way by Mozart. My point is that Haydn is doomed to be forever in Mozart's shadow whereas he was the genuine originator of the new truth in music.

Dec. 09 2011 01:25 PM
Joey Bagadonuts from UWS

Music conservatories are full of rivalries, of course, especially among soloists. It's the old joke: How many sopranos does it take to screw a lightbulb?

Two: One to get up on the chair to screw it in and the other to kick the chair out from under her.


Dec. 09 2011 12:49 PM
Gaulimauli from Florida

I notice that comparisons of current operastars are being studiously avoided. Maybe there aren't any rivalries, everyone has found his/her inviolable niche. Certainly nothing like Cuzzoni vs, Bordoni in Händel's glorious days.

Dec. 09 2011 10:45 AM

"A very charming history indeed is that concerning the "cold war," as it were, between two of the most luminous pianists in the last century: Joseph Hoffman and Sergei Rachmaninov. Both were avid automobile enthusiasts, and were known to quip, each about the other, that while his rival was a better pianist, he was the better car mechanic."

True gentlemen and "Mensch" amongst the talents.

Thank you, Jürgen von Meisterschmidt, for bringing up this heart warming "rivalry."

Dec. 09 2011 10:39 AM
Kreisler from Bay Area, California

"Horowitz stopped right there and would not budge until a technician got the key, unlocked the piano and opened it up for him. Horowitz bent over the keyboard and played one chord, stood up straight and announced, "How can he play anything on that piece of junk?," turned and walked away."

That was a sour chord he played. It must be extreme talent to have played heavenly music from a piece of junk! Bravo, Artur Rubinstein!

Dec. 09 2011 10:22 AM
Jürgen von Meisterschmidt from Berlin-Charlottenburg

A very charming history indeed is that concerning the "cold war," as it were, between two of the most luminous pianists in the last century: Joseph Hoffman and Sergei Rachmaninov. Both were avid automobile enthusiasts, and were known to quip, each about the other, that while his rival was a better pianist, he was the better car mechanic.

Dec. 09 2011 10:17 AM
Bob from Portland, oregon

Peter Shaffer and "Amadeus" notwithstanding, I still find the rivalry between Mozart and Salieri fascinating, largely because of what it tells us about the musical politics in late 18th-century Vienna.

I'd also add the rather complex personal and professional rivalry between Karajan and Leonard Bernstein, which as Richard Osborne points out in his biography of HvK, was marked by "squabbles...petty jealousies [and] outrageous up-stagings."

Dec. 09 2011 10:05 AM
EllenBronx from Manhattan

I prefer not to choose between Tebaldi and Callas. Each created different landscapes of music heaven.

Dec. 09 2011 09:40 AM

Domingo vs Pavarotti! I pefer Domingo's warmer tones, although Pavarotti finally warmed up in his later years.

Dec. 09 2011 03:31 AM
Mustafa Goksel from Brooklyn, NY

Callas' dramatic voice is incomparable. Also, Horowitz (my favorite) vs. Rubinstein should be included in the above list.

Dec. 09 2011 12:40 AM
Michael Meltzer

Rivalries are wonderful when they are at least cordial if not out-and-out friendly, and even better when they are amusing.
The Lang Lang / Yundi Li Deutsche Gramaphon story is none of those, it is ugly. These artists owe their talent to their creator, but their fame and their incomes to the public. If the story is true, the public is not served, and Lang Lang had better be careful not to have the same career ups & downs as everyone else.
There was a story going around Steinway that sometime in the 1970's, Vladimir Horowitz was visiting the Steinway Hall concert basement. Walking around with an entourage, he passed a piano with a padlocked quilted cover and someone pointed out that it was Artur Rubinstein's personal concert grand, in for repair and adjustment.
Horowitz stopped right there and would not budge until a technician got the key, unlocked the piano and opened it up for him. Horowitz bent over the keyboard and played one chord, stood up straight and announced, "How can he play anything on that piece of junk?," turned and walked away.

Dec. 09 2011 12:38 AM
monscherer from BROOKLYN, NY

Prokofiev vs. Shostakovich (vs. Stalin also, no composer he!). They fought musically for Soviet supremacy. Shostakovich lasted 30 years longer, so he won.

Dec. 08 2011 11:12 PM
dick Blumenthal from Rockalnd county

Stravinsky vs. Hindimith
The apocryphal story is that one said of the other, Effects,effects but wheres the music

Dec. 08 2011 07:28 PM
Gary Friedland from Teaneck, NJ

Arthur Rubinstein vs. Vladimir Horowitz,
the exactness of Rubinstein on Chopin vs.
the energy of Horowitz on Rachmaninoff.
I believe Rubinstein was in a class by himself,
when it came to mastery of the piano.

Dec. 08 2011 07:07 PM

I STILL prefer Tebaldi, and I had the fortune to hear them both live. Callas is a magnificent dramatic actress, but her tone is a bit shrill??

Dec. 08 2011 06:20 PM
Robert Elden from Manhattan

Yundi Li surely gets my vote for sure. I find Lang Lang to be overly stagey and completely emotionless in his playing. However, full marks must be awarded him for his awesome technical abilities.

Dec. 08 2011 06:14 PM
Robert Elden from Manhattan, Westside

I would certainly think that the rivalry between Puccini, Leoncavallo and Mascagni qualifies as they were often contentious and at odds with one another.

Dec. 08 2011 05:58 PM
KW from NJ

Boulez and (name someone). John Adams is the first one that comes to mind.

Dec. 08 2011 04:56 PM

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