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Top Five Classical Rivalries

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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.