5 Classical Music Rivalries That Left Bad Blood

Monday, November 21, 2016 - 12:00 AM

Brahms vs. Wagner was one of classical music's bad blood rivalries. Brahms vs. Wagner was one of classical music's bad blood rivalries. (Photo illustration by Mike Rinzel)

Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie. Oasis and Blur. Biggie and 2Pac. Music rivalries have a long history and classical music has seen its share of bad blood. Even though the music makes you feel great, there were definitely some composers you wouldn’t want to cross. Here are five juicy chunks of musical beef that the classical world has cooked up over the years.

Brahms vs. Wagner

Mid-19th century Germany saw one of classical music’s most notable rifts: the War of the Romantics. Progressive composers favored program music that told some kind of story. Traditionalists believed that music shouldn’t have to be “about” anything. The stylistic differences are typified in the music of progressive Wagner and conservative Brahms. Their relationship started as an amiable one, but Wagner grew to dislike Brahms's guts — going so far as to demand that Brahms return a gifted manuscript of Tannhauser.

Clara Schumann vs. Liszt

War of the Romantics traditionalist Clara Schumann took a particular delight in ripping into Liszt. She and her husband, Robert, were actually friendly with Liszt in his earlier career, but when Lisztomania took off she felt that he became a way too full of himself. Once, she was invited to perform at a Beethoven festival, but canceled as soon as she found out Liszt was slated to perform alongside her. And when she found out that Robert had once dedicated music to the adored pianist, she went out of her way to strike any mention of his name in the dedication.

Tchaikovsky vs. The Five

Romantic favorite Tchaikovsky found himself musically opposed by a group of Russian composers called "The Five:" Mily Balakirev, Modest Mussorgsky, César Cui, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Borodin. The group envisioned a new Russian art music that was separate from Western European traditions. Conservatory-trained Tchaikovsky felt otherwise, and had no problem dissing his contemporaries. He believed Borodin was "unable to compose a single line without somebody’s help,” and that Mussorgsky “botches any old how, blindly trusting in the infallibility of his genius.” Ouch.

Saint Saens vs. Debussy

Debussy’s impressionism did not sit well with the traditional leanings of fellow French composer Camille Saint-Saëns. Debussy’s Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune may have enchanted listeners, but Saint-Saëns didn’t fall under its spell. Instead, he dismissed it as lacking "style, logic and common sense." When Debussy was up for election to the Institut de France, Saint-Saëns did everything he could to block him, calling his musical aesthetic an “atrocity.” Debussy didn’t mince words, either, saying of his hater, "I have a horror of sentimentality and cannot forget that its name is Saint- Saëns."

Prokofiev vs Stravinsky

These two recognized talent, and expressed appreciation when they saw fit — Stravinsky, for example, was particularly fond of Prokofiev’s ballet Chout. But things often got ugly. During Paris auditions for Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges, Stravinsky walked out after the first act and insulted the composer’s operatic talent. Prokofiev didn’t take too kindly to this, and the two almost found themselves in an all-out fistfight. Though they made amends years alter, their relationship was never the same.

This by no means is a complete list. Bad blood flows throughout musical history. What other musical rivalries, be they classical or not, fascinate you? Share them in the comments section below.


More in:

Comments [7]

Jeff Kondritzer from Chicago

Please have a proof reader handy. Some embarrassing mistakes: "though they made amends years alter"?
But thanks for the info, always interesting.

Nov. 23 2016 03:31 PM

In the play "Amadeus" the old Salieri would go apoplectic at the mention of Rossini. He couldn't just say the name. He had to spit it out! Of course by that time in Salieri's life he was a forgotten old man, so one could hardly call it a rivalry.

Nov. 23 2016 01:32 PM
Fred Day from Orlando, Florida

Puccini vs. Leoncavallo: Both composed an opera La Boheme. Leoncavallo announced his intention first; Puccini quickly followed suit. Puccini's work debuted in 1896 and was an instant success. Leoncavallo's work debuted in 1897, was a mild success, and soon faded from view, engulfed by Puccini's work. The 2 men became permanent enemies. Wasn't there also a rivalry between Verdi & Wagner?? I think so. Ciao.

Nov. 22 2016 06:37 PM
Ralph Gifford from New Jersey

I very much suspect that Marilyn Crosbie has hit the nail on the head. Additionally, considering how huge their talents were, their egos and therefore their jealousies were probably also huge.

Nov. 22 2016 02:07 PM
David from Brooklyn

How about the Querelle de Bouffons, the mother of all music schisms, due to its fundamental problem that is repeated over and over throughout the nineteenth century and beyond? It reappears as Berlioz v Rossini, Schumann v Philistinism, Brahms v Wagner (which, sir, you mischaracterize; it was more ideological than personal, the latter element rising only because both men were egomaniacs,) Busoni v Pfitzner, and even Zemlinsky v Mahler (though, inn this latter case out was more about Alma; but three were ideological elements to their rivalry that hearkened back to the Querelle). It featured the polemics of such historic giants as Rousseau, Voltaire, Grimm, Diderot, etc.
Essentially, the problem is: is music here to entertain us, a frivolous pastime; or is music a sacred manifestation of all that is great in humanity? (There are other important issues addressed, especially by Gluck in his reforms of opera; but they tend back to that essential question.) The latter position of music's superhumanity, for instance, would suggest that music is inherently abstract, no matter how much a Wagner would love to impose extra-musical phenomena to it.

I also want to comment on "Traditionalists believed that music shouldn’t have to be “about” anything." Read Hanslick, the philosopher behind the Traditionalist faction, and you'd find that music CAN'T be about anything. Should? Would? It CAN'T!

Nov. 21 2016 11:31 PM

"Wagner grew to dislike Brahms's guts"?

Dislike his guts? Now where on Earth does that come from?

Nov. 21 2016 04:23 AM
Marilyn Crosbie from British Columbia, Canada

This seems a shame to me when they all created such glorious music. Stravinsky is the only composer mentioned here that I don't particularly care for. Modest Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, I find particularly delightful. I suspect that competition and perhaps even jealousy was involved. Human nature doesn't change.

Nov. 21 2016 02:59 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About WQXR Blog

Read WQXR's coverage of classical music news, trends, commentary and more here at the WQXR Blog.