Five Horrible Critical Assaults of Famous Classical Composers
Critics have played an important part when it comes to supporting the arts. A lot of times the critics get it right in their analysis, but there are the occasions when they (arguably) don't. It seems ridiculous when a critic rips into a composer like Beethoven and calls his music, "stupid and hopelessly vulgar."
Nevertheless there were a lot of contemporaries of Beethoven who did not understand or like his music. These reviews are not only negative, but they also showcase the following ideas:
- The socially acceptable attitudes of that time period.
- The contemporary misunderstanding of now recognized masterpieces.
- Society's unwillingness to accept something unfamiliar.
Below are five horrible criticisms of composers by their contemporaries. Readers be warned, these reviews are not only negative, but they are outright mean and a few in particular are offensive.
Bad Review of Bartok's Music
Bela Bartok was one of the greatest composers in the 20th century. He is also famous for being one of the pioneers of ethnomusicology, or the study of various different cultural approaches to creating music. Bartok would incorporate a lot of thematic material from the folk songs of other cultures into his composition style and mix them with 20th Century classical music techniques.
A lot of Bartok's contemporaries had a difficult time understanding his style of music composition. A review in The Observer in London dated May, 13th 1923 by Percy A. Scholes details how contemporaries may have misunderstood Bartok's music, particularly his piano compositions.
"I suffered more than upon any occasion in my life apart from an incident or two connected with 'painless dentistry.' To begin with, there was Mr. Bartok's piano touch. But 'touch,' with its implication of light-fingered ease, is a misnomer, unless it be qualified in some such way as that of Ethel Smyth in discussing her dear old teacher Herzogenberg - 'He had a touch like a paving-stone.' I do not believe Mr. Bartok would resent this simile......
If Bartok's piano compositions should ever become popular in this country, there will have to be established a special Anti-Matthay School to train performers for them, and I believe that it will be found that piano manufacturers will refuse to hire out pianos for the recitals of its alumni, insisting that these shall always be bought outright, and the remains destroyed on conclusion..."
Ludwig van Beethoven
Bad Review of Beethoven's Music
The second review comes from the Harmonicon that was published in London in August of 1823. Here the article reviews the final piano sonata Beethoven ever wrote. In this savage review the Harmonicon blames what they deem is a musical failure on Beethoven's inability to hear.
It is true that Beethoven had lost his hearing by the time he had written this sonata, but today Beethoven's final piano sonata is recognized for being very far ahead of its time. This is particularly true of the second movement which features a couple of variations towards the end that sound like a ragtime piece. Ragtime was a style of music that wouldn't be developed until nearly 80 years later.
"Beethoven is not only still numbered amongst the living, but is at a period of life where the mind, if in corpore sano, is in its fullest vigor, for he has not yet completed his fifty-second year. Unfortunately, however, he is suffering under a privation that to a musician is intolerable - he is almost totally bereft of the sense of hearing; insomuch that it is said he cannot render the tones of his pianoforte audible to himself. The Sonata, op. 111 consists of two movements. The first betrays a violent effort to produce something in the shape of a novelty. In it are visible some of those dissonances the harshness of which may have escaped the observation of the composer...."
Bad Review of Mahler's Music
Gustav Mahler is considered one of the last great symphonists of the Romantic tradition. Known primarily for his large scale and epic symphonies, Mahler's music didn't begin to achieve a significant amount of popularity until after his death.
During his life Mahler was primarily known for being a conductor, and he made his living by climbing the ranks of the various conducting positions then offered by the Germans and the Austrians. Mahler was Jewish and in the below review written by Rodolf Louis, for Die Deutsche Musi der Gegenwart in 1909 the author attributes his hatred for Mahler because he was Jewish.
This article is the perfect historical preamble to how prevailing attitudes of hatred lead to horrible things. The writer of this article's Anti-Semetic rant is a clear foreshadowing to the horrible policies that would be set in motion by the Germans and Austrians during World War II. These policies would be fueled by the ignorant attitudes that were similar to the writer of this article.
"If Mahler's music would speak Yiddish, it would be perhaps unintelligible to me. But it is repulsive to me because it acts Jewish. This is to say that it speaks musical German, but with an accent, with an inflection, and above all, with the gestures of an eastern, all too eastern Jew. So, even to those whom it does not offend directly, it can not possibly communicate anything. One does not have to be repelled by Mahler's artistic personality in order to realize the complete emptiness and vacuity of an art in which the spasm of an impotent mock-Titanism reduces itself to a frank gratification of common seamstress-like sentimentality."
Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Bad Review of Tchaikovsky's Music
Tchaikovsky's 6th Symphony was his final completed work. Nine days after its 1893 premiere Tchaikovsky died. This symphony is known for its depressing ending, the controversy of its implied program, and it 's reputation as arguably the greatest musical work by the composer.
This review of Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony was written by W.F. Apthorp from the Boston Evening Transcript on October 31st 1898. In this review, at his best, Apthorp compares the symphony to Zola's Claude's Confession, a story about a man who dooms himself by sticking with a prostitute he has fallen in love with and is trying to save. At his worst, Apthorp implicitly compares the quality of this symphony to Tchaikovsky's rotting corpse.
"The Pathetique Symphony threads all the foul ditches and sewers of human despair; it is unclean as music well can be. One might call the Zola's Confession de Claude set to music! That unspeakable second theme may tell of what Heine called 'Die verschwundene, susse, blode Jugendeselei': the impotent senile remembrance of calf love. But of what a calf love! That of Hogarth's lazy apprentice. Indisputably there is power in it: who but Tchaikovsky could have made the vulgar, obscene phrase powerful? The second movement, with its strabismal rhythm, is harldy less ignoble; the third, sheer billingsgate. In the finale, bleary-eyed paresis meets us face to face; and that solemn closing epitaph of the trombones might begin with: 'Here continues to rot...'"
Bad Review of Wagner's Music
The final terrible review comes from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche from Der Fall Wagner written in 1888. Nietzsche was famous for his famous statement 'God is Dead,' as well as his philosophical influence on existentialism. He also wrote about other topics centered around culture, and, specifically in this case classical music.
In the below statement Nietzsche compares Wagner's music to a disease, going into great detail to back up his metaphor. Nietzsche's philosophical wit comes in full force, while slamming one of classical music's most influential composers.
"Is Wagner a human being at all? Is he not rather a disease? He contaminates everything he touches - he has made music sick. I postulate this viewpoint: Wagner's art is diseased. The problems which he brings to the stage - all of them, problems of hysterics - the convulsiveness of his emotions, his overwrought sensibility, his taste that always demands sharper spices, his instability, and, not the least, the choice of his heroes and heroines, considered as psychological types (a clinical exhibit), all this presents a picture of disease that leaves no doubt. Wagner est une nevrose...
Our physicians and physiologists have in Wagner the most interesting, or at least the most complete case. And just because there is nothing more modern than this collective illness, this sluggishness and oversensitivity of the nervous machinery, Wagner is a modern artist par excellence, the Cagliostro of modernity. In his art, he mixes in the most tempting manner all that the world today needs most, the three great stimulants of the exhausted, the brutal, the artificial, and the innocent (idiotic). Wagner is a great corrupter of music. He has discovered in it a means to charm tired nerves - he has thereby made music sick."
Source for All Five Excerpts:
Lexicon of Musical Invective by Nicolas Slonimsky