10 Composer vs. Composer Insults

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Getty Images

Sir Thomas Beecham was a 19th and 20th century English conductor known for his groundbreaking work with orchestras all across the UK. He was also well known for his acid tongue and his uncompromising opinions on all aspects of music, from critics to instruments, from compositions to their composers.

The sound of the harpsichord, for instance, was likened by Beecham to the sound of “two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm.” Beethoven’s 7th Symphony was dismissed as “like a lot of yaks jumping about.” Edward Elgar’s 1st Symphony was the musical equivalent of “the towers of St. Pancras station.” Bach had “too much counterpoint—and what is worse, Protestant counterpoint.” And asked if he had ever conducted anything by the German avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, Beecham supposedly replied, “No. But I once trod in some.”

But that’s not to say that Sir Thomas Beecham was the only musical impresario not afraid to voice their opinion on their contemporaries. From Beethoven to Stravinsky, 10 of the classical music world’s most cutting zingers are listed here.

1. WEBER ON BEETHOVEN

Beecham wasn’t alone in disliking Beethoven’s 7th Symphony—despite it being an instant hit with the audience on its debut in 1813. On opening night, Beethoven conducted the symphony himself, jumping into the air and flinging his arms around dramatically on the rostrum, and gave such an extraordinary performance that he instantly acknowledged it as one of his own greatest works; according to musical legend, the famous Allegretto movement (used to memorable effect in the finale of The King’s Speech) proved so popular the audience demanded it be encored immediately. But according to an 1840 biography of Beethoven by Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s contemporary Carl Maria von Weber was less convinced. “The extravagances of this genius have now reached the ne plus ultra,” he once commented. “Beethoven,” he continued, was clearly now “quite ripe for the madhouse.”

2. BEETHOVEN ON ROSSINI

A painting of composer Ludwig van Beethoven.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Weber might not have been a fan of Beethoven’s 7th, but Schindler claimed that Beethoven was no less restrained in his criticism of other composers. Gioachino Rossini, the Italian composer of The Barber of Seville and William Tell, “would have been a great composer if his teacher had spanked him enough,” he reportedly quipped.

3. BEETHOVEN ON HAYDN

This is an image of composer Joseph Haydn.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Of Josef Haydn, Beethoven simply stated, “I never learned anything from him.” This despite the fact that he was at one point Beethoven’s piano teacher.

4. BERLIOZ ON HANDEL

This is an image of composer Berlioz Petit.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Beethoven was nevertheless a fan of George Frideric Handel, whom he once labeled “the greatest composer that ever lived.” Haydn too was a fan (and reportedly burst into tears of joy after hearing Handel’s "Hallelujah Chorus" for the first time), as was Mozart, who once commented that Handel’s music “strikes like a thunderbolt.” The French composer Hector Berlioz, however, was less impressed. To him, Handel was nothing more than “a tub of pork and beer.”

5. MENDELSSOHN ON BERLIOZ

Composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

If you think Berlioz was being a little harsh on Handel there, leave it to Felix Mendelssohn to redress the balance: In a letter in 1831, he wrote that Berlioz was “a regular freak, without a vestige of talent.”

6. SHOSTAKOVICH ON PUCCINI

Composer Dmitrij Dmitrijevič Šostakovič
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the late 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, the English composer Benjamin Britten became close friends with several of his Russian composers—among them Dmitri Shostakovich. During one of their many meetings in Moscow, the pair talked about the Italian composer of La Bohème and Madame Butterfly, Giacomo Puccini. “His operas are dreadful,” Britten admitted. “No, Ben, you’re wrong,” Shostakovich replied. “He wrote marvelous operas but dreadful music.”

7. TCHAIKOVSKY ON BRAHMS

Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Just like Sir Thomas Beecham, the playwright George Bernard Shaw was known for his uncompromising opinions on practically everything and everyone—including the German composer Johannes Brahms. “There are some sacrifices which should not be demanded twice from any man,” Shaw once commented, “and one of them is listening to Brahms’ Requiem.” The Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was even more scathing, and considerably more blunt. Writing in his diary on October 9, 1886, Tchaikovsky wrote, “I have played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard!”

8. COPLAND ON RACHMANINOFF

Composer Aaron Copland
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

When Soviet Russia began to crack down on artistic creativity in the early- to mid-20th century, a number of Russia’s most famous composers and artists emigrated to the West. In response, a number of Western composers began to forge their own sound, and to reject the Russian influence coming their way—among them, the American composer Aaron Copland. “The prospect of having to sit through one of his extended symphonies or piano concertos,” he once commented, “tends quite frankly to depress me. All those notes ... and to what end?”

9. PROKOFIEV ON STRAVINSKY

Composer Sergei Prokofiev
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As if East vs. West zingers weren’t bad enough, Sergei Prokofiev memorably turned against his fellow Eastern European composer and conductor Igor Stravinsky when he said that his music sounded like “Bach on the wrong notes.”

10. STRAVINSKY ON VIVALDI

Composer Igor Stravinsky
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Stravinsky wasn’t a fan of the Italian Baroque composer of The Four Seasons, Antonio Vivaldi. According to Stravinsky, he was “greatly overrated” and—even worse—“a dull fellow.”

5 Controversial Facts About Melvil Dewey and the Dewey Decimal System

iStock/TerryJ
iStock/TerryJ

Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System, was born on December 10, 1851. Among other things, Dewey was a self-proclaimed reformer, so when working for the Amherst College library in the 1870s, he began to reclassify the facility’s books and how they were organized.

Though the system has gone through plenty of changes over the years, it’s still in wide use all over the world today and forever changed how libraries categorize their books. It has also caused a handful of controversies. In honor of Dewey Decimal Day, we dug into the organizational system—and its creator’s—dark side.

1. Melvil Dewey co-founded the American Library Association, but was forced out because of offensive behavior.

Melvil Dewey was an extremely problematic figure, even in his time. Though he co-founded the American Library Association (ALA), his often-offensive behavior—particularly toward women—didn’t make him a lot of friends.

In Irrepressible Reformer: A Biography of Melvil Dewey, author Wayne A. Wiegand described Dewey’s “persistent inability to control himself around women” as his “old nemesis.” In 1905, Dewey and several fellow ALA members took a cruise to Alaska following a successful ALA conference, with the purpose of discussing the organization’s future. Four women who were part of the trip ended up publicly accusing Dewey of sexual harassment—a rarity for the time. Within a year, Dewey was forced to step down from his involvement with the organization he helped to create.

2. Dewey required applicants to his School of Library Economy to submit photos.


A History of the Adirondacks, by Alfred Lee Donaldson (1921) // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1887, Dewey founded the School of Library Economy at Columbia College, where 90 percent of his students were female. It was long rumored that in addition to basic information like name, age, and educational background, Dewey required that prospective female students also submit their bust sizes. While this rumor was eventually proven to be false, Dewey did ask women to submit photos, often noting that “You cannot polish a pumpkin.”

3. A Howard University librarian reorganized Dewey's original system because of its racial bias.

Dewey’s personal biases spilled over into his creation, too, and it has taken sincere effort and work to right those wrongs. In the 1930s, Howard University librarian Dorothy Porter helped create a new system to undo the racist way Dewey’s system treated black writers. As Smithsonian reported:

All of the libraries that Porter consulted for guidance relied on the Dewey Decimal Classification. “Now in [that] system, they had one number—326—that meant slavery, and they had one other number—325, as I recall it—that meant colonization,” she explained in her oral history. In many “white libraries,” she continued, “every book, whether it was a book of poems by James Weldon Johnson, who everyone knew was a black poet, went under 325. And that was stupid to me.”

In addition to charges of racism, the DDS has also been accused of being homophobic. Early editions of the system classified books on or regarding LGBT issues under Abnormal Psychology, Perversion, Derangement, as a Social Problem, or even as Medical Disorders.

4. Its 'religion' section is skewed heavily toward Christianity.

The DDS section on religion starts at 200, and no other religion besides Christianity is covered until 290. Given that there are more than 4000 religions in the world, saving a mere 10 numbers for their classification doesn’t leave a lot of room for thorough coverage or exploration. Though some changes have been made as new editions of the system have been introduced, the process of restructuring the entire 200s is a project that has yet to be undertaken.

5. Critics of the system would prefer libraries take the Barnes & Noble approach.

The Dewey Decimal System is the most used library classification system, with the Chicago Tribune estimating that more than 200,000 libraries in 135 countries use it. But it’s far from a perfect system. As such, many libraries are experimenting with other organizational techniques, and many are dropping the DDS altogether.

The main complaint that public libraries have is that the Dewey Decimal System does not make reading exciting, and that there are other ways of categorizing and organizing books that are more like that of general bookstores. By doing away with the numbers (which are hard to remember for general library patrons), some libraries are classifying books simply by category and organizing by author—a system they've begun referring to as "Dewey-lite."

6 Fast Facts About Nelly Sachs

Central Press/Getty Images
Central Press/Getty Images

Today, on the 127th anniversary of her birth, a Google Doodle has been created in memory of writer Nelly Sachs, who died of colon cancer in 1970 at the age of 78. The German-Swedish poet and playwright wrote movingly about the horrors of the Holocaust, which she narrowly escaped by fleeing her home and starting a new life in a foreign land. Here are six things to know about Sachs.

1. She was born in Germany.

Sachs was born in Berlin on December 10, 1891. As the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer, she grew up in the city's affluent Tiergarten section. She studied dance and literature as a child, and also started writing romantic poems at age 17.

2. She almost ended up in a concentration camp.

Sachs's father died in 1930, but she and her mother Margarete stayed in Berlin. In 1940, the Gestapo interrogated the two women and tore apart their apartment. They were told they had a week to report to a concentration camp, so they decided to flee the country. Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf, with whom Nelly had corresponded for years, saved their lives by convincing the Swedish royal family to help the two women escape to Sweden.

3. She worked as a translator.

Once Nelly and her mother reached Stockholm, Sachs began learning Swedish and ultimately took up work as a translator. She translated poetry from Swedish to German and vice versa.

4. She was nearly 60 when she published her first book of poetry.

Sachs’s first volume of poetry, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Habitations of Death), was published in 1947. In this anthology as well as later poems, she used religious imagery to evoke the suffering of her time and the Jewish people.

5. She won the German Book Trade's Peace Prize.

In 1965, Sachs won the Peace Prize from the German Book Trade. She shared a message of forgiveness when she accepted the award from her compatriots. “In spite of all the horrors of the past, I believe in you,” she said.

6. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature on her 75th birthday.

Sachs and Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966. According to The Nobel Prize’s website, Sachs was recognized "for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel's destiny with touching strength.”

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