10 Composer vs. Composer Insults

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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.”

10 Surprising Facts About Malcolm X

Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Minister and civil rights activist Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) was profoundly influential during the middle of the 20th century. From his birth on May 19, 1925 to February 21, 1965, the day he was assassinated at a New York City rally, he rose to the national scene as a leading voice advocating for black self-determinism, self-defense, and pan-Africanism. His fiery rhetoric is often spoken of in tandem with (really, in contrast to) Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent movement, but X was far more complex than his historical image as a firebrand suggests.

1. Malcolm X’s parents were harassed into moving by racists more than once.

Malcolm’s parents, Louise and Earl, were devotees of pan-Africanist and Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) founder Marcus Garvey. A Baptist preacher, Earl was a leader in their local UNIA chapter in Omaha, Nebraska, and Louise acted as secretary, tasked with inter-chapter communication. Their activities caught the ire of Ku Klux Klan members, whose threats sent the family packing for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and then to Lansing, Michigan, by the time Malcolm was a year old. There, it was the white supremacist group Black Legion that regularly harassed the Littles. Their family home burned when Malcolm was 4 (his father blamed the Black Legion), and his father was killed in what was ruled a streetcar accident when Malcolm was 6 years old (his mother also blamed the Black Legion).

2. Malcolm X grew up in foster homes.

When Malcolm was 13, his mother entered Kalamazoo State Hospital following a nervous breakdown, sending Malcolm and his seven siblings to various foster families, boarding houses, and state-run institutions. He entered a detention home in Mason, Michigan, after being expelled for putting a thumbtack on a teacher’s chair. While there, he noted that the white couple who ran it and white politicians who visited treated him kindly, but not like he was a fellow human being.

3. Malcolm X dropped out of school after discouragement from his teacher.

Malcolm was a strong student who aspired to one day become a lawyer, but he dropped out after eighth grade when a teacher told him that his dream job was “no realistic goal for a n*****.” He both diminished and recognized the power of the encounter as an adult, noting that he wouldn’t be accepted as a black man regardless of how smart or talented he was. At the founding rally of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, he’d famously say, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”

4. Malcolm X worked with Redd Foxx at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack.

Before Malcolm became a national civil rights speaker and John Sanford became a nationally beloved comedian, they were known respectively as Detroit Red and Chicago Red because of their red hair. In 1943, they worked as dishwashers at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in Harlem and committed petty crimes together. Sanford, whose stage name was Redd Foxx, went on to become one of the first black performers to play to white audiences in Las Vegas, put out several hit comedy albums, and become an icon, starring in the 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son.

5. Malcolm X converted to the Nation Of Islam while he was in jail.

In 1946, Malcolm’s larcenies caught up with him, and he was sentenced to 10 years in prison (he served seven before earning parole). While incarcerated, his brother Reginald urged him to convert to the Nation of Islam (NOI), and Malcolm soon started studying and then corresponding with its founder Elijah Muhammad, who preached black self-reliance. He visited Muhammad in Chicago after getting out of prison in 1952, and quickly rose through the ranks of the organization as an assistant minister with his impressive oratory and ability to attract new members. The NOI went from 500 members in 1952 to 30,000 in a little over a decade.

6. The X in Malcolm X’s adopted name symbolizes a surname he’d never know.

Like many black Americans, Malcolm’s roots were obscured by the slave trade that stripped him of his true ancestral last name. In 1950, he started signing his name as Malcolm X, viewing the surname “Little” as another tool of oppression. In his autobiography he wrote, “For me, my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name of ‘Little’ which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.”

7. The FBI created a file for Malcolm X after he wrote to President Truman.

While still in prison, Malcolm wrote a letter to President Harry Truman denouncing the Korean War and declaring himself a Communist. The FBI created a file on him for his Communist affiliation but would later surveil him because of his affiliation and ascendancy within NOI. They continued to track him and record his phone conversations until his assassination, listening in on death threats made against him.

8. Malcolm X inspired Muhammad Ali to join Noi.

On February 25, 1964, the boxer known as Cassius Clay bested Sonny Liston to become world heavyweight champion. The next day, he proclaimed at a press conference he’d be henceforth known as Cassius X, and a few months later, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. This was the coming out of a spiritual change that had already taken place, guided by Malcolm after the two met in 1962 and cultivated a friendship. Ali was impressed by Malcolm’s speech at a NOI event and the latter became a mentor figure for the up-and-coming fighter.

9. Malcolm X was once opposed to integration.

As Ali’s star was rising as a sports star and NOI member, Malcolm already had one foot out the door of the organization. But during his time in NOI, Malcolm promoted the concept of separation from white society and opposed the mainstream Civil Rights movement for its emphasis on integration. In a speech to the NAACP at Michigan State University in 1963, Malcolm said, “The white community, though it’s all white, is never called a segregated community. It’s a separate community. In the white community, the white controls the economy, his own economy, his own politics, his own everything. But at the same time while the Negro lives in a separate community, it’s a segregated community. Which means it’s regulated from the outside by outsiders ... Separation is when you have your own. You control your own economy. You control your own politics.”

10. Malcolm X’s Hajj profoundly transformed him.

Malcolm butted heads with NOI leadership multiple times by 1964 and was viewed by NOI members as a threat to Elijah Muhammad’s leadership because of his celebrity. In March, he publicly left the organization to found Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity before converting to Sunni Islam and making Hajj (the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca). A state guest of Saudi Prince Faisal, the experience of praying, living, and eating with fellow Muslims of all skin colors shifted his thinking completely. Going forward, he viewed Islam as a means of overcoming racial disunity.

8 Surprising Facts About Andy Kaufman

Andy Kaufman in 1981.
Andy Kaufman in 1981.
Joan Adlen, Getty Images

For fans of the late comedian Andy Kaufman (1949-1984), the debate over whether Kaufman was more interested in antagonizing audiences or making them laugh still rages. During a career that saw him appear on stage and on television (Taxi), the performer often blurred the lines between his real persona and the characters he inhabited.

For more on Kaufman, keep reading. Thank you very much.

1. Andy Kaufman got a letter from his doctor that kept him from being drafted.

Born in New York City on January 17, 1949, Kaufman was raised in Great Neck, Long Island and displayed an interest in performing from an early age, entertaining children at their birthday parties when Kaufman himself was only 8 years old. After graduating from high school in 1967, Kaufman though he might be drafted for military service but didn’t wind up serving. His doctor wrote a letter explaining that Kaufman seemed to have no basic grasp of reality, let alone the Vietnam conflict. Joining the Army, the doctor wrote, might cause Kaufman to completely lose his mind. The letter, which likely contained a good measure of hyperbole, earned him a permanent 4-F deferment from service. He went on to attend Grahm Junior College in Boston.

2. Andy Kaufman’s stand-up act was very, very bizarre.

Kaufman got his start in the early 1970s performing at comedy clubs in New York and Los Angeles. Unlike most comics of the time, Kaufman didn’t write a conventionally-structured act. Instead, he would take on the role of performance artist, confusing audiences with stunts like reading from The Great Gatsby and threatening to start over if they complained. He would also drag a sleeping bag on stage and climb into it or do his laundry with a portable dryer. These appearances were sufficiently provocative that Kaufman sometimes hired off-duty police officers to break up fights in the crowd or intercept people trying to attack him.

3. Andy Kaufman once opened for Barry Manilow.

Before Kaufman got television exposure, it was easy for bookers to assume he was a polished and conventional performer. As a result, Kaufman got a number of gigs in the early 1970s opening for established musical acts like the Temptations and Barry Manilow. Appearing onstage in 1972 before the Temptations came out, Kaufman wept and then shot himself in the head with a cap gun. Similarly bizarre behavior was also displayed before a Manilow concert, with irate members of the audience having to be calmed down by Manilow himself.

4. Andy Kaufman was once voted off of Saturday Night Live.

Kaufman succeeded in drawing attention to himself on stage, which led to being invited to perform on Saturday Night Live beginning in 1975. During these appearances, Kaufman would take material from his act, including his lip-syncing of the theme to the Mighty Mouse animated series. Such stunts drew a mixed reception from viewers. From 1975 to 1982, Kaufman made a total of 14 appearances on the show. Then, producers decided to offer viewers the chance to “vote” Kaufman off by calling in to cast their ballot. On the November 20, 1982 broadcast, 195,544 callers asked that the show not permit him to come back on. They outnumbered the 169,186 viewers who called in support of him. While the bit was intended to be humorous, Kaufman honored the results and never appeared on Saturday Night Live again.

5. Andy Kaufman once took his entire audience out for milk and cookies.

Kaufman eventually took his show to Carnegie Hall in 1979, where he was greeted by 2800 people who had come to appreciate his eccentric approach to performing. At the show's conclusion, he invited the entire audience to board buses waiting outside the building. Kaufman took them to the New York School of Printing in Manhattan, where he served the nearly 3000 attendees milk and cookies. He later gave them a ride on the Staten Island Ferry.

6. Andy Kaufman thought about franchising Tony Clifton.

One of Kaufman’s great ruses on the public was dressing as the abrasive lounge singer Tony Clifton, complete with prosthetic chin and torso padding, all while insisting Clifton was an entirely different person. Kaufman sometimes enlisted associates, including his brother Michael and his writing partner Bob Zmuda, to put on the make-up. In 2013, Michael told Vice that Kaufman’s plan was to have Clifton become a roving character. “Andy had been talking about franchising Tony Clifton before he died,” Michael Kaufman said. “He was going to have one in every state.”

7. Andy Kaufman insisted on an Andy Kaufman stand-in for Taxi.

When Kaufman agreed to appear on Taxi (1978-1983) as Latka Gravas, a version of the “Foreign Man” character he had been performing on stage, he had a peculiar request: He wanted to be expected on set for only two of the five shooting days for each episode. While Kaufman didn’t seem to want to do it at all, the paycheck allowed him to pursue his more experimental brand of comedy. Producers agreed. In 2018, co-star Carol Kane, who played Kaufman's love interest, told The Hollywood Reporter that the cast “would work with a fake Andy who wore a sign around his neck that said ‘Latka.’”

Kaufman also showed up to shoot an episode as his alter ego Tony Clifton, insisting that he was not Kaufman. Star Judd Hirsch got so angry that he had Clifton thrown off the set.

8. Andy Kaufman broke character for Orson Welles.

While there were certainly times Kaufman spoke from the heart, it was rare to see him break any one of his myriad characters in front of an audience. That happened—fleetingly—when Kaufman appeared on The Merv Griffin Show in 1982 on a night it was being guest-hosted by legendary film director Orson Welles. Sporting a neck brace from his stint in professional wrestling, Kaufman didn’t keep up appearances for long. After Welles told him he was “fascinated” by his characters, talk turned to Kaufman’s “Foreign Man,” his Elvis Presley imitation, and his “third character,” Tony Clifton. “Well, he wasn’t a character,” Kaufman said, correcting himself. “There’s a lot of debate over whether it’s a character or a real guy, and that’s Tony Clifton, but that’s a whole other story.”

“That’s metaphysics,” Welles replied.

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