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The Forgotten Rivals of Great Composers

“Let us take care of the old musician, because he has the courage to live up to his ideals.”
With these words Balzac ends his study of the musical genius, “Gambara.” Drawn as a poverty-stricken, insane old man, he was not considered compatible with the ideas of that generation. Balzac has enacted for us the struggles and musical ideals of a Wagner, although Balzac lived at a time before Wagner’s genius was acknowledged—for was not Gambara writing operas in trilogy, and was he not, like our modern Richard Strauss, striving “to express ideas in music?”
With prophetic insight, Balzac sees the future growth of music, and by his insistence upon intellectual development strikes at the heart and essense of great accomplishment in the art of sound. He states, “To be a great musician, one must indeed be very learned.” The great French novelist also indicates his high estimate of the strength of character, the industry and the courage which the genius must possess to enable him to cling to his ideals.
Musical history seems to substantiate Balzac’s analysis of the musical genius. The musical genius is rare, and those whose genius is so great that it wins for them a foremost position in their day have been subjected to the keenest rivalry by their contemporaries. It often happens that the rival of some musician now ranked with the great masters has in his day been regarded with far greater popular esteem than the more worthy musician.
Without the broad, intellectual life of Handel, Bach, Gluck, Beethoven and Wagner, without their aggressive temperaments, without their “infinite capacity for taking pains,” they would not have scaled the heights of Parnassus, nor would they to-day be known as the Titans of musical art; neither would they have been the victims of fierce and bitter rivalries. That they were victims of numerous less gifted and less intellectual rivals is well known. Only the strong can stand rivalry of this kind. Handel and Beethoven were particularly aggressive. Beethoven even went so far as to bully his patrons right and left. The spectacle of some noble and wealthy personage struggling to keep a much irritated and somewhat irascible musician in good temper must have been amusing. Both Wagner and Beethoven were so tempestuous in asserting their demands for the free expression of their ideas that they made many enemies—enemies who were only too willing to rally to the support of any rival, no matter how insignificant the rival’s claims to greatness might be.
All the immortals of music had to bear as calmly as they could the irritating spectacle of men of mediocre abilities and superficial attainments winning applause and gaining places of distinction and emolument, because they were content to please the fleeting fancy of the public.
The master, on the other hand,is invariably filled with high aims for the elevation and development of art. His very aims often doom him to years of neglect, scorn and ridicule before he can gain the sympathy, the appreciation and the reward which the public only too reluctantly bestows upon genius.
Handel, at whose grave Beethoven said he would kneel with uncovered head, was the victim of one of the longest and bitterest wars in musical history. Besides the serious rivalry with the composer Buononcini, there were others of less intensity to disturb the “even tenor of his way.” But Handel, the “composer of heavenly strains,” was not the languishing, drooping-lily  type of composer; he was a man of huge strength and possessed a militant temperament. Fast and furious were the blows that shot from his athletic shoulder upon any man who dared oppose his artistic ideas.
Neither would he put up with the airs of capricious prima donnas. He soon rid his stage of that despair of managers, that obstacle of peace in the operatic household. When Signora Cuzzoni refused to sing an aria he had written for her, he took her securely round the waist, and rushed to the window to throw her out! Fortunately she consented, just in time to save her life.
When Handel was an operatic conductor, his place during the performance was at the keyboard of the harpsichord. Upon one occasion Mattheson, a rival composer, had one of his operas, entitled Cleopatra, produced under the direction of Handel. In the opera Mattheson sang the tenor role of Antonius. Antonius, alas! was killed in the first act, and the composer, anxious to keep in the “limelight,” envied Handel’s position, and had the hardihood to think that he could usurp the director’s place at the harpsichord. This was too much for the testy Handel. Bang! A box on the ear! Cuffs and blows, the opera suspended—and another tragedy enacted with crossed swords on the square outside the opera house, appropriately named the “Goose Market.” Handel’s precious heart, that Mattheson so vainly tried to pierce, was spared because of the broad brass buttons that Handel wore on his coat, which caught and broke the treacherous weapon of his rival. A few nights after this stormy event a reconciliation was effected, and Mattheson and Handel dined serenely, on excellent terms of friendship.
johann-mattheson.jpgJOHANN MATTHESON.
Although the name of Mattheson is rarely mentioned in this day, except in connection with biographies of Handel, his life was a most interesting and momentous one. He was born in 1681, in Hamburg. His father, who was a clerk of excise, carefully cultivated the child’s very evident talent. At the age of nine he could
sing, play the organ and the harpsichord, and also made some Johann Mattheson. attempts at composition. He was finely educated in the classics, in law and in political science. More than this, he could dance, fence and converse in the manner of the highly cultivated gentleman of his times. Naturally, he became very popular, and Handel was so little recognized that it became Mattheson’s distinction to introduce Handel into the musical and social circles of Hamburg. Their friendship soon developed into rivalry, but after the famous duel which took place in that city in 1703 Mattheson’s admiration for the genius of Handel became so great that he became a fast and good friend, although Handel was not always willing to reciprocate his friendship.
Mattheson, made a resolve early in life to publish one new work each year. When he died, at eighty- three, he had published eighty-eight works, practically all of which are now forgotten. He did much, however, to advance the style and effect of church music in his time. Had it not been for the peak-like genius of both Bach and Handel, he might not now be so completely eclipsed. As a critic and as a writer of philosophical treatises he rendered a much more valuable service to posterity than he did through his musical compositions.
Buononcini was Handel’s evil genius when the latter had come as a youth to play the harpsichord at the court of the Elector of Brandenburg.
Jealous of the sensation Handel had produced, Buononcini tried to discredit him by asking him to play, before a large audience, a cantata that had been especially composed, full of what Buononcini thought would be unsurmountable difficulties. Handel acquitted himself with taste and skill, and so frustrated the base designs of the jealous Italian.
The most significant years in Handel’s career were spent in England. The royal opera, known as the Royal Academy of Music, which was under the patronage of the king, fell under the direction of Handel in 1720. Handel’s success attracted many rivals to the Royal Academy operatic productions. Chief among these were Buononcini and Ariosti. The conflict between the contending parties became very severe. The directors of the opera, hoping to reconcile the factions, ordered the composition of an opera, entitled “Muzio Scevola,” the first act to be written by Ariosti, the second by Buononcini and the third by Handel. Handel’s act was declared to be the best and with this declaration came a resumption of the warfare. Handel was blunt, and spoke his mind freely to the nobles who patronized the opera. This brought him into great disfavor and naturally these influential personages went immediately to the support of Buononcini.
Buononcini’s jealousy developed into an insidious and life-long cabal. Handel was soon forced out of the Opera House through the influence of the powerful friends of Buononcini, with whom the Italian had spared no pains to ingratiate himself in order to carry out his designs.
Handel then rented another theatre and brought over singers from Italy. This was no sooner done than Buononcini offered them larger salaries, thus robbing his rival of the best artists. Through Buononcini’s influence with the Duchess of Marlborough another opera house was built. Porpora, composer and master of the art of bel canto, was given its musical direction, the greatest singers in Italy, including Farinelli, were brought over. Nothing was left undone to encompass Handel’s ruin; the press was bought up, he was caricatured in a series of drawings, called “The Charming Brute.”
Handel, on his side, had as a champion, Doctor Arbuthnot, who satirized the opposition in his “Harmony in an Uproar.”
The lines, so often attributed to Swift, were written at this time by John Byrom, the inventor of shorthand:
“Some say compar’d to Buononcini, That Mynheer Handel’s but a ninny ; Others aver that he to Handel Is scarcely fit to hold a candle. Strange this difference should be ‘Twixt tweedledum and tweedledee.”
The cabal was brought to an end with the disgrace of Buononcini, who had appropriated the madrigal of another composer as his own. He was obliged to leave the country to return no more, The long fight had impoverished both composers, and though Handel was left in possession of the field, he was obliged to close his house in a fortnight, because of the rapacity of his creditors, and obliged to accept a benefit given by his friends in order to save himself from the debtor’s prison.
Giovanni Battista Buononcini, or as it is sometimes spelled, Bononcini, was born at Modena, Italy, in 1672, and was, therefore, thirteen years older than his famous rival Handel. His father and his brother were both musicians, but neither was as noted as Giovanni. After a short career as a church musician in Italy, where he succeeded his father as conductor at the church of San Giovanni in Monete, Buononcini went to Vienna and he rose to great favor at court. From 1700 to 1711 he was court composer at Vienna. He went to London in 1720 and his polished manners immediately won him many friends and admirers in England. In 1731 the famous plagiarism was discovered, and a war of words and letters again arose. It is by no means certain at this date that he was really guilty of stealing the music of another, but Buononcini refused to discuss the matter in any way, and won the bad will of the public by his silence. Leaving England in comparative disgrace, he went to the continent and for a time was engaged in the orchestra of Louis XV of France. Later he conducted at the opera in Venice. Little or nothing is known of his last days and the oblivion into which he sank was as complete as it was ignominious.
niccola-piccini.jpgTHE FAMOUS GLUCK—PICCINI WAR.
The two greatest rivalries that musical history records have been in the field of opera—that between Handel and Buononcini, and that between Gluck and Piccini. Gluck by his efforts to reform Italian opera and remedy its defects of insincerity of expression had aroused to revolt the devotees of decadent Italian opera. They were bored by Gluck’s depressing Greek themes, by his lack of light melody, and by the scarcity of his ballets.
Gluck’s opponents demanded above all things plenty of tinkling melodies and a wealth of ballets. It made little difference how inconsistent was the relation of the melody with the emotional demands of the text. A murder might be jauntily accompanied with a tune as inspiriting as a jig, and music suited for a dirge might be galvanized into a wedding march. “Melody, Melody, Melody,” was the battle cry of the Piccinists.
For a long time, people of real musical taste had deplored the increasing lack of sincerity in opera, but not until Gluck’s advent had a man of the necessary ability and stamina appeared to effect the long-hoped for reforms. He was supported in his efforts by the patronage of a princess, the prospective Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. On the other hand, Madame du Barry reigned supreme as the favorite of Louis XV. Being an Italian, she had no love for Gluck’s music, and she was jealous of the musical influence of the princess and of hearing Gluck’s praises, particularly after the sensation produced by his “Alceste.” She decided that she would have her own composer, and sent to Italy for Piccini. She found plenty of adherents to rally around her in her intrigue to have the directors of Grand Opera House give Piccini the writing of an opera for which Gluck had already been engaged. This was the signal for a furious outbreak on the part of the latter’s supporters, in which all Paris took sides. “Are you a Piccinist or a Gluckist?” was the question that must be asked and answered before peace could be assured between friends or acquaintances. Politics and everything else were forgotten in the excitement. The press took sides and satires were written in which each side was unmercifully attacked.
Gluck was in Germany when the feud broke out and the Piccinists said that he had gotten out of the way purposely, and that his inspiration had given out and he had no melody left in him. To which one of Gluck’s warmest admirers, the Abbé Arnaud, replied: “The chevalier is coming back with an ‘Orlando’ and an ‘Armida.’ The Piccinist retorted: “Piccini is also at work upon an ‘Orlando.’” “So much the better,” answered the Abbé, “then we shall have an ‘Orlando’ and an ‘Orlandino.’” Gluck, however, burned his score of “Orlando” when he learned that Piccini had chosen the same text, finished the “Armida” and produced it with success, but a more brilliant and enthusiastic reception was given to Piccini’s “Orlando.” The Gluckists now knew no rest until their composer should eclipse his rival and so induced Marie Antoinette to give him the commission to write another opera. Meanwhile, the management of the Opera House had been changed and the new director ordered the two composers to write an opera upon the same theme, “Iphegenia in Tauris.” The Piccinists demanded that their opera be rehearsed and produced first. The director gave his promise, but what was Piccini’s surprise upon going to the Opera House some weeks later to find Gluck’s opera in rehearsal. The director’s only explanation was that he had received a command, that he could not disobey, to rehearse Gluck’s opera first. Its beautiful music made a profound and marvelous impression. In it Gluck’s genius had reached its height. The furore it created caused Piccini to decide not to bring his out, but the director declared that it must appear. On the night of its performance Piccini’s nervousness and discomfort knew no bounds, especially when he saw his famous and costly prima donna, whom he had engaged for the classic title role, come out and make faces at the musicians, and at the men in the pit. She flopped about and reeled through her part until the climax was reached and the house set in a roar by a witty individual crying out: “This is not ‘Iphegenia in Tauris.’ This is ‘Iphegenia in Champagne.’” whereupon Mademoiselle Laguerre, so fitly named, was marched off to prison, only to return in two days, fully recovered in voice, to sing divinely in the opera in the fiasco of which she had played so prominent a part.
Despite Gluck’s devotion to the elevation of opera, he yielded somewhat to the taste of the day in its desire for ballets.
In his service he had Vestris, the most famous ballet dancer of his day, who remarked that there were only three great men in Europe—Frederick II., Voltaire and himself. His inconsistencies and his desire for display were a source of great annoyance to Gluck. Full as the opera “Iphegenia in Aules” (an opera previous to “Iphegenia in Tauris”) was of ballets, Vestris wanted another to introduce his son. “You refuse me, the God of the dance,” said Vestris. “If you are the God of the dance,” said Gluck “dance in heaven and not in my opera.” Again, Vestris complained that there was no chaconne at the end of the opera. “When did the Greeks ever dance a chaconne?” said Gluck. “Did they not?” said Vestris. “Then so much the worse for them.”
After Gluck’s triumph the war went on just the same and ended only with his death and Piccini’s retirement.
Piccini, like Buononcini, was the son of a musician. As in the case of Handel and others, his father was opposed to his son becoming a musician. Through the intervention of a kindly Bishop, who recognized the boy’s talent, he was placed under the instruction of the famous Leo, and his renowned successor Durant at the Conservatory of San Onofrio. He commenced producing his operas in 1855 and from the start he met t with great favor in Italy. One of his operas, “La Cecchina,” met with great success in Rome. Later one of Piccini’s pupils, Anfossi, produced works of even more superficial order than those of Piccini. Immediately the unintelligent public declared in favor of Anfossi, and Piccini was so dismayed at this set-back that he returned to Naples much broken in health.
When he recovered he commenced producing other works which met with success. The offer of a salary of 6000 francs (about $1200) and traveling expenses induced him to go to France, and precipitated the Gluck-Piccini war. After Gluck’s death Piccini generously offered to found an annual concert in memory of his victorious rival. In 1789, the year of the outbreak of the revolution in France, Piccini lost his pension and went to Naples. Here he was pensioned by the king, but owing to a political difficulty arising from the marriage of his daughter to a revolutionist, Piccini was again confronted with the forced failure of one of his works which was hooted by an antagonistic public. In France Piccini had become security for a friend. The friend became a bankrupt, and all Piccini’s savings were lost. He sank into comparative poverty and was obliged to compose music for Psalms for use in a local church. When peace was declared he planned to return to Paris (1798). At the Conservatoire the sum of 5000 francs was awarded to him together with a small pension. This, however, was not paid in the same spirit in which it was proffered, and he was again reduced to destitution. Napoleon Bonaparte took a passing interest in his work, and paid him twenty-five Louis for a military march. Piccini died May 7, 1800. His works are practically unknown now, although he wrote Eighty- five operas.
* ( This entertaining and instructive article will be concluded in THE ETUDE for October.)

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