The Greatest Music Beefs in History

by Brian Barone

Pepin the Short/Charlemagne/Popes v. Gallican Rite: c. 789 AD

The foundational music beef of Western civilization. After Pope Stephen II convinced the Frankish King Pepin the Short to defend the papal stronghold in Rome against the Lombards in 754, a political, military, and spiritual bond was formed between the papacy and the Frankish throne. When Pepin’s son, Charlemagne, took over in 768, he also displayed a penchant for vanquishing Lombards. In 789, Charlemagne issued the Admonitio generalis, which demanded that churches and monasteries in central and northern Europe abandon the prayers and music they’d been using under the “Gallican rite” and replace them with his pal the pope’s favorite music, called “Roman chant.” The eventual hybrid of Gallican and Roman chants would become known as “Gregorian chant.” As a reward, for this and more, on Christmas Day in the year 800, Pope Leo III declared Charlemagne emperor of what we’d later call the Holy Roman Empire.

But it’s hard to forget a tune, even when you want to. This was especially true in a time when the only way to learn or transmit music at all was through memory. So imagine the challenge Charlemagne faced erasing a Gallican chant that churches didn’t feel like changing in the first place. Charlemagne’s biographer, Notker Balbulus (literally, “the stammerer”), reports: “Charlemagne got some experienced chanters from the Pope. Like twelve apostles they were sent from Rome to all provinces north of the Alps. Just as all Greeks and Romans were carping spitefully at the glory of the Franks, these clerics planned to vary their teaching so that neither the unity nor the consonance of the chant would spread in a kingdom and province other than their own. Received with honor, they were sent to the most important cities where each of them taught as badly as he could. But in the course of time Charlemagne unmasked the plot…Pope Leo, informed of this, recalled the chanters and exiled or imprisoned them.”*

A legend began to circulate that God Himself — through a collab between the Holy Spirit in the guise of a dove and a former pope named Gregory — wrote the Gregorian chant and preferred it to all other music. Strict discipline — bullwhips — characterized the lives of the choir boys who studied and performed this music in choirs called scholas. Eventually, the development of a notation system for music helped ensure that nobody would muck around with the pope’s favorite songs. But Charlemagne’s reforms probably never really standardized chanting; some monk has always goofed around with sacred melodies, riffing on old ones and inventing new ones. Music doesn’t like to sit still, even for a king.

Trobar Clus v. Trobar Leu: 12th and 13th Centuries

In this case, the songs of the troubadours and troubatrices, or poet-musicians, of medieval southern France served as both the object and medium of a heated aesthetic debate. In the language of the day, which went by the name Occitan, or langue d’oc, poetry was called trobar, which term gave troubadours their name. Often troubadours and troubatrices were nobles who pursued poetry as a hobby, but some lower-status performers called jongleurs, or minstrels, became troubadours by dint of experience. These artists wrote poems and songs about fin’ amors or the refining and beneficial adoration of an unobtainable beloved. On their saucier cuts, called albas (meaning “sunrise”), troubadours sang of the thrill and danger of getting caught in flagrante delicto as the dawn breaks after a night of love. Because the liaisons described or desired in these songs were often illicit, troubadours and troubatrices relied on a code name, or senhal, to describe the object of their affection.

Another style of troubadour song, the tenso, served as the vehicle for poetry that argued about poetry. Tensos staged a debate between two (real or imagined) troubadours, who might have it out over any number of social, philosophical, or artistic issues. In some cases, the debaters in a tenso were depicted as animals, or even inanimate objects. Often, they’d spar over what kind of poetry is best: obscure, difficult poetry for connoisseurs (trobar clus — “closed” poetry), or clear, accessible poetry for a wider audience (trobar leu — “light” poetry). A favorite argument — in keeping with the meta-ness of all of this — held that trobar leu was the superior approach because its apparent simplicity relied on an art that concealed art, which is necessarily more artful than the art that is known to be art. The clus v. leu quarrel remains unresolved and fiercely debated in Vassar dorm rooms to this day.

Monteverdi v. Artusi: 1600

This disagreement has a backstory which is its own disagreement. In the years between about 1550 and 1570, the Italian scholar Girolamo Mei set out to investigate ancient Greek music (about which still very little is known). Composers of Mei’s day — as well as a leading theorist, Gioseffo Zarlino — liked to claim a classical heritage for the way they wrote music. Mei’s conclusion, that authentic Greek music sounded nothing at all like sixteenth-century music, the so-called ars perfecta, made composers a little tense. On top of that, the ars perfecta musicians were simultaneously under siege from a new approach to vocal music called madrigalism, according to which composers could write any crazy shit they wanted as long as the words of the poem justified it. As one madrigalist wrote: “The notes are the body of music, while the text is the soul and, just as the soul, being nobler than the body, must be followed and imitated by it, so the notes must follow the text and imitate it.” To get a taste, listen to the still wild-sounding music of madrigalist and infamous double murderer Carlo Gesualdo, a composer whose strange music and even stranger life have obsessed more than a few listeners:

Tensions came to a head when Mei befriended Vincenzo Galilei — student of Zarlino and father of Galileo — winning the lutenist and composer over to his way of thinking. Mei and Galilei particularly opposed the ars perfecta practice of polyphony — the intertwining of several simultaneous melodic lines. According to them, such an approach made it impossible to recapture ancient Greek music’s rhetorical power. With so many melodies running around at once, ars perfecta composers were always contradicting themselves. Never mind that polyphony did horrible violence to the structure and clarity of a song’s poem. A crony of Galilei’s, Giulio Caccini, summed up the argument when he called polyphony “that mangler of poetry.”

Galilei broke with Zarlino and started hanging with a crew in Florence (which included Caccini) who began to make practical experiments based on Mei’s scholarship. This bunch of musicians made a splash as part of the entertainment at several weddings of members of the powerful Medici family in the late sixteenth century, especially one in 1589, which featured the debut of a shockingly huge new kind of lute played by the singer Jacopo Peri in a number that featured a ravishing underwater echo effect. In the wake of their success, Peri, Caccini, and other members of the circle proceeded to argue among themselves throughout the next couple decades over who’d actually been the first to invent what’s since been called “the new music.”

It was also at the turn of the seventeenth century that Giovanni Maria Artusi (again, a student of Zarlino) attacked Claudio Monteverdi, a madrigalist who’d eventually adopt the innovations of the Florentines and was thus an ars perfecta-defender’s worst nightmare. He also happened to be a very, very good composer. Cruelly, the ambush came before Monteverdi had even published the madrigals Artusi so despised; Artusi seems to have been one of those people who has trouble with change. Here he hyperventilates over Monteverdi & co.’s musical experiments: “We have reached the point of absurdity, but it is altogether possible that these modern composers will so exert themselves that in time they actually will find a way to turn dissonances into consonances and vice versa.” But the most savage attack was his likening Monteverdi’s music to “a great roar of sound, an absurd confusion, an array of defects.”

Monteverdi fired back in a preface written by his brother and published in a 1607 collection of his music. It accused Artusi of having densely (or willfully) ignored the relationship between music and language in Monteverdi’s work, in which it was “his goal to make the words the mistress of the harmony and not its servant.” He echoes the madrigalist idea that music should imitate its text, and joins with the Florentines in radically declaring words the dominant partner in the coupling of music and poetry. Monteverdi calls the approach the seconda prattica, contrasting it with the older way of writing advocated by Zarlino. The Monteverdi brothers’ response comes down to ridiculing Artusi as a fanboy of a bunch of has-beens. As every hipster knows, that one can sting.

But of course, Monteverdi’s sickest burn would be provided by history itself, which has dubbed him one of the greatest composers of all time. This piece, from the end of his long and varied career, is the most beautiful music I know:

Bach v. Scheibe: 1737

One for the true beef connoisseur, the Bach-Scheibe affair bears several resemblances to the Monteverdi-Artusi spat, most notably that the eventual reputation of a world-historical figure makes the relative nobody who started it look like an utter clown today. Bach had something of a tendency for scrapping with people he didn’t like. Famously, he once went to jail after attempting to duel with a guy he’d called a “nanny-goat bassoon player.” And his disputes with religious leaders, town councils, and deadbeats who owed him money produced letters that are still fun to read. Yet, in the Sheibe showdown, Bach kept mum — or at least that’s the appearance he wanted to cultivate. Like Monteverdi, Bach waged his side of the beef through a surrogate, the rhetorician Johann Abraham Birnbaum.

Birnbaum’s essayistic contributions to the feud were distributed and financed by Bach, so we can be sure that he supported their arguments and probably even helped craft them. The groundwork for the feud was laid in 1729, when Sheibe made an unsuccessful bid to become organist at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig; Bach was on the panel that chose someone else. By 1737, Sheibe was producing a periodical called Der Critische Musicus, in the sixth issue of which he published — only reluctantly, he claimed — a report of the travels and opinions of an “anonymous” and knowledgeable musician. The report told of a “Mr. ______ the most eminent of the Musikanten in ______,” whose flaws (as the correspondent saw them) it outlined in enough detail that any moderately informed reader would have surmised that Bach of Leipzig was its target. As Scheibe would later admit, there was no “anonymous” reporter.

A good deal of the consternation expressed by Bach and Birnbaum following this opening volley centered on the shade thrown by Scheibe’s use of the word “Musikant.” A beautiful and oft-repeated trope in disputes like this: One side uses a word that’s by turns innocent and damning, which goads the other side into obsession with it. We have no exact equivalent in our English, but Bach’s cohort found offense in “Musikant’s” connotation of a mere player-of-notes — a gun-for-hire set of musical fingers — whereas they felt Bach should have been described as a virtuoso in his playing and as a kind of intellectual in his composing. As Birnbaum put it: “The term Musicanten is generally used for those whose principal achievement is a form of mere musical practice…bringing pieces written by others into sound by means of musical instruments. As a matter of fact, not even all the men of this sort, but only the humblest and meanest of them usually bear this name, so there is hardly any difference between Musicanten and beer-fiddlers.” “This is in my opinion equivalent to wishing to pay a special tribute to a thoroughly learned man by calling him the best member of the last class of school boys,” Birnbaum said. “The use of a word that has such an inappropriate meaning, in place of which a far more emphatic one could have been used with little trouble…[indicating] that the author was not really in earnest.”

Scheibe and Birnbaum would go two rounds themselves before others joined the fray, with Scheibe eventually publishing a satirical “letter” supposedly drafted by a thinly-veiled Bach stand-in called “Cornelius.” Instead of playing the mighty organ, as did Bach, Cornelius calls himself “the greatest of all artists on the cittern” — a meager, plucky stringed instrument (think a mandolin or ukelele). The mock letter also takes a shot at Bach’s dependence on Birnbaum: “Though I cannot write against you myself, I will persuade one of my good friends to defend me against you. The learned man who is now writing you this letter according to my indications and ideas will protect me against you, you may be sure.”

Earlier Scheibe had criticized Bach’s music as too polyphonic, too hard, too ornamented, and too dissonant. He called Bach’s pieces “turgid” and in “conflict with Nature,” writing that such complex writing “darken[ed] their beauty by an excess of art.” In response, Birnbaum offered a circular argument defining art as that which “imitate[s] Nature, and, where necessary…aid[s] it,” and therefore claiming that the application of art cannot possibly conflict with nature. Not that Scheibe’s arguments were any more logically sound.

Scheibe would slide into relative obscurity but for his supporting role in Bach biographies; Bach would go on to the greatest musical reputation of all time. The lesson: don’t pick a fight unless you’re sure your opponent won’t become one of the most famous people, ever.

And actually I take back that thing I said before about the most beautiful music I know. This is really it:

Brahms/The Schumanns v. Wagner/Liszt: Middle 19th Century

It was actually more like an all-out turf war, emerging from the power vacuum created by the death of Beethoven. On one side were Clara and Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms. After Robert hailed a twenty-year old Brahms as “a chosen one” in his magazine, the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, he and Clara adopted Brahms as something of a son. Yet, there has long been speculation about a possible romantic attachment between Brahms (a lifelong bachelor) and Clara, who was fourteen years his senior — especially in the wake of Robert’s death in 1856. On the other side were Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner.

Musically speaking, the beef boiled down to a conflict between “absolute music” (that is, instrumental music ostensibly without extra-musical references) and the merger of music with literature that was mockingly called “the music of the future.” Both sides saw themselves as the inheritors of Beethoven’s throne. But while Brahms continued to write in ‘absolute’ forms like the symphony (his first symphony is still jokingly called “Beethoven’s Tenth” for its affinity with that composer’s style), Liszt and Wagner took off in a more progressive direction inspired by the choral outburst of Beethoven’s Ninth, inventing the ‘tone poem’ and seeking to transform mere opera into the “total artwork” that would embrace all branches of the arts. Wagner — in his classic blowhard style — explained why he and Liszt felt it so necessary to wed music to language: music, he said, “expresses altogether, and in full measure, the emotional content of the elemental human language, independently of our word-language, which has become purely an informational tool. That which, accordingly, remains inexpressible to absolute music is the precise identification of the emotion’s or sensation’s cause, through which they themselves attain greater definition; the necessary continuation and extension of the musical language’s range of expression consists, then, in acquiring also the capacity to indicate with recognizable precision the individual, the particular; and this it acquires only by being wedded to the word-language.”

One of Brahms’ known replies came in response to the takeover of the Robert Schumann-founded Neue Zeitschrift für Musik by a “music of the future” partisan named Franz Brendel, who was responsible for re-christening the Liszt/Wagner faction the “New German School” at a speech during a conference convened to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Neue Zeitschrift. In response, Brahms planned to circulate a letter to be signed by a host of eminent German musicians calling-out the Neue Zeitschrift for being in the bag for the progressives. But the letter was intercepted and published by a Berlin newspaper after having gathered only four signatures, a huge embarrassment for Brahms.

This is the rare conflict that ends in victory for all, like the three-way Rolling Stones-Beatles-Beach Boys rivalry of the sixties. Brahms would be remembered as the only symphonist never to write a dud; Clara Schumann and Liszt would go down as two of the greatest pianists to ever live; Robert Schumann remains our finest writer on music and one of the supreme composers; and for some reason crowds still flock to be screamed at in German for five hours wherever a Wagner opera is staged.

*The historical quotes used in this piece can be found in Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, edited by Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, and in The New Bach Reader edited by Chrisoph Wolff.