Composers: quotations about other composers

composers quotationsAs a lover of classical music, you enjoy the music of many composers, but dislike others.

Composers are no different, except that they are required to study other composers’ music carefully whether they like it or not, both their contemporaries and generations of earlier composers.

Perhaps you have never heard of Brian Ferneyhough. Living composers are little known to today’s public, but he made the observation more eloquently than I can:

“Composers dialogue – and obsessively, bitterly argue – with other composers, often over the span of several centuries.”

The following quotations show a wide range of praise and disparagement. They do not show agreement. You will be surprised at how vehemently some composers despise music that other composers (and probably you) love. Personal friendships have not always carried over to appreciation of the friend’s music.

Quotations about Handel

Handel is one of the rare late Baroque composers who didn’t need to be rediscovered. His popularity never died—which is not to say that he has remained universally popular.

Handel understands effect better than any of us — when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt.
– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

He [Handel] is the greatest composer that ever lived. I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.
– Ludwig van Beethoven

A tub of pork and beer.
– Hector Berlioz

Handel is only fourth rate. He is not even interesting. — Peter Tchaikovsky

Mendelssohn and Berlioz

It is difficult for me to separate Mendelssohn and Berlioz. They were good friends, and wrote about each other, but neither appears to have understood the other’s music.

Mendelssohn I consider the first musician of the day; I doff my hat to him as my superior. He plays with everything, especially with the grouping of the instruments in the orchestra, but with such ease, delicacy and art, with such mastery throughout. – Robert Schumann

Mendelssohn is one of those pure souls such as are very rarely found; he believes with conviction in his Lutheran religion, and I would sometimes shock him deeply by making fun of the Bible. I owe to him the only bearable moments I have enjoyed during my stay in Rome. – Hector Berlioz

When you see the composer himself [Berlioz], that friendly, quiet, meditative person, calmly and assuredly going his way, never for a moment in doubt of his vocation … yet in complete darkness about himself—it is unspeakably dreadful, and I cannot express how deeply the sight of him depresses me. I have not been able to work for two days. — Felix Mendelssohn’s response to Symphonie fantastique

Berlioz composes by splashing his pen over the manuscript and leaving the issue to chance. – Frédéric Chopin

Today sarcasm and mockery are out; even the terms of the argument are different: now the question is whether the composer of the Fantastic Symphony is merely a talented composer or a real genius.” Franz Liszt

Quotations about Brahms


Johannes Brahms, 1889

In the latter part of the 19th century, it seemed impossible for anyone to like music by both Brahms and Wagner. Perhaps it still is, for some.

. . . it has seemed to me that, after such a preparation, there would and must suddenly appeare some day one man who would he singled out to make articulate in an ideal way the highest expression of our time, one man who would bring us mastery, not as a result of a gradual development, but as Minerva, springing fully armed from the head of Cronus. And he is come, a young creature over whose cradle graces and heroes stood guard. His name is Johannes Brahms, . . . . – Robert Schumann

The classical composer par excellence of the present day, who free from any provincialism of expression or national dialect… writes for the whole world and for all time — a giant, lofty and unapproachable — Johannes Brahms
– Edward Elgar, 1886

I have played over the music of that scoundrel Brahms. What a giftless bastard! I annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius. Why, in comparison with him, Raff is a giant, not to speak of Rubenstein, who afterall is a live and important human being, while Brahms is chaotic and absolutely dried-up stuff.
– Peter Tchaikovsky, diary, 1886

The second number was Brahms’ Piano Concerto in B-flat major, played by the composer himself. Who can swallow this concerto with appetite can calmly await a famine; it is to be assumed that he enjoys an enviable digestion, and in time of famine will be able to get along splendidly on the nutritive equivalent of window glass, cork stoppers, stove pipes, and the like. – Hugo Wolf

“It’s not bad Brahms I mind; it’s good Brahms I can’t stand.” – Benjamin Britten

Miscellaneous quotations too good to omit

It’s easy to start a list of quotations by composers. It’s less easy to organize one—or find a good place to quit!

He [Mozart] roused my admiration when I was young; he caused me to despair when I reached maturity; he is now the comfort of my old age.
– Gioacchino Rossini

Rossini would have been a great composer if his teacher had spanked him enough on his backside.
– Ludwig van Beethoven

When I think of Liszt as a creative artist, he appears before my eyes rouged, on stilts, and blowing into Jericho trumpets fortissimo and pianissimo. 
– Frédéric Chopin.

One can’t judge Wagner’s opera Lohengrin after a first hearing, and I certainly don’t intend to hear it a second time.” – Gioachino Rossini

Listening to the Fifth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams is like staring at a cow for forty five minutes. – Aaron Copland

Schumann is the composer of childhood… both because he created a children’s imaginative world and because children learn some of their first music in his marvelous piano albums.
– Igor Stravinsky



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