Keeping it Real
From Schubert to Shakur, musical violence is an old story.
Dec 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 14 • By JOE QUEENAN
THE RECENT SHOOTING OF RECORD mogul Suge Knight at a music industry celebration has evoked the usual handwringing about mindless violence in the world of rap. The incident is merely the latest, and by no means the most deplorable, in a wave of crime that dates back to the murders of Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. In addition to shootings involving musicians, producers, and industry executives, there have been several outright attacks on journalists who dared to be critical of ranking figures in the hip-hop underworld.
But two new books contend that violent internecine behavior has been a staple of the Western music industry since at least the late 18th century--and may date back even further. What's more, it did not start in Los Angeles, Harlem, or Detroit. It started in Vienna.
"Ludwig Van Beethoven pistol-whipped Franz Schubert when the gifted dwarf foolishly trashed the D Major Piano Sonata, Opus 10, Number 3," notes John Parella, author of Bitch Slappers of the High Romantic Era. "Beethoven could read lips, and when he realized what Schubert had said, he totaled his face. Beethoven also used to call him 'Lunger' after he found out Schubert was dying of T.B. A real S.O.B."
Beethoven was by no means the only titan of 19th-century music to engage in such despicable mayhem. "Franz Liszt was known to open a can of whup-ass whenever Robert Schumann got on his case in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung," notes Parella. "When white slaver Hector Berlioz came to town, it was lock-up-your-daughters time if you even hinted that the second act of Les Troyens dragged a bit. The outrageous behavior we associate with Eminem, L'il Kim, and The Artist Formerly Known as Puff Daddy, Sean John, P. Diddy, et al, is merely a continuation of a long tradition that dates back to the earliest days of Western music."
As is the case today, when gangsta rappers have been known to menace journalists who dare to criticize their recordings, great musicians of past eras were not above taking up the cudgels in defense of their work.
"Like most musicians of the time, Giuseppe Verdi was 'connected,'" asserts Sonia Javala, author of The Ass Whippers of Parnassus. "If you wrote anything negative about him, you were likely to get a visit from one of the 'capable men' he hung around with. On at least ten occasions, Verdi was hauled in for questioning in connection with the blinding, flaying, or ceremonial disembowelment of a critic. But no one dared testify against him, dreading what the Puccini Brothers would do to their loved ones."
George Santayana famously declared that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Yet this is certainly what is happening in the world of music criticism today, where collective amnesia seems to be rampant. The "O tempora! O Mores!" crowd are forever bellyaching about Paradise Lost, about a golden Edenic moment when musicians did not empty their AK-47s into one another at awards ceremonies, when singers did not engage in violent public feuds with their competitors, when everybody was basically quite civil.
The sad truth is: This arcadian world never existed.
"How do you think the castrato tradition got started?" queries a befuddled Parella. "Christoph Gluck got so pissed off when a Bavarian heldentenor dissed him at L'Opera Comique that he hired three rakish musketeers to geld him. The castration was a mixed blessing--the man went on to become one of the most famous singers in Europe--but he would have hung on to the crown jewels if he hadn't asked Louis XV, 'Hey, what rhymes with Gluck?'"
Javala stresses that it was not only the hotheads--Beethoven, Verdi, Paganini, and Liszt--who liked to mix it up back in the 19th century. Though Chopin's manicured profile as the doomed, effeminate expatriate is now the stuff of legend, the great composer was feared and loathed in his own time because of his unfathomable cruelty and depraved disregard for human life.
"Chopin--the Hammer of Krakow to his contemporaries--liked to stick critics' heads inside a piano and have circus animals jump up down on the lid for a few hours," reports Javala. "If you crossed him, you could just kiss your girlfriend goodbye. Chopin was all about bitches and hos."
Javala says that these incidents were widely reported at the time, but have been obscured by musicologists and cultural historians who want the public to believe that only pop stars engage in such murderous vendettas.
"Maurice Ravel beat Erik Satie half to death with a tire iron because Satie said that Valses Nobles et Sentimentales were gay," he reports. "What's more, the beating took place in Claude Debussy's basement, with François Poulenc, Charles Gounod, and Gabriel Fauré looking on. But when the gendarmes showed up, lo and behold, no one had seen a thing."
Obviously, not every great composer was a thug. Dvorak was gentle as a lamb, as were Elgar, Grieg, Scriabin, and Cherubini. Anton Bruckner stabbed only one rival in the retina his entire life, and always claimed that he'd mistaken Richard Strauss for an intruder. But for every meek and mild Bruckner there was a stone-cold psychopath like Johannes Brahms.
"Brahms blinded his first agent, fed his publisher's right ear to his pet piranha, Sasha, and paid to have an opera critic gang-raped by lovesick Montenegrin goatherds," says Javala. "And Brahms didn't even write operas. So the next time you hear someone complaining about rappers, just remind them: Gangstas are pussycats compared with late 19th-century German post-Romantic composers. And don't even get me started on Rimsky-Korsakov and that crew!"
Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile's Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.