From Beethoven to Ravel, and Elgar to Saint-Saëns, 10 of the best-known pieces that their composers disowned despite – or perhaps because of – their popularlity.
Beethoven: Wellington’s Victory
Written as a favour to the inventor of the metronome, Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, Beethoven’s dire but highly lucrative potboiler noisily celebrated the Battle of Vittoria in the Spanish war of liberation. This was the battle that elevated the British general Sir Arthur Wellesley to the title Duke of Wellington. Beethoven was well aware of its total lack of subtlety, but was nonetheless sensitive to its critics: “What I shit is better than anything you could ever think.”
Beethoven: Septet Op 20
Beethoven’s youthful Septet was a sensational hit with amateur musicians of the day and was rearranged for several different instrumental combinations. However, its cantankerous composer never forgave it for being more popular than some of his more serious works.
Composed in the contemporary “grand opera” style before Wagner had fully forged his own groundbreaking musical language, Rienzi has been variously described as “Meyerbeer’s best opera” (Hans von Bülow), “Meyerbeer’s worst opera” (Charles Rosen) and “the greatest musical drama ever composed” (Gustav Mahler). Despite its continued success, Wagner later thought it “repugnant”.
Based on Voltaire’s tragedy Alzire ou Les Américains, Verdi’s opera Alzira is set in 16th-century Peru and concerns the fate of an Inca princess. A rare Verdi failure, the composer later called it “propria brutta” (really awful), though he was probably referring more to its libretto than its music.
Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture
An heir to Wellington’s Victory, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture marked the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Borodino, when Russia inflicted a severe blow to Napoleon’s invading armies. To mark the occasion, Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write this “Overture Solennelle”, a piece full of patriotic themes. Tchaikovsky detested the work, claiming it “was written without any feeling of love and would therefore probably have little artistic merit”. Audiences have begged to differ.
First performed in 1884 in Moscow, Tchaikovsky’s bloodthirsty, Pushkin-based opera concerns Mazeppa’s plot against Peter the Great in 18th-century Ukraine. It contains some enjoyable music (try this spirited Cossack Dance), but its famously self-critical composer thought it uninspired.
Saint-Saëns: The Carnival of the Animals
Carnival of the Animals began in the exquisite form of the Swan and ended up as a grand zoological fantasy taking in cockerels, elephants, kangaroos and an aquarium. Wary that his musical menagerie wouldn’t measure up to the dominant German aesthetic of its time, Saint-Saëns forbade it to be performed outside a close circle of friends. It was eventually published in 1922, the year after his death.
Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No 1
“I’ve a got a tune that will knock ’em – knock ’em flat,” wrote Elgar of the central melody of his first Pomp and Circumstance March. With words by AC Benson and a little tinkering to the tune, it soon became Land of Hope and Glory. While something of a cash-cow for Elgar, he came to tire of its jingoism and the fact it overshadowed everything else he wrote.
Its audaciously repetitive nature means that Boléro has always had its critics. At its premiere in 1928 there were shouts of “Rubbish!’, while Constant Lambert opined: “There is a definite limit to the length of time a composer can go on writing in one dance rhythm (this limit is obviously reached by Ravel towards the end of La valse and towards the beginning of Boléro).” Such sniping aside, this 15-minute crescendo was an instant success and soon became Ravel’s most popular piece. Which amazed the composer, who didn’t much like the work and was surprised orchestras were prepared to play it.
Shostakovich: Song of the Forest
After the infamous Zhdanov Decree in 1947, when Shostakovich and other creative artists were denounced for their apparent “formalist perversions and undemocratic tendencies”, the composer played it safe – publicly at least – by producing ideologically correct works with obvious social purpose. One such work was his seven-movement oratorio, Song of the Forest, a piece that celebrated the forestation of the Russian Steppes after the second world war. In its original version, Stalin was lauded as “the great gardener”. Shostakovich hated this hastily written work. After its premiere he returned to his hotel room and wept.
Source: The Guardian