Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

Lexicon of Political Invective

We are now heading for that time when televisions and radios will scream out with familiar rants and rhymes of political advertisements.  With that will come the typical clichés we have become so accustomed to during election seasons. Yesterday it even started with the riff between Avi Gabbay and Tzipi Livni.  How easy it is for our leaders to lose their dignity in the “hunting season”, while the advertisers use both timeworn phrases along with clever new ones.

The civil word “invective” is hardly appropriate for some of the bestial putdowns that emerge during this season.  Political advertisers have a bonanza. The ability to always generate new and exciting smears is something which is valued in the political arena.  The problem is that as much as we want to ignore it, we can’t.  It’s simply “in the air”. The political dribble will be everywhere and we, the listeners, will be held captive.

On October 11, 1987 the Washington Post published an article entitled “A Whitman Sampler of Political Invective” (published in 1856).  The piece heavily quoted a volume by American poet Walt Whitman, who was embroiled in several elections involving Franklin Pierce the then candidate Millard Fillmore and later James Buchanan. In his diatribes Whitman used the following words to describe his political adversaries: “deformed, mediocre, sniveling, false-hearted, unreliable, and  “barbaric yawp”.  Fillmore and Buchanan were described as “two dead corpses and two debauched old dis-unionist politicians“. Other terms in Whitman’s repertoire included: “robbers, pimps, malignants, body-snatchers, sponges, pimpled men, crawling serpentine men“…and much more.  We are struck by the focus: barbarism, animals, physical and mental abnormalities.  One of our greatest writers was a champion of the putdown!

Embed from Getty Images

According to today’s Guardian, during the 2016 American elections Romney called Trump “a fraud” and Trump he declared about Romney: “he choked like a dog“.  In today’s  HaAretz Bradley Burston said the following: I find it distasteful that the United States is run by a creep, and that the State of Israel is run by a louse. Later Burston comments, “the president will be forced, Nixon-like, to leave with tail deeply planted between legs“. Yes, the animals don’t get away easy!…  I personally don’t have a problem with Burston’s assessments. They are actually the product of one leader’s constant lies and smears and the other’s perceived manipulations, selfishness and sneakiness.  Finally, in today’s Israel HaYom, senior Likud sources threatened, “Mandelblit will become the target of a merciless attack“.  Will it be by dogs? Hyenas? Roaches?

In America, we now have an ever growing list of President Trump’s epic twitter labels: “Crooked Hillary, Little Rocket Man, Low Energy Jeb, Lyin’ Ted,  Pocahontas, Failing New York Times, 17 Angry Democrats, Crazy Maxine Walters, Little Marco, Crazy Joe Biden, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, “Flake” (Jeff Flake), Leakin’ James Comey, Sloppy Steve Bannon, Fake News, The Enemy of the American People (the news),” etc.

For a change in “climate”, in preparation for what is surely to be a roller-coaster of new political invective, I thought we could amuse ourselves with invective of another field. In 1963 the well-known musicologist and theoretician Nicholas Slominsky wrote a classic book: Lexicon of Musical Invective, Critical Assaults on Composers since Beethoven’s Time, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1963).  This book is remarkable from two perspectives: 1) just how inaccurate musical critics were in dealing with our great musical masters (i.e. “prophets”) 2) the actual content of the “lexicon”: the kinds of phrases used to criticize composers and their music.  The content is shocking. We suddenly see similarities between the political AND the musical invective!

Some of the invective  music critics used included the following words: “agony, barbarous, bizarre, cacophonous/cacophony,  chaos, confusion, dissonance, hideous, howling, immoral, monstrous, repulsive, ugly, vulgar…as well as a list of beasts: amoeba, baboon, beetle, Bengal tiger, bull, calf, cat, cattle, chimpanzee, cow, crocodile, dog, dragon...and many more! (quiet a zoo!)  Like the politicians, music critics loved to demote their victims on the species ladder (though the animals would probably think otherwise!).   Things become even more revealing when we see the composers who were criticized: “barbarous” (Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Varese, Wagner); “bizarre” (Beethoven, Belioz, Bloch, Chopin, Liszt); “cacophony” (Bloch, Chopin, D’Indy, Liszt, Moussorgsky, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, Scriabin, Shostakovich, Strauss, Stravinsky, Wagner), “erotic spasms” (Debussy, etc.), “orgy” (Berg, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Wagner).

And the animals? Here’s just a few few: “Amoeba weeps” (Webern), ”Bengal tiger” (Varese), “Chimpanzee” (Berlioz), “Cow-dying” (Riegger), “Crocodile” (Beethoven), “Dog -howling” (Bartok), “Dragon” (Beethoven), “Elephants-engaged in jungle rivalry” (Copland), “Jellyfish” (Debussy), “Maggots” (Wagner), “Rhinoceros” (Strauss), “Wolves” (Bruckner), “Woodpecker-intoxicated” (Varese)…and the list goes on!

So it looks as if we have a “meeting of minds” and critical “traditions”.  A lexicon of smear tactics!  In both traditions, the animals are “king”! What did Michele Obama say, “when they go lower”…etc?  To be continued…..

And some final “goodies”:

  • “Liszt’s orchestral music in an insult to art.  It is gaudy musical harlotry, savage and incoherent bellowings” (Boston Gazette, April 1872)
  • “Beethoven’s Second Symphony is a crass monster, a hideous writhing wounded dragon, that refuses to expire, and though bleeding in the Finale, furiously beats about with its tail erect”. (Zeitung fur die Elegente Welt, Vienna, May 1804)
  • “Beethoven, who is often bizarre and baroque, takes at times the majestic flight of an eagle, and then creeps in rocky pathways.  He first fills the soul with sweet melancholy, and then shatters it by a mass of barbarous chords.  He seems to harbor together doves and crocodiles.” (Tablettes de Polymnie, Paris, 1810)
  • (On Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony): …”we cannot yet discover any design in it, neither can we trace any connection in its parts. Altogether, it seems to have been intended as a kind of enigma–we had almost said a hoax.”  (The Harmonicon, London, July 1825)
  • (On Brahms First Symphony): …”a noisy, ungraceful, confusing and unattractive example of dry pedantry”
  • On Debussy’s Pelléas and Melisande: ..this musical dust about to fly off at a first breath, this stammering, this muttering, these furtive caresses, these contacts at which the anemic lovers pause and, incapable of real passion, take their puny spasms of a second’s duration for the ecstasies of love…These plaintive bleatings, these jeremiads, …give me physical pain.” (La Revue de Temps Present, Paris 1910)

Embed from Getty Images

Embed from Getty Images



About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and educator. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He has been a recipient of the Israel Prime Minister's Prize for Composers and the National Endowment of the Arts (USA). His teaching has included Bennington College, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; residencies at Stanford University, York University, California Institute of the Arts, and others. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
Related Topics
Related Posts