Musical Chronicle. "Don Giovanni" and "Zora" on the Italian Stage. The Fifth Concert of the Russian Musical Society

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Musical Chronicle. "Don Giovanni" and "Zora" on the Italian Stage. The Fifth Concert of the Russian Musical Society (Музыкальная хроника. «Дон-Жуан» и «Зора» на итальянской сцене. Пятый концерт Русского музыкального общества) [1] (TH 284 ; ČW 549) was Tchaikovsky's twentieth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 16 January 1874 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

This article contains further reflections on the qualities which made Mozart's Don Giovanni "the model of an ideal opera for all times" (complementing Tchaikovsky's earlier tributes in TH 276 and TH 262); critical remarks about the 'theories' which had led Wagner and Dargomyzhsky (in The Stone Guest) to chase, in their different ways, after the shadow of "dramatic veracity" and to drive out the essential quality of musical beauty from their operas; ironic jibes at Stasov, Cui, and the 'Mighty Handful' for their idolization of The Stone Guest; an unexpectedly positive review of the Italian Opera Company's staging of Don Giovanni, ably conducted by Bevignani, and starring the great Spanish tenor Gayarre as Don Ottavio; an enthusiastic description of Schumann's Second Symphony, which, along with the "Rhenish", Tchaikovsky considered to be his finest symphonic work; a damning verdict on Cui's activities as a music critic and on his lack of talent as a song composer, but also quite positive remarks about Cui's opera William Ratcliff and his Tartar Song.


Completed by 16/28 January 1874 (date of publication). Reviewing the Italian Opera Company's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 8/20 January 1874, conducted by Enrico Bevignani and starring Antonio Cotogni in the title role, Anna d'Angeri as Donna Anna, Eugénie d'Alberti as Donna Elvira, and Julián Gayarre as Don Ottavio; a production of Rossini's Moïse et Pharaon (Zora) at the same theatre on 12/24 January 1874, starring Gayarre as Aménophis; and the 5th RMS symphony concert which took place in Moscow on 11/23 January 1874, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Schumann's Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61, Robert Volkmann's Overture to Shakespeare's Richard III, two choral excerpts from César Cui's opera William Ratcliff (1869) as well as his Tartar Song, and Wilhelm Fitzenhagen's Ballade for cello and orchestra (with the composer as soloist).

English translation

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Musical Chronicle

In recent years the repertoire of the Italian Opera Company has been enlivened by two works, one of which occupies the first place amongst the operatic works of all times and nations, whereas the other felicitously brings together in one composition the finest qualities of a composer who to this day still enjoys great popularity, as well as receiving respectful attention from the critics. These two operas are Mozart's Don Giovanniand Rossini's Moïse et Pharaon, which here in Russia is performed under the title of Zora.

I have already spoken about Don Giovanni in detail with regard to the quite unsuccessful revival of this opera during the last season [2], and so I shall not say anything more now about the astounding beauty of this operatic work of genius. The hundredth anniversary of the first performance of Don Giovanni is not so far off now [3], and yet in all this space of time not a single opera has appeared which could be said to combine with comparable intensity such melodic gracefulness and inspiration, such wealth of harmonic accompaniment, such profoundly truthful musical characterization and well-rounded formal perfection.

What does it matter if the acolytes of Wagnerism or our own home-grown "operatic realists" [4] deny the great historical significance of Don Giovanni simply because, being an artist of genius who never curbed the flight of his musical inspiration for the sake of conventional notions of dramatic truth, Mozart gave free range to the organic expansion of his ideas into broadly conceived forms, regardless of the action on the stage?! For this almost hundred-year-old opera has maintained itself, with a success that is in fact still growing further daily, on all the opera stages of the civilized world, and it continues to afford the listener that full aesthetic pleasure which all the effects and thunder-claps used by the most representative modern operas will never be able to elicit to such an extent. Perhaps Mozart's music is so full of irresistible charm precisely for the very reason that he was himself the archetype of a spontaneously creating artist who has not been corroded by reflection [5].

Reflection is the death of inspiration. Just look at where the most recent attempts by contemporary composers to ground opera in a realistic reproduction of life have led to as they discarded the traditional forms in their pursuit of the phantoms of rationality and truth! [6]

Wagner, who has pledged himself to fight the abuses of vocal virtuosity, subordinates the singer to a whole orchestral regiment which not only takes away the limelight from the characters on the stage, but actually drowns out their voices.

Dargomyzhsky goes even further still: having decided to sacrifice musical beauty on the altar of wrongly understood notions of dramatic truthfulness, he not only takes away from the singer everything that makes singing attractive, but even deprives himself of the rich resources of musical expressivity. His 'opera' The Stone Guest, which is close to Mozart's Don Giovanni as far as the plot is concerned, is the lamentable fruit of a dry, purely rational process of invention, which can only bore to death the listener who seeks in art not that narrowly understood truth whereby a real apple is more tasty than a painted apple [7], but rather that higher artistic truth which springs forth from the mysterious depths of human creativity and pours out into clear forms that are comprehensible to everyone. Only the complacent, dilettante-like obtuseness of certain 'innovators' who are still waiting to be recognized as such and have for the time being sheltered themselves in the feuilleton of the Saint Petersburg Register, is capable of proclaiming, with an earnestness that is quite comic, the last work by the highly gifted Dargomyzhsky to be a paragon of modern operatic composition, ranging it amongst the all-time greatest works in the genre of opera [8].

The music of Don Giovanni is, as it were, like a string of untold pearls, each one of them filled with such musical inspiration that everything written before and after this opera must necessarily pale before their splendour. From whichever angle one sets about analyzing this unique, inimitably beautiful opera, one can only prostrate oneself in amazement before the greatness of human genius which shines forth from it.

Those who love sweet and graceful melodies will dwell on the wondrous duet in Act I between Don Ottavio and Donna Anna, who is grieving over her father's death and already calling for revenge, as well as on the duet between Don Giovanni and Zerlina, the arias of Donna Elvira, Zerlina, and Donna Anna, and of course Don Giovanni's famous serenade.

The enthusiast of musical declamation, which Gluck in his time developed to so remarkable a degree of perfection, will find in Donna Anna's recitatives such a staggering pathos, combined with enchantingly beautiful harmonies and modulations, such strength and power of tragic expressivity, that all the attractive features of Gluckian recitative are quite eclipsed by them.

Whether one concentrates one's attention on the ensemble scenes, on the intensification of the musical and dramatic pace in the finales, on the instrumentation, on the art of writing vocal music taking into account the qualities of the human voice so that it can be sung comfortably, or whether one looks above all for mastery in musical characterization—all these demands are satisfied in abundance by Don Giovanni, which will always serve as the model of an ideal opera for as long as art continues to exist.

"Don Giovanni" and "Zora" on the Italian Stage

As for this particular performance of Don Giovanni, I should first of all say that overall it was much better than might have been expected, bearing in mind last year's staging and also the system of our Italian Opera Company, which only allows for one rehearsal of each opera. One must give full credit to the conscientiousness and diligence of the conductor, Signor Bevignani, who in such a short space of time managed to rehearse this huge opera so well that during the whole performance there was not a single slip-up—not even a momentary one.

The orchestra's playing was clean and full of enthusiasm and fire. The choruses sang with such a degree of confidence and reliability as one would never have expected from them. As for the soloists, the most successful performances were by Messrs Cotogni [9] and Gayarre [10]. Signor Cotogni performed the title role with great elegance, thoughtfulness, and sensitivity, whereby his singing of the serenade in Act III [11] produced the greatest impression. Señor Gayarre, of whom until now I have not yet had the opportunity to speak with the warm sympathy which he deserves, moved the colourless role of Don Ottavio very much into the foreground through his intelligent interpretation and the youthfully appealing timbre of his voice. When listening to this magnificent singer, I could not help smiling to myself about the talentless Signor Masini's [12] caricature-like performance of the role of Don Ottavio last season. What a ghastly distortion of Mozart's music that was!

Signor Catagni as Leporello rather over-did his acting—something that is, by the way, characteristic of every Italian basso buffo—but otherwise sang quite well. Of the female members of the cast, great praise is due to Madame d'Angeri [13], for whose benefit this performance of Don Giovanni had been put on, and who sang the extremely difficult role of Donna Anna; as well as to Madame d'Alberti [14], who gave a very delightful and conscientious performance as Donna Elvira.

The first of these two singers has a magnificent voice, even though it does shown signs of fatigue to the extent that she cannot produce a single note without excessive vibrato. She puts a lot of effort into her acting, but lacks a truly outstanding talent in this respect, and, indeed, it must be said that such a major role as Donna Anna is on the whole beyond the powers of Madame d'Angeri, although one can certainly not deny this singer's musicality, intelligence, and sensitivity.

As for Madame d'Alberti, I think one can positively say that the unjustly cruel treatment which Don Giovanni metes out to his deserted wife (performed here by the aforementioned soprano) is by no means as bad as our public's inhumanly harsh attitude towards Madame d'Alberti. Her singing is clean, elegant, expressive, and generally shows that she has worked very hard on the role, but still there were certain strict 'connoisseurs' in the audience who zealously tried to hiss her off the stage after each aria she sang. Oh, if these catcallers only knew how many tears, how much bitterness and humiliation they inflict in this way on the artists whom they have taken a disliking to for no real reason! I don't know whether these lines will ever be read by the singer who was so unjustly pursued by the audience's hate, but I do wish it were so. For it would perhaps afford some consolation to Madame d'Alberti to know that a small minority did appreciate her fine qualities.

Rossini's opera Moïse et Pharaon was staged as a benefit performance for Signor Foli [15], and, despite the fact that the production was not an all-round success, it did cause a very favourable impression. Of the soloists, Señor Gayarre again showed himself to great advantage, and in the famous duet in Act II he astonished everyone by the passion, strength, and genuine warmth of his performance.

The Fifth Concert of the Russian Musical Society

Now I shall move on to the fifth symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society, which took place last Friday. The programme consisted of Volkmann's overture to Richard III, some choruses by Mr Cui, a cello concerto by Mr Fitzenhagen, and Schumann's Second Symphony. Together with the Third, the Second Symphony represents the crowing achievement of Schumann's symphonic oeuvre and belongs to the most brilliant middle period of his career as a composer. The depth of the musical ideas in this symphony, its formal beauty and the broadness and plasticity of its conception are truly amazing.

The first movement opens with an enchantingly poetic Introduction, based on a short fanfare-like theme which is accompanied by a mysterious fluttering in the strings and interrupted later by a delightfully melodic episode, in which one seems to hear a kind of pleading lament. Then the Introduction leads gradually up to the tempestuous and passionate Allegro with its original, sharply accented rhythm. The Scherzo, with its two contrasting trios, is very graceful and lively.

In the Andante [16] the touching cantabile melody with its extraordinarily beautiful design and—quite unusually for Schumann—strikingly effective instrumentation (violin trills in the highest register accompanying the clarinet's singing), produces an indelible impression. The Finale is the least successful movement, although its middle section, with its elaboration of themes from the preceding movements, presents us with wonders of polyphonic development, albeit applied to material which is essentially quite meagre.

The other orchestral work at this concert was Volkmann's overture to Shakespeare's tragedy Richard III [17]—a piece which shows its author to be an intelligent and experienced composer, albeit one who is not endowed with great originality of invention. This overture is, however, distinguished by an incredible mastery of instrumentation.

Mr Cui enjoys a considerable reputation, especially in Saint Petersburg, though not so much as a composer as in his capacity of a critic who, for many years now, has been astounding the reading public both with the sharpness of his verdicts and opinions, in which there is a complete absence of any underlying principles whatsoever, and by the self-satisfied ignorance with which, at one stroke of his pen, he topples century-old authorities from their pedestal and installs in their place a couple of friends from his circle who are occupying themselves with composition.

As a composer, Mr Cui has appeared before the public in Saint Petersburg with an opera—William Ratcliff—that didn't have any success and was soon dropped from the repertoire [18]. Apart from that, Mr Cui has also written a few songs, which drag out an obscure existence on the shelves of music-shops and are very unlikely ever to be picked up from there and brought out into broad daylight. Despite their complete musical insignificance—for musically they are no more than aimless beating of the air—they have been written with a highly comic pretension to pathos and passion, as a result of which neither specialists nor dilettantes could possibly take a liking to them.

As for Mr Cui's opera, despite the fact that it lacks the verve of true inspiration, despite its motley style—so that it reminds one now of Auber, now of Glinka, of Schumann, of Berlioz, and then suddenly of Mendelssohn or Dargomyzhsky—it nevertheless does testify to the author's indisputable taste and talent, even if the latter is not particularly original and graceful. Of the two excerpts which were performed at the Musical Society's concert, I especially liked the short female chorus, which is melodically and harmonically very elegant and also delightfully scored.

It is a great pity that the Muscovite public will not have the opportunity to get to know the finest numbers from William Ratcliff, which are unsuitable for a concert performance—I mean such numbers as the first chorus, the Narrative of the Earl of Douglas, Mary's charming little Romance in Act I, a few passages in the Scene by the Black Stone, and, in particular, the duet between Mary and Ratcliff in the final act. Apart from the two aforementioned excerpts, of which the second bears a striking similarity to Auber's style, we also heard a Tartar Song, also by Mr Cui, which is very characteristic in terms of its rhythmic design and harmony.

Mr Fitzenhagen, who appeared in a two-fold role at this concert, as both composer and performer, achieved a great success. Mr Fitzenhagen's Ballade testifies to the great progress he has made as a composer since he played us his first cello concerto some three years ago—a work that was formally very awkward and also poor in content. In his Ballade there are many highly interesting details and beautiful melodic ideas, of which I particularly liked the energetic and passionate theme of the Allegro, which is then elaborated on with great care by the author. Mr Fitzenhagen thoroughly overcame the technical difficulties of his own work and played with such verve and enthusiasm that he was rewarded with unanimous applause at the end.

"B. L."

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Musical Chronicle. "Don Giovanni" and "Zora" on the Italian Stage. The Fifth Concert of the Russian Musical Society' in TH, and '"Don Giovanni" and "Zora" on the Italian Stage—The Fifth Concert of the Russian Musical Society' in ČW.
  2. SeeTH 276 and also TH 262.
  3. The premiere of Mozart's Don Giovanni took place on 29 October 1787 in Praguenote by Vasily Yakovlev.
  4. The question of Wagner's attitude to Mozart is a complicated one. On the one hand, he admired Mozart as the "gentle genius of light and love" in music and saw in Die Zauberflöte "the first great German opera", but he also reproached Mozart for the "naivety" with which he set about composing the music of his operas without first considering the intrinsic merits of the texts he was given by his librettists. See Alfred Einstein, Mozart: Sein Charakter—Sein Werk (Frankfurt, 1968), pp.11 & 398. By "our own home-grown operatic realists" Tchaikovsky is referring to the 'Mighty Handful' and its chief spokesman César Cui, who in his articles repeatedly dismissed Mozart as "antiquated" (further down in this review Tchaikovsky attacks Cui directly) — translator's note.
  5. The phrase Tchaikovsky uses here—«заеденный рефлексией» ["corroded by reflection"]—is either a deliberate or an unconscious quotation from Turgenev's story Hamlet of the Shchigry District (1849), in which the nameless 'hero', a provincial nobleman who had studied philosophy in Berlin and is unable to find any meaningful practical occupation back in Russia, describes himself to the narrator as follows: «Я тоже заеден рефлексией, и непосредственного нет во мне ничего» ["I too have been corroded by reflection, and there is nothing spontaneous left in me"]. This provincial Hamlet is one of the first "superfluous men" in Turgenev's works, that is individuals who were so paralysed by introspection and by various high-flown ideas and aspirations, that they could not achieve anything in practice. Tchaikovsky adapted this concept to criticize composers such as Dargomyzhsky and some members of the Balakirev circle (as well as Wagner sometimes) who, in his view, did not write their music from the heart, but in order to demonstrate certain preconceived 'theories' — translator's note.
  6. This is an early declaration of one of Tchaikovsky's most cherished ideas—that opera depended on a certain "naïve" beauty of illusion which had to be taken on trust. See also his very interesting letter 2356 of 28 September/12 October–30 September/14 October 1883 to Nadezhda von Meck in which he defends the value of opera against those who, like Tolstoy and Nadezhda von Meck herself, attacked it for its "artificiality" and "lack of realism" — translator's note.
  7. In an 1858 article, the notable poet and critic Apollon Grigoryev (1822–1864) had parodied the views on art expressed by the radical thinker Nikolay Chernyshevsky (1828–1889) in his 1855 dissertation The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality with the following phrase: «Яблоко нарисованное никогда не может быть так вкусно, как яблоко настоящее» ["A painted apple can never be as tasty as a real apple"], which did in effect convey the gist of Chernyshevsky's anti-Romantic approach to art as something that was always inferior to real life. Dostoyevsky, a close friend and collaborator of Grigoryev, quoted this parodic formulation in an 1864 article attacking the Russian radicals (the so-called 'nihilists'), as well as in his novel The Devils (1872), which Tchaikovsky is very likely to have read (especially bearing in mind that earlier in 1873 he had started writing a series of articles on Beethoven (TH 275) for a weekly newspaper then edited by Dostoyevsky). See also Note 6 in TH 269translator's note.
  8. This is an attack on the 'Mighty Handful' and, in particular, its spokesman Cui's high-flown praise for the 'revolutionary' significance of Dargomyzhsky's The Stone Guest (which was posthumously premiered in 1872 thanks to the efforts of Stasov and Cui himself). Tchaikovsky adopts here a position which is very close to that of his friend Herman Laroche, who had written an ironic review of the premiere of The Stone Guest. See Chapter 5 of Richard Taruskin, Opera and Drama in Russia: As Preached and Practiced in the 1860s (Rochester NY, 1993), for an illuminating discussion of how Dargomyzhsky's "radical realism" in this work reflects the ideas of Chernyshevsky — translator's note.
  9. Antonio Cotogni (1831–1918), famous Italian baritone, appeared with the Italian Opera Company in Saint Petersburg from 1872 to 1894 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  10. Julián Gayarre (1844–1890), Spanish tenor born in Navarre of humble origins, regarded by many as the supreme tenor of his time; successes in Italy (including as first Italian Tannhäuser in 1872); Saint Petersburg 1873–75; Milan, La Scala 1876; London, Covent Garden 1877–1881, 1886–1887.
  11. Deh! vieni alla finestra o mio tesoro" in Act II, Scene 3, as the opera is normally staged. In 1878 Tchaikovsky would write his own Don Juan's Serenade—No. 1 of the Six Romances, Op. 38translator's note.
  12. Angelo Masini (1844–1926), Italian tenor, a virtuoso singer with a fine voice, but notorious for his poor acting. Tchaikovsky could not stand him. See Nikolay Kashkin, Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), p. 201 — translator's note.
  13. Anna d'Angeri (stage name of Anna Angermayer; 1853–1907) Austrian soprano, débuted in Mantua in 1872, subsequent engagements in Venice and at La Scala in Milannote by Ernst Kuhn.
  14. Eugénie d'Alberti (real name: Martinet; 1815-?), French soprano — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  15. Allan James Foli (real surname: Foley; 1835–1899), Irish bass, débuted in Catania in 1862, sang mainly in London from 1865 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  16. The third movement is actually marked "Adagio espressivo" — translator's note.
  17. Robert Volkmann's overture to Shakespeare's Richard III, Op. 61, the only work of programme music written by the German composer, was created in 1870 and caused a furore amongst its first audiences thanks to its brilliant instrumentation and bold harmonic technique. Just over two years earlier, Tchaikovsky had given a very positive review of this work in TH 261note by Ernst Kuhn.
  18. The premiere of Cui's opera William Ratcliff (based on Heine's tragedy) took place at the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre on 14/26 February 1869 — note by Vasily Yakovlev.