Vincenzo Bellini

Tchaikovsky Research
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Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835)

Italian composer (b. 3 November 1801 [N.S.] in Catania; d. 23 September 1835 [N.S.] at Puteaux, near Paris), born Vincenzo Salvatore Carmelo Francesco Bellini.

Tchaikovsky and Bellini

Bellini was one of the composers whose music, like that of Mozart, Tchaikovsky discovered as a child, and all his life he would retain an affection for the wonderful melodies of the "Swan of Catania". Indeed, according to a letter of 1882 to Nadezhda von Meck (quoted below), the very figure of Bellini had for many years been surrounded by a "poetic aureole" in his mind because he had imagined him to be as "childlike and good-natured" as Mozart. Unfortunately, when he read about the composer's life in Francesco Florimo's recently published book, his illusions were shattered, but still in the brief Autobiography which Tchaikovsky put to paper in 1889, he emphasized that "there are some melodies of Bellini which I can never hear without my eyes filling with tears!".

We know about Tchaikovsky's early fascination with Bellini from the account included by Modest Tchaikovsky in his biography of the composer (and partly based on conversations and letters exchanged with Fanny Dürbach after 1894), which describes the effect produced on 5-year-old Petia by the orchestrina which his father had brought with him to Votkinsk. This mechanical instrument could play the tune of Zerlina's aria from Mozart's Don Giovanni, and this was the boy's earliest and most profound musical impression, but apart from that, "the orchestrina also acquainted him with the music of Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti, and his love of Italian music, which never left him all his life (even when this music was subjected to the most frenzied persecution in serious musical circles in the 1860s and 70s), probably came to him from there" [1].

Another important influence on the young Tchaikovsky's enthusiasm for Italian opera came some years later, when the family had already moved to Saint Petersburg. In 1856, he met the Neapolitan singing-master Luigi Piccioli, who had come to Russia in the 1840s and was much sought after as a teacher in the Imperial capital. Some of Piccioli's fanatical devotion to Italian bel canto rubbed off on to Tchaikovsky at the time, as Modest would later recall: "The essence of his [Piccioli's] musical creed boiled down to a complete rejection of all music other than the music of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi. He would with equal contempt scoff at a Beethoven symphony, a gypsy song, a Bach mass, a cherubic hymn by Bortnyansky, [Glinka's] A Life for the Tsar, and [Aleksey Verstovsky's 1824 opera] Askold's Grave. Apart from the works of the great melodists of Italy, everything else was unworthy of the name of music and did not even deserve to be taken notice of" [2]. Although Tchaikovsky did not succumb entirely to this fanaticism, thanks to his love of Mozart and the piano lessons which he was receiving from Rudolph Kündinger in those years (1855–58), it seems that he was so carried away by the performances of Bellini's Norma and La sonnambula (as well as Rossini's Guillaume Tell) which he attended at the Mariinsky Theatre, that for a while he was rather reluctant to go to the few symphony concerts that were organized in Saint Petersburg at the time [3].

Even though Tchaikovsky's musical horizons widened tremendously during his studies with Nikolay Zaremba and then at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory (1861–65), chiefly through his discovery of the works of Schumann, Beethoven, Berlioz, and to a lesser extent Liszt, and despite the fact that as a composer he, too, wanted to seek out new paths, in later years he still retained his fondness for Italian opera, especially Bellini. Thus, in his obituary of the composer, Herman Laroche would emphasize that Tchaikovsky, for all his sympathy for those who went in new directions, had never been a "musical radical" (that is, like the members of the "Mighty Handful" who rejected Italian opera as a pursuit of meaningless beauty), and that "he even 'worshipped' La sonnambula and urged me to write a long article on Bellini" [4].

In the 1870s, Tchaikovsky had several opportunities to hear Adelina Patti as Amina in La sonnambula at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and in an article of 1872, for example, he praised her superb coloratura singing in this "delightful opera, which is full of sweet and tender melodies" (TH 269]]). It is true that in one of his later articles Tchaikovsky did lump La sonnambula together with operas which he liked considerably less, such as Verdi's La traviata and Il trovatore, as examples of those "dishes from the Italian trattoria" which the profit-greedy impresario of the Italian Opera Company kept serving up to the Moscow public — in productions, moreover, of dubious quality — and which most people were "sick and tired of by now" (see TH 298, written in 1874). However, these disparaging remarks reflect not so much a sudden change in attitude towards Bellini's idyllic masterpiece as Tchaikovsky's frustration at the policy of the Imperial Theatres' Directorate, which had allowed Moscow's principal stage to be taken over by the Italians and failed to give any encouragement to native Russian opera. For his feelings about La sonnambula remained unchanged, or rather, they were now informed by his greater understanding of orchestral technique but still essentially the same as far as the melodic flow of the singing parts was concerned. Thus, Laroche would recall: "In later years Tchaikovsky expressed on several occasions his admiration for Bellini and even bought Florimo's book about him. He often said that he would like to re-orchestrate La sonnambula, since, as he put it, it would be a genuine masterpiece if only Bellini had not orchestrated it in such a monotonous and importunately noisy fashion" [5].

Given Tchaikovsky's admiration for Bellini, it is significant that in October 1877 Lauro Rossi, director of the Collegia di Musica in Naples, sent the Russian composer an invitation to contribute to an album of piano pieces which was being prepared to mark the unveiling of a monument to Bellini in the city where he had studied after leaving his native Sicily. Tchaikovsky replied (in French) from Clarens on 1 November [N.S.]: "It is with the utmost pleasure that I accept your offer of taking part in the collection which you intend to publish in honour of the great master of whom I have always been a fervent admirer" [6]. However, Tchaikovsky was unable to meet the deadline of 1 December 1877 [N.S.] specified by Rossi, probably because at the time he was trying to complete Yevgeny Onegin and the Fourth Symphony, but doubting whether he would recover from the crisis of his marriage to Antonina Milyukova and find the energy for new compositions [7]. When Rossi reminded him in a letter of 11 May 1878 of his promise and urged him to send in his contribution as quickly as possible, since the Bellini album was about to be sent to press [8], Tchaikovsky decided to make use of the piano piece Danse russe — No. 10 of the Twelve Pieces, Op. 40 (1878), which in fact he had written earlier in 1877 as an additional number for Swan Lake. Tchaikovsky now changed some nuances in the dynamics and phrasing of the Danse russe and sent the new manuscript score (written in his own hand) to Naples, where to this day it is still kept in the library of the Conservatory. The Danse russe, alongside 35 other piano pieces contributed by contemporary composers (including Liszt), was incorporated into the Album per pianoforte alla memoria di Vincenzo Bellini, which was eventually published by Ricordi in Milan in 1885 [9].

Further evidence of Tchaikovsky's enduring affection for Bellini's music is provided by the memoirs of Aleksandra Panayeva. A week or so after the premiere of Yevgeny Onegin at the Maly Theatre in Moscow on 17/29 March 1879, Tchaikovsky travelled to Saint Petersburg and visited Aleksandra and her father, with some trepidation at first because he knew that she was an enthusiastic admirer of his music and had often performed his songs at concerts. However, his unease vanished very soon when, at his request, she started to sing various romances and arias, including from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Die Zauberflöte. Tchaikovsky also asked for "an aria from La sonnambula, which, as he said, he liked very much in his early youth" [10].

As mentioned above, in March 1882 Tchaikovsky, while staying in Naples, came across a copy of Francesco Florimo's biography of Bellini, and he was disappointed to find out that the author of such heartfelt melodies had not been free of vanity and selfishness — faults which Tchaikovsky often encountered when reading about the lives of composers, the one exception always being Mozart! (See the letter to Nadezhda von Meck quoted below).

In Chapter IX of his Autobiographical Account of a Tour Abroad in the Year 1888, reflecting on the decline of Italian music in the second half of the nineteenth century, Tchaikovsky observes sadly how there were still so many young Italian composers who carried on merely recycling "the operatic commonplaces of Bellini and Donizetti". This evidently critical remark about Bellini's style should, though, be offset against what he wrote a year later in his Autobiography: in this brief text, intended for readers in Germany, that is a country where Italian bel canto was frowned upon by many (even if Wagner had expressed his admiration for Norma), Tchaikovsky was not ashamed to admit that some melodies of Bellini still made him cry [11]. Likewise, during his stay in Florence in February 1890, Tchaikovsky went to hear I Puritani, and, although his diary entry afterwards suggests that he was not pleased with the performance, he still wrote that Bellini was "delightful". (The diary entry is quoted below.)

General Reflections on Bellini

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

In the hours that I have been free from my work and not going for walks I have managed to read a very interesting book about Bellini, which has been recently published. This book was written by his friend Florimo, who is now an old man of eighty! I have always felt great sympathy towards Bellini. When I was still a child the emotions which his graceful melodies, always tinged with melancholy, awakened in me were so strong that they made me cry. And to this day, in spite of his many shortcomings — that is his vapid accompaniments, the vulgar and trivial strettas of his ensembles, the coarseness and banality of his recitatives — I have nonetheless retained my sympathy for his music. As for his life, apart from the fact that he died young and was a sensitive and kind person, I knew nothing about him. Florimo's book, apart from a biography of Bellini, also includes his quite extensive correspondence. And so it was with great pleasure that I opened this book to read about the life of a composer, who for a long time had been surrounded in my imagination by an especially poetic aureole. I had always thought that Bellini in life must have been just as childlike and good-natured a being as Mozart was. Alas! I had to suffer a disillusionment in this respect. For it seems that, in spite of all his talent, Bellini's was a very ordinary character. In this book you see him all engrossed in self-adoration; you see how he admires every single bar he has written, how he cannot tolerate any criticisms of his music whatsoever and sees jealous and intriguing enemies everywhere, even though success never (or almost never) deserted him from the very beginning of his career to the very end. Judging from his letters, he did not love anyone, he never cared about anybody else, and indeed nothing that lay outside the sphere of his interests seemed to exist for him. It is remarkable that the author of this book evidently failed to notice the unfavourable impression of Bellini which his letters cause — otherwise he would surely not have published them [12].

On Specific Works by Bellini

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • La sonnambula, opera (1831) — TH 269

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

I am not put off by the operas by Bellini and Gounod. In these Shakespeare is corrupted and distorted beyond recognition. Don't you find that this magnificent, archetypal drama is admirably suited to music?

In Tchaikovsky's Diaries

  • I Puritani, opera (1835) — Diary entry for 24 February/7 March 1890, Florence:

Warm and grey weather, a few rain showers. Went for a walk around San Casciano area; wonderful. In the evening one act of Puritani. And still, this Bellini is delightful in spite of all the horrendousness [безобразие]" [of the music or the performance?]


External Links

Notes and References

  1. Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 41.
  2. Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 116.
  3. See Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 117.
  4. Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 44.
  5. From Herman Laroche's (Foreword) to his 1898 edition of Tchaikovsky's music review articles, which is reprinted (in German translation) in P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000), xxxi.
  6. Letter 623a to Lauro Rossi, 20 October/1 November 1877. The original text in French reads as follows: "C'est avec la plus grande joie que j'accepte la proposition que V[ous] me faites de prendre part au recueil que V[ous] avez l'intention de publier en l'honneur du grand maître, dont j'ai toujours été un fervent admirateur". It is included in Paris vaut bien une messe! Bisher unbekannte Briefe, Notenautographie und andere Čajkovskij-Funde (1998), p. 190–191.
  7. See Letter 650 to Nadezhda von Meck, 18/30 November 1877: "Unfortunately, I don't always have enough strength to work. My God, if only I could find in myself the energy and enthusiasm for new projects! Now all I can do is finish and polish off ones that I've already started... In Naples an album of [piano] pieces is going to be published to mark the unveiling of a monument to Bellini, and many foreign composers have been invited to take part in this. I, too, received an invitation about a month ago. I replied saying that I would send in my piece by the deadline (by 1 December). Now the deadline is fast approaching, and — something which has never happened to me before — I haven't been able to squeeze out a single note from myself! It is too late now; I have deceived the editors of the album... Still, I do not lose hope. I shall complete the symphony, I shall finish the opera, and then we'll see".
  8. A Russian translation of Lauro Rossi's letter to Tchaikovsky in the name of the Royal Collegia di Musica of Naples is included in Чайковский и зарубежные музыканты (1970), p. 79.
  9. Information provided by Thomas Kohlhase in Paris vaut bien une messe! Bisher unbekannte Briefe, Notenautographie und andere Čajkovskij-Funde (1998), p. 190–191.
  10. Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 124.
  11. See also how Oblomov in Ivan Goncharov's eponymous novel of 1859 is always moved to tears whenever he hears Olga sing "Casta diva" from Norma.
  12. Quoted in Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 2 (1997), p. 449–450.