Letter 517

Tchaikovsky Research
Date 2/14 December 1876
Addressed to Sergey Taneyev
Where written Moscow
Language Russian
Autograph Location Moscow: Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (ф. 880)
Publication Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1900), p. 509–510, 512–513 (abridged)
Письма П. И. Чайковского и С. И. Танеева (1874-1893) [1916], p. 6–7
П. И. Чайковский. С. И. Танеев. Письма (1951), p. 10–11
П. И. Чайковский. Полное собрание сочинений, том VI (1961), p. 88–89

Text and Translation

Russian text
(original)
English translation
By Luis Sundkvist
Москва
2 декабря 1876

Милый Серёжа! Вчера я возвратился из Петербурга, где провёл около 3-х недель, и только сегодня Карл Карлович передал мне в числе разных писем и Вашу милую цидулку. Если б я вчера знал, что она имеется, то не поручил бы Головиной написать Вам, что я злюсь на Вас

Поговорим прежде всего о Вас. Я не знаю ни одного сочинения (за исключением некоторых Бетховена), про которые можно было бы сказать, что они вполне совершенны. И в вашем прелестном концерте есть недостатки, но если Вы будете не только принимать к сведению для будущих сочинений, но и применять к настоящим всё, что Вам советуют и замечают, то Ваш концерт никогда не будет кончен. Вот почему я предложил бы Вам воспользоваться только теми советами А. Рубинштейна, которые касаются внешней стороны сочинения. Т. е. постарайтесь подбавить к первой части виртуозного элемента, ничего не сокращая и существенно не изменяя. Andante тоже оставьте. Оно вполне будет оценено, когда Вы напишете бойкий, блестящий и сильный финал, в котором для пианиста было бы раздолье и который сторицей вознаградил бы за отсутствие виртуозного шика в предыдущих двух частях. Вы можете во всяком случае быть уверенным, что, несмотря на внешние недостатки, ни один музыкант не может отрицать в том, что до сих пор написано, сильного и симпатичного таланта. Но только, ради Бога, не откладывайте и пишите финал как можно скорее.

Теперь про себя. «Вакула» торжественно провалился. Первые два действия прошли среди гробового молчания, за исключением увертюры и первого дуэта, которым аплодировали. В сцене Головы и особенно Дьяка много смеялись, но не аплодировали и никого не вызывали. После третьего и четвёртого действия (третье разделили на 2) меня по многу раз вызывали, но при слиьном шиканьи значительной части публики. Второе представление прошло несколько лучше, но всё же можно с уверенностью сказать, что опера не понравилась и вряд ли выдержит более 5–6 представлений. Замечательно то, что на генеральной репетиции все и в том числе Кюи предсказывали мне громадный успех. Тем тяжелее и огорчительнее было мне падение оперы. Не скрою, что я сильно потрясён и обескуражен. Главное, что ни на исполнение, ни на постановку пожаловаться нельзя. Всё было сделано старательно, толково и даже роскошно. Декорации просто великолепны. Из исполнителей я недоволен только Рааб. Солоха (Бичурина) была превосходна. Бес тоже был весьма хорош. Вакула лишён голоса, но пел с большим увлечением. Дьяк (Энде) бесподобен. Словом, в неуспехе оперы виноват я. Она слишком запружена подробностями, слишком густо инструментована, слишком бедна голосовыми эффектами. Теперь только я понял, почему, помните, когда я в 1 раз играл «Вакулу» у Рубинштейна, Вы все остались так холодны и недовольны? Стиль «Вакулы» совсем не оперный: нет ширины и размаха.

Возвратившись в Москву, я получил известие, что в Вене ошикали мою увертюру к «Ромео». Впрочем, не распространяйтесь об этом, а то Паделу узнает и испугается. А я читал, что он хочет её исполнить. Ах, милый Серёжа, какие грустные минуты приходится иногда переживать! Я очень рад, что Вы веселы и довольны. Будете ли Вы играть в Париже? Я очень бы желал этого. Непременно дебютируйте G-dur'ным концертом Бетховена.

«Франческа» уже давно готова и переписывается. Не судите о марше по переложению. В оркестре он оказался эффектным. Крепко Вас обнимаю.

П. Чайковский

Moscow
2 December 1876

Dear Serezha! Yesterday I got back from Petersburg, where I spent about three weeks, and it is only today that Karl Karlovich handed me, together with various other letters, your sweet note [1]. If I had known about it yesterday, then I would not have asked Golovina to write to you saying that I am angry with you.

Let us first of all talk about you. I do not know any composition (with the exception of some by Beethoven) of which one could say that it is completely perfect. In your delightful concerto, too, there are faults, but if you start not only to take into consideration for future works everything you hear by way of advice or criticism, but also to apply all this to your present compositions, then you will never finish your concerto [2]. That is why I would suggest that you make use only of those comments by A. Rubinstein which have to do with the external aspect of the composition—that is, try to add some virtuoso elements to the first movement, without abridging anything and without making any substantial changes. The Andante you should also leave as it is. It will be appreciated fully once you have written a lively, brilliant, and powerful finale, in which the pianist is free to do as he pleases, and which will compensate a hundredfold for the lack of virtuosic dazzle in the two preceding movements. In any case, you may rest assured that, in spite of some external faults, not one musician can deny that what you have written so far shows a strong and appealing talent. Only, for God's sake, do not put it off and write the finale as quickly as possible [3].

Now about myself. "Vakula" was a spectacular flop [4]. The first two acts passed amid sepulchral silence, with the exception of the overture and the first duet, which were applauded. In the scene with Golova and especially the Deacon [i.e. the Schoolmaster] there was much laughter, but no applause or curtain-calls. After the third and fourth acts (the third was divided into two) I was called for a few times, but with loud hissing from a substantial part of the audience. The second performance fared somewhat better, but all the same it is possible to say with some confidence that the opera did not please, and that it will hardly last out more than five or six performances [5]. It is worth noting that at the dress rehearsal everyone, including Cui, predicted that it would be an enormous success [6]. That made the opera's failure all the more painful and distressing for me. I shall not conceal the fact that I am badly shaken and disheartened. The main thing is that I cannot complain about the performance or the staging. Everything was done diligently, attentively, and even lavishly. The designs were simply magnificent. Of the singers I am dissatisfied only with Raab [7]. Solokha (Bichurina [8]) was outstanding. The Devil was also very good [9]. Vakula had lost his voice, but he sang with great passion [10]. The Deacon (Ende [11]) was peerless. In short, it is I who am to blame for the opera's failure. It is too crammed with details, too densely orchestrated and too poor in vocal effects. Only now do I understand why, if you remember, when I played "Vakula" for the first time at Rubinstein's you all remained so cool and dissatisfied [12]. The style of "Vakula" is in no way operatic: it lacks breadth and sweep.

Upon my return to Moscow I received the news that my overture to "Romeo" was hissed in Vienna [13]. However, you must not tell anyone about this, or otherwise Pasdeloup will find out and take fright. You see, I've read that he wants to perform it [14]. Oh, dear Serezha, what sad moments one must sometimes go through! I am very glad that you are in good spirits and content. Will you be playing in Paris? This is something that I would very much wish. You must absolutely make your début with Beethoven's concerto [No. 4] in G major.

"Francesca" has long since been ready and is now being copied. Don't judge the march from its arrangement [15]. When played by the orchestra it proved an effective piece. I embrace you warmly.

P. Tchaikovsky

Notes and References

  1. After giving concerts in Berlin, Leipzig, Prague, Dresden, and Stuttgart, Taneyev decided to spend the winter in Paris, and it is from there that he wrote to Tchaikovsky on 20 November/2 December 1876. Taneyev's letter has been published in П. И. Чайковский. С. И. Танеев. Письма (1951), p. 8–9.
  2. Taneyev was writing a concerto in E-flat major for piano and orchestra, and in September 1876 he had shown Tchaikovsky in Moscow what he had written so far (the orchestrated first movement and the sketches for the second). His former teacher had gone over the score of the first movement very carefully and made a number of remarks in pencil on it, especially regarding the orchestration. On the first page he wrote: "It is essential that someone else should also look through this score. I cannot rely on my own judgement because my attitude to [the score] is, so to speak, insufficiently objective". Following Tchaikovsky's advice, Taneyev, during a brief stay in Saint Petersburg before going abroad in October, had played the concerto to several musicians in the imperial capital (including Anton Rubinstein, Karl Davydov, Laroche, Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Gustav Kross). Anton Rubinstein, in particular, had made some very sharp criticisms and advised Taneyev to "revise both movements completely" (see Taneyev's letter to Tchaikovsky of 20 November/2 December 1876). A selection of the comments which Tchaikovsky made on the score of Taneyev's unfinished piano concerto was published by Sergey Popov in «Неизданные сочинения и работы С. И. Танеева—Археографический очерк» (Unpublished compositions and works by S. I. Taneyev—An archaeographical survey), in the volume Сергей Иванович Танеев. Личность, творчество и документы его жизни [Sergey Ivanovich Taneyev. His personality and works; documents about his life] (Moscow/Leningrad]], 1925), p. 121.
  3. Taneyev was planning to complete his piano concerto in the summer of 1877, but in the end he did not write a single bar of the finale. See Sergey Popov, «Неизданные сочинения и работы С. И. Танеева —Археографический очерк», in Сергей Иванович Танеев. Личность, творчество и документы его жизни (1925), p. 123.
  4. On 24 November/6 December 1876 Tchaikovsky's opera Vakula the Smith (based on Nikolay Gogol's story Christmas Eve) was premiered at the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre. The tickets for the performance were sold out a long time beforehand, and Nikolay Rubinstein came over from Moscow specially to attend the premiere. The audience's response to Vakula, however, was not particularly enthusiastic. According to Modest Tchaikovsky, who was present at the premiere, "one could feel that everyone was disappointed". The press reviews were quite lukewarm, and many people pointed out the disparity between Gogol's cheerful story and Tchaikovsky's melancholic music — note by Vladimir Zhdanov in П. И. Чайковский. С. И. Танеев. Письма (1951), p. 11.
  5. Tchaikovsky was perhaps overly pessimistic, because up to 1881 Vakula the Smith would be performed seventeen times in Saint Petersburg, which, as his brother Modest noted in his biography of the composer, was "a higher than average success". See Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 482.
  6. In his review of Vakula, Cui pointed to the opera's two main faults: the prevalence of symphonic forms over the vocal lines, and the disparity between the comic plot and the sad music: "The music throughout is almost always beautiful and noble, both with regard to the themes and with regard to the harmonic texture [...] but with singers, with the text being acted out on the stage, everything is lost [...] I cannot think of a more cheerful, funny, and lively plot than that of Vakula [...] and it is for this spirited plot that Mr Tchaikovsky has written music which is almost always melancholic, elegiac, sentimental [...] With the exception of Solokha and the Devil, all [the characters] whine: Oksana, Vakula, Chub, Golova, the Deacon [Schoolmaster]." — note by Vladimir Zhdanov inП. И. Чайковский. С. И. Танеев. Письма (1951), p. 11.
  7. Wilhelmina (Vilgelmina) Ivanovna Raab (née Balik, Plyushchevskaya-Plyushchik in her second marriage; 1848–1917), Russian soprano, soloist at the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre from 1871 to 1885. At the premire of Vakula the Smith she sang Oksana.
  8. Anna Aleksandrovna Bichurina (1852–1888), Russian contralto; she sang at the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre from 1875.
  9. The role of the Devil in Vakula the Smith was created by the baritone Ivan Melnikov.
  10. The title role in Vakula the Smith was created by the tenor Fyodor Petrovich Kommisarzhevsky (1838–1905).
  11. "Ende" was the stage name of the tenor Nikolay Grigoryevich fon Derviz (1837–1880).
  12. Taneyev, together with Kashkin, was present at this soirée in Nikolay Rubinstein's apartment at which Tchaikovsky played Vakula to his friends. As Kashkin later recalled: "Given his timidity, even this small audience made up of friends embarrassed him, and he played rather badly, that is, not in the sense of playing out of tune or falteringly, but his embarrassment caused him to emphasize, with exaggerated diligence, various secondary figures in the accompaniment, and, most importantly, he almost lost sight of the content, as a result of which it all produced a quite vague impression. [...] We were all disappointed in our expectations, because, save for a few passages, the opera made an unfavourable impression on us". Quoted from Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1896), p. 91 — note by Vladimir Zhdanov in П. И. Чайковский. С. И. Танеев. Письма (1951), p. 12–13.
  13. |After quoting this letter in his biography of the composer Modest Tchaikovsky observed: "According to Mr Hans Richter, who was the conductor at this Viennese concert [in November 1876], the comparative lack of success of [the overture-fantasia] Romeo and Juliet could by no means be called a 'flop'. It expressed itself solely in the fact that after the performance some hisses were heard, and a few days later there appeared an article by Hanslick in the Neue Freie Presse lambasting it. Yet, at the same time many people showed not just interest for this new Russian work, but even enthusiasm". See Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 485. Eduard Hanslick's article is included in Tschaikowsky aus der Nähe. Kritische Würdigungen und Erinnerungen von Zeitgenossen (1994), p. 196–197.
  14. The French conductor Jules Étienne Pasdeloup (1819–1887) included the Romeo and Juliet overture in one of his popular concerts at the Cirque d'hiver in Paris on 10 December 1876 [N.S.], as Taneyev would report to Tchaikovsky in a letter written that same day. See also Letter 518 to Taneyev, 5/17 December 1876.
  15. At the end of his letter to Tchaikovsky of 20 November/2 December 1876 Taneyev had written: "I received from Moscow your march (piano arrangement). It was sent to me by the Maslovs. They liked it; they heard it at a symphonic concert". Tchaikovsky himself made the solo piano arrangement of his Slavonic March, which had been performed for the first time at a Russian Musical Society concert in Moscow on 5/17 November 1876, under the baton of Nikolay Rubinstein.