The Second Concert of the Russian Musical Society. Mr Slavyansky's Russian Concert

Tchaikovsky Research
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The Second Concert of the Russian Musical Society. Mr Slavyansky's Russian Concert (Второй концерт Русского музыкального общество. Русский концерт г. Славянского) (TH 261 ; ČW 525) [1] was Tchaikovsky's fifth music-review article for the Moscow journal Contemporary Chronicle (Современная летопись), in which it was published on 6 December 1871 [O.S.].

The article contains a very interesting discussion of Schumann, a composer whom Tchaikovsky greatly admired for his depth and ability to convey in his music "the doubt and despair which beset man in his striving towards the ideal", but whose failure, in his orchestral works, to provide effective contrasts between the various groups of instruments Tchaikovsky also points out; ironic observations about Dmitry Slavyansky's pseudo-Russian concerts and his pretensions in setting himself up as an editor of folksongs, which Tchaikovsky describes as an act of "sacrilege" against this "sanctuary of Russian art"


Completed by 6/18 December 1871 (date of publication). It considers the second Russian Musical Society symphony concert in Moscow on 26 November/8 December 1871, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Robert Volkmann's Overture to Shakespeare's Richard III, Schumann's Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120, excerpts from Anton Rubinstein's oratorio The Tower of Babel, Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11 (soloist Anna Yesipova), and several shorter piano pieces by Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Joachim Raff, all played by Yesipova; and the "Russian Concert (to collect funds for the Women's Trade School) of Dmitry Slavyansky and his Choir" which took place on 28 November/10 December 1871 at the Hall of the Nobility in Moscow.

English translation

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The Second Concert of the Russian Musical Society

It is safe to say that the music of the second half of the present century will go down into future history-books of this art form as a period which subsequent generations will refer to as the Schumannesque period. The music of Schumann, which borders naturally upon that of Beethoven and yet at the same time is so distinct from his, opens up for us a whole world of new musical forms and strikes chords which his great predecessors had not yet touched upon. We find in it an echo of the mysteriously deep processes of our spiritual life, of those moments of doubt and despair and striving towards the ideal to which the heart of modern man is prey. Schumann does not yet belong to history, and only in the distant future will it be possible to make an objective critical evaluation of his oeuvre, but what is undeniable is that this composer is the most striking exponent of the music of our time. That is why not a single good concert goes by without featuring in its programme at least one of the many works of Schumann, whose creative power was commensurate with his tremendous productivity.

At the second concert of the Russian Musical Society we heard Schumann's Fourth Symphony in D minor and a small piano piece Des Abends [At Evening] [2], which despite its modest dimensions is full of inimitable charm and bears the stamp of true genius. I am even willing to place this infinitely poetical little piece above the great symphonic work of his which was performed last Friday. Schumann's Fourth Symphony—the last that he wrote—is also the last of the symphonies in terms of musical value. It does not have that exhilarating strength, that stirring pathos which we find in the two preceding symphonies. The sum total of its moments of musical beauty cannot compensate for that, alas, grave defect which mars all the works of Schumann, who was first and foremost a symphonic composer. This defect, referred to in painting as colourlessness, consists here precisely in the paleness and limpness, nay, even uncouthness of his instrumentation.

Without going into technical details, I just wish to explain to the reader that the art of orchestration (i.e. the allocation of musical material to the various instruments) consists in the ability to alternate between different groups of instruments and combine one group with another appropriately, using effects of dynamic contrast sparingly and ensuring a sensible proportion between colour and line, that is between timbre and the musical idea. It was precisely this ability which Schumann for some reason seems to have lacked. His orchestra has to work incessantly, all the instruments participate in the announcement and development of the ideas—they do not separate themselves from one another, there are no contrasts between them (even though there are endless effects of contrast which you can get with an orchestra), and more often than not they merge into a continuous whirl of sound which sometimes distorts the best passages in the work.

As an orchestrator Schumann stands not only below such masters in this field as Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, and Wagner, but he doesn't even bear comparison with the many lesser composers who happen to draw their most inspired ideas from him.

I shall cite here as an example the composer Robert Volkmann [3], whose overture to Shakespeare's Richard III was played at the beginning of the concert being reviewed here. The former, by the way, is a wonderful work of music: Volkmann has triumphantly resolved the difficult task of portraying musically the sinister and methodically bloodthirsty character of this English tyrant in contrast to the admirable feminine qualities of his wife and mother. But what struck me in particular was the masterly instrumentation which contributes enormously to the good impression made by this work of Volkmann's—a composer who, it should be added, is but a lesser figure and belongs entirely to the group of direct imitators of Schumann.

Excerpts from the oratorio The Tower of Babel by Anton Rubinstein (one of his most recent works, which scored a great success in Vienna last year) were splendidly performed by the Chorus of the Russian Musical Society and were received very well by the audience. The chorus of the Semites was particularly impressive, being wholly imbued with the melancholic and tender mood which is so characteristic of the melodies of that people. The moving, almost plaintive melody of this chorus, which convincingly conveys the yearning of these newly-arrived settlers for their distant and beautiful home country, imprints itself on the mind of every listener.

Unfortunately, the programme notes for the concert did not include the text of Mr Rubinstein's choruses—something that always helps to appreciate better vocal music of such fine quality. This small act of negligence towards the public seems all the more strange given that this text, as far as I could tell by listening carefully, has excellent literary qualities.

As the soloist in this concert we heard a young pianist from Saint Petersburg— Madame Yesipova [4], who achieved a splendid and entirely well-deserved success. The virtuosity of Madame Yesipova is distinguished by the combination of two important qualities: faultless clarity of execution and remarkable maturity in her artistic rendering (interprétation) of the works chosen by her. By way of the highest possible praise, I do not hesitate for one moment to place our guest from Saint Petersburg on the same level as our excellent Moscow pianists Mesdames Zograf [5] and Muromtseva [6]. As for Madame Yesipova's selection of Chopin's First Piano Concerto, which is wearingly long, empty, and crammed with clichés, that is something of which I simply cannot approve [7]. Of course, it gave our guest artist the chance to demonstrate the most brilliant aspect of her great technical perfection to the audience, but in this case the end did not justify the means. As encores, however, Madame Yesipova treated us, apart from the already mentioned short piece by Schumann, to some beautiful variations for piano by Mendelssohn and Raff's [8] Valse brillante.

Mr Slavyansky's Russian Concert

Among the other notable recent events in Moscow's musical life I shall mention here the appearance with the Italian Opera Company of two singers who are very popular with the public—Signor Masini [9] and Signora Volpini, who scored a great success in I Puritani [10]—and the concert by Mr Slavyansky [11], at which, by the way, I was not able to be present. The fate of this artist is most interesting and instructive. Four years ago Mr Slavyansky made his first appearances in front of empty audiences in Moscow and Petersburg, wearing a Slavonic costume with a Polish hussar's jacket and high boots, and, after this brief sojourn in our midst he went off to our friends across the Atlantic, from which he recently returned to the fatherland, crowned in laurel wreaths.

A veritable series of triumphs then opened up before this Russian singer. His Russian concerts with American waltzes and German 'Männerchöre' have engendered a host of enthusiastic admirers. One newspaper published a series of editorials about the national significance of these concerts by Mr Slavyansky, who was effectively hailed as the harbinger of a new era in Russian art. Encouraged by all this, Mr Slavyansky decided to shift the sphere of his operations from the concert-hall into the Moscow Manege, where during the whole of Easter Week he invited the whole population of Moscow to join him for a Russian feast, and, moreover, did so with a success that even Signor Merelli [12] must surely envy.

Indeed, the latter cannot get very far without having a horde of fine and expensive singers at his disposal, whereas Mr Slavyansky doubles up as both impresario and his own artistic staff. Thus, in order to guarantee the success of his enterprise, Signor Merelli must, for example, engage La Patti who in effect receives a chervonets [13] for every note she sings. All Mr Slavyansky has to do is simply to engage Mr Slavyansky. (And yet it should be said that the two impresarios stand equally in the public's favour.)

But that is not all: what had hitherto been lacking in Mr Slavyansky's laurel-wreathed cap was the feather of a composer's glory. Well, that is no longer the case, for from the poster for his most recent concert I saw that our singer is preparing to set forth on this slippery and thankless path. As a matter of fact, Slavyansky intends to bring out a collection of Russian songs arranged by himself, that is to embark on a task for which even such an outstanding talent and all-round musical capacity as possessed by Mr Balakirev were hardly sufficient [14].

Mr Slavyansky is a fairly good singer of the light genre: he is not devoid of that quality which in vocal performance is referred to as chic, and to which he is particularly indebted for his success. Now, from the poster for Mr Slavyansky's concert, I must conclude that in addition to these qualities he is also endowed with a huge musical erudition and with that talent and technical training without which both the recording of folksongs and, in particular, their harmonisation are quite inconceivable. It is in Mr Slavyansky's honour that I am compelled to draw such a conclusion, for how can it be otherwise?! Mr Slavyansky, whose entire activity is devoted to the high goal of serving Russian art, is of course fully aware that no one can escape unpunished who, not feeling himself truly prepared and worthy, treads with sacrilegious intentions into such a sanctuary of art as Russian folksong.

P. Tchaikovsky

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'The Second Concert of the Russian Musical Society—The Russian Concert of Mr. Slavjanskij' in ČW.
  2. No. 1 from the Phantasiestücke, Op. 12.
  3. Robert Volkmann (1815–1883), German composer whose works were appreciated by Brahms and highly popular with audiences around Europe — note by Ernst Kuhn .
  4. Anna Yesipova (1851–1914), famous Russian pianist.
  5. Aleksandra Zograf-Dulova (1850–1919), a well-known Moscow pianist, studied with Nikolay Rubinstein, about whom she left some important memoirs — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  6. Nadezhda Muromtseva (1848–1909), Russian pianist, also a pupil of Nikolay Rubinstein.
  7. Tchaikovsky's friend Nikolay Kashkin wrote about the composer's initial aversion towards Chopin: "[Tchaikovsky] didn't particularly like Chopin's music, as he found in it a certain morbidity of expression as well as an excess of subjectivity [...] Later, Nikolay Rubinstein's playing of Chopin induced him to radically change his opinion about this composer" — quoted by Ernst Kuhn in P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000), p. 19. In Letter 1409 to his brother Anatoly, 19/31 July 1880, Tchaikovsky referred to Chopin as "one of the last Mohicans of the golden age of music".
  8. Joachim Raff (1822–1882), Swiss-born German composer.
  9. Angelo Masini (1844–1926), Italian tenor, a virtuoso singer with a fine voice, but notorious for his poor acting. See Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), p. 201 — translator's note.
  10. This performance of Bellini's opera took place at the Bolshoi Theatre on 2/14 December 1871.
  11. Dmitry Slavyansky (originally Agrenev; 1836–1908), Russian singer and choir-master who became very popular in the 1870s and 80s with his choral performances of Russian folksongs, and even toured the United States with his choir.
  12. Eugenio Merelli (1825–1882), Italian opera manager. See also articles TH 260 and TH 262.
  13. A gold coin worth 10 rubles.
  14. Balakirev's Collection of Russian Folksongs, in his own arrangements for piano, had appeared in 1866 to considerable critical acclaim. Slavyansky's collection was not published until 1879.