The Second and Third Quartet Matinées. The First Symphony Concert of the Russian Musical Society. The Italian Opera

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The Second and Third Quartet Matinées. The First Symphony Concert of the Russian Musical Society. The Italian Opera (Второе и третье квартетные утра. Первое симфоническое собрание Русского музыкального общества. Итальянская опера) [1] (TH 268 ; ČW 532) was Tchaikovsky's sixth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 7 November 1872 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

This article contains very interesting observations by Tchaikovsky on Mendelssohn's musical style and that of Brahms of whom he is quite critical; the more passionate attitude towards music in Saint Petersburg compared to Moscow; the significance of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony; and on Liszt's religious music

History

Completed by 7/19 November 1872 (date of publication). Reviewing the following events:

  • A chamber music concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow on 22 October/3 November 1872, at which Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 12, Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 12 in A-flat major, Op. 26, and Brahms's String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 18 were performed;
  • The following chamber music concert in this series on 29 October/10 November 1872, featuring Joachim Raff's String Quartet No. 4 in A minor, Op. 137, Schumann's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63, and Beethoven's String Quintet in C major, Op. 29;
  • A symphonic concert of the Russian Musical Society on 31 October/12 November 1872, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, the Overture to Schumann's opera Genoveva, a chorus from Liszt's oratorio Christus, and Johan Svendsen's Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 6 (soloist: Ferdinand Laub)
  • A performance of Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 3/ 15 November 1872, with Adelina Patti in the title role

English translation

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The Second and Third Quartet Matinées

The programme of the Russian Musical Society's second chamber music matineé concert consisted of a string quartet by Mendelssohn (E minor) [2], a piano sonata by Beethoven (A-flat major), and the first performance in Moscow of Brahms's string sextet (B-flat major).

Mendelssohn's string quartet, like all of his works, is distinguished by the extraordinary grace of its form and by its splendid instrumentation, but these, though, are just outward, technical merits which Mendelssohn possessed to an extent perhaps unsurpassed by any other composer of the German school. As a matter of fact Mendelssohn's works show such formal perfection and the fluency of their chord sequences attains such a level of ideal purity that—strange though it may seem!—they can come across as sickly-sweet, as varnished, if I may put it that way.

After all, in real life we sometimes meet well-educated, intelligent people whose manner is unfailingly sweet and enchanting, whose conversation flows like treacle—people who never overstep the limits of exquisite propriety, who are always calm, immaculately dressed, well-combed and perfumed. Such people may charm you at your first encounter with them, but just try talking to them every day and you will soon see how quickly you become tired of their imperturbably graceful elegance.

Among the composers it is this type of musical personality that Mendelssohn embodies. Having very early on enchanted the whole musical world with his undeniably attractive qualities, and, in particular, with that graceful roundedness of form which his talented nature was able to command immediately (it was at the age of twenty that he wrote his finest work: the music to A Midsummer Night's Dream) [3], Mendelssohn soon became the head of a whole school of imitators, who strove to pick up not just his method of harmonisation and orchestration, but also his bitter-sweet melodiousness and all the peculiarities of his artistic manner.

For about twenty years Mendelssohn was the idol of concert-going audiences in both hemispheres and was also considered the supreme authority in the realm of his art, so that Schumann, for example, whose own talent by far surpassed Mendelssohn's in depth and vigour, nevertheless deferred to him in all respects. But since all this Mendelssohnism was essentially no more than a fashion, and fashions are short-lived, it was inevitable that Mendelssohn's fame and authority would fade just as quickly as they had flared up in the first place, and that, like any intense movement, they provoked a strong counter-reaction. In Germany nowadays, as well as in our own country's most progressive musical circles, people have swung over to the other extreme, effectively denying Mendelssohn's high, if not particularly profound, creative gift, which is beyond all question.

However, the incorruptible voice of aesthetic criticism will eventually do justice to Mendelssohn. For he will always remain a paragon of faultless stylistic purity, and there will also be rightful acknowledgement of his sharply delineated musical individuality, which though it may fade before the splendour of such a genius as Beethoven nevertheless stands out miles above from the host of innumerable workmanlike musicians of the German school.

In the aforementioned string quartet the second movement is particularly charming: an Allegretto full of verve which is delightfully scored and has a melody with a rhythm of great originality. The Finale is extremely interesting because of its splendid polyphonic combinations. Its form is also remarkably original in that, quite unexpectedly, twice during the development of the theme we suddenly hear the charming minor melody from the initial Allegro movement. This strikingly successful deviation from the standard string quartet form produces an enchanting impression.

Beethoven's somewhat antiquated sonata in A-flat major (with the first-movement variations) was splendidly played by Nikolay Rubinstein with the energy and enthusiasm that are so characteristic of him. The audience was enraptured by his extraordinarily poetic performance of the work.

At this matinée concert we also heard a string sextet by Brahms, one of the leading lights of German instrumental music. There was a time when all of Germany looked to him as a composer who was still young and who it was hoped would lead the art of music there along new, untrodden paths; who seemed endowed with such creative powers that would not only put him on a par with his great predecessors, but even allow him to eclipse them. The stir that accompanied the appearance of Brahms's first works in the German musical world (in the early 1850s) was in fact caused by Schumann.

It is well known that the greatest artists rarely have the gift of an infallible critical instinct and that, on the contrary, they are often extremely lenient in judging their fellow-artists. We find a striking example of such critical softness of heart in Schumann, who all his life prostrated himself before Mendelssohn, Chopin, Berlioz, and even before such nonentities in the realm of composition as Henselt [4] and Giller [5]. Yes, Schumann, who went into genuine raptures over the slightest manifestation of talent in others, but who didn't realise his own worth!

Towards the end of his life Schumann, by means of the newspaper he had set up in Leipzig [6], started to proclaim the imminent arrival of the musical Messiah who would illuminate the whole world of music with the rays of his genius and inherit the place left vacant by Beethoven. When Brahms's first sonatas came out, Schumann, with the laconic phrase: "He has appeared!", informed his readers about the advent of the eagerly awaited genius whom he duly proclaimed to be none other than the young Brahms. Time, however, has shown that this rash step by Schumann was the mistake of a generous and ingenuous artist who allowed himself to be carried away far too easily.

For Brahms has not justified the hopes that were placed on him by Schumann and consequently by all of musical Germany. He is one of those mediocre composers of which the German school can boast so many. His style of composition is polished, fluent, and clear, but lacks the slightest gleam of original talent; he is content to just keep on milling the wind with musical ideas that everyone has long since grown tired of, and which he has borrowed mainly from Mendelssohn, though at the same time he has also tried to imitate some of Schumann's external mannerisms.

Brahms is not without talent, and that is the reason why he is head and shoulders above so many of his contemporaries, but he does not have any of that individuality which might somehow make him stand out from other modern German composers, not to mention those unrealised hopes about his 'genius'. The string sextet which we are discussing here does not, moreover, belong to his best works.

Of the four movements into which it is divided I particularly liked the Andante with its sweeping, vigorous theme and its beautiful development through a set of variations. The last of these variations (on a d–a fifth) left a charming impression on me, thanks mainly to the instrumentation. The Scherzo is also not lacking in verve and brilliance, but the first-movement Allegro and the Finale are no different from what we find in works of this kind by such contemporary German composers as Bargiel [7], Raff [8], Rheinberger[9], Volkmann [10], and a whole phalanx of other artists who deserve respect for their splendid technique and earnestness of style, but who lack that spark of inspiration which would infuse their works with life and strength.

The third chamber music matinée, which was distinguished by the collaboration of so fine a musician as Mr Laub [11], featured a rather weak string quartet by Raff [12], who belongs to the same league of composers as Brahms, the splendid Piano Trio in D minor by Schumann and a string quintet by Beethoven which is very rarely performed, and which, it must be said, does not belong to his most significant musical creations. This matinée was the final one in the Russian Musical Society's series of chamber music concerts for the current season.

The First Symphony Concert of the Russian Musical Society

Many are the bitter moments which people in Moscow who are earnestly devoted to art in general, and to our national Russian art in particular, have to endure. As far as the level of musical culture of our public is concerned, our venerable capital lags significantly behind not just the major musical centres of Western Europe, but also behind Saint Petersburg, where many of the negative aspects of its musical life are at least compensated for by the secure and stable presence there of a well-endowed Russian Opera Theatre which is not subject to uncertainties and the arbitrariness of individual persons.

The public there takes a lively interest in everything that concerns music, and the way that musical events are always in the public eye is clearly reflected in the Saint Petersburg press which devotes quite a considerable amount of space to music criticism. Even if the reviewers there often quarrel amongst themselves and do so, moreover, with such zeal that their altercations have sometimes even led to court examinations (as in the case Famintsyn v. Stasov) [13]; even if in the heat of their polemic fervour they sometimes pronounce, for all Russia to hear, such radical and extreme opinions about music as to leave one quite nonplussed, this very same exaggeratedly passionate attitude to their task as critics does testify to the existence of musical factions in Saint Petersburg and consequently also to the presence there of struggle, movement, and life. We do not have anything like that here: as in so many other aspects of public life in Moscow, there is in its music, too, a sense of lull, a death-like slumber, an attitude of imperturbable nonchalance towards the interests of art, dejection and stagnation.

That is why music-lovers can find such welcome spiritual balsam in the Russian Musical Society's concerts, whose excellent programmes, high performance standards, and the large audiences they invariably attract all testify to the fact that Russian art could flourish in Moscow, too, if there were to emerge from our midst even more people full of energy and wholeheartedly devoted to their vocation like those to whom the Russian Musical Society is indebted for its resplendent and seemingly secure existence.

Last Tuesday the Society's first symphonic concert of the season took place. The most important work on the programme was Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. In this symphony, the third he wrote, we see how the immense, astounding force of Beethoven's creative genius reveals itself fully for the first time, since in his first two symphonies he comes across as no more than a talented follower of his predecessors Haydn and Mozart.

The first movement of this symphony amazed Beethoven's contemporaries because of the novelty of its grandiose form and the laconic punch of its main musical ideas from which the composer, by means of splendid polyphonic development and an orchestral technique of unsurpassed perfection, was able to create his colossal work. Indeed, the main theme he used for the first Allegro was a short fanfare of just four bars which undergoes several kaleidoscopic modifications and variations to make up the symphony's most important movement. It is followed by an Andante of a sombre and funereal character in which one can readily hear the universal laments for the downfall of the hero whom Beethoven mentions in the title of his symphony: "Sinfonia Eroica composta per festeggiare il sovvenire di un grand'uomo".

Attempts of various kinds have been made in Germany, as well as in our country, to explain the fiery Scherzo, so full is it of fantastic episodes, and in this innocent, yet ultimately quite irrational striving to clothe the elusive contours of Beethoven's fantasy with real images, some people have gone to such curious extremes as the Saint Petersburg critic "Rostislav" [14], who has suggested that in this Scherzo Beethoven was seeking to portray a cavalry charge on the enemy infantry lines. But however that may be, it is undeniable that this Scherzo, with its unexpected opening on a VI–V chord from the strings and its joyful fanfares in the middle, produces a most enchanting impression on the listener.

The symphony ends with a brilliant, fiery Finale that is full of triumphal jubilation. I was glad to observe that the members of the audience at this Russian Musical Society concert, many of whom, not so long ago, would have been going to concerts just to take a look at everyone else and to show themselves in society, listened to the symphony with great attention and openly demonstrated their approval at the end of each movement.

The overture to Schumann's opera Genoveva is one of the most delightful works by this composer of genius. With what compelling truth does he manage to convey here Genoveva's beautiful character and her suffering at having been so cruelly slandered! It would be wonderful if the Russian Musical Society's board of directors were to give us an opportunity to hear several more fragments from this splendid opera which for some reason never seems to be staged anywhere. For example, I can point to the crusaders' chorus in Act I, which even on a concert stage would surely cause a great impression.

In the vocal music section of the concert we heard a fragment from Liszt's recent oratorio Christus, namely the chorus with these words from the Gospel of St Matthew: "Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram" followed by "Simon Joannis, diligis me?" For a number of years now Liszt has been devoting himself almost exclusively to writing sacred music, to which he is drawn by the deeply religious disposition of his beautiful, truly Christian and meek soul. And, indeed, hardly any other composer has succeeded as he has in giving expression to the profoundly moving poetry of Christian love.

In his Legend of the Holy Elisabeth there are such irresistibly touching episodes as, for example, the death of Elisabeth, which are unmatched by anything else of this kind. For in Beethoven's masses, which are permeated by that very same spirit of sombre despair in the struggle with life that was embodied above all by Byron in the first half of our century, we hear the cry of an exhausted soul which searches in vain for a way out of its suffering. The words of the liturgy in these masses merely serve as a pretext for the powerful lyric effusions of sentiment by the purely subjective genius that Beethoven was. Liszt, on the other hand, who found reconciliation and peace for himself in religion, seeks, in his works of sacred music, to express objectively the poetically moving idea of Christian humility and love. He is as far removed from the classical dryness of Bach's, Handel's, and even Cherubini's sacred music, as he is also from Beethoven's masses, which, as I explained earlier, are effectively no different from his poetically intensive symphonies, except that they happen to be set to religious texts.

The aforementioned chorus by Liszt opens with a powerful recitative for the male voices who declaim the words: "Tu es Petrus" etc. Then, after Christ's questions to the Apostle, the women's choir steps in with the words: "Pasce agnos meos", and there ensues a delightful pastoral dialogue which could have come straight out of the Gospel, and which conveys the bright landscape of Palestine, where the words of brotherly, all-forgiving love were first pronounced. The other fragment from this oratorio by Liszt—the March of the Three Holy Kings—does not particularly stand out from his other instrumental works, even though we do find in it, as is always the case with Liszt, excellent instrumentation combined with graceful harmonic elements which are far removed from the usual German routine.

The soloist in this concert was again Mr Laub, who performed a violin concerto by the young Norwegian composer Svendsen [15]—a work which does show flashes of original talent, but which is also marked considerably by the routine of contemporary German symphonic writing. In the vast legion of German symphonists Mr Svendsen is no more than a rank-and-file soldier, though with the potential to be promoted to officer's rank at some point.

Now Mr Svendsen is a Norwegian by birth, and although in the violin concerto played for us by Mr Laub we could now and then discern a few allusions to his nationality (Norwegian and Swedish folksongs do have many things in common with our Russian songs!), it is nevertheless the case that Mr Svendsen is still heavily weighed down by the pressure of German routine, in which he so thoroughly steeped himself during his studies at the Leipzig Conservatory. There is no need to go into details about Laub's magnificent performance, though I must say that this time there was a certain weariness in his playing, which is not at all characteristic of this inspired virtuoso. I had the impression that Mr Laub wasn't in his best form that evening. However, it is also true that Mr Svendsen's difficult and rather complicated work does not belong to those pieces which allow for a dazzling display of virtuosity.

As for the playing of the orchestra, there is no doubt that it was splendid, especially if we bear in mind how little time it had for the few rehearsals that could be organised because of the quite limited means of the Russian Musical Society, and also taking into account the difficulties that must inevitably arise when several members of the orchestra are also engaged to play in the opera-house and are overloaded with work there by Signor Merelli. Fortunately, though, the Russian Musical Society has in the person of Nikolay Rubinstein not just a splendid conductor, but, most importantly, one who is experienced and is able to make up for the lack of time and the unavailability of some players through his untiring and forceful efficiency.

The Italian Opera

All interest in the Italian Opera Company is now concentrated on the enchanting and inimitable Madame Patti. After La Traviata this lovely singer, a pearl among her colleagues, appeared in Rigoletto, Don Pasquale, and finally in one of the best roles of her repertoire: as the heroine in Linda di Chamounix. This latter production was particularly interesting in that alongside Madame Patti in the title-role it also featured, in the role of Pierotto, our young Russian singer Madame Eybozhenko [16], who had such successful débuts inA Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila.

I must confess that I was not a little anxious for Madame Eybozhenko because it is not very advantageous for a singer who has not yet made a name for herself to appear on the same stage alongside such a major figure as our, alas, ephemeral guest artist. An all too understandable timidity somewhat paralysed Madame Eybozhenko's energies at first, and she did not sing her first, off-stage aria particularly brilliantly, but nor was there anything bad about her performance. However, our singer managed to pull herself together and little by little her very good vocal means revealed themselves so successfully that in her duet with Madame Patti in Act II she was justly rewarded with the unanimous and enthusiastic applause of the audience.

May this important step in Madame Eybozhenko's career help to encourage her on her way, for this young singer must still carry on striving to overcome her faults if she wishes to become a fully accomplished artist. On another occasion I observed how Madame Eybozhenko wasn't very good at keeping time, how she seemed to suffer from a tendency to speed up her tempi excessively, making it nigh to impossible for poor Mr Shramek [17], who by nature is quite sluggish, to keep up with her accelerated singing in Ruslan. This time, however, I noticed that Madame Eybozhenko has begun to pay greater attention to accuracy of rhythm in her performance, and this is an achievement for which we must congratulate our young artist. May she carry on perfecting herself in other respects, too, and this cannot but serve to increase the pleasure which her singing gives the audience and make her success quite indisputable.

M. Naudin continues deservedly to enjoy the sympathy of our theatre-goers. In Linda di Chamounix, especially in his duet with Madame Patti, he again showed us the high level of his artistry and the noble gracefulness of his phrasing.

"B. L."

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Second and Third Quartet Mornings. First Symphony Concert of the Russian Musical Society. The Italian Opera' in TH, and 'The Second and Third Quartet Matinees—The First Symphonic Assembly of the Russian Musical Society—The Italian Opera' in ČW.
  2. The programme notes, however, state that it was Mendelssohn's String Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 12, and the description which follows confirms that it must have been this early work rather than the E minor quartet — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  3. Mendelssohn composed his Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1826, at the age of seventeen. The other incidental music for the play was written several years later.
  4. Adolph von Henselt (1814–1889), German composer, pianist, and piano teacher; worked in Russia for many years — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  5. Ferdinand Hiller (1811–1885), German pianist, conductor, and composer — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  6. The Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, founded in 1834 by Schumann and a number of his friends.
  7. Woldemar Bargiel (1828–1897), German composer from the circle around Schumann, Brahms and Josef Joachim — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. Joachim Raff (1822–1882), Swiss composer, teacher and pianist.
  9. Joseph Rheinberger (1839–1901), German composer and organist from Liechtenstein.
  10. Robert Volkmann (1815–1883), German composer and teacher.
  11. Ferdinand Laub (1832–1875), Czech violinist, conductor, and composer, taught at the Moscow Conservatory from 1866 to 1874 and was also chief conductor of the Russian Musical Society's symphony orchestra.
  12. Joachim Raff's String Quartet No. 4 in A minor, Op. 137, composed in the winter of 1866/67 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  13. In 1869, Stasov published in the newspaper Saint Petersburg Register (Санкт-Петербургские ведомости) two articles against the musicologist and composer Aleksandr Famintsyn (1841–1896), entitled 'Musical Liars' and 'With regard to a letter from Mr Faminzyn'. Stasov was charged with libel, and although he was acquitted of this charge by the court, he was sentenced to 7 days' house arrest and a fine of 25 rubles for "scandal-mongering and improper language" — note by Vasily Yakovlev.
  14. "Rostislav" was the pseudonym used by the composer and music critic Feofil Tolstoy (1810–1881) — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  15. Johan Svendsen (1840–1911), Norwegian composer and violinist; he composed his Violin Concerto in A major, Op. 6, in 1870 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  16. Zinayda Eybozhenko, Russian contralto. See TH 263 and TH 264 for Tchaikovsky's observations on her performances as Vanya (in A Life for the Tsar) and Ratmir (in Ruslan and Lyudmila).
  17. Ivan Osipovich Shramek (= Josef Šramek; 1815–1874), Czech composer who settled in Russia in 1861 and worked as a conductor at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre. After his death Tchaikovsky wrote an obituary on him (see TH 293) — note by Ernst Kuhn.