The Third and Fourth Symphony Concerts of the Russian Musical Society. The Italian Opera

Tchaikovsky Research
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The Third and Fourth Symphony Concerts of the Russian Musical Society. The Italian Opera (Третье и четвертое симфонические собрания Русского музыкального общества. Итальянское опера) [1] (TH 270 ; ČW 534) was Tchaikovsky's eighth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 29 November 1872 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

The article contains interesting critical reflections on Wagner's self-appointed role as the saviour of music; Tchaikovsky's important definition of opera as "a conventional, but beautiful lie"; a discussion of Wagner's leitmotif technique and how his music dramas were essentially symphonic works, to the detriment of melodious singing, which Tchaikovsky saw as the main priority in opera; recollections of an orchestral performance of the 'Liebestod' scene from Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Wagner himself in Moscow, in 1863; and further ironical remarks about Merelli's Italian Opera Company.


Completed by 29 November/10 December 1872 (date of publication). Reviewing the third Russian Musical Society symphony concert in Moscow on 17/29 November 1872, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Wagner's Faust Overture and Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony No. 3 in A minor; and the fourth Russian Musical Society symphony concert in Moscow on 24 November/6 December 1872, also conducted by Rubinstein and featuring Beethoven's Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21, Henry Litolff's Girondistes Overture; as well as the performances of various solo instrumentalists and singers at these two concerts, including Wilhelm Fitzenhagen playing a cello concerto by Servais, Pavel Schloezer playing in Anton Rubinstein's Piano Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 70 and Liszt's Grandes Études de Paganini, and the mezzo-soprano Yevlaliya Kadmina who sang an aria from Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito.

English translation

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At the present time Wagner is without any doubt the most prominent personality on the horizon of the European musical world. His music is still far from having become the property of everyone, from prevailing among the wider public not just of foreign countries, but even of his own fatherland. And yet, thanks to his impassioned polemic against all existing authorities, the exceptional nature of his situation in the political respect, the huge dimensions of the tasks to which he is devoting his energies—thanks to all this he has succeeded in concentrating the attention of the whole musical world on himself and in provoking the interest even of those spheres of the public in which art does not constitute a vital necessity.

Some consider Wagner to be the musical luminary who has inherited the first place among composers after Beethoven; others see in Wagner some sort of crank or charlatan in the mould of our own "Abyssinian maestro" [2]. Be that as may be, the fact is that his aim—if, with good reason, we assume that Wagner wanted to achieve fame and occupy a leading role at all costs—has certainly been reached by him. He has passionate followers, bitter enemies, his every move is watched closely, his every word is written about—in short, the public in both halves of the globe looks to him with love, hatred, or simply just curiosity.

Amongst those who work untiringly for the sciences and the arts it is possible to distinguish two diametrically opposed types.

On the one hand, there are those who, following their vocation, steadfastly go along the path to which they have been pointed by their life's task in accordance with their abilities and their individual characteristics. They do not choose for their motto some fashionable idea or other, they do not try to clear the road ahead of them by overthrowing authorities, they do not present themselves as instruments of providence whose mission it is to open the eyes of blinded mankind. Instead, they work, study, observe, perfect themselves, invent—all by virtue of the sum total of their innate qualities and the circumstances of time and place amongst which their activity manifests itself. They accomplish their task and step out of the arena of life leaving the fruits of their work to subsequent generations, so that these can benefit from or enjoy them. As representatives of this type of hardworking artist [truzhenik-artist] we may mention Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Glinka.

And then there are those who, consumed with excessive ambition and seeking to occupy a prominent place as quickly as possible, loudly force their way through the crowd, elbowing aside anyone who crosses their path, and trying to draw everyone's attention to themselves by doing something special. Such artists present themselves as standard-bearers of some new, albeit often false idea, and for the sake of realising the latter they are willing to violate their talent. All they ever do is amaze the world with their quixotic escapades, drawing attention to themselves not so much by virtue of their works as thanks to their larger-than-life personality. Wagner and to some extent Serov [3] can be classed in this group of people.

As the purpose of his artistic activity Wagner has set himself the task of raising opera to the level of "music drama" and banishing from it everything that is conventional, routine-like, and whatever does not accord with the demand of artistic truth. In a whole series of works of music criticism Wagner has protested against the abuse of the routine methods used by Italian and French opera composers which are not true to life in any way. Carried away by his hatred against the composers of the post-Beethoven age, Wagner styled them all as "Jews" who had disgraced art, and declared that the time of symphonic and chamber music was over for good, that now in music the new era of the music drama had begun, and that in this alone lies the salvation of art.

Thus, indirectly, Wagner is in effect telling the public: "Don't go to see any operas other than mine! In other operas everything is false and un-artistic, whereas in mine everything makes sense and is truthful. Stop going to concerts, since Beethoven said the final word in instrumental music and everything that has been written after him is no more than empty, pointless playing with sounds with which 'the Jews' want to entice your coarse lack of discernment. Listen to me alone and lend me your support, for I have come to save art from its perdition amidst the snares of 'Jewish' intrigues."

Wagner's delusions and self-aggrandizement went so far that one witty music critic quite justly compared him to the madman who, whilst showing a visitor round the lunatic asylum, scoffs at his fellow-inmates and at their errors and craziness, but in the end says of one of them: "He's the only one who shouldn't be here at all because he quite rightly considers himself to be Christ, and, you see, I know that for sure because I am Zebaoth, his father!"

And so Wagner has set himself up as a reformer in the realm of the music drama who is striving to establish truth where hitherto falsehood and banal routine had reigned supreme.

Without entering into a discussion about how the pretension of attaining real truth in such a conventional, but beautiful lie as opera is a shameless act of quixotry, let us, though, consider by which means Wagner is actually pursuing his aim.

Wagner entrusts the characterization of his protagonists to the orchestra. Usually, a short motif is associated with each one of them and whenever that person makes his appearance the corresponding motif is played by the orchestra. In order to avoid a mere monotonous repetition of the same motif, the composer has to avail himself of the variation form—i.e. by means of harmony and orchestral colouring he presents the motif in such a way that these two principal factors of musical expressivity convey the mood under whose influence the character in question pronounces the words put into his mouth by the librettist (who is none other than Wagner himself). The words themselves are adapted to the notes, which in their turn are made to tie in with the orchestral accompaniment so as to form a melodic phrase which corresponds to the music that was composed beforehand.

We are not dealing here with that austere renunciation of the beauties of graceful melodiousness for the sake of authentic declamation which Gluck or the late Dargomyzhsky were aspiring to (in the case of the latter when writing The Stone Guest), but, rather, with the method of a pure symphonist who is infatuated with orchestral effects and is for their sake willing to sacrifice both the beauty of the human voice and the expressive qualities which are inherent in it. And so it happens that because of the splendid, but far too loud orchestration, the singers, who have to deliver phrases that have been artificially tied on to the orchestra, cannot make themselves heard at all.

In the opera Tristan and Isolde there is a scene in which the passionate lovers die embracing one another, overcome with the sweet throes of sensual love. From a purely musical point of view this scene is strikingly effective, but when it was performed in its entirety at concerts in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, with Wagner himself conducting [4], it was done so without either of the protagonists—from which it is clear how little importance the persecutor of all that is nonsensical in opera attaches to what is sung by the characters, and what a lamentable role he allocates to that element in opera which should in fact dominate in it, according to common sense.

In the ensemble scenes each character is again given a melodic phrase which with great artistry has been moulded after the orchestral score. The chorus, which is supposed to represent the people, is divided into small groups each of which utters disconnected questions of some sort or other, or manifests its joy and grief in the following way, for example: "Behold! What is it? A swan! Yes, 'tis a swan! It swims! How close it is swimming up! Whence has it come? Why does it swim here? Wondrous, unheard of! O behold, behold!", etc [5]. When you look at all this in the score, you cannot fail to be amazed by Wagner's mastery, but in practice the effect does not work successfully—at any rate it does not accord with the composer's intention of giving as individualized a portrayal as possible not just to the opera's protagonists, but also to the separate choral groups. In practice what you hear is that very same orchestra performing a more or less successful passage of music (which, however, is invariably excellent from the technical point of view) and a most indeterminate and characterless mass of voices echoing the orchestra as they sing. Is this all not precisely the same empty playing with sounds against which Wagner so furiously inveighs as a critic, and are not the methods with which he intends to produce a revolution in opera music purely of an instrumental and symphonic kind? Is all of this Wagnerian propaganda not simply lamentable quixotry, more apt to kill rather than to revive vocal music, and which prevents Wagner's tremendous symphonic talent from revealing itself in its true splendour and in a musical genre which would be more congenial to his artistic nature?

Someone who in the past was very close to Wagner told me what he had once heard from the composer in a moment of frankness between good friends: "How I sometimes wish I could sit down to write a string quartet or a symphony—but I can't, for it is my duty not to step out of the boundaries of opera music!"

With these few words Wagner makes it clear to what extent a preconceived theory can lead astray a stubborn German who, whilst he may be admirably earnest and serious, is nevertheless endowed with a limited mental horizon [6].

The Third Symphony Concert of the Russian Musical Society

I hope my readers will forgive me for having, in connection with the performance of Wagner's Faust Overture at the Russian Musical Society's third symphony concert, expatiated so much on this composer. It is just that I wanted once and for all to state my opinion about Wagner, so that in future I do not have to attempt a general characterization of him again. This opinion of mine, which at present is still shared but by a few persons—since this composer has only enthusiastic devotees or embittered detractors—I shall formulate in the following way: Wagner, by virtue of his rich and original talent, could easily have stood at the head of the symphonic composers of our time if it hadn't been for his theoretic frame of mind and misguided ambition, which have led him astray from the path to which Wagner's true vocation beckoned him.

The Faust Overture, being the only independent symphonic work by Wagner and probably written in one of those moments in which the struggle between his false theory and the spontaneous inclination of his creative gift was resolved in favour of the latter, is Wagner's best work and at the same time one of the most splendid creations of German symphonic music. I do not know of any other lyrical work of art in which the suffering of a human soul that has begun to waver in its aims, hopes, and faith, has been expressed with such compelling pathos. The splendid themes (especially the passionate theme of the Allegro), as well as the excellent manner in which they are developed in the middle section, the strictly sustained and compressed classical form, and the colourful, dazzling orchestration—all these qualities turn Wagner's overture into a wondrous musical work which engraves itself deeply on one's mind and is worthy of standing alongside the finest symphonic creations of Beethoven and Schumann.

At this concert, whose programme was remarkably well selected, we also heard Mendelssohn's delightful Third Symphony in A minor. When discussing this brilliant composer's string quartet [7], I already had occasion to talk about his splendid qualities and shortcomings. The symphony which we are dealing with now combines both the former and the latter in their starkest manifestation. The same lack of depth, the same sugariness of melodic invention tending towards the minor keys, and yet also that very same plastic beauty in its form, that same inexhaustible charm in the details of the harmony and instrumentation. Just remember, for example, what an enchanting effect is produced by the cello phrase which repeats the first Allegro theme in the symphony's first movement, or the stormy chromatic scales played by the strings during the coda of this movement! How fluid, clear, and beautiful this all is!

And it is against this graceful composer, who is always so appealing for audiences, that Wagner aims his poisoned arrows in his critical writings, reproaching him with particular doggedness for belonging to the Jewish race! Indeed, this highly gifted Jew should have felt so ashamed of himself for having, with such insidious malice, delighted mankind with his instrumental works instead of lulling it to sleep with German conscientiousness, as Wagner has managed to do with his long, difficult, loud and frequently unbearably boring operas!

The Fourth Symphony Concert of the Russian Musical Society

At the fourth symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society we heard Beethoven's First Symphony and Litolff's Overture to Griepenkerls tragedy The Girondistes [8].

Beethoven's Symphony in C major belongs to that period in the great composer's career in which his original creative individuality still manifested itself but timidly, and then only in certain details in the elaboration of the themes and to some extent in the instrumentation. As far as the themes as such and the formal structure are concerned, Beethoven here is still no more than an excellent imitator of Haydn and Mozart. The Finale of this symphony is particularly nice, with its graceful and merry theme and the highly skilful and interesting manner in which it is developed. This symphony was received very well by the audience, which on the whole is beginning gradually to arrive at an appreciation of the beauty of Beethoven's music and to show great interest precisely in his works.

Litolff's overture to The Girondistes is a striking and dazzling work, albeit somewhat coarse in its form and instrumentation.

I do not know Griepenkerls play myself and am therefore unable to say how justified the episode in the overture's middle section is—that is, where the flute accompanied by the harp plays a melody of northern, Scandinavian character, but what I can say is that this episode is full of enchanting loveliness. The overture's Allegro and in particular its second theme are full of fire, passion, and movement; the concluding section, which is based on a military march-like theme [9], produces a strong impression, especially thanks to the splendid use of a brass choir, but in spite of all these merits, which testify to Litolff's genuine and striking talent, his overture to The Girondistes does not have that ideal organic fusion of the individual sections and thematic development of the main ideas which are characteristic of works of the classic repertoire.

It is interesting and instructive to consider the artistic evolution of this gifted artist, who with his piano concertos and his two overtures The Girondistes and Robespierre flared up on the dull horizon of contemporary music, then fell silent, but who has now emerged again from the waters of Parisian society life, which have become his element, with an operetta in the style of Offenbach, which, so it is rumoured, surpasses everything that has been written in this vein as far as exploiting the cynical inclinations of the Parisian boulevard public is concerned [10]. Making one's first appearance as a composer of piano music second only to Liszt, and then stooping so low as to imitate Offenbach, Hervé [11], and Lecocq [12]—that is a significant fact on which it is certainly worth pausing to reflect.

At these two most recent symphony concerts we had the chance of hearing four different soloists: the cellist Mr Fitzenhagen, the singer Nikolayev [13], the pianist Schloezer [14], and the young singer Kadmina [15]. Mr Fitzenhagen appeared before us as the soloist in a concerto by the late Servais [16]. I simply cannot understand what considerations could have led this musician to choose such ridiculous nonsense in order to display his virtuoso skills. If Mr Fitzenhagen thought that the public prefers music of the so-called lighter genre, then, although this is quite true, he should have borne in mind that light music, if it is to please, must also be good music at the same time.

Servais's concerto belongs to those works packed full with virtuoso passages, but devoid of any semblance of musicality, which were listened to by our grandparents in those unforgettable times when the only music that could find its way into our country was virtuoso music. Alas, those times are over for good, and all the more so for the audiences who come to the Russian Musical Society's concerts and who have in effect been spoilt by listening constantly just to works of good quality. Now Mr Fitzenhagen is a virtuoso of such genuine talent and earnestness that he can afford to defy the aforementioned predilection of our public for the light genre. He should not succumb to the weakness of certain virtuosi to pander to the masses' lack of sophistication; he must not stoop to their unenlightened level—on the contrary, it is the public which should ultimately elevate itself so that it can justly appreciate his talent and skill, both of which, I hasten to add, are beyond all doubt.

Mr Nikolayev is already known to the public thanks to his career on the opera stage, which for reasons I am not aware of came to a halt several years ago. He is a tenor whose voice is not big but which does have a very pleasant timbre, whose phrasing and training in the Italian school are splendid, and whose musicality is quite satisfactory. He sang beautifully one of Glinka's finest romances Virtus antiqua. Less successful was his performance of a not-so-striking aria by Stradella [17] because Mr Nikolayev's voice does not have the right natural prerequisites for its broad melodic character. All the same, it is nice to see Mr Nikolayev appearing again in the current musical season.

Mr Schloezer [Shletser], who was making his first public appearance here as a pianist, has a most extraordinary technique, but can boast of no other merits. His playing lacks clarity, suffers from an absence of feeling for rhythm and of artistic sensitivity in grasping the work to be performed as a whole and in conveying its finer details. As one says, he rattled off his pieces excellently, but played them terribly poorly. The Moscow public, which does understand a thing or two about virtuoso piano playing, since it has had the chance to hear both Bülow and Tausig [18] as well as often enjoying the concerts given by the Rubinstein brothers, simply cannot be satisfied by such 'rattling off'. It duly received Mr Schloezer's performance of Anton Rubinstein's piano concerto [19] very coldly, and it was only thanks to a technically most skilful rendition of Paganini's Études, transcribed for the piano by Liszt, that he managed to make up for the failure of his opening performance.

At the second concert Madame Kadmina enjoyed a great success with her performance of a long and difficult aria from Mozart's opera La Clemenza di Tito (an aria which is also somewhat antiquated in the technical devices it requires of the performer). This young singer has a sufficiently strong voice and, something that is quite rare, it is also spread evenly across all its registers. Apart from the fine schooling of her voice, I should also like to point out yet another considerable merit of Madame Kadmina's in the way that, despite her quite understandable stage-fright—considering that it was her first concert performance in front of a numerous audience—she was able to sing with great expressiveness and confidence. However, a comprehensive appreciation of Madame Kadmina's remarkable talent can only really be expected from those who saw her last spring in the role of Orpheus [20] at the Conservatory's public performances, especially at the last of these, which took place in the presence of the Emperor [21]. In addition to her vocal qualities, Madame Kadmina revealed, in her interpretation of the role of Orpheus, a talent which is by no means run-of-the-mill and which allows us to hope that a brilliant future of successes on the stage awaits her.

The Italian Opera

There is absolutely nothing to say about the Italian Opera Company for the time being, except to record the fact of its pitiable orphan-like existence, which, with the arrival of that splendid singer Madame Nilsson, will soon revive again considerably, though not for long, alas! In the meanwhile our public, which has finally realised that we do not actually have an opera company, but just two or three remarkable Italian guest artists, and is depressed by the growling of Signor Bolis e tutti quanti, is trying to find some diversion in hissing lightly here and there and timidly calling for Signor Merelli to come out onto the stage at the end of performances.

Well, why not let them hiss! They will kick up a fuss for a while, stomp out of the theatre angrily, but next spring, as soon as the first subscription tickets for the new season are offered for sale, they will again rush back en masse to pay their dues to Signor Merelli, the lord over our city-dwellers' purses.

"B. L."

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Third and Fourth Symphony Concerts of the Russian Musical Society. The Italian Opera' in TH, and 'The Third and Fourth Symphonic Assemblies of the Russian Musical Society—The Italian Opera' in ČW.
  2. It is under this name that the dilettante composer and writer on music Aleksandr Lazarev (1819–??) was generally derided. Lazarev, who claimed to have travelled through Africa and lived in Abyssinia for a while, organised in Russia concerts with his own works, and in 1860 he published in Saint Petersburg a pamphlet Lazarev and Beethoven, in which he compared himself to the German composer and was duly castigated for his megalomania by the Russian press — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  3. Aleksandr Serov (1820–1871), Russian operatic composer and music critic.
  4. These concerts, at which apart from Isolde's 'Liebestod', Wagner also conducted Beethoven's Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Symphonies, took place in 1863 and caused a profound impression on the young Tchaikovksy — translator's note.
  5. This ironic attitude on Tchaikovsky's part to Wagner's mythologizing libretti was also shared by such Russian writers as Tolstoy and Turgenev, who in a conversation with Taneyev in Paris in 1877 joked that he "couldn't understand what was going on inside the mind of a young man who is borne in by a swan (Lohengrin) or in that of a young lady who is in the habit of riding a horse through the clouds at night-time (Brünnhilde)"—quoted from A. Gozenpud,И. С. Тургенев: Исследование (Saint Petersburg, 1994), p. 48. The composers of the 'Mighty Handful' also disapproved of Wagner's representation of the people and took a different approach to this in their operas, especially Musorgskytranslator's note.
  6. This declaration, applied here specifically to Wagner but actually reflecting Tchaikovsky's more general views on how "preconceived theories" could harm any composer (esp. those of the 'Mighty Handful'), is remarkably close to the artistic credo of Turgenev as set out in his famous essay of 1869—On "Fathers and Sons" (По поводу «Отцов и детей») where he lamented how Tolstoy had been led astray by "preconceived ideas and systems" in the philosophical sections of War and Peacetranslator's note.
  7. Mendelssohn's String Quartet No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 12 (discussed in TH 268).
  8. Henry Charles Litolff (1818–1891), French pianist and composer, wrote this overture inspired by the Swiss dramatist Robert Griepenkerls tragedy in the wake of the 1848 revolutions in which Litolff supported the revolutionary cause — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  9. The theme is in fact the Marseillaise, which Tchaikovsky avoided naming directly, probably for reasons of censorship — note by Herman Laroche.
  10. It is likely that Litolff's operetta La boîte de Pandora (premiered in Paris in 1871) is meant here — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  11. Hervé (stage name of Florimond Ronger; 1825–1892), conductor and composer, considered the father of French operetta, in which genre he wrote some 80 works.
  12. Alexandre Charles Lecocq (1832–1918), French composer of operettas.
  13. Anton Nikolayev (1836–1904), Russian lyric tenor, composer, and collector of folksongs — note by Ernst Kuhn. Tchaikovsky dedicated one of the Six Romances, Op. 28 (1875) to him.
  14. Pavel Shloezer [Shletser] (1840–1898), Russian pianist, studied with Liszt, became professor at the Moscow Conservatory — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  15. Yevlaliya Kadmina(1853–1881), Russian mezzo-soprano and actress whose tragic suicide by taking poison in the middle of a performance of a play, when among the spectators she recognized the man who had betrayed her love, inspired a number of literary and musical works, most notably Turgenev's late story Klara Milich (1882), where the heroine also sings a romance by Tchaikovsky (None But the Lonely Heart—No. 6 of the Six Romances, Op. 6). One of the Six Romances, Op. 28 (1875) was dedicated to her by Tchaikovsky, who greatly admired her talent — translator's note.
  16. Adrien-François Servais (1807–1866), French cello virtuoso and composer of cello works, described as the "Paganini du violoncelle" by Berlioznote by Ernst Kuhn.
  17. Alessandro Stradella (1644–1688), Italian composer, violinist, and singer.
  18. Carl Tausig (1841–1871), Polish pianist and composer, studied with Liszt.
  19. Rubinstein's Piano Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 70.
  20. The title-role (for dramatic contralto) in Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice.
  21. The phrase "which took place in the presence of the Emperor" was omitted from the republication of this article in the Soviet collected edition of Tchaikovsky's writings— П. И. Чайковский. Полное собрание сочинений, том II (1953), edited by Vasily Yakovlev — but restored here by way of P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000), edited by Ernst Kuhn.