The Fifth Symphony Concert. The Italian Opera

Tchaikovsky Research
(Redirected from TH 271)

The Fifth Symphony Concert. The Italian Opera (Пятое симфонические собрания. Итальянское опера) [1] (TH 271 ; ČW 535) was Tchaikovsky's ninth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 8 December 1872 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

It contains interesting reflections on Weber's significance as a composer, which Tchaikovsky saw above all in his ability to give musical expression to the eerie and fantastic; on the lack of truly worthy successors to Mendelssohn and Schumann in the German school of music; a detailed approving discussion of Joachim Raff's "In the Forest" symphony; critical remarks about the conduct of certain fashionable theatre-goers at performances of the Italian Opera; and lavish praise for Christina Nilsson's interpretation of Marguerite in Faust, an opera which Tchaikovsky liked very much.


Completed by 8/20 December 1872 (date of publication). Reviewing the Russian Musical Society's fifth symphony concert in Moscow on 1/13 December 1872, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Weber's Euryanthe overture, Joachim Raff's Symphony No. 3 in F major "Im Walde", Op. 153, Mendelssohn's sacred cantata Op. 91 "Singet dem Herrn" (Psalm 98), and Henri Vieuxtemps's Violin Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 31 with Jan Hřímalý as soloist; as well as Christina Nilsson's first appearance with the Italian Opera Company in Gounod's Faust at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 30 November/12 December 1872.

English translation

Copyright notice
English text copyright © 2009 Luis Sundkvist
See our Terms of Use

The Fifth Symphony Concert

Weber's opera Euryanthe was written in the last decade of his life, at a stage in his career in which this splendid musician, through persevering hard work and seeking to overcome his innate deficiencies, had reached the acme of maturity and mastery as a composer. In Euryanthe, Weber's only opera without any spoken dialogue, we are struck by the particular care with which the details have been worked out, by the composer's evident striving to approach the classical ideal of an organic wholeness of form, and yet this opera, compared to Weber's two finest operas, Der Freischütz and Oberon, in particular the former, has always only ever enjoyed a moderate success with theatre-goers.

No audience seeks to understand the perfections of a work of art in its entirety—rather, it will be captivated by particular things in the latter, and sometimes, for the sake of the attractiveness of a small fragment, for the sake of some specific piquant detail, it will give preference to a mediocre work over a masterpiece. That is why Der Freischütz, which is full of splendid individual numbers and constitutes in effect a hastily stitched-together series of small unconnected forms, occupies such a prominent place in the operatic repertoire of all countries and nations. Weber's inspiration manifested itself in this opera with greater spontaneity and without a strict critical attitude on the author's part towards the forms in which it is expressed, and that is the reason why for so many years now this opera has been such an abundant source of delight for audiences, providing as it does such unfading beautiful details which can easily be assimilated by public opinion.

Despite his inability to give organic wholeness to the great forms, as a result of which deficiency the German critics apportion to Weber a lower rank in comparison to the great classic masters Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, it is nonetheless the case that among the German composers Weber's was a vivid and highly original talent. In his finest works Weber managed to take certain aspects of musical beauty to the highest level of perfection and thereby opened up new paths for art. Weber's mighty creative force manifested itself especially strikingly in his use of music to convey the fantastic element of art. In this respect his significance was immeasurably great, and he exerted a huge influence on such later masters as Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Glinka, and Wagner.

As a symphonist Weber gave us three excellent samples of his talent in the overtures to his three finest operas: Der Freischütz, Oberon, and Euryanthe. These pieces do not have that plastic completeness which distinguishes Beethoven's symphonic works, but they are nevertheless full of radiance, fire, and poetry, and they present us with many details of enchanting loveliness. One of these is the extraordinarily poetic episode in the middle of the Euryanthe overture that interrupts the ardent, fiery Allegro with which the overture opens. The contrast between the radiant themes of the Allegro and the vague sense of mystery, which is expressed in the instrumentation of this episode through the muted strings, produces an enchanting impression.

Equally delightful in its originality is the fugato passage which comes immediately after the above Andante episode. The angular rhythm of its theme after the diffuse rhythmic contours of the preceding section, the splendid elaboration of the theme, which gradually becomes more complicated until finally leading to the return of the brilliant Allegro, all this is full of incomparable novelty, freshness, and originality.

I am very glad that the overture by Reinecke [2], which had originally been announced for the programme of the Russian Musical Society's fifth symphony concert, was finally replaced, for reasons of which I am not aware, by the Euryanthe overture. Reinecke is a complete musical nonentity, and the Musical Society's audience certainly did not lose out on anything not having heard his boring, watery works in which there is nothing apart from endlessly repeated depressing melodies in the style of Mendelssohn and lamentable attempts to copy the latter composer's harmonic and orchestral effects. The Euryanthe overture, on the other hand, was played with that enthusiasm which comes over our orchestra when it is given the finest works of symphonic music to perform.

The most important work on this concert's programme was Raff's [3] "Im Walde" ["In the Forest"] Symphony [4]. I have already had occasion—in issue No. 242 of the Russian Register[5]—to point out the significance of this composer with regard to a string quartet of his which was performed at one of the Russian Musical Society's chamber music concerts, and now, with regard to his new symphony, which has attracted the attention of the whole musical world and is performed successfully in all the major music centres, I would like to discuss his career in more detail.

Ever since death, with such untimely haste, struck down Mendelssohn and Schumann (the former died at the age of 38, the latter when he was 46), no creative talent has appeared yet in the field of symphonic music of whom one could say that he had begun a new artistic era, in the same way that the two aforementioned composers heralded, through their works, a new post-Beethovenian school of symphonic composition. With the exception of Liszt, who, properly speaking, does not belong to the German school and stands apart from it, among the now living composers there is not a single one who, despite the individuality that he may to a greater or lesser extent happen to display, is not an imitator of one or the other—and often of both at the same time—of these two great symphonists of the modern age.

Whether it is the fortuitous appearance of people of genius that leads to revolutions in art, or whether, on the contrary, it is specific epochs which, through the combination and interplay of the various historical factors that prevail in them, bring forth people who are called upon to achieve great things in their chosen fields—that is a question which it is beyond the competence of a feuilleton chronicler to resolve. I can only state the fact that, in spite of the existence of an entire legion of highly productive composers who have attained a certain degree of technical mastery, we are living through a period which is comparatively poor in talents and whose only source of illumination still comes from the light which is irradiated by the geniuses Mendelssohn and Schumann. There are only two symphonic composers in our times whom I could point to as standing out quite vividly against the greyish backcloth of modern music-making: they are Anton Rubinstein and Raff.

The latter is considerably inferior to Rubinstein in terms of the strength and originality [samobytnost'] of his talent, but he does surpass him in technical craftsmanship, in the ability to achieve a wholeness of form and the working out of the constituent details. Raff has attained his high position amongst contemporary composers and secured success for his music through assiduous hard work and by vigorously fighting against his natural shortcomings, in particular the poverty of his inventive faculty. But what is there that cannot be achieved by earnest hard work?! Raff, by gradually perfecting his naturally limited gifts, has obtained brilliant results, and I am hardly mistaken in calling his latest symphony the finest of all the symphonies that have been written in the past decade. It is considerably better than another symphony by the same composer, entitled "An das Vaterland" ["To the fatherland"] [6], which is remarkable in some of its episodes but is altogether too long and uneven in form.

In the first movement of his new symphony, which is meant to give a musical illustration of the various impressions one may have when walking through woodland, Raff attempts to convey the feelings that the quiet of a forest at midday can awaken in the wanderer. Both of the main themes of this Allegro are indeed pervaded by a sense of quiet, serene enjoyment of a peaceful forest landscape. The quietness is but fleetingly interrupted by the rustling of leaves as a gentle breeze sweeps through; from afar we vaguely hear the call of a shepherd's horn which is answered by some other distant calls from elsewhere, and then we are back again in the imperturbable quiet of the forest thicket… For the benefit of the specialists, I should like to point out the charming detail of how an orchestral pedal note effect is repeated several times in the treble clef, in both the tonic and the dominant, whereby the strings, gradually becoming quieter, modulate across various keys and finally fade away in the tonic triad.

The second movement (Andante) is the best one in the whole symphony. It is based on a delightful cantilena which is splendidly harmonized and adorned with an incredibly felicitous instrumentation. A particularly enchanting effect is produced when the main melody appears for the last time in the violas and cellos, accompanied by the violins con sordino. This movement fully manages to convey the vague, sweet emotions which one feels at dusk amidst the darkness of a forest.

The Scherzo is meant to illustrate a fantastic Dance of the Dryads. This movement went down especially well with the audience thanks to the spicy instrumentation that successfully camouflaged the rather wishy-washy themes, which were not at all original and even lacked the fantastic aura required of the composer for a scene of this kind.

In the loud and striking Finale we are shown a wild hunt galloping through the forest with brilliant fanfares and cries of frenetic high spirits. The themes are not particularly novel, but characteristic all the same. Their development is most interesting, and the orchestration is colourful and accomplished.

Then the hunting party vanishes in the distance, quietness descends again on the forest, and the rays of the rising sun drive away the darkness of night. The symphony closes with a triumphantly radiant theme, which is quite appropriately played by the four French horns and leaves the listeners with an impression of the mighty beauty of the bright daylight that is shining on eternally beautiful Nature.

Mendelssohn's Psalm for eight-part chorus [7], which was sung properly and clearly, but without that brilliance which is required for choral works intended for a large number of performers, did not produce any effect whatsoever. But that is not surprising, for it is one of Mendelssohn's weakest works. Apart from the ever masterful technique, which we find even in the least successful works by this composer, it has no merits at all to boast of. Had it been performed by a huge, well assembled chorus, its vocal and harmonic effects might have made up for the colourlessness of the work, but, as I have already mentioned once before, our chorus (especially the soprano and tenor voices) is unable to achieve a strong and high quality sound.

The violinist Jan Hřímalý, who played a delightful, poetically conceived and splendidly scored violin concerto by Vieuxtemps, was rewarded with enthusiastic applause from the audience. This virtuoso's musicianship, of course, fades before the colossal talent of Mr Laub, who has almost spoilt our public, so often has he appeared in concerts. But all the same it is impossible not to recognise Mr Hřímalýs great merits, in particular his fine technique and remarkably clear and intelligent playing. His tone is quite voluminous, though not particularly agreeable. At any rate, even if he is not quite a virtuoso of the first rank, he is a very remarkable one, and here in Moscow he is, it goes without saying, second only to Laub.

The Italian Opera

Although it was with great difficulty and at the price of many anguished moments, I nevertheless managed to be present at the Italian Opera last Thursday (the 30th of November) for Madame Nilsson's début in the role of Marguerite.

My anguish was caused by a sense of my highly commendable love for the fatherland in general and for our ancient capital in particular having been offended. Now it may perhaps seem strange that a musician could love Moscow of all places, in which there are so few gratifying occurrences as far as music is concerned— Moscow which can boast of a 'Slavyansky Bazar' Hotel [8], where a Slavonic orchestra delights the ears of citizens who have come to get a snack or to buy some shoes and clothes, but which at the same time was unable to maintain its own Russian Opera Company— Moscow in which so useful an institution as the Conservatory was on the verge of collapse because of the lack of public interest and only found the means for a secure subsistence thanks to the support of the highest spheres of an enlightened administration!— Moscow which rushes to the box-office when such splendid artists as La Patti, Nilsson, or Naudin [9] are singing, but which also fills the theatre in order to hear the howling of Signor Bolis or Madame Stella Bonheure! However, although I am a musician, I am at the same time also a townsman of the city of Moscow and I therefore love this place as the Laplander loves his snowfields and smoke-filled yurts, as the mouse loves his hole, and the Jew his native Berdichev [10].

That is why I cannot help feeling ashamed each time, rather like the mannerly son of a merchant family which has become rich whenever his little mother, in the presence of respectable company, utters some such coarse word that you would be hard put to find it even in Reiff's dictionaries [11]. I am overcome by great anguish whenever our little mother Moscow makes a fool of herself in front of foreigners. At this Moscow début of Madame Nilsson there were a number of Prussian officers who had taken their seats in the Emperor's side-box. Well, it was also with them in mind that I felt so ashamed for our little mother Moscow and her worthy public. What will civilized foreigners think of us if they are regaled with such dreadful singing as that of our chorus—singing to which we have, alas, become so accustomed that we just take no notice of it any longer?! What opinion can they have of us when they see that we present such jewels as Madame Nilsson, Madame Patti, and M. Naudin, surrounded by such dirty and shabby scenery?! What will they think if our public behaves in the opera-house just as if it were at a fair?! And all this when such a magnificent opera as Gounod's Faust is being performed! [12].

The conduct of the 'upper spheres' of the theatre was intolerable. It is said that only respectable people sit up there in 'the gods' at performances of the Italian Opera. Well, if this word is meant to refer to gentlemen dressed in coat-tails and ladies adorned with chignons, I will of course not deny the fact of their respectability. But everyone knows that quite frequently a simple, rough peasant will show greater delicacy and behave more decently than many an immaculately dressed aristocratic fellow. The point is that the respectable people who sit in 'the gods' of our theatre are completely unable to check their spontaneous impulses—whereas it is precisely in such self-control that so-called respectability consists of. These worthies just want to make a stir and announce their presence through immoderate and inappropriate applause, or through equally inappropriate hissing.

Let us say, for example, that Madame Eybozhenko [13] is singing some insignificant little song in Act II, and that she sings it with her young, fresh, and beautiful voice, though not particularly well. And all of a sudden we hear a brief salvo of hissing from the gallery, which, even if it is drowned out by protests from the more judicious members of the audience, cannot but deeply wound this young, beginning artist. Have these zealous connoisseurs ever stopped to think how such stern, but for the most part quite unjustified, manifestations of their disapproval are likely to make our singer's heart sink as if weighed down by a heavy stone?

Here is another example: Madame Nilsson, with deeply moving sincerity, is performing the scene in the church where the Evil Spirit appears before the crushed and horrified Marguerite, and she is led away to her house, as if she had been struck by thunder, and collapses senselessly at its threshold. Immediately, a volley of bravo cries and frenetic applause rains down from the gallery, and the unfortunate Madame Nilsson, without having yet had time to overcome the profoundly moving emotions that her strong empathy with Marguerite's tragic situation had awakened in her, must for the amusement of these ladies and gentlemen walk out onto the stage again and squander smiles on her vulgarly enthusiastic admirers.

Do these fine connoisseurs really imagine that Madame Nilsson feels flattered by their coarse show of encouragement, that she has any need of all these inappropriate curtain calls? With the objectivity of genius which characterises her acting, she manages to deeply move those members of the audience who are susceptible to true artistry and to carry them away into the heavenly spheres of a profoundly aesthetic delight, but then the inhabitants of the gallery, who have come to the theatre merely to make noise, assume the role of a bucket of cold water and with their vulgar intervention hasten to drag down both this singer of genius and the listeners overwhelmed by her performance into the realm of ordinary, everyday prose!

Now I shall say a few words about Madame Nilsson, this magnificent artist, whose appearance on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre will mark a whole epoch in the chronicle of our theatre life.

Madame Nilsson is endowed with a wide vocal range, and although her voice is not as metallically clear as we usually find in Italian-trained singers, it is nevertheless uncommonly pleasant and agreeable. In the middle register of her voice one can even hear a certain huskiness, but such is the enchantingly graceful femininity of Madame Nilsson's whole personality that even this very huskiness is as it were also capable of acting as a further irresistible charm on the listener. At any rate the main vocal effects in her performance are based on sustained notes (tenues) in precisely this, essentially the weakest register of her voice. By the way, as far as her high notes in dramatic moments are concerned, Madame Nilsson does not have to fear comparison with the vocally most outstanding Italian singers. Her high notes sound strong and fine because of their open timbre, and she is able to deliver them with great ease. The coloratura technique which she has developed is splendid: her trills, roulades, and fiorituras are natural, light, and graceful. And so from the point of view of her vocal qualities, Madame Nilsson is an extremely pleasing, even if not quite unique, phenomenon.

However, the reason for her huge success lies not so much in her vocal merits as in the combination of a most winning and graceful outward appearance with a truly extraordinary gift for acting, which without any doubt secures for her the first place amongst all living prima donnas. I am taking into account here the fact that Madame Viardot has long ago retired from the stage, that Madame Artôt's career is coming to its end, and that Madame Lucca [14], after her American tour, has announced her intention to leave the stage and not sing in Europe again.

Madame Nilsson's interpretation of Goethe's Gretchen—whom the French librettists decided to spare and did not distort in any appreciable way when turning her into Marguerite—comes as close as you can get to embodying the ideal which Goethe had before him, and all this thanks to the amazing objectivity of her acting. In Madame Nilsson, quite independently of the outward finish which her gestures and body language acquired in Paris—that is, the best place in which to learn self-possession for the stage—we find that fullness of pure feminine charm, unadorned by anything artificial, which is essential for playing the part of Marguerite. This strenuous and demanding role was performed by her all the way through with compelling truthfulness, with the high pathos that was always at her command, and with a remarkable consistency.

I was especially and profoundly impressed by Madame Nilsson in the scene by the window in Act III, after her love duet with Faust. Here you could hear such genuine emotion as her heart flared up in sudden passion, such unaffected depth and simplicity in her youthful, unconditional love, that it seemed as if, together with the singer, you were yourself living through one of those fleeting moments of youth which indelibly engrave themselves in your soul for the rest of your life.

The reader is perhaps expecting me to make the comparison which seems to be on everyone's lips now: who of the two is better, Adelina Patti or Christina Nilsson?

Without going into a detailed comparative appraisal of the two singers, let me just say this: Madame Patti, all her phenomenal qualities notwithstanding, is in the end no more than a charming and amazing child full of life and naïve coquettishness. She will never grow into a woman. Madame Nilsson, in contrast, is the embodiment of poetic femininity. She is a worthy interpreter of that ideal type of feminine beauty which hovered before the eyes of Shakespeare and Goethe when they created the immortal figures of Ophelia, Cordelia, and Gretchen.

"B. L."

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Fifth Symphony Concert. The Italian Opera' in TH, and 'The Fifth Symphonic Assembly—The Italian Opera' in ČW.
  2. Carl Reinecke (1824–1910), German composer, conductor, and pianist.
  3. Joachim Raff (1822–1882), Swiss composer, teacher and pianist.
  4. This programme symphony was written in 1869 and is considered to be the best of Raff's eleven symphonies. Turgenev liked it so much that after hearing it for the first time he sent the composer the latest German edition of his collected works with a personal dedication — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  5. See TH 268.
  6. Raff's Symphony No. 1 in D major, Op. 96 (written between 1859 and 1861, and premiered in Viennain 1863). This symphony in five movements was awarded the top prize in a competition organized by the Vienna Philharmonic Society — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  7. Mendelssohn's sacred cantata Op. 91 "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied" (Psalm 98) for soloists, eight-part chorus, orchestra and organ, was first performed on New Year's Day 1844 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. See TH 265 for an ironic description of the musical events held at the Slavyansky Bazar Hotel.
  9. Emilio Naudin (1823–1890), well-known Italian tenor of French origins. See also TH 265.
  10. An historic city in northern Ukraine with a large Jewish population — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  11. The Swiss lexicographer Carl Philipp Reiff (1792–1872), who was based in Saint Petersburg as a teacher of foreign languages, was a recognized authority in the Russian language and wrote several important text-books and parallel dictionaries of Russian, French, German, and English — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  12. This whole paragraph and the last phrase in the preceding one "and the Jew his native Berdichev" were 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.
  13. Zinayda Eybozhenko, a young Russian contralto in whom Tchaikovsky discerned great promise and whom he tried to encourage and give advice to in his reviews. See TH 263 and TH 264.
  14. Paoline Lucca (1841–1908), famous Austrian-born Italian soprano.