The Eighth Russian Musical Society Concert. The Italian Opera

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The Eighth Russian Musical Society Concert. The Italian Opera (Восьмое собрание Русского музыкального общества. Итальянская опера) [1] (TH 276 ; ČW 539) was Tchaikovsky's thirteenth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 24 February 1873 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

This article contains a tribute to Haydn's historic achievements in the development of symphonic and chamber music, as well as some remarks on his limitations when compared to Mozart and later composers of the Romantic age; reflections on Mozart's genius in Don Giovanni, "the first among all operas", which expand on what Tchaikovsky had already said in TH 262; an attack on Wagner and his imitators in Russia, as well as (indirectly) on Dargomyzhsky and The Stone Guest, for neglecting the essential requirement of beauty in their music; a comparison of the poor quality of opera productions in Moscow with Saint Petersburg, where not only the Italian Opera was of a much higher standard but also new Russian operas like The Maid of Pskov and Boris Godunov were being staged.

History

Completed by 24 February/8 March 1873 (date of publication). Reviewing the eighth RMS symphony concert in Moscow on 9/21 February 1873, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring the overture to Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer, the first of Moritz Hauptmann's three Kirchenstücke for chorus and orchestra, Op. 43, Haydn's Symphony No. 103 in E-flat major, as well as Schumann's Humoresque, Op. 20 (played by Nikolay Rubinstein); and a production of Mozart's Don Giovanni by the Italian Opera Company at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 12/24 February 1873.

English translation

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The Eighth Russian Musical Society Concert

The programme of the last Russian Musical Society concert was not selected particularly well. Apart from a splendid piece for the piano by Schumann—his Humoresque, which was excellently played by N. G. Rubinstein, but which because of its design and delicate character belongs rather to the genre of chamber or salon music than to the symphonic concert repertoire—we did not hear at this concert anything of significance, that is anything of the kind which causes Moscow's poor music-lovers, who so rarely get a chance to enjoy good music, to eagerly await each symphony concert as if it were a feast-day.

Besides, instead of Schumann's piece, however elegant and full of poetry it may be, I would gladly have preferred to hear any good piano concerto with orchestral accompaniment, especially since there was after all an orchestra present in the concert-hall and considering also the fact that there are quite a few works of this kind in the repertoire. It is also worth bearing in mind that in Moscow we only have one truly accomplished pianist, and that it is not so often that we are able to hear the striking concertos of Liszt, Litolff, A. Rubinstein, and others.

The overture to Wagner's opera Der fliegende Holländer must count as one of the weakest works by this master. Apart from its good instrumentation, Wagner's overture cannot boast any particular merits. Besides, the piece is too fragmentary, too insignificant in terms of form and scope for it to be performed as a separate concert number. The calls from the brass instruments amidst the tempestuous roar of the strings, with which the overture opens, are very beautiful, but the second theme is coarse and ordinary, and therefore unsuitable for symphonic treatment.

We then heard a religious choral work by Hauptmann [2], the sagacious musical theorist from Leipzig who died some five years ago. This piece confirmed yet again that it is one thing to be a profound musical expert, the inventor of new theoretical systems and an investigator of the laws of musical creation, and that it is quite another to be able to write good music. Hauptmann's work is faultless from the point of view of overall structure, it is skilfully constructed and shaped, but it is utterly devoid of musical content. You can listen to it with patience and even with some pleasure (since regular and fluent combinations of sounds are always beautiful), but already on the day after hearing such a work you will find that you have forgotten not only what it contained, but also the very fact of its having been performed at all.

At any rate, the author of these lines, who listened to Hauptmann's work with great attention, can now only remember that it persistently kept repeating the following words: "Thou, Lord, hast shown me the right track, I would not have found it by myself!" I think that the "right track" which Providence showed to Hauptmann was the track of musico-theoretical investigations, and that he really shouldn't have deviated from this wide road onto the narrow path of composing. For the latter has not led him anywhere.

Finally, this concert concluded with one of Haydn's numerous symphonies. I admire very much the estimable, even great, services which the good-natured old Haydn performed for the advancement of symphonic and chamber music. He immortalized himself if not by the invention, then most certainly by the elaboration of that splendid and ideally logical form of the sonata and symphony which Mozart and Beethoven would subsequently raise to the utmost level of perfection and beauty. Haydn is an indispensable and strong link in the chain of symphonic composition. If it hadn't been for him, we would not have had Mozart or Beethoven—or, at any rate, these two colossi of music would have developed differently; the ground on which they had to rise would have been less well-prepared beforehand, and in the growth of their huge genius they would have encountered great obstacles. However, without denying for one moment the invaluable historical achievements of Haydn, one cannot but recognise that his was not a talent of exalted rank, that he did not go beyond the 'nice' and 'pretty' and never once struck those mysterious chords in the human soul from which later composers have drawn such affecting and deeply pathetic tones…

It is not for a humble music chronicler to go into the historical conditions and biographical circumstances which influenced the development of Haydn as a composer. Would Haydn have been more tragic, profound, and passionate if he had been born in a different age? Can one not account for the slickness and elegant coldness of his music by pointing to the customs and milieu into which he was born? Is it not so that Haydn is unable to stir the listener profoundly, to draw forth tears of enthusiasm and overwhelm one with the strength and pathos of his mood, because he did not live to see the epoch ushered in by the Romantics of the generation that followed his, with all their inner doubts, torments, and vague yearnings? All these are profound and interesting questions which I leave open to those who are fond of aesthetic philosophizing.

I said earlier that Haydn was confined entirely to the sphere of the 'nice' and 'pretty'. In every one of his symphonies you will find some playful little episode, a colourful, kaleidoscopic playing with sounds which must inevitably captivate a musical ear. For this reason one just cannot say that Haydn ought to be excluded once and for all from our concert programmes. Especially here in Russia, Haydn's music constitutes a phase which our public must necessarily go through before it is mature enough to be able to fully appreciate Beethoven. It would, however, be desirable that, as a counterweight to his light and superficial ideas and forms, major works by later composers should also be performed in the same concert.

And that is why I must criticise those responsible for drawing up the Russian Musical Society's programmes, in that they offered us a nice, though somewhat monotonous, symphony by Haydn, but failed to counterbalance it with some other long symphonic work.

I have already mentioned Schumann's Humoresque above. This is a splendid fantasia for the piano, full of brilliance, inspiration, delightful contrasts, and thrilling moments, but it seems to me that such a work is not quite appropriate for a concert involving the participation of a huge, well-selected orchestra, which, though it certainly listened spellbound to Mr Rubinstein's highly artistic, riveting, and poetic playing, nevertheless had to sit there doing nothing for a good three quarters of an hour! The point is that we could instead have heard one of the splendid piano concertos by Liszt, or one of his rhapsodies and fantasias; or the brilliant virtuoso works by Litolff which our magnificent pianist plays so amazingly well; or any of the various other works for piano and orchestra which rarely get performed here.

Anyway, here I will end my brief report on the eighth Russian Musical Society symphony concert and move on to our Italian Opera, from which we have now taken leave until the next season, much to the regret of our passionate Italomaniacs, for whom life isn't worth living if they can't hear Signor Marini's hoarse chest notes, Mme Volpini's trills, and all the other delights to which Signor Merelli, that benefactor of both our capitals, so generously treats us.

The Italian Opera

The Italian Opera Company put on Don Giovannias their farewell performance for us. The music of this opera is so good that, no matter how low the overall standard of our company is, one cannot but be gladdened on reading the title of this opera announced on the posters, and, forgetting all previous experiences in this regards, one immediately rushes off to get hold of a ticket. However, once in the theatre one soon bitterly repents of one's imprudence, since it is better not to hear Don Giovanni at all, than to hear it as it is performed in our city. I shall return to a discussion of the performance later, but now I would like to say a few words about the opera itself.

When speaking earlier about Haydn, I remarked that every work of art, however much it may have surpassed the artistic level of the age and society in which its creator lived, must inevitably bear the stamp of its time. No matter how profound and strong an artist's creative gift is, in the compositional devices of his oeuvre he will not be able to free himself from those characteristic, purely external peculiarities of form which subsequently, through their misuse by artists of lesser talent, turn into routine and finally acquire a merely archaeological value. Thus, it is not surprising that the greatest creations of human genius in the realm of the arts age with time. In the works of Raphael, Shakespeare, and Mozart, in spite of all the profundity with which they were conceived, we find such traits and external characteristics which, since they are a product of their time, do not meet the requirements of modern tastes [3].

But from this it does not by any means follow that the hand of time can wither the very essence of a work of art, and that is why, despite having been created more than eighty years ago, the opera Don Giovanni, thanks to the unfading and inexhaustible strength of Mozart's inspiration, has aged only in a merely technical respect. For we hear this opera today with the same enthusiasm, with the same plenitude of impressions that it once awoke in the hearts of our grandparents and great-grandparents. Haydn and Mozart both belong to the same epoch; only a relatively brief space of time separates us from them, and yet music after them has made such bold strides, the stylistic devices used by composers have changed so much, orchestral technique has become so manifold and complicated, that we associate these two composers with that rococo style which stands in such stark contrast to the unbridled and dishevelled Romanticism that subsequently prevailed among later artists, to those broad strokes and bright colours which contemporary art likes to flaunt.

However, Haydn—a superficial and coolly elegant composer—has aged much more than Mozart, since in all respects he has been surpassed by subsequent composers. Mozart, being a strong, many-sided, and profound genius, has aged merely as far as the form of his instrumental music is concerned. In the field of opera he does not have a single rival to this day. His orchestration, in comparison to that of Berlioz or Meyerbeer, is of course on the thin side; his arias are somewhat drawn out and are marred at times by pandering to the virtuosic whims of his singers; and it is also true that his style reflects the primness of the courtly milieu of his time. And yet, all the same, his operas, in particular Don Giovanni, are filled with beauty of the highest sort and moments full of dramatic truth; his melodies are enchantingly graceful; his harmony is luxuriously rich, albeit simple. But, apart from all that, Mozart was a master in musical and dramatic characterization, and no other composer apart from him has succeeded in creating such utterly consistent, profoundly and truthfully conceived musical types as Don Giovanni, Donna Anna, Leporello, and Zerlina.

As was mentioned above, the weak side of Mozart's operas are his long concert arias which give singers the opportunity to dazzle with their artistry, but which do not always contain moments of truly outstanding musical beauty, even though here too Mozart's sense of melodic gracefulness never fails him. In his ensemble scenes, on the other hand, which serve to advance the dramatic movement of the work, he has given us unattainable paragons of musical creation.

All the scenes with Donna Anna, in particular—this proud, passionate, and revenge-thirsting Spanish woman—are profoundly tragic. Her heart-rending cries and groans over the corpse of her murdered father, her horror and thirst for revenge in the scene where she encounters the man who is responsible for her misfortune—all this is rendered by Mozart with such gripping intensity that, as far as the strength of the impression produced is concerned, he is matched only by Shakespeare in his best scenes. In contrast to the sombre figure of Donna Anna, how much grace and spontaneity of feeling we find in Mozart's Zerlina! And with what mastery he makes his Leporello always come across as of one mould in the most varied situations! Finally, how much splendour, sensual beauty, and winning cheerfulness there is in the role of Don Giovanni himself!

However, if we were to analyze one by one all the details of this incomparable opera, there would be no end to our crying out loud in amazement and admiration. Among the most outstanding parts of the opera I would like to single out the finale of Act I, the scene by the Commendatore's tomb, the sextet in the scene where Leporello, dressed in his master's clothes, is taken for Don Giovanni by everyone else, and, finally, the renowned scene with the Commendatore's statue, where Mozart has conveyed so remarkably the threatening words of the apparition, the sceptic Don Giovanni's struggle with his horror at this unexpected guest, and Leporello's cowardly bewilderment.

Works of art cannot be subjected to mathematically exact measurements of their aesthetic value in relation to other works of art, but if there is an opera which deserves to be called the first among all operas, then without hesitation I would award this first place to Don Giovanni. Regardless of the greater or lesser extent to which the laws of musico-dramatic truth are observed in this opera, without going into certain anachronisms (for example, the minuet during a Spanish popular festivity) and a few other mistakes, which incidentally are not subject to musical criticism, there is so much beauty in Don Giovanni, such a wealth of musical material, that it could easily fill a dozen of our modern operas, whose authors, chasing after realism, truthfulness, and accuracy of declamation, forget, in their naïve quixotism, that the very first requirement of any work of art is beauty. This is precisely what the German Wagner and our home-grown imitators of his operas so sorely lack.

There is no need to say much about this production of Don Giovanni. Given the criminal carelessness with which any good opera is staged in our city, could one really expect that Don Giovanni would be performed at least with some degree of artistic integrity?! With the exception of Signor Cotogni [4], a fine singer who sang the role of Don Giovanni with confidence, sensitivity, and passion, all the other members of the cast were below all criticism. The performance of Mme Volpini was particularly unbearable, for not only had she not learnt her part properly, but she also endowed Zerlina with a wholly unsuitable air of indecent coquettishness. For the role of Donna Anna, which invariably requires a talent of the very first calibre, even fifteen Mmes Urban would have proved unequal to the task, and so it is not surprising that her performance in this pathetic role looked like a parody instead—so inadequate were the vocal means of this soprano, who is otherwise quite a good and solid singer.

Mme Ferucci, with her characteristic uncouthness, bleated her way through the role of Donna Elvira. M. Vidal, who is distinguished by an utter lack of comic gifts, endowed the character of Leporello with a certain bustling and feverish restlessness, which in no way tally with the type intended by the librettist of Don Giovanni. The choruses, which, fortunately, are not particularly difficult in Don Giovanni, sounded, as always, feeble and pale, whereas the orchestra, under the baton of its ridiculous conductor Signor Orsini [5], made a mistake almost at every beat, confused the singers, and dragged out or implacably accelerated the tempi.

And so the opera season has come to an end, and if we now sum up the activity of our opera stage during this winter, the results we get are lamentable. True, in the course of this last season Moscow has for the first time had the chance to hear that splendid artist, Mme Nilsson, and M. Naudin, an excellent singer of the old school, as well as being able to enjoy again the inimitable artistry of La Patti. But what does all this have to do with the flourishing of Russian art, with helping it to achieve general recognition in the tastes of our theatre-goers, who are so exclusively devoted to Italian opera?

At the same time that in Saint Petersburg the repertoire of their Russian Opera Company was enriched with the addition of two new operas (The Maid of Pskov by Mr Rimsky-Korsakov and Boris Godunov by Mr Musorgsky) [6] and the revival of two great foreign operas ( Mozart's Don Giovanni and Wagner's Lohengrin), we have been subsisting on the same dried-up provisions from the Italian musical kitchen. Whereas over there the brilliant situation of their Italian Opera Company in no way undermines the secure existence of the Russian Opera, and both companies there have an excellent orchestra and choruses, we are forced to make do with the crumbs that fall from the table of the happy citizens of Saint Petersburg, and for the pleasure of hearing La Patti or Mme Nilsson once or twice, we are condemned to endure, throughout the whole winter, Messrs Bolis and Costa, as well as Mme Stella Bonheure, and to put up with the wailing of our women's chorus and the scraping of our microscopic orchestra.

But who is to blame for all this? We, of course, more than anybody else. All we ever do is just grumble at Signor Merelli and at our theatre management; we complain about the rude way in which the aforementioned linchpin of our theatre world treats us, but our protest does not go beyond such fruitless grumbling. As soon as in springtime the sale of season tickets for the new season of the Italian Opera is announced, we will all rush to Bolshaia Dmitrovka Street, near Gazetnyi Pereulok, and after plenty of kicking and elbowing secure for ourselves the coveted seat for 20 performances, only to grumble and rage at Signor Merelli again, and then, during the following spring, to queue up once more outside the box-office, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. Yes, precisely ad infinitum. At any rate, there is no sign at present of any fulsome reaction against all this in the majority of our theatre-goers, and if our planet does not go under in some natural cataclysm, then a hundred years hence we will still be as indifferent to the humiliation of our native art, as we are now.

I consider it my duty to say something good about Mme Honoré [7], who a few days ago said her farewell to the stage. Alongside great faults, this singer also has various undeniably good qualities, in particular a beautiful voice and musicality. Lately, having lost her voice but conserved all her bad habits—unnatural diction and over-straining her vocal means—Mme Honoré has completely forfeited her previous charm. Five or six years ago, however, before Signor Merelli descended on Moscow, she was an honour to our Russian Opera, and through her fascinating interpretations of the roles of Vanya, Ratmir, Rogneda, and the Princess in Rusalka [8], she helped considerably to make the best Russian operas popular here in Moscow.


Our so-called concert season begins next week, and it does so, moreover, with two very interesting concerts to be given by Messrs Naudin and Bezekirsky [9]. The former has been a favourite of our public throughout the whole winter, whilst the latter is a compatriot of ours who over the last few years has been acquiring great repute abroad as one of the finest violin virtuosi of our times. Mr Bezekirsky is a native Muscovite, but, as was to be expected from our venerable city, it was only after all the other European musical capitals that she discovered that in Mr Bezekirsky she had brought forth and nurtured a remarkable virtuoso.

At any rate it is to be hoped that Moscow will now hasten to show Mr Bezekirsky the sympathy which he deserves and which he has been receiving everywhere abroad. The concert with Mr Gerber [10] also looks very promising, and I think it will also be the first time that the Moscow public will get to hear Mme Platonova [11], who is so beloved by audiences in Saint Petersburg.

"B. L."

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Eighth Russian Musical Society Concert. The Italian Opera' in TH, and 'The Eighth Assembly of the Russian Musical Society—The Italian Opera' in ČW.
  2. Moritz Hauptmann (1792–1868), eminent German music theorist, composer, and violinist, cantor of the Thomaskirche in Leipzignote by Ernst Kuhn.
  3. This and parts of the following paragraphs repeat almost word for word what Tchaikovsky had already written about Mozart and Don Giovanni in TH 262.
  4. Antonio Cotogni (1831–1918), famous Italian baritone, appeared with the Italian Opera Company in Saint Petersburg from 1872 to 1894 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  5. Luigi Orsini (1805–1881), Italian opera conductor — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  6. The Maid of Pskov was premiered in Saint Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre on 1/13 January 1873, and on 5/17 February of that year three scenes from Boris Godunov were also performed for the first time in the Mariinsky.
  7. Irina Honoré (b. Pilsudskaya; 1838–1917), Russian contralto, married to the French pianist and composer Leon Honoré — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. See TH 281 for a nuanced appraisal of Dargomyzhsky's opera, which Tchaikovsky liked every much.
  9. Vasily Bezekirsky (1835–1919), well-known Russian violinist, leader of the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre orchestra from 1861 to 1891 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  10. Yuly Gerber (1831–1883), Russian violinist, violist, composer and conductor of ballet music — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  11. Yuliya Platonova (real name Harder; 1841–1892), Russian soprano, sang at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg from 1863 to 1876 — note by Ernst Kuhn.