A Frank Discussion with the Reader. The Russian Musical Society. The Italian Opera
A Frank Discussion with the Reader. The Russian Musical Society. The Italian Opera (Объяснение с читателем. Русское музыкальное общество. Итальянская опера)  (TH 283 ; ČW 548) was Tchaikovsky's twentieth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 19 December 1873 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".
This article contains very interesting reflections by Tchaikovsky on what had originally induced him to take on the task of a music critic (above all, hopes that he could enlighten the Russian public and raise its level of music appreciation—very much in the tradition of Vissarion Belinsky, the great literary critic of the 1830s and 40s—as well as to promote the cause of Russian music, which in Moscow was suffering from the preferential treatment given to Merelli's Italian Opera Company); a bitter confession that in this endeavour he had suffered the fate of a Don Quixote, encountering either indifference to what he had to say or having to endure ingratitude and scorn (including that of César Cui in Saint Petersburg!), but finally a declaration that he was determined to persevere in his work as a critic; an interesting appraisal of Cherubini whom he compares to Beethoven in certain respects; enthusiastic remarks about Mendelssohn's music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, which Tchaikovsky considered to be his finest work; and an appeal to the Italian Opera Company to overhaul its repertoire with new works such as Verdi's Aida, of which Tchaikovsky speaks very highly.
Completed by 19/31 December 1873 (date of publication). Concerning Tchaikovsky's self-assessment of his endeavours as a music critic; a Russian Musical Society chamber music concert which took place in Moscow on 10/22 December 1873 and featured Cherubini's String Quartet No. 1 in E-flat major (1814), Beethoven's Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 "Appassionata" (played by Nikolay Rubinstein), and Mendelssohn's Sextet in D major for piano and strings (1824; first published in 1868); the 4th RMS symphony concert in Moscow on 14/26 December 1873, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Karl Davydov's symphonic fantasia Gifts from the Terek, Op. 21 (1871–72, based on Lermontov's poem), Liszt's arrangement for piano and orchestra of Schubert's Große Fantasie in C major ("Wandererfantasie"), D.760 with Frits Hartvigson as the soloist, Chopin's Nocturne in B-flat minor, Op. 9, No. 1, Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 8 (both also played by Hartvigson), and Mendelssohn's incidental music for Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 61.
A Frank Discussion with the Reader
Some two months have passed since I wrote my last musical chronicle for the feuilleton section of the Russian Register. During this quite long period of time our newspaper has continued to report on every more or less significant event in the music life of our ancient capital, and provincial readers who are interested in the development of music in our major cities have been able to draw on the Russian Register, just as before, for news-items on Moscow's music life. However, the number of events worth mentioning specially during this whole period was so small that not once did I deem it necessary to avail myself of the columns which have been allotted to me in the feuilleton section. And, besides, apart from the scarcity of notable events and the terrible monotony of it all, there is another reason why I preferred to remain silent and lapse into a melancholy contemplation of everything that has been happening in the sphere of public life which it is my remit to observe. So be it: I shall confide this reason to my readers.
All this time lately I have found myself weighed down by a sense of profound, hopeless disillusionment as to the use and value of my endeavours in the field of music criticism. When about a year and a half ago I undertook to have these regular musical conversations with readers, I set about this task with a certain degree of ardour. In my childlike naivety, in my blind, deeply ingrained faith in the strength of the printed word, I imagined that I could make myself useful to my fellow-citizens by contributing to their musical and aesthetic development, by guiding their tastes, influencing their opinion, and explaining to them the merits and faults of this or that musical event or work which were subject to public appraisal .
Strictly speaking, there was nothing particularly audacious about this, and the hopes I cherished that useful results would arise from my efforts as a critic are by no means proof that I was suffering from an inordinate lack of modesty. Given that I was already quite a well-versed specialist in my profession, why was it unreasonable of me to hope that I could be a guide of public opinion in musical matters, especially since, by means of a press organ with a considerably wide circulation, I was being given the opportunity to address tens of thousands of readers?
However, daily experience soon started to throw cold water on the fire of critical fervour which was consuming me, and gradually sobered and cooled down my zeal for working as a reviewer. I began to notice that my fellow-citizens not only did not become any wiser through my impassioned appeals and arguments, not only did they not submit to my views and opinions, but that they were not even listening to me! Since everything that I said went against their most cherished affections and their deep-rooted attraction to all that is coarse and vulgar in art, they did not even trouble themselves to hear me out when I admonished them, and I quickly realised that mine was the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
When, with genuine enthusiasm, I talked about the qualities of beauty and genius that are so liberally scattered in the works of Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, and Glinka, my fellow-citizens passed by me laughing as they hurried to the Italian Opera for the umpteenth time, in order to revel in the 'inspired melodies' of Maestro Verdi or to listen spellbound to the lascivious motifs of Offenbach.
When I undertook to explain to them the inexhaustible wealth of musical beauty which lies hidden in Russian folk-song and castigated those charlatans who would distort all this beauty and who, moreover, had no qualms in exploiting the patriotic sentiments which fill the heart of every Russian, my fellow-citizens flocked to the concerts of the self-styled "Russian" singer Mr Slavyansky .
However, the ridiculousness of my quixotic feuilleton-writing manifested itself most clearly when I set about evaluating the performances of those singers who appeared on the stage of our city's opera-house. Although our public does not deign to concede the honour of its acquaintance to Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, and other great masters of classical music; although our public professes even to ignore its illustrious compatriot Glinka, there is no doubting its passionate attachment to the Italian Opera.
In the course of the long winter season, amidst the poverty and dullness of social life in Moscow, the Italian Opera truly does acquire a towering significance for us. The appearance or disappearance of this or that soprano, the qualities and merits of this or that tenor, their high and low notes, their trills and chest tones, their gait, chignons, moustaches, dresses, and gestures—all these things attract the public's undivided attention. Little by little there also emerge various factions of fans rivalling each other in their support of La Patti or Madame Albani , of Signor Masini  or M. Naudin .
The hostility between these factions, the vacillation of the majority, which now sides with one faction, now with another, the benefit performances which they organize for their beloved singers, the gifts which are presented to the latter, the quarrels which arise as to which is the more appropriate present (a samovar or a goblet, a ring or a diadem, a silver brooch or a sable fur?)—all these are facts of great interest for the wider public and serve as a kind of stimulus to awaken society from its usual state of slumber. It would therefore seem that press reviews about these idols of the public ought to interest everyone passionately, and that surely here one could hope to detect some influence by the printed word on the public, and that the intensity of applause for this or that singer at the opera-house would be correlated to what people had just read in my articles.
But here too I was forced to realise how utterly insignificant my role as a reviewer is, to realise that my explanations and indications are superfluous, and that all my endeavours have been quite pointless. For whenever I argued that Madame Patti is an inimitable and great artist, I would straightaway encounter dozens of people who, in a tone of absolute conviction, proudly denied that she had any serious merits at all. Whenever a feuilleton of mine appeared hot off the press in the morning, containing my sharp criticisms of Signor Masini's lamentable lack of musicality, elegance, and talent, I would that very evening in the theatre have to witness the wildest ovations being lavished on this singer for some high note which he had managed to produce in his characteristic brutal way.
Like all my fellow-critics, in my reviews I would give vent to my indignation at the sight of the disgraceful humiliation which Russian opera is forced to endure in Moscow, in the so-called heart of Russia. Thus, I castigated the Directorate of Imperial Theatres for its pandering deference to Signor Merelli at the same time as Russian singers are made to wait in vain for engagements at our state-funded opera-house, or, if they do secure contracts and even manage to win the sympathy of the public, are forced to content themselves with a paltry salary (knowing, of course, that they can be dismissed at any time for the sake of measures of economy).
Furthermore, I vigorously criticised the Directorate for the abysmal conditions which prevail at our theatre (and which are completely unacceptable for the opera-house of a capital city), for the way in which the orchestra is perennially understaffed and the chorus unable to produce any sounds other than hoarse squeaking. But were my philippics, laced as they were with the most poisonous arrows of irony, rage, and indignation, even heard by anyone? Is it not still the case that our theatre-goers, whilst being able to hear as always such everlastingly beautiful' works as Il Trovatore and La Traviata, continue to be deprived of the opportunity to see even just half-decent stagings of our best Russian operas: Ruslan and Lyudmila, Rusalka, Judith, Rogneda, The Power of the Fiend?  Is it not so that the entrepreneur of the Italian Opera continues to have at his unlimited disposal all the resources of our state-funded theatre, which enables him to absorb all the money of the Muscovite public (as well as its time), so that neither the ballet troupe, nor the Russian Opera Company, nor even the Russian Musical Society can book an evening there without having to fear that Signor Merelli, or his deputy, will suddenly come up with some extra performance to be held on that very evening for the supposed 'benefit' of one of his singers, or with some other special event not included in the guide that was handed out to the season-ticket-holders?!
In this shameful way in which the musical under-development of Moscow's inhabitants is being exploited by an Italian entrepreneur—an exploitation which entails a lamentable and quite irreparable abasement of Russian art and Russian singers—it is difficult to decide who is more to blame: the Italian impresario and his accomplice, namely the Theatres' Directorate, or the public, which bears its yoke so willingly and every spring rushes so eagerly to Dmitrovka Street to get hold of season-tickets?
Ablaze with indignation, one is inclined to attack both sides with equal zeal, and what is it that happens? Well, it turns out that this struggle is just the same as Don Quixote's tilting at windmills! 
It would, though, be a different matter if, after having realised the futility of one's zealous efforts, one could at least count on the support of those artists for whose sake one has been breaking lances in desperate charges against invulnerable enemies, and if one could draw fresh strength from their sympathy. But, alas no! One can't get anything out of them other than trouble! In this respect I could tell my readers quite a few interesting anecdotes.
For example, in the preceding season I often mentioned in my articles a highly esteemed singer with the sympathy which she quite rightly deserves. Some of her colleagues in the temple of Thalia and Melpomene thought that my reviews were exaggeratedly enthusiastic, unjustified, and biased, and I even received witty and not so witty letters from people who cruelly made fun both of me and the object of my sincere admiration. Fortified by a sense that I was right and despising all these jibes and insults, I imagined that I had at least secured this singer's goodwill. But how surprised I was when I found out that the person I had so zealously been trying to encourage for some reason considered my reviews to be hostile to her, insufficiently enthusiastic, and indeed unjust!! 
Another singer, who is far less worthy of respect and whom I had the boldness to reproach that she did not learn her roles properly and was somewhat careless in the fulfilment of her obligations, goes about saying . Then there is the case of a certain musician from Saint Petersburg, whom in passing I had accused of dilettantism, without, though, denying his talent at all, and who concocted a whole story based on anonymous letters and published one of them in its entirety in one of the major weekly newspapers .
However, I shall now end my jeremiad and beg my readers' forgiveness for having talked at such length about the various thorns strewn along the perilous path which a music critic of our capital city Moscow must tread, whether he likes it or not.
I should add in conclusion that the phase of my disillusionment as to the exiguous usefulness of my activity as a critic has come to an end, and that my spirit has now entered that phase in which someone who has been tried and tested by life, despite having lost his faith in the imminent realisation of his ideals, nevertheless refuses to lay down his arms and is determined to continue steadfastly with his struggle, in the hope that his very stubbornness will finally attract attention, that his voice will be listened to at least to some extent, and that people will recognize the truth which (to the best of his capacities) he is proclaiming..
This favourable change in my mood was brought about by the following three verses, which recently came into my mind by chance, and which I had once carefully copied into my exercise-book at school:
"What! Do you, water-drop, really think that you can hollow me…
Me, who am made of granite!—why, you really are ridiculous!"
But the drop silently kept on dripping and dripping—and hollowed the rock! .
And so, dear reader, from now on you shall be the witness of a grandiose single combat, in which the public will play the role of the huge granite rock, and I will persistently keep dripping. As to whether I shall succeed in hollowing it, that is for time to show.
The Russian Musical Society
Last week, the Russian Musical Society—the only musical institution which our capital can rightly be proud of—organised two extremely interesting concerts: a chamber music soirée and a symphony concert.
At this first soirée of the new series of chamber music concerts we heard the following works: a string quartet by Cherubini (in E-flat major), a piano sonata by Beethoven (in F minor—the so-called "Appassionata"), and Mendelssohn's Sextet in D major.
I don't recall whether I have already had occasion to say something about Cherubini. This composer is a very interesting figure in the history of music. He was born in Italy and nurtured on the works of composers of the Italian school, which was then (in the last decades of the 18th century) entering a phase of steep decline. Then he went to Paris, where he spent most of his life in a musical milieu which was extremely hostile to the brilliant German symphonic school (already then headed by Beethoven). And yet, Cherubini appears before us in his works as a true exponent of the classical style.
He may be inferior to Beethoven in the strength of his creative gifts, but he is certainly the German composer's equal in his amazingly elegant technique and remarkable mastery of form. In the works of this 'degenerate' Italian what is particularly striking and worth studying is the fact that his style resembles that of Beethoven very closely, even though he certainly did not try the imitate the latter, especially considering that, as Berlioz informs us (Mémoires de Berlioz, p. 74) , Cherubini was quite hostile to Beethoven and saw everywhere in the latter's works audacious deviations from those conventional rules which he himself adhered to in his capacity as Director of the retrograde Paris Conservatoire.
In the string quartet which I am referring to here, the stylistic affinity between Cherubini and Beethoven is particularly evident. The finest movements in this quartet are the Andante , which is based on a theme and variations, and a minor-key Scherzo with a delightful central section that is full of fire, humour, and splendour .
Mendelssohn's Sextet, which is splendidly instrumented but doesn't have any particularly outstanding idea at its core, rounded off the evening, during which we also heard N. G. Rubinstein perform, with his usual mastery, the abovementioned sonata by Beethoven.
The symphony concert which also took place last week introduced the friends of the Russian Musical Society to a new, quite interesting work by the renowned cellist K. Yu. Davydov: his symphonic fantasia Gifts from the Terek.
This piece, if I am not mistaken, is the first orchestral work by this revered virtuoso, who until now had exclusively written works for his own instrument. In his cello concertos Mr Davydov has always adhered to long-established traditions, and, being a former professor of the Leipzig Conservatory (the most conservative of all conservatories!), he is generally regarded as a representative of the old classical German school. In his fantasia, however, he has showed himself to be a desperate innovator, who has thoroughly discarded all those solid scholastic principles which he was brought up on in Leipzig.
His fantasia is remarkable for its brilliant orchestration, even though the latter is somewhat marred by a predominance of woodwind instruments. Every bar in it testifies to its author's high degree of musical maturity. However, what his work hardly has to offer is novelty of ideas that could captivate the listener, an extensive and organic development of such themes, and formal beauty when the work is considered as a whole. Instead of thematic development, Mr Davydov resorts merely to a constant repetition of one and the same themes. The individual movements of the work are, it seems to me, stitched together very haphazardly.
It is only at the end, starting from a very beautiful tremolando of the violins in their highest register (which, by the way, is strongly reminiscent of Wagner) , that Mr Davydov's music becomes suffused with genuine inspiration. This extremely beautiful upsurge of the orchestra's sound at the end compensates the listener for a certain monotony in the middle section, which, as I said, is marred by its fragmentary formal structure and the excessive predominance of woodwind timbre. In any case, the fantasia Gifts from the Terek is certainly very interesting to listen to, and allows us to hope for more works from this highly gifted artist in which his indisputable talent can display itself in all its power.
Mr Hartvigson, who is already well-known to our public from his appearances last year at concerts of the Russian Musical Society, performed Schubert's Phantasie as arranged for piano and orchestra by Liszt, a Nocturne by Chopin, and one of Liszt's own Hungarian Rhapsodies. This pianist must surely be classed amongst the very best—of which, it should be said, there aren't that many across the whole of Europe. His technique is faultless, and, in addition to that, his piano touch is remarkably strong and his playing is endowed with the most graceful expressiveness.
After these pieces we heard Mendelssohn's splendid music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. How strange is the fate of this marvellous work of art! It was written by an eighteen-year-old schoolboy , who subsequently went on to become world-famous, but who never again composed anything that could possibly match his first and finest work. I think that at the time of its first performance the music to A Midsummer Night's Dream must have produced a truly stunning effect, for it is so original, inspired, and poetic!
Unfortunately, this music loses a considerable portion of its charm when it is performed on the concert podium, without the text it is meant to accompany. Many of the play's delightful melodramatic sections are unsuitable for concert performance because of their unfinished nature, and so they are left out altogether. But, apart from these details, other passages which are indeed fully rounded vocal numbers in their own right cannot be appreciated in their entirety if the listener does not also have the chance to see the action on the stage in this wonderfully fantastic work of Shakespeare's. Anyway, the music was performed splendidly, and the appealing voice of Madame Belyayeva, who was singing the solo part, caused a most pleasant impression.
The Italian Opera
Madame Albani, a rather mediocre singer, who has been mentioned several times already in the Russian Register, has recently been enjoying a run of hugely successful appearances at the Italian Opera—triumphs which are quite incomprehensible to me. Far less acclaim has fallen to the lot of Madame Penco , a singer who is truly of the highest rank by virtue of both the amazing mastery with which she deploys her still very beautiful voice and her remarkable dramatic talent. The company's repertoire is still confined to a small number of all too familiar operas which have long since managed to set everyone's teeth on edge, and yet it would be so easy to renew it and liven things up a bit. For example, I should like to point to Aida, a new opera by Verdi in which this maestro shows himself in a completely new light—and a very attractive light it is too, I hasten to add .
Notes and References
- Entitled 'Observations From Readers. The Russian Musical Society. The Italian Opera' in TH, and 'To the Reader—The Russian Musical Society—The Italian Opera' in ČW.
- In Russia, even at the end of the eighteenth century, because of her backwardness compared to Western Europe as far as the press and book market were concerned, it was still the case that for many people "every printed sheet must seem sacred" [«Печатный всякий лист быть кажется святым»—from the 1794 satirical poem Strangers' Talk (Чужой толк) by Ivan Dmitriyev—see Charles Drage and W. N. Vickery (eds), An XVIIIth Century Russian Reader (Oxford, 1969), p.167]. This factor, together with the emergence of an intelligentsia critical of the State and a proliferation of journals in the first decades of the nineteenth century, meant that Russian writers came to be seen as "enlighteners" of society. The notion of the civic duty of the writer (including journalists and publicists) in this respect was most vigorously upheld by the great Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky (1811–48), whom Tchaikovsky clearly took as his role model when he started writing his music feuilletons — translator's note.
- See TH 261, TH 274, and TH 278 for more details about Slavyansky's pseudo-Russian concerts.
- Emma Albani (real name Lajeunesse; 1847–1930), famous Canadian soprano who impressed audiences all around the world with her rich voice and beauty. In the 1872–73 season she toured Moscow and Saint Petersburg, appearing mainly in operas from the Italian belcanto repertoire. She would later become a notable interpreter of several Wagnerian heroines — note by Ernst Kuhn.
- Angelo Masini (1844–1926), Italian tenor, famous for his virtuoso voice, but Tchaikovsky loathed him for his poor acting. See Nikolay Kashkin, (1954), p. 201 — translator's note.
- Emilio Naudin (1823–1890), Italian tenor of French origins, whom Tchaikovsky admired greatly.
- For Tchaikovsky's great appreciation of Ruslan and Lyudmila, see TH 264. He does not name Glinka's first opera A Life for the Tsar in this list (even though he preferred it to Ruslan, at least from the point of view of dramatic coherence) because it was an opera which was regularly performed at the Imperial Theatres owing to its patriotic appeal. For his views on Dargomyzhsky's Rusalka, see TH 281. Of Aleksandr Serov's three operas, Tchaikovsky in his music review articles discusses only Rogneda in any detail (in TH 263 and TH 285) — translator's note.
- The figure of Don Quixote was very popular in Russia, as witnessed by Turgenev's influential essay of 1860 "Hamlet and Don Quixote" (first delivered as a speech in Saint Petersburg), and by the way in which the knight of the sorrowful countenance inspired to some extent Dostoyevsky's creation of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot (1868). Tchaikovsky certainly knew Cervantes's novel well (having probably first read it in French translation) and refers to Don Quixote quite often in his letters, e.g. in letters 1554 and 1565 of 1/13 August 1880 and 15/27 August–24 August/5 September 1880 to Sergey Taneyev, where he jestingly warns the younger composer that his endeavours to apply the strict contrapuntal principles of Bach to Russian folk-song in order to create a solid basis for original Russian music made him seem like a "Slavophile Don Quixote" — translator's note.
- It is very likely that the 'Dulcinea' whom Tchaikovsky had praised so wholeheartedly, only to be rewarded, like Don Quixote, with nothing but ingratitude, was the young mezzo-soprano Yevlaliya Kadmina who had made her stage début in the 1872–73 season (see TH 280). This would be in keeping with what is recorded about her difficult character and how she was likely to take offence very readily (something that Turgenev also captured in his remarkable 1882 story Klara Milich, which was inspired by the young artist's dramatic suicide). Although further research is necessary to confirm this hypothesis, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the next time Tchaikovsky discusses a performance by Kadmina in detail (TH 286), he is more objective about her merits — translator's note.
- i.e. 'pinch-penny' to render the Russian «копеечник». It is likely that the spiteful singer Tchaikovsky is alluding to here is the young contralto Zinayda Eybozhenko (whom he had criticised precisely for the abovementioned failings in TH 263, TH 264, and TH 268), but, again, further investigation is necessary to prove this conclusively — translator's note.
- The musician in question was César Cui, whose peremptory judgements on European composers Tchaikovsky had ridiculed in TH 274, as well as accusing him of plagiarism in TH 265! Cui counter-attacked with a sarcastic note about the "Moscow professor Tchaikovsky" in the Saint Petersburg Register of 1 March 1873 O.S., and this is the "story" Tchaikovsky is referring to here. Tchaikovsky also wrote a conciliatory open letter to the Saint Petersburg-based newspaper The Voice (Голос), printed in their issue of 6 March 1873 O.S., which Cui seems to have accepted, thus ending their quarrel for the time being at least — translator's note.
- In the original Russian: "С умом ли, капля, ты меня пробить взялась...
Меня гранитную, — ты право стоишь смеха.
Но капля, молча всё, кап, кап, — и пробралась". From an 1826 fable in verse The Granite Rock and the Water-Drop by the poet Ivan Dmitriyev (1760–1837) which is an adaptation of Ovid's famous verses: "Gutta cavat lapidem, non vi, sed saepe cadendo" [A drop of water hollows a stone, not by force, but by persistent dripping]. For more details on Russian fables in verse, see Charles Drage, Russian Literature in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1994), pp.64–65. Tchaikovsky has omitted the final verse: "Perseverence is the key to success" [«Настойчивость—залог успеха»] — translator's note.
- Tchaikovsky also quotes extensively from Berlioz's recently-published memoirs in TH 282.
- Tchaikovsky's description is inaccurate here: the second movement of this string quartet by Cherubini is in fact a Larghetto sans lenteur — note by Ernst Kuhn.
- Cherubini's String Quartet in E-flat major was greatly appreciated by Schumann, who dedicated a whole article to it in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. See the description given on the website  of the chamber music publishers Edition Silvertrust.
- Tchaikovsky is probably thinking here of the dramatic string tremolo in the overture to Der fliegende Holländer, of which he had written rather critically in TH 276, or perhaps also the scintillating tremolo effects in the "Venusberg" scenes of Tannhäuser — translator's note.
- Tchaikovsky is inaccurate here: only the Overture was written by Mendelssohn when (incredibly) he was just 17 years old, but the rest of the incidental music was created several years later, in 1842–43 — note by Vasily Yakovlev.
- Rosina Penco (1823–1894), Italian soprano, first engagements in Italy and Denmark, from 1850 at the royal opera-houses of Berlin and Dresden; in 1853 she created the role of Leonore at the premiere of Verdi's Il Trovatore, and subsequently sang in many of the leading opera-houses of Europe — note by Ernst Kuhn.
- See TH 266 for some very interesting observations on Verdi's new, "Wagnerian" style in Aida, whose score Tchaikovsky had studied in 1872. The first performance of Aida in Russia was not to take place until 19 November/1 December 1875, at the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre (information provided by Stephen L. Parker  ) — translator's note.