The Sixth Concert of the Musical Society. "Rogneda" on the Russian Opera Stage

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The Sixth Concert of the Musical Society. "Rogneda" on the Russian Opera Stage (Шестой концерт Музыкального общества · «Рогнеда» на сцене Русской оперы) [1] (TH 285 ; ČW 550) was Tchaikovsky's twenty-first music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 31 January 1874 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

It contains an account of the genesis of Harold en Italie taken from Berlioz's memoirs; some interesting remarks about the nature of Berlioz's music in general and an appraisal of Harold en Italie; a remarkable interpretation of the Andante of Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto—"this wondrous pearl in Beethoven's oeuvre"—as a tragic struggle between the human spirit and relentless Fate; further observations about Wagner as a predominantly symphonic composer, which complement those Tchaikovsky had already made in TH 270; and an indictment of the poor artistic and technical standards tolerated at performances of the Russian Opera Company.


Completed by 31 January/12 February 1874 (date of publication). Concerning the sixth Russian Musical Society symphony concert which took place in Moscow on 18/30 January 1874, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring the Prelude to Wagner's Lohengrin, Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (soloist N. Rubinstein), and Berlioz's Harold en Italie, Op. 16; and the Russian Opera Company's production of Serov's Rogneda at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 26 January/7 February 1874, as a benefit performance for Yevlaliya Kadmina, who sang the title role.

English translation

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In January 1834, the renowned violinist Paganini, who was then living in Paris, paid a visit to a composer who was only just starting to make a name for himself [2]. That composer was Berlioz. "I have a superb viola," Paganini said to Berlioz, "and I would like to play this marvellous Stradivarius in public. The only trouble is I don't have any suitable music. Would you write me a solo for viola? You are the only one I would trust with such a commission." "I am more than flattered," replied Berlioz, "but in order to live up to your expectations, in order to give free range to your virtuosity in such a work, one would have to be a virtuoso on the viola oneself, and I cannot even play the viola."

Paganini, however, insisted and Berlioz finally decided to accede to the great virtuoso's request. Soon an extensive scheme for the work took shape in the composer's imagination, and he eagerly set about putting it to paper. As soon as the first movement was written, Paganini demanded to see it. Seeing so many pauses in the viola part in the Allegro, Paganini expressed his discontent and said that this would mean that he would have to be silent for too long, whereas he wanted to be playing all the time!

Realizing then that the scheme of his work did not satisfy the virtuoso's requirements, Berlioz stopped troubling himself about how to ensure the viola's predominance over the orchestra, and set about writing a series of scenes in the form of a symphony, in which the solo viola would represent an independent, characteristic personality which would contrast sharply with the mass of other orchestral voices. His plan was to express in music the feelings which he had experienced during his wanderings in the Abruzzi, whereby the solo viola was accorded the role of a melancholy dreamer in the style of Byron's Childe Harold. Hence the title of the symphony: Harold en Italie. Soon Berlioz had finished the whole symphony, and it was performed for the first time in Paris, under the baton of Girard, a friend of the composer's [3]. The symphony did not go down well with the public, but three years later it gave rise to the event described below which had a strong and very favourable influence on Berlioz's subsequent career.

In December 1838, Berlioz, who by then had already settled down to married life and was living with his family in considerable poverty, made a desperate effort to improve his financial circumstances by means of a concert at which he himself would conduct, and which, amongst other works, also included Harold en Italie. Paganini, who had just returned to France from a three-year stay in Italy, and who had thus not yet heard the symphony which had been written on his initiative, was present in the audience at this concert [4].

The concert had just ended, and the exhausted Berlioz had barely managed to sit down in his dressing-room when the tall and haggard figure of Paganini appeared at the door, followed by his little son. As a result of the disease of the larynx which would eventually kill him, the famous virtuoso had completely lost his voice, and only his son was able to tell or rather divine, from the movement of his lips, what he was saying. Paganini made a sign to the boy, who stood on a chair and listened carefully to what his father, with great difficulty, was trying to say. Then the boy got down and addressed Berlioz: "My father wants me to tell you, sir, that never in all his life has he received such a strong impression from a concert, and that, were he not obliged to restrain himself, he would go down on his knees to thank you."

At these words Berlioz made a gesture of amazement and incredulity, but Paganini dragged him back onto the platform, where many of the orchestra musicians were still lingering, knelt before him and kissed his hand.

Paganini, however, did not limit himself to this strange but sincere manifestation of his enthusiasm. The following day, Berlioz received a letter from him in which the great virtuoso, by way of a token of his admiration for the talent of the young composer, begged the latter to accept from him a promissory note for twenty thousand francs to be remitted by the House of Rothschild. This sum of money gave Berlioz the opportunity to extricate himself from the debts which had been hindering his creative work, provided him with the means to recover from a wasting disease, and bolstered the flagging energy of this great artist [5].

Forty years have passed since that day—forty years in which the name of Berlioz has gained great renown and his work as an artist has secured the general approbation of all those who value the art of music. His works, however, have not entered the consciousness of the wider public in the same way that the creations of Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Schumann have gradually become popular. It is in his own country that Berlioz's compositions enjoy the least favour, and, indeed, the overwhelming majority of the French public is to this day still hostile to him. He achieved his greatest successes in Germany, which he once referred to as his true fatherland, and in Russia, where during both his visits he was given a very warm and sympathetic welcome [6].

Nevertheless, even Berlioz's finest works rarely get performed, and they tend to be regarded as precious musical delicacies rather than artistic daily fare. The reasons for the wider public's stubborn reluctance to appreciate the beauties of Berlioz's music have partly to do with how difficult it is to perform, but above all with the exceptional constitution of his musical personality.

In Berlioz's talent there is something morbid and strange which paralyses the effect of his music on the listener. The conception of his works is always profound and poetic, but its execution is invariably undermined by his insufficient power of musical invention. His melodies are for the most part awkward, rough, and unattractive; the harmonic organization is rigid and clumsy; and the modulations are inconsistent and come far too often. Felicitous melodic ideas and graceful harmonic combinations appear as rare exceptions in his works. On the other hand, Berlioz manages to mask these fundamental flaws through the astonishing richness and luxuriance of his colouring, and, above all, through the deeply felt poetic spirit which underlies the overall conception and the complete absence of that element which even the greatest artists are not always free from, and whose name is banality.

How strange it is! A detailed analysis of Berlioz's works causes even the most favourably predisposed musician to despair, but when they are performed one cannot fail to be carried away by their amazing artistry and the depth of feeling which pervades them. Moreover, in those few cases when Berlioz did hit upon felicitous themes and he was able to wrap them in beautiful musical forms, he attained such heights which are surely equal to the very greatest effusions of the creative genius of such giants as Mozart, Beethoven, and Schumann.

The Sixth Concert of the Musical Society

The symphony Harold en Italie, which was performed at the last concert of the Russian Musical Society, does not belong to the finest pages in Berlioz's oeuvre, although it does have some marvellous details and one certainly listens to it from start to finish with that interest which Berlioz was always able to awaken thanks to the brilliant colouring of his splendid instrumentation.

The principal theme (a viola solo which conveys Harold's melancholic personality) is not beautiful as such, but in some of its elaborations—for example, in the episode in the first movement where the viola is accompanied by a harp—it does produce a charming effect, thanks to the outward attractiveness of its exposition. The best movement of the symphony is the second, which depicts the procession of a group of pilgrims chanting vespers, with the distant ringing of a monastery bell in the background. The third movement represents the serenade of a mountain-dweller before a statue of the Virgin Mary, and it is very characteristic both by virtue of its theme, which Berlioz noted down during his wanderings in the Abruzzi, and by virtue of its original orchestration. The finale, which is meant to depict an orgy of brigands and is based on ugly and colourless themes, is also formally very awkward and so it must be regarded as the weakest movement in this work. The interpretation we heard of this difficult symphony was extremely solid, sensitive, and even fascinating, thanks to the remarkable artistry of Mr Rubinstein, who conducted it after having first performed a great piano concerto by Beethoven (No. 4 in G major).

This latter work was played by N. G. Rubinstein with such classical sobriety and at the same time such poetry, with such a power of objective insight into the spirit of the work, as are only to be found in a chosen few even amongst the greatest virtuosi. I was, in particular, left with a profound impression by Mr Rubinstein's interpretation of the Andante, this wondrous pearl in Beethoven's oeuvre, which contains one of the strongest ideas in terms of pathos ever expressed in music. The powerless and futile impulses of the human soul as it is crushed in its struggle with the inevitable blows of Fate—this is an idea which Beethoven often returned to, and which is expressed in this Andante, terse as it is in its form and simple in its exposition, and yet surely one of the greatest achievements of musical creativity by virtue of the amazing force of inspiration with which it is imbued [7].

At the start of the concert we heard Wagner's famous Prelude to Lohengrin, which serves as a striking confirmation of the opinion which I have already set forth in detail several times on the pages of this newspaper regarding this artist's oeuvre [8]. Wagner, by virtue of the nature of his talent, is a direct heir of Beethoven and Schumann, i.e. he is first and foremost a symphonist. Unfortunately, false aesthetic theories led him astray from the wide field of a great symphonist which was opening up before him and diverted him onto the path of an opera reformer. It is in this latter artistic genre that Wagner now moves exclusively, but really and truly he does not produce anything apart from bulky works which are almost impossible to perform because they are so difficult, and in which as a matter of fact he remains a symphonist, since the situations and feelings of his protagonists are expressed by a huge orchestral barrage whose roaring completely drowns out the colourless and unwieldy recitative that is artificially grafted onto the symphonic forms of the music played by the orchestra.

"Rogneda" on the Russian Opera Stage

Now I come to our city's own opera stage, which a few days ago regaled the public with a revival of Serov's Rogneda. That evening will no doubt have left an indelible impression on all those who had the misfortune to attend Madame Kadmina's [9] benefit performance—for it was on her behalf that Rogneda was staged. It is impossible to imagine anything more disgraceful than this degradation of the Imperial Theatre in the capital city of a vast and mighty Empire to the level of a fairground farce. It is beyond my powers to describe the interminable four-hour-long cacophony which was served up to the audience under the guise of an opera. All I will say is that not a single chord was struck at the right time, not a single bar was played without dissonances which were a torture on the ear; that, with the exception of Madame Kadmina and the very young débutante Madame Aristova [10], not one of the soloists had learnt his or her part properly; that the only sound coming from the choruses was a lamentable miaowing; and that the orchestra played as if it were submerged in deep sleep.

It truly made one's heart ache to see all the effort put in by the gifted Madame Kadmina, who had to represent the tragically conceived figure of the vengeful and proud Rogneda amidst this fairground jamboree. No matter how artistic and talented her interpretation was, it could simply not compensate any listener for the suffering he or she had to endure, both as a music-lover and as a citizen of Moscow, at the sight of this tragicomic version of Rogneda which sought to pass itself off as an opera performance. I shall refrain from describing in detail to the reader the bizarre phantasmagoria which enveloped all the artists of the Russian Opera Company who took part in this production of Rogneda: words could not possibly convey the tremendous comicality of everything that was taking place on the stage.

As for the débutante, Madame Aristova, who appeared in the role of Izyaslav, I would like to observe that, in spite of her not quite faultless intonation and lack of confidence on the stage, she has a voice with a very pleasant timbre and is likely in the future to be a welcome reinforcement for the Russian Opera Company. Although, if one takes into account the conditions which prevail at our theatres, is there really any opportunity for a young talent to develop and achieve perfection?! As for Madame Kadmina in the role of Rogneda, both as a singer and as an actress she once again demonstrated her brilliant talent, which would deserve to shine in a finer setting than that within which she is now fated to appear before the public.

"B. L."

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'The Sixth Concert of the Musical Society—"Rogneda" on the Russian Opera Stage' in ČW.
  2. This and the following two paragraphs are taken almost word for word from Chapter XLV of Berlioz's Memoirs, which had recently been serialized in Paris and were already cited extensively by Tchaikovsky in TH 282 (with regard to the reception of Weber's Der Freischütz) — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  3. The premiere of Berlioz's Harold en Italie took place on 23 November 1834. Narcisse Girard (1798–1860) was at that time conductor at the Théâtre-Italien in Parisnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  4. The following three paragraphs are taken almost word for word from Chapter XLIX of Berlioz's Memoirsnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  5. Little did Tchaikovsky suspect that just three years later he too would receive a similar gesture of encouragement from Nadezhda von Mecktranslator's note.
  6. Berlioz toured Russia in March 1847 and November 1867. During his first stay in Russia he gave four concerts in Saint Petersburg, two in Moscow, and one in Riga; during the second tour he gave six concerts in Saint Petersburg and two in Moscownote by Vasily Yakovlev. See also note 15 to TH 277 for details of Tchaikovsky's speech at a banquet given in Berlioz's honour in Moscow.
  7. It is worth comparing this remarkable interpretation of what is expressed in this Andante—other listeners have made different associations (Orpheus successfully placating the Furies in the underworld, as Liszt and others have described the dialogue between the piano and the orchestra)—with later passages in Tchaikovsky's music in which he consciously sought to convey the struggle between the yearnings of the human spirit and relentless Fate: e.g. the overture-fantasia Romeo and Juliet, the opening movements of the Fourth Symphony and the Fifth Symphonytranslator's note.
  8. See TH 270 in particular, and also TH 259 for an enthusiastic description of the Lohengrin prelude.
  9. See TH 280 for information on the mezzo-soprano and actress Yevlaliya Kadmina (1853–1881).
  10. Anna Vasilyevna Aristova (stage name: Dobrova; 1856–1890), Russian mezzo-soprano, sang at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre from 1874 to 1877, then at the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre — note by Ernst Kuhn.