The Third Symphony Concert. The Italian Opera. The Amateur Society for the Musical and Dramatic Arts

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The Third Symphony Concert. The Italian Opera. The Amateur Society for the Musical and Dramatic Arts (Третье симфоническое собрание. Итальянская опера. Общество любителей искусств музыкального и драматического) [1] (TH 297 ; ČW 562) was Tchaikovsky's thirty-second music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 4 December 1874 [O.S.].

This article includes valuable observations on the strengths and weaknesses of Schumann's music (complementing those made earlier in TH 269); a fascinating discussion of the "Spring Symphony" as an original and powerful work which marks the transition from the classicism that was brought to perfection by Beethoven towards the Romantic ideas of Schumann's own generation; an enthusiastic tribute to Nikolay Rubinstein's brilliant performance of a piano concerto by Litolff, in which the soloist and the orchestra face one another unusually as "rivals of equal strength", a tribute made at a time when Tchaikovsky was working on his own Piano Concerto No. 1 and hoping of course that his great mentor and friend would eventually première the work; and a disenchanted appraisal of the Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson's performance in Gounod's Faust.

History

Completed by 27 November/9 December 1874 (date of publication). Tchaikovsky reported on three events:

  • The Russian Musical Society's third symphony concert in Moscow on 28 November/10 December 1874, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Schumann's Symphony No. 1 in B-flat major, Op. 38 ("Spring Symphony"), Weber's Jubel-Ouvertüre, Op. 59, the Sailors' Chorus from Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer, and Henry Litolff's Concerto symphonique No. 4 in D minor, Op. 102 (soloist Nikolay Rubinstein);
  • A production of Gounod's Faust by the Italian Opera Company at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on 29 November/11 December 1874, starring Christine Nilsson as Marguerite;
  • A concert organized by the "Amateur Society for the Musical and Dramatic Arts" in Moscow on 1/13 December 1874, which featured the overture from Weber's youthful opera Peter Schmoll und seine Nachbarn (1803) and the first movement of an unspecified piano concerto by Beethoven.

English translation

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The Third Symphony Concert

The principal works on the third symphony concert's splendid programme were Schumann's First Symphony (B-flat major) and Litolff's Concerto [2].

Schumann wrote his symphony in 1841, and it was his first attempt in the symphonic genre. Having started to compose at the age of twenty and after having written many splendid piano works, as well as a great deal of songs, it was only in the eleventh year of his career as a composer, when he was by now thirty-one, that Schumann decided to embark on an orchestral composition [3]. The very fact that Schumann made his first attempt at a symphony so late indicates that this master did not have a particular inclination for the orchestra. Schumann, with his great knowledge of all the qualities and finest resources of his beloved instrument, the piano, was an inimitable master in the art of extracting a rich and full sound from this "orchestra en miniature", but he was clearly not at all tempted by the inexhaustible richness in colour of a real orchestra.

All of Schumann's later works betray an artist who lacks a flair for colouring, a draughtsman of genius who spurned the use of colours and preferred the pencil and pen to the paint-brush. Even the most enthusiastic admirers of Schumann's music, which is always rich in content and always pale in its colouring, agree that his best orchestral works gain a lot when they are arranged for the piano. Schumann was not endowed with the art of expressing his rich thoughts in beautiful sounds: his instrumentation is always thick and massive, but devoid of brilliancy and transparency.

This characteristic negative trait of Schumann's oeuvre manifests itself very sharply in his First Symphony. It is said that he wrote this work under the influence and direct guidance of Mendelssohn, who was then at the head of the living representatives of the German symphonic school. However, we find in this symphony no traces whatsoever of any such influence. Schumann's stronger and mightier individuality (in comparison to Mendelssohn) came fully to the fore in this first symphonic work of his, with all its positive and negative qualities. A rich fantasy, a simple and ingenuous overall conception, and a Beethovenian plasticity in terms of an organically growing and developing form, on the one hand, and a colourless, excessively thick instrumentation which conceals the charm of the details, on the other—this is what Schumann's first symphonic attempt presents us with.

The symphony begins with an Introduction in which the principal theme of the first movement is announced in a slow tempo by the brass instruments alone and then repeated again by the whole orchestra. It is like a signal which prefaces the lively succession of sumptuous pictures that unfold before the listener in the course of this movement. The solemnly joyful first theme is succeeded by an episode of a quite opposite character which nevertheless, despite the great contrast, is closely linked to the preceding one. It is clear that both themes sprung forth together in Schumann's imagination, for they are combined seamlessly, in contrast to what we always find in the works of lesser masters who have to paste their thoughts together in a merely external fashion.

In the elaboration of these themes, Schumann, without deviating one bit from the classical forms handed down by Mozart and Beethoven, applies some completely new methods and shows an originality which is quite free from the influence of earlier masters. Indeed, the whole first movement of this symphony is characterized by the way in which new and original Romantic ideas are cast into traditionally established forms—it is thus like a link between the classical school that was brought to perfection by Beethoven and the new direction in which Schumann set off, together with Chopin and Berlioz.

The other movements of the symphony are also marked by this eclectic character. In the Andante [4] a beautiful elegiac melody is accompanied by delightful variations and produces an indescribably enchanting effect, especially when it passes on to the cellos in the subdominant key. In the third movement, which in terms of its rhythm is more like a minuet than a scherzo in the sense that Beethoven introduced the latter into symphonic writing, the first trio is particularly remarkable, with its charming chordal exchanges between the strings and winds, as well as the concluding coda with its tempestuous syncopated rhythm and original harmony. The Finale, which is so sweeping, brilliant, formally accomplished, and rich in beautiful modulations and varied rhythmic and harmonic turns, serves as a magnificent conclusion to this elegant work.

The soloist at this concert was N. G. Rubinstein. He played for us one of the most brilliant works ever written for the piano: the famous Concerto symphonique in D minor by Litolff. This piece is an extraordinarily successful attempt at juxtaposing the orchestra with its 'photographic likeness', the piano, in such a way that the latter is not allowed to dominate but has rather to grapple with a mighty rival. For the underlying idea of this composition to become clear to the listener, namely that the piano does finally emerge victorious from this unequal struggle, it is essential that Litolff's work should be played by a very strong virtuoso, and, apart from Mr Rubinstein, one could scarcely hope to find anyone else endowed with all the artistic gifts and qualities that are required to accomplish such a feat.

What is so remarkable about Mr Rubinstein is the equilibrium between the various qualities which make for an outstanding virtuoso instrumentalist—an equilibrium which puts him, together with his elder brother, at the head of all contemporary pianists. His incredible strength of tone and sweeping gestures are tempered by an astonishingly soft touch; the seething enthusiasm is always kept within the bounds of what is graceful thanks to his profoundly objective approach to the work to be played. His technique is at the highest possible stage of development, but he does not sacrifice, for the sake of polishing single details, what should always be the highest goal of a performer—a faithful interpretation of the work's overarching idea.

In short, his marvellous technique always goes hand in hand with artistic sensitivity and a feeling for measure. Just as his playing in the first movement and the Finale was bursting with energy, brilliance, and manly hardiness, so his interpretation of the airily light, poignant Scherzo was distinguished by a fine sense of poetry and gracefulness, and likewise his rendition of the Adagio was full of noble expressivity. It goes without saying that Mr Rubinstein elicited stormy ovations which refused to die down for a long time.

Apart from these two major works, we also heard an effective Overture by Weber with the Prussian national anthem at the end, and a male chorus from Wagner's opera Der fliegende Holländer [5].

The Italian Opera

Last week the Italian Opera Company staged an opera which is quite new to Moscow: Mignon by Ambroise Thomas, the composer of Hamlet [6]. I was not able to attend the première of this little comic opera. The second performance, which I felt it my duty to attend at all costs in order to give our readers an account of this new French phenomenon in the repertoire of our Italian Opera, was cancelled due to the illness of Mme Tommasi, so I will have to postpone such an account until my next review.

Instead of Mignon, therefore, I had to sit through a performance of Faust, with which the unfortunate holders of season-tickets for the fourth subscription series have now been regaled for the fourth time this season, as a consequence of the illness that has so inopportunely come upon Mme Tommasi (in addition to the injuries which she has to put up with from our public).

The season-ticket-holders took revenge for this force-feeding with the music of Faust by according a highly unfavourable, or at any rate frosty, reception to Mme Nilsson, who was certainly not to blame, however, for the fact that Mme Tomassi had been taken ill. This way of lumping the blame on someone who is quite innocent is illogical and inconsequential, to say the least.

Mme Nilsson's acting and singing during this performance was as precise as always. The closer and more carefully one looks at and listens to this artiste, the greater is one's disappointment in her. It is not for me to analyse her performance of the role of Marguerite from the point of view of dramatic interpretation. But I would like to ask some competent authority in this matter to explain to us why Mme Nilsson considers it necessary, in the first scene in which she appears in Act III, to present herself like some jaded peasant-woman, pacing up and down her room in an affectedly free and easy manner, waving her arms like a man, with a cold and inexpressive look on her face? Why does one keep seeing in every movement of hers, in every pose and turn, indeed in all her acting as such, exactly the same well-rehearsed, but stereotypically repetitive, mannerisms?

Why, given that I was once so amazed by her skilful acting [7], does her interpretation of the role of Marguerite now come across to me as dry, artificial, and coldly reflective, as if she were merely repeating impassively a lesson that she had learnt by rote? Why could I not for one moment stop seeing in Marguerite the consummate actress Mme Nilsson, who I know for certain will step off the stage and head for her dressing-room at the end of the performance with that same cold and inexpressive countenance, then change into her everyday clothes and make her way home with imperturbable placidity, and there perhaps, just before going to bed, will muse on the bizarre inconsequence of the Muscovites who for some reason decided to blame her for the dental abscess of Mme Tommasi, as if that were somehow her fault and as if she hadn't trotted out everything for which she had been rewarded with such deafening applause and cries of approval in the past? "During the scene in the church did I perhaps forget to make so-and-so a gesture or put on so-and-so a pose?", will perhaps be one of the questions going through Mme Nilsson's mind. But then she will recall that she had done everything conscientiously and thoughtfully, and she will fall asleep like someone who has honestly fulfilled his or her duty.

Those were my thoughts as I watched Mme Nilsson's acting in Faust, and so persistent were these thoughts that I decided, albeit not without some trepidation, to present them to the reader's scrutiny. That Mme Nilsson is blessed with good looks, that she is intelligent and skilful—that there can be no doubt of whatsoever. But as to whether she really is such an inspired artiste as she is generally perceived to be here—that is a question which I would like to see answered by people who are more competent than me in such matters.

As for her musical interpretation of Marguerite, I would like to point out two obvious faults. Mme Nilsson's intonation is very unreliable, and she tends to sing a quarter tone too low. Furthermore, she doesn't keep time well: her lack of precision is such that she and the orchestra keep drifting apart. Now she rushes ahead too quickly, now she unexpectedly drags out the tempo, now she grafts onto a smooth cantilena an ornament which in the technical jargon is referred to as a gruppetto, meaning that she alters the relative duration of a note as it was written by the author, thereby distorting the originally intended sense of the melody.

It seems to me that the principal charm in Mme Nilsson's singing lies in the middle register of her somewhat lack-lustre voice, which almost sounds as if it had been muffled by a veil. However, these middle notes of her diapason are indeed enchanting by virtue of their uncommonly peculiar, really quite incredible sound. In these tones of her voice there is something that sweetly tickles one's nerves, that is gripping and pleasantly irritating as it were. Besides, both her singing and acting show a great deal of calculation, intelligence, thought, thriftiness in the way she draws on her vocal resources, and perhaps also a careful study of the qualities and level of sensibility of the audience which she has to perform for.

M. Capoul [8] is a singer who is not endowed with rich vocal means, but who nevertheless sings with great taste and, so it seems to me, with genuine passion. He does overdo his acting, stressing every syllable and accompanying each individual word with a gesture, but all this he does in a handsome and heartfelt fashion.

I have already spoken on a previous occasion about M. Jamet in the role of Méphistophélès [9]: he is an artist of very great merits, with a magnificent voice. His acting may be a bit exaggerated, as is always the case with the French, but nevertheless it is thought through into the smallest details.

The Amateur Society for the Musical and Dramatic Arts

The first performance meeting of the "Amateur Society for the Musical and Dramatic Arts" [10] took place last Sunday. The musical section of the programme consisted of overtures by Weber and Mendelssohn, which were performed by the Society's orchestra under the baton of M. Duchesne, the first movement of a concerto by Beethoven (the soloist being M. Duchesne again), and violin solo. I was only able to hear the first two pieces: the overture to Weber's opera Peter Schmoll (1801) and the Beethoven concerto. The orchestra, which is chiefly made up of dilettantes, turned out to be quite good. They played the overture with brio, confidence, and clarity of tone—in short, as well as one could ask from an amateur orchestra, and in particular one which has not yet had enough time to really bond together as an ensemble. The performance of this piece does great credit to both the individual members of the orchestra and their conductor. As for the Beethoven concerto, that might have been a success too if only M. Duchesne had been more consistent and accurate in the tempo he chose. Moreover, he also failed to sustain the right rhythm, so that it all became rather uneven. For example, he tackled the second theme at a tempo which was literally twice as fast as in the preceding one, whereas in Beethoven's score we do not find any indication for such an utterly unmotivated acceleration.

P. Tchaikovsky.

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'The Second Symphony Concert. Mme Patti's Benefit' in TH, and 'The Third Symphonic Assembly—The Italian Opera—The Society of Amateurs of Music and Drama' in ČW.
  2. Henry Charles Litolff (1818–1891), French pianist and composer. See TH 270 for some observations on his music. Litolff composed his Concerto symphonique No. 4 in 1851–52 and dedicated it to his patron Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. To this day it is considered by admirers of Litolff's music to be the best of his piano concertos (or Concertos symphoniques, as he called them) — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  3. It is worth noting that Tchaikovsky wrote his own First Symphony at the age of twenty-six, and that despite the great trouble it caused him, he evidently felt attracted very early on by the rich possibilities afforded by the orchestral 'palette'—unlike Schumann, whom Tchaikovsky consistently reproaches for his inability to use the various instrumental groups and 'colours' in an orchestra effectively (see also TH 269) — translator's note.
  4. As in his discussion of Beethoven's Seventh (see TH 296), Tchaikovsky also refers to the slow movement of Schumann's "Spring Symphony" as an Andante, although it is in fact marked Larghettotranslator's note.
  5. See TH 276 for a brief but interesting appraisal of the tempestuous overture to Der fliegende Holländer.
  6. See TH 272 for an ironic review of the libretto and music of Ambroise Thomas's 1868 opera based on Shakespeare's tragedy. Thomas's 1866 opera Mignon ("an imitation of Gounod's Faust" according to The Oxford Dictionary of Opera), based on Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, has long since been forgotten too—not so, however, Tchaikovsky's famous romance None But the Lonely Heart—No. 6 of the Six Romances, Op. 6, completed in 1869—which was likewise inspired by the tragic predicament of Goethe's young heroine — translator's note.
  7. See TH 271 for this earlier review of the famous Swedish soprano's interpretation of Marguerite.
  8. Joseph-Amédée-Victor Capoul (1839–1924), French tenor, engaged for a while at the Opéra-Comique in Parisnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  9. Actually, in none of Tchaikovsky's earlier articles do we find any reference to this unidentified French bass in the role of Méphistophélès, although in TH 291 Jamet is also spoken of with great praise — translator's note.
  10. This Society, under the patronage of Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolayevich of Russia (1856–1929) and Grand Duchess Yelizaveta Fyodorovna (1864–1918), was renamed the Moscow Philharmonic Society in 1883 — translator's note.