The Russian Musical Society. Mme Aleksandrova's Benefit

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The Russian Musical Society. Mme Aleksandrova's Benefit (Русское музыкальное общество. Бенефис г-жи Александровой) [1] (TH 312 ; ČW 578) was Tchaikovsky's forty-seventh music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 30 November 1875 [O.S.].

This article contains an interesting appraisal of Schumann's Fourth Symphony; remarks about the "astonishing beauty" of Glinka's "wondrous" Jota aragonesa, alongside yet another lament about how Glinka might have written "dozens of major symphonic works" had he lived in a different age and milieu; grateful acknowledgement of Sergey Taneyev's essential contribution to the first performance in Moscow of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, whereby the composer thanks the young soloist in particular for having read his intentions so well; a remarkably enthusiastic tribute to the "appealing artistic individuality" of Saint-Saëns in connection with the latter's first appearance in Moscow as both virtuoso pianist and composer (especially of the Danse macabre, which Tchaikovsky calls "one of the most significant works of music" to have emerged in recent years); some general observations on the "avant-garde" group of contemporary French composers, including Bizet whom Tchaikovsky calls "exceptionally gifted" (this before he had even heard Carmen on the stage!) and who had died so young just a few months before this article was written; and very positive remarks about the French national character and how it was reflected in the music of Saint-Saëns.

History

Completed by 30 November/12 December 1875 (date of publication). Tchaikovsky reviews three events:

English translation

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The Russian Musical Society

The principal symphonic work on the programme of the Russian Musical Society's third symphony concert was Schumann's Fourth Symphony. The original idea for this work was conceived during the first period of this master's compositional career. However, it was not carried out until a later stage, which means that according to the chronological order of publication and its coming into the world this symphony has the title of Fourth, although it was in fact conceived and sketched out before the Third and even the Second [2].

This biographical detail is not without significance for the critic who intends to subject the aforesaid symphony to an analytical examination. It explains to us why this symphony, which in terms of its underlying ideas is by far not as powerful, profound, and staggering as the Second and especially the Third [3], nevertheless considerably surpasses these with regard to the mastery of the musical facture, the charm and roundedness of its form, as well as the quality of its instrumentation, although even in this symphony the latter does not nearly match the richness and beauty of the musical content. Be that as it may, this work contains in abundant quantity all the characteristic features of Schumann's oeuvre: an extraordinary wealth of melodic invention, original and lush harmonic combinations, an uncommon mastery in the elaboration of themes, freshness, depth of feeling, as well as that, if you like, negative virtue whereby his music is never weighed down by that ballast, that trivial 'milling of the wind' which even such major creative talents as Schubert are not free from, and which the French refer to as "remplissage".

The three last movements are particularly good, as is the way in which they are linked together by extraordinarily delightful transitions and are played immediately one after the other without any pauses. The Andante consists of a charming minor-key melody which is presented with remarkable simplicity and is followed directly by a Scherzo full of cheerful rhythmic agitation. The Finale is superlative: it is packed with exuberant inspiration, power, and richness in the development of its manly and energetic principal theme. The symphony was performed with a great sense of ensemble and enthusiasm.

The second symphonic work on the programme was Glinka's famous Jota aragonesa. On an earlier occasion I already dwelt in some detail on the astonishingly beautiful features of this wondrous work [4]. I shall just add that the more you listen to it, the more you love it and the more you regret that Glinka left us with so few orchestral works. Had this tremendous compositional talent been born in a different age, on a different soil, under more favourable circumstances, had he not been fated to live in a country where even twenty years after his death such disgraceful manifestations of All-Russian musical ignorance as those we observe every day are still possible, then he would of course have enriched European music with whole dozens of major symphonic works [5].

However, I shall stop lamenting about what is not (but what might well have been), and would instead like to say that we cannot fail to be grateful to the Russian Musical Society for giving us the chance every year to hear Glinka's few concert pieces played magnificently.

The young pianist Mr Taneyev achieved a great success at this concert. He played a new work that had never been performed by anyone else here before [6] with a mastery which is almost incomprehensible in a youth who has not even come near the call-up age for military service [7]. This young man, who is not strong enough yet to endure the hardships entailed by military service, plays his instrument nonetheless like a virtuoso who, as a result of many years of experience and constant successes, has acquired that calm confidence which is an essential precondition for the most important quality in a virtuoso—namely objectivity, insofar as the latter can be applied to the art of musical interpretation.

In addition to a powerful technique, a beautiful tone, and a graceful and elegant polishing of details, Mr Taneyev has one other valuable quality which holds out to him the prospect of many enviable successes in the future. With great sensitivity he is able to perceive even the finest nuances in the composer's intentions and can convey them in exactly the same way, in exactly the same spirit and under those very conditions which the author had dreamt of. Having established the presence of this valuable quality in Mr Taneyev's virtuosic talent, it is not, however, my intention to argue that he has already reached the final stage of his path towards the ideal. Rather I simply wanted to express my amazement at the fact that such a quality shines through so clearly in an artist who is so young.

Moreover, I hope I may be permitted, as the author of the concerto which he was playing, to express my heartfelt gratitude to Mr Taneyev for having submitted this exceptionally difficult work so well to the audience's gracious scrutiny. Likewise, the author is imbued with just as strong feelings of gratitude towards Mr Rubinstein for having conducted the orchestra with such artistic skill and ardour as it accompanied Mr Taneyev's playing. No better performance of this work than that for which he is indebted to the attractive talent of Mr Taneyev and to Mr Rubinstein's mastery as a conductor, could possibly be desired by its author.

Mr Dodonov, with the artistry that is so characteristic of him, performed an aria by Mendelssohn for us, and if he failed to make a particularly strong impression with this, that was because the aria itself, to be honest, was not particularly engaging or interesting. It would easily have been possible to choose something more exciting (one of the numerous arias by Mozart, for instance).

At the fourth symphony concert, which took place last Friday, everyone's attention was riveted on the famous Parisian musician M. Saint-Saëns [8], who was making his first appearance here in the threefold capacity of virtuoso, composer, and conductor. In his homeland M. Saint-Saëns belongs to a small group of those who uphold the idea of progress in music. In this avant-garde circle [9], which is made up of the most talented contemporary French composers— Massenet [10], Dubois [11], Paladilhe [12], and Bizet [13] (an exceptionally gifted composer who died this summer when he was just 36), M. Saint-Saëns occupies the most prominent position, thanks to the fact that he combines a remarkable gift for composition, an exquisite virtuoso talent, and a tremendous musical erudition all in one person.

Here are a few sketchy biographical facts about this remarkable artist, who has won a European reputation for himself, and who will surely fill all on his own a brilliant page in the history of French music as the figure who has contributed most significantly to the acclimatization of the great German school of music in France and to ensure that all of French music has now wheeled round onto the wide road of the progressive avant-garde movement [14]. M. Saint-Saëns was born in Paris, in 1835. His musical gifts revealed themselves at a very early age. At first he had lessons in music theory and piano technique with the famous Professor Stamaty [15]. Then he enrolled at the Conservatoire, where, after attending organ classes and taking advanced courses in composition during three years, he graduated with several top prizes. His début as a composer took place in 1853, when his First Symphony [16] was premièred and immediately attracted the attention of the entire Parisian world of music. Since 1856 M. Saint-Saëns has held the post of organist at the Église de la Madeleine. Music-lovers flock to this church in droves, so as to hear his masterly interpretations of classical organ works.

In the twin capacity of virtuoso and composer M. Saint-Saëns has made several concert tours in Germany and England. He is very productive as a composer. M. Saint-Saëns has written several symphonies, two operas (of which one [Le timbre d'argent] is going to be staged in Paris soon, and the other [Samson et Dalila] will have its première in Weimar), three splendid symphonic poems, several concerti for a solo instrument (piano, violin, and cello), several song collections, as well as a whole series of chamber music works. Furthermore, M. Saint-Saëns has published several magnificent transcriptions for piano of works by the old masters, especially Bach.

M. Saint-Saëns made his début here as the soloist in his own G minor concerto [17]. This work is extremely beautiful, fresh, elegant, and rich in delightful details. It reflects both a remarkably thorough knowledge of the classical models, from which the author has borrowed his exceptional mastery in achieving balance and roundedness of form, and also a highly original creative individuality. All the appealing traits of his nationality—sincerity, enthusiasm, fervent cordiality, intelligence—make themselves felt all the time in the works of our guest. These qualities also pervade his virtuoso performance style, which is full of elegance, thoughtfulness, and careful phrasing, and is free from any affectation whatsoever. Our public, which is so spoilt in terms of the opportunities it has to hear splendid virtuoso performances, expressed its unmitigated sympathy for M. Saint-Saëns through stormy and unanimous applause, both at the end of that concerto of his and after he had finished playing several shorter pieces at the end of the concert.

M. Saint-Saëns's piano concerto is very original in its form: it does not have a slow central movement. Instead he wrote a charming, extraordinarily poignant Scherzo in which (as in the Finale, too) he displays a remarkable mastery of instrumentation, a great deal of humour, fantasy, as well as skill in terms of the music's facture. In the first movement M. Saint-Saëns, as it were, gives the listeners to understand just how much he has made the cult of Bach his own, and indeed this whole work was written under the latter's influence. It is remarkable that M. Saint-Saëns, despite his French nationality, which one might expect would surely incline him to strong external effects, nevertheless makes very moderate use in this brilliant concerto of all those conventional devices of form and orchestration which very often determine the degree of success of such a work. Everywhere in this concerto we sense a splendid musician who is quite free from that innocent charlatanry which is otherwise encountered among many strong talents, too, and which consists in seeking to surprise and excite the listener with some striking effect that may not necessarily be justified by the music's form. I would like to draw my readers' particular attention to this 'negative virtue' in the appealing artistic individuality of M. Saint-Saëns, since it is very surprising in a contemporary composer as such and even more so in one who is French.

However, where such brilliant sound effects are appropriate, M. Saint-Saëns definitely knows how to use them with remarkable skill. In his symphonic poem Danse macabre [18], which the audience liked so much, we can clearly discern a creative fantasy that is incredibly rich in resources and which is able not just to invent an original musical idea, but also to present it in a most alluringly beautiful form.

This piece, which seeks to give a tone painting of that very same Dance of Death on which Liszt based one of his most important works (a work which I discussed in detail on an earlier occasion [19]), belongs, by virtue of its beautiful principal theme, its truly outstanding instrumentation, and the great taste with which the author chooses his orchestral effects, to the most remarkable symphonic works of the new school of music. If one were to compare it with Liszt's work on the same subject, then it would be the latter which wins out in terms of depth, power, and staggering pathos, but M. Saint-Saëns's is certainly not inferior as far as its beauty and brilliance are concerned. It is a great pity that our public is unacquainted with M. Saint-Saëns's other works of this kind, amongst which I would like to point the Russian Musical Society's board of directors to the symphonic poem Phaëton [20], which would surely be a valuable new acquisition for our repertoire.

Mme Aleksandrova's Benefit

Last Sunday we had the benefit performance for Mme Aleksandrova. A benefit performance for a prima donna who in the last two months has not once appeared on the stage! That is indeed very curious, but then again Mme Aleksandrova is of course in no way to blame for the those preposterous regulations which have become the norm in our city's opera-house and as a result of which our Russian Opera Company is condemned to a humiliating idleness. Anyway, Mme Aleksandrova gave us the chance to hear A Life for the Tsar with a new débutante (Mme Svyatlovskaya [21]) in the role of Vanya.

The services which in past years Mme Aleksandrova rendered on behalf of our opera have long since been acknowledged by everyone. Her voice has of course suffered in the meanwhile at the hands of all-destroying Time, but still she has retained her great musicality, her finely thought-out phrasing, her taste and impeccable clarity of intonation and technique. Thanks to these qualities Mme Aleksandrova will be able to continue her stage career for quite a while yet, and she can also be sure of commanding the public's respectful attention.

Similarly, Mme Svyatlovskaya distinguished herself at this performance more by these 'internal', that is below-the-surface merits than by any richness of her vocal resources as such, even though her voice is certainly not devoid of fine qualities. This young singer caused a very favourable impression on the audience, and I for my part can only wish that Mme Svyatlovskaya might soon receive a permanent engagement with our Russian Opera Company. She has it in her to develop into a very fine artiste.

P. Tchaikovsky.

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'The Russian Musical Society—Benefit-Night of Ms. Aleksandrova' in ČW.
  2. There are in fact two complete versions of the Fourth Symphony—one which was fully completed in 1841 (but not published then) and which therefore does indeed predate the Second (1846) and the Third (1850), as Tchaikovsky notes, and also the second revised version which was published in 1851. It was this latter version which entered the concert repertoire, whereas the earlier version would not be published until 1891 (thanks to Johannes Brahms's efforts). Until then it had generally been thought that Schumann had just made sketches for this symphony in 1841 before he finally completed it ten years later. At the time of this article (1875) Tchaikovsky, too, had no way of knowing otherwise — translator's note.
  3. See TH 284 and TH 269 for detailed discussions of Schumann's Second and Third symphonies respectively.
  4. Tchaikovsky's memory fails him here because it was not the Jota aragonesa, Glinka's first Spanish Overture, that he discussed in such enthusiastic terms in an earlier article, but rather the second Spanish Overture entitled A Summer Night in Madrid (see TH 287).
  5. This notion of the unfavourable milieu which prevented Glinka's tremendous gifts from flourishing fully and instilling in him a professional attitude to work, is one that runs through all of Tchaikovsky's reflections on the 'father of Russian music' (see e.g. TH 264) — translator's note.
  6. This was the first performance in Moscow of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1. The première of the work took place in Boston (USA) on 13/25 October 1875, with Hans von Bülow as the soloist. The Russian première had taken place a few weeks earlier on 1/13 November 1875 at an RMS concert in Saint Petersburg with Gustav Kross as the soloist — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  7. Sergey Taneyev had just turned 19 when he played at this concert. Following the new army statute of 1874, every able-bodied Russian male who had reached the age of 21 could be called up for military service (in theory exceptions were no longer possible for members of the nobility, those with a higher education, or those who managed to pay someone else to take their place, as had been the case earlier) — translator's note.
  8. Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921), renowned French composer, organist, pianist, and conductor. At the time of this article Saint-Saëns was making up for his comparative lack of success at home by numerous concert tours abroad which proved to be a resounding success. Amongst the countries and cities he stopped at were: Brussels (March 1875), Russia (December 1875–January 1876), Austria (March–April 1876), London (July 1876), Bayreuth (August 1876) etc. Tchaikovsky was introduced to Saint-Saëns in connection with this concert in Moscow, and it seems that they got on very well with one another, even to the extent of staging a mock ballet in the Conservatory entitled Pygmalion and Galatea (see the account in Modest Tchaikovsky's biography of his brother)—note by Ernst Kuhn, supplemented by the translator.
  9. An allusion to the Société Nationale de Musique, which was set up in 1871 by Saint-Saëns and others in order to promote contemporary French music. Very soon almost all of France's leading composers joined it — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  10. Massenet's operas (except for Manon, which was quite critical about when he attended the first production in Paris in February 1884). Thus, after playing through the score of Le roi de Lahore (1877) he exclaimed: "Hang it! how much taste and chic these Frenchmen have!" (Letter 986 to his brother Modest from Florence on 27 November/9 December 1878). And when studying in 1880 the score and libretto of Massenet's oratorio Marie-Magdeleine (1873), a work that had been championed by Pauline Viardot, Tchaikovsky was profoundly moved by the duet between Christ and Mary Magdalene. It inspired his romance Softly the Spirit Flew up to Heaven—No. 2 of the Seven Romances, Op. 47 (1880). This same 'sacred drama' also prompted Tchaikovsky to re-iterate his admiration for contemporary French music: "No, it is quite clear that the French are now the leaders in music!" [«Нет, решительно французы стали во главе музыки!»] (Letter 1541 to Modest Tchaikovsky from Simaki, 18/30–19/31 July 1880) — translator's note.
  11. François-Clément-Théodore Dubois (1837–1924), well-known French composer whose works of liturgical music are still regularly performed in France — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  12. Emile Paladilhe (1844–1926), notable French composer — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  13. Georges Bizet (1838–1875), renowned French composer. Tchaikovsky's admiration for Bizet and especially Carmen (1875) was tremendous. Already in 1875 he was studying the piano score of the opera, and in January 1876, during a brief stay in Paris, he heard Carmen for the first time at the Opéra Comique—"one of the strongest musical impressions of his entire life" as Alexander Poznansky writes. In 1877 he claimed that he had learnt the whole opera by heart. And whilst in Simaki in June 1880 we know from various letters to Nadezhda von Meck and to his brother Modest that Tchaikovsky had the idea of writing an article on Carmen, which he considered to be "perhaps the most outstanding operatic work of our age" (Letter 1541 to Modest, 18/30 June–19 June/1 July 1880). In this article, which he knew he would never actually write, but whose main ideas he set forth in one section of a remarkable letter to Nadezhda von Meck dated 16/28 June–19 June/1 July 1880 (Letter 1539), Tchaikovsky intended to show how unlike the great masters of the past (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert) all modern composers were consciously striving after all kinds of fanciful orchestral and harmonic effects, but that this "purely rational process of musical invention" just led to music which was cold and lacked genuine inspiration. Then "suddenly a Frenchman [[[Bizet]]] turns up, whom I do not hesitate to call a genius, and in whom all these poignant and spicy effects are not made up, but rather pour out in a free-flowing stream, flattering the ear but at the same time also moving and affecting one […] He has given us a paragon of that element in art which can be described as prettiness—'le joli'. Bizet is an artist who pays tribute to the corrupted tastes of his age, but who is nonetheless imbued with true, genuine feeling and inspiration". The most frequently quoted, because so prophetic, lines from this letter to Nadezhda von Meck are the following: "Carmen in my view is a chef d'oeuvre in the true sense of the word, that is one of those few works which are fated to reflect most intensively the musical tendencies of a whole age […] I am convinced that within some ten years or so Carmen will be the most popular opera in the world!". Some Tchaikovsky scholars (including Henry Zajaczkowski) have written on the "citations" from Carmen which we find in a number of Tchaikovsky's works (e.g. the Violin Concerto, The Queen of Spades, Symphony No. 6) — translator's note.
  14. Tchaikovsky is probably referring here to Saint-Saëns's friendship with Liszt and his early championing of Wagner's music in France — translator's note.
  15. Camille-Marie Stamaty (1811–1870), French pianist and composer, a pupil of Friedrich Kalkenbrenner and Mendelssohn. Stamaty started to give Saint-Saëns piano lessons in 1843 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  16. Saint-Saëns had already written a symphony in 1851, at the age of 16, but the official first symphony (i.e. actually published) was the one which had its première in 1853: the Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 2, which was in fact the first work to be published by the now 18-year-old composer — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  17. Saint-Saëns composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 22, in 1868 in just 17 days, following a commission from Anton Rubinsteinnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  18. Saint-Saëns composed his famous tone poem Danse macabre, Op. 40, in 1874, i.e. the year before this article by Tchaikovsky —note by Ernst Kuhn.
  19. See TH 269 for this discussion of Liszt's Totentanz (Paraphrase on "Dies irae").
  20. Saint-Saëns's symphonic poem Phaëton, Op. 39, was written in 1839 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  21. Aleksandra Vladimirovna Svyatlovskaya (after marriage: Müller; 1856–1923), Russian contralto, sang at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre, where in 1887 she created the role of Solokha in Tchaikovsky's opera Cherevichki; she also gave singing lessons in Moscownote by Vasily Yakovlev (supplemented by Ernst Kuhn).