The Fifth Symphony Concert. The Second Quartet Series. The Italian Opera

The Fifth Symphony Concert. The Second Quartet Series. The Italian Opera (Пятое симфоническое собрание. Вторая квартетная серия. Итальянская опера) [1] (TH 299 ; ČW 564) was Tchaikovsky's thirty-fourth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 3 January 1875 [O.S.].

This article contains a fascinating comparison between Berlioz and Beethoven, in which Tchaikovsky points out that although the great French composer strove for "orchestral colouring" above all and, unlike Beethoven, was unable to construct "a tremendous musical edifice" from a simple basic idea, Berlioz did nevertheless sometimes attain the "loftiest heights of artistic beauty", in particular in the music of Faust's dream and the Ballet des Sylphes in La damnation de Faust, which Tchaikovsky calls "a work of genius"; extensive quotations again from Berlioz's Memoirs (as in TH 282 and TH 285), whose uncompromising sincerity Tchaikovsky compares to Rousseau; a detailed appraisal of Rimsky-Korsakov's Third Symphony, which it had taken the younger composer several years to complete (1866–73), and in which Tchaikovsky perceptively discerns signs of a certain "conservatism" and fondness for "archaic forms" that belied his earlier innovative spirit (when he had been encouraged by Balakirev) and deprived the symphony of "sincerity and spontaneity"; nevertheless Tchaikovsky enthusiastically praises some parts of the work and emphasizes that Rimsky-Korsakov has the potential to become "the principal symphonist of our times"; observations on how the "Moscow Quartet" was getting on in the absence of its first violin Ferdinand Laub; and a mock eulogy to the managers of the Italian Opera Company on behalf of a 'grateful' Moscow.


Completed by 3/15 January 1875 (date of publication). As well as commenting on recent developments at the Italian Opera Company in Moscow, Tchaikovsky reviewed two concerts:

  • The fifth symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow on 20 December 1874/1 January 1875, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Rimsky-Korsakov's Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 32, Anton Rubinstein's Piano Concerto No. 4 in D minor, Op. 70 (soloist Dmitry Klimov), Chopin's Nocturne in C minor, Op. 48/1 and a Waltz in C major by Carl Tausig, both of which were also played by Klimov, an unspecified aria by Mozart sung by Emilio Naudin, and several excerpts from Berlioz's La damnation de Faust, including the Marche hongroise and Ballet des Sylphes;
  • The third RMS chamber music concert in Moscow on 22 December 1874/3 January 1875 at which the "Moscow Quartet" (Jan Hřímalý, Adolph Brodsky, Yury Gerber, and Wilhelm Fitzenhagen) played Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, and the pianist Nadezhda Muromtseva, together with Hřímalý, Gerber, and Fitzenhagen, performed Schumann's Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 47.

English translation

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The Fifth Symphony Concert

The programme for the Russian Musical Society's fifth symphony concert was extraordinarily interesting. Alongside a great new Russian symphony and the Moscow début of a young Russian pianist, we also heard M. Naudin [2] give a wondrous interpretation of an enchanting aria by Mozart and, finally, one of the most magnificent and poetic works of the great French composer Berlioz. I should like to start by saying a few words about the latter, as it was the jewel in the crown of the programme for this most recent symphony concert.

Out of the long sequence of vocal and symphonic numbers which make up Berlioz's music to the legend of Faust, the following pieces were selected for the programme of the concert I am reviewing: the Ronde des paysans, the Students' drinking song, Faust's dream, the Menuet des follets, and the Marche hongroise. The reader may perhaps be wondering what link there can possibly be between the Magyar nationality and the Faust legend. Well, the point is that it was a purely external factor which, as I shall explain below, led to this Hungarian military march appearing in the middle of music that is supposed to convey the various states of mind and emotional phases of Goethe's hero.

Berlioz drew only partly on the great German poet's scenario for the material on which he based his own musical depiction of the personality of Faust and his adventures. In his Memoirs, which are of inestimable value both for what they tell us about Berlioz's person and character, and for understanding the overall spirit and historical significance of the Romantic period in art—in this autobiography, which, in terms of its beautifully written and passionate narrative, as well as the amazing sincerity of the author's self-criticism, reminds one of the famous works of Rousseau [3], Berlioz recounts in a very simple and artless fashion the whole process of how he came to compose the music to Faust, as well as giving the reason why he did not hesitate to move his hero to Hungary. Further down I shall cite, for the benefit of my readers, a very interesting and significant extract from Berlioz's Memoirs concerning Faust.

The first two excerpts—the Ronde des paysans and the chorus of students who sing in doggerel Latin verses of the beneficial influence on man of wine and revelry—are both characteristic, interesting, and colourful, but they are nevertheless marred to some extent by that clumsiness in the harmonic combinations and awkwardness in the flow of the melodic ideas which constitute an organic defect in the musical nature of Berlioz. I have already once—last year, if I remember correctly—tried to explain to readers the peculiarity of Berlioz's music whereby poetic fantasy predominates in it over purely musical invention [4].

Berlioz is undiscriminating in his choice of themes, poor in melodic ideas, and devoid of a sense of the beauty of polyphonic voice leading, but in those works where he is inspired by the poetic task before him all these faults are redeemed by his astonishing aptitude for musical illustration by means of the colours of the orchestra. In contrast to Beethoven, Berlioz is unable to take a simple basic idea, which is nevertheless fraught with the potential for endless harmonic and rhythmic combinations, and construct from it a tremendous musical edifice that strikes one both by the beauty of its overall shape and by the perfection of its details, and which, in spite of the variety and the contrasts between the separate parts, is pervaded by the unity of that fundamental motif.

For Beethoven, orchestral colouring is a means; for Berlioz, it is an end. If in the analysis of artistic works one is allowed to make conjectures about the creative process which gave rise to them, then, comparing the symphonic works of Beethoven and Berlioz, I would say that in the case of the former the abstract musical idea would arise first before then acquiring, in the composer's imagination, the outward shape in which it was to be presented; whereas with the latter it was the beautiful form and some notion of a striking combination of colours that brought forth the musical idea as such. Although, as a result perhaps of insufficient poetic inspiration, Berlioz did not always arrive at a beautiful melodic idea through this process, in those relatively rare instances where he did succeed in this he was most definitely capable of attaining the loftiest heights of artistic beauty.

Amongst those works of Berlioz in which we do find a complete accordance between content and form, we must certainly reckon the third excerpt from his Faust music which we heard at the concert: namely, Méphistophélès's aria, the Choeur de Gnomes et de Sylphes, and the Ballet des Sylphes, which follow on seamlessly from one another. Surrounded by exuberant nature in some secluded spot in the country, the exhausted Faust is lulled to sleep by Méphistophélès who commands the spirits over which he rules to plunge him into sweet dreams of love and happiness. Little by little everything around becomes quiet until amidst the silence of the night the fantastic strains of a waltz begin to waft across from somewhere, with little elves dancing to its evenly undulating rhythm. To seek to convey verbally the overwhelming beauty of this music would be a reckless attempt to overstep the limits that have been imposed on the human word.

Berlioz reaches up here to those sky-blue heights to which man's artistic feeling can only now and then soar by means of music alone. The other two excerpts—the poignant Dance of the will-o-the-wisps [Menuet des follets] and the effective Hungarian March—bring us back to earth, but that does not stop them from nevertheless dazzling us with the most sumptuous colours of the Berliozian orchestra. Now I shall cite that section in Berlioz's memoirs which deals with his music to Faust. It is significant in every respect, and I am sure that the reader who is not familiar with the bulky autobiography of this composer will read the following extract from it with some interest:

During my journey through Austria, Hungary, Bohemia, and Silesia I started to compose my Faust legend, the plan for which I had long been nursing in my mind. Having thus decided to finally undertake this work, I also had to resolve to write the actual libretto for it myself...

As I was sitting in my German post-chaise, I started first of all to think over Faust's invocation to Nature, and, once I had overcome the initial difficulties, I was able to write little by little all the verses that I needed as and when the musical ideas for this new work came to me. Indeed, I composed the score with an ease such as I have rarely experienced with my other works. I worked on it where and when I could: in coaches, in trains, on steamboats, and even in the towns where I was due to give concerts despite all the trouble and hard work that the latter entailed. Thus, it was in an inn at Passau on the Bavarian frontier that I wrote the Introduction...

Before that in fact, when I was still in Vienna, I had written in the course of a night a march on Hungarian themes. The extraordinary impression which this march caused in Pesth induced me to include it in my score for Faust, whereby I also took the liberty of locating my hero in Hungary and making him witness the passage of the Hungarian army across the plain where he is wandering, absorbed in his dreams...

One German critic found it very strange that I had decided to make Faust journey through that country. I cannot see, however, why I should have abstained from this, for I would not have hesitated to take Faust to any other place in the world if my score would have benefited from it. I had in no way set myself the task of keeping to the plan of Goethe's tragedy, and I had every right to show my eccentric hero embarking on the most outlandish journeys, without thereby doing violence to plausibility..

I have often subsequently asked myself why this and other German critics, who attacked me on many occasions for my deviation from Goethe's tragedy, did not scold me for my libretto to the Roméo et Juliette symphony, which differs quite considerably from Shakespeare's immortal creation. Of course, the answer is that it is because Shakespeare was not a German. Patriotism! Fetishism! Cretinism!

In Pesth, one evening when I had lost my way in the streets of the town, I composed the Peasants' Dance by the light of a shop's lantern. In Prague I jumped out of bed in the middle of the night to write down a tune which I was terribly afraid to forget—the chorus of angels during the apotheosis of Marguerite. […] In Breslau I wrote both the words (in Latin) and the music for the students' song...

The rest was written in Paris, and, moreover, always in an impromptu fashion: say, at home, at the café, in the Jardin des Tuileries, even on the curbstone of a boulevard. I did not search for my ideas: they would come to me by themselves and in the most unexpected manner. Finally, when my sketch for the whole score was complete, I set about working on it with that tenacity and patience I am so capable of. […] I regard this work as one of my most successful compositions. To this day the public evidently shares my opinion [5]

To these words of Berlioz I can only add that our Muscovite public, too, evidently agrees with the composer in this opinion of his work. For during the performance of Berlioz's Faust the audience emerged from its habitual apathy and, incredible as it may seem!, at the end of the third excerpt (the best one) loud cries of "encore" resounded throughout the concert-hall. Unfortunately, it was very late in the evening by then, and Mr Rubinstein saw that it was not feasible to satisfy this wish of a considerable part of the audience. However, I can console those of my readers who would like to hear this work of genius by Berlioz one more time by pointing out that at the next (i.e. the sixth) concert of the Musical Society Faust will be played again [6].

Now I shall move on to a brief discussion of the new symphony by Mr Rimsky-Korsakov [7], which was also performed at this symphony concert. The overall impression produced by this work can be characterized as follows: a predominance of technique over the quality of the musical ideas; insufficient inspiration and verve, instead of which we are presented with a multiplicity of finely elaborated, colourful details that does sometimes seem excessive.

This symphony has been nurtured and tended for with a care so great that it reminds one of that maternal love which imagines that the whole essence of education consists of nourishing and pampering a child as if it were always to be kept in a hothouse so to speak. It is clear that Mr Rimsky-Korsakov is now at a stage of transition: he is trying to find his footing, wavering as he does so between an inclination for novelty, which he has displayed on his banner ever since his earliest days, and a secret sympathy for antiquated and archaic musical forms [8]. For he is in fact a worthy townsman [9], a conservative at heart, who once let himself be carried away to fight on the barricades as a free-thinker, but who is now making a timid retreat. As a result of this lack of sincerity and spontaneity in his artistic conception, Mr Rimsky-Korsakov falls into a dryness, coldness, and emptiness which the elegant polish he gives to every slightest detail cannot always camouflage successfully.

It is therefore not surprising that the audience did not receive Mr Korsakov's symphony with any special enthusiasm. As far as the experts are concerned, they could of course not fail to be enchanted by the magic of the details sprinkled all over the score of our symphonist, which caresses the ear with its scintillating tonal combinations. Through the masks of the worthy townsman and the bold innovator which the composer puts on by turns, without openly taking one side or the other, one can constantly see a strong, highly talented, and plastically graceful creative individuality. When Mr Rimsky-Korsakov, after the process of fermentation which is evidently still taking place in his musical organism, finally reaches a stable phase in his development, he will almost certainly evolve into the principal symphonist of our times—and, moreover, one who is far more likely to side with classicism (towards which his musical nature does tend after all) than with the dishevelled Romantic school of Berlioz and Liszt.

He will then be a musical eclectic in the best sense of the word—namely, in that of Glinka—combining the strict organic cohesion of classical forms and methods with that dazzling beauty of outward expression which constitutes an integral feature of the new school. But all this still lies ahead in the future. For now what we have heard is a symphony which has two movements that, in spite of the aforementioned flaw (an excessive profusion of details), provide the sensitive connoisseur with a rich source of musical delights. The two movements I am referring to are the first two of the symphony: the Allegro and the Scherzo.

In the Allegro Mr Rimsky-Korsakov displays a remarkable mastery of form, an amazing understanding of the orchestra, and a facility for contrapuntal thematic elaboration which anyone else endeavouring to write symphonies cannot possibly fail to envy him for. I wouldn't say that the themes in this movement of the work appealed to me particularly, but the author, by presenting them in the most varied ways, manages to make them interesting throughout. In places Mr Rimsky-Korsakov endows his orchestra with a sound that is truly magic. For example, I should like to single out that episode in the Introduction where the flutes play in unison a phrase in the lowest register which is contrapuntally tied to a fragment of the principal theme entrusted to the violins and viola. Those who have heard the symphony may also recall that passage where the clarinet repeats fourteen times in a row a small one-bar snippet of a phrase at the same time as the violins, with strong downbow strokes, play an augmentation of the original theme. This is startlingly original, novel, and fantastic.

The pearl of the symphony, though, is the Scherzo: here Mr Korsakov's talent manifests itself in all its power, without being hampered by pernicious reflection or the deliberate chasing after two rabbits at the same time. The original 5/4 rhythm, on which the overall effect of this movement of the works is based, constantly has to tussle with rhythms of an opposite character, and the result of this simultaneous combination of iambi, trochees, dactyls, and anapaests is something quite unprecedented in terms of the charm and poignancy of the contrasts it gives rise to. If in addition to this we also take into account Mr Rimsky-Korsakov's extraordinary mastery of instrumentation, the fluency and roundedness of the harmonic contours of his music, then the upshot of it all is a remarkably delightful and original work.

In the following movements, however, all we find are the traces of diligent, clean, and painstakingly assiduous technical work. Both the Andante and especially the Finale, in which the author sought to merge into one all the main themes of his symphony, are marred by dryness, icy coldness, and in some places over-salting, if one may put it that way—I mean that there is an accumulation of sharp effects which fuse into a vague mass of sounds that actually express nothing at all.

The first three movements of the symphony were performed splendidly. In the Finale the concluding stretta didn't work out because some of the players got into a muddle, and so the orchestra was forced to somehow grope its way towards the final chords. All the same, we cannot but be grateful to Mr Rubinstein for having acquainted us with a new Russian symphony in which, alongside a great deal of fine merits, some significant flaws do make themselves felt, too, even though the sole reason for these is after all just Mr Rimsky-Korsakov's excessive love for finely polishing details to the detriment of the work's overall effect.

The soloist at this concert was Mr Klimov [10], a pianist who has already made some successful appearances on the concert podiums of Saint Petersburg. He played for us the famous D minor concerto by A. Rubinstein and some shorter pieces by Chopin and Tausig [11]. Mr Klimov is endowed with a considerable number of negative virtues [12], but he does not in any way rise above the level of golden mediocrity. His technique, moreover, lacks the requisite precision.

The Second Quartet Series

I have not said anything yet about the Russian Musical Society's second quartet series, which has the added interest that instead of Mr Laub [13] our city's string quartet is now being led by Mr Hřímalý [14], who achieved such a brilliant success at the second symphony concert. Although the Moscow Quartet has suffered an irreplaceable loss with Mr Laub's departure, it may on the other hand be benefiting now from a greater evenness between the relative strengths of each of the four players.

Mr Laub's absence has acted as a splendid incentive for these musicians to seek to compensate as far as possible the audiences that attend chamber music concerts for the loss of that sublime aesthetic pleasure which the latter derived from Mr Laub's incomparable playing by treating them to impeccable ensemble performances. And one really must credit Messrs Hřímalý, Brodsky, Gerber [15], and Fitzenhagen for the profound artistic conscientiousness with which they have set about their task. The fiendishly difficult C-sharp minor quartet by Beethoven, a real stumbling-block for any quartet ensemble, was played by them with great spirit, fine attention to detail, and technical skill—one couldn't have wished for a better performance. At the most recent concert Madame Muromtseva's [16] participation resulted in a magnificent performance of Schumann's Piano Quartet.

The Italian Opera

To conclude, just a few words about the Italian Opera.

O generous, selfless, and disinterested merchants! You who are carrying out musico-commercial speculations on the stage of our Bolshoi Theatre! How shall I convey to you in the name of all of Moscow's music-lovers our profound gratitude for the artistry with which you announce benefit performances that have to be cancelled because of disastrous ticket sales, or concerts in which Madame Marimon gets to sing in front of yawning box office clerks and ushers with their families!

How shall I express to you the enthusiasm we feel when we see the dogged perseverance with which you stick to your system of plaguing the ears of our music-lovers—a system whereby, contrary to all logic, you organise more and more benefit performances and concerts the less these are actually attended by people! Pray carry on plaguing the ears of us Muscovites! This will unfailingly make you go bankrupt soon—a result which may perhaps surprise, but will certainly not cause grief to all those who love and care about our native art! Anyway, currently things are rather slack [17] with Madame Marimon, very slack indeed!

P. Tchaikovsky.

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Fifth Symphony Concert. Second Quartet Series. The Italian Opera' in TH, and 'The Fifth Symphonic Assembly—The Second Quartet Series—The Italian Opera' in ČW.
  2. Emilio Naudin (1823–1890), Italian tenor of French origins, whom Tchaikovsky admired greatly — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  3. It is not clear which works by Rousseau Tchaikovsky was familiar with at the time—almost certainly Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse—but we can say for sure that he had not yet read the famous Confessions, because four years later, on 28 February/12 March 1879, he would write to his brother Anatoly from Paris: "I am now reading, for the first time in my life, Rousseau's Les Confessions. Oh, what an incomparable book this is! There are passages in it which simply astonish me. He states things that are so incredibly clear to me, and about which I have never spoken with anyone, because I was unable to express them, and now suddenly I find them expressed fully in Rousseau!!" (letter 1130) — translator's note.
  4. See TH 285, where Tchaikovsky discusses Harold en Italie in detail.
  5. The ellipses […] showing omissions from Berlioz's original text were not included by Tchaikovsky in his review, but have been indicated here following the presentation style of Ernst Kuhn's German edition of Tchaikovsky's articles—P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000). It should also be noted that Tchaikovsky does not always quote word for word from the original. English-speaking readers are referred to chapter 54 in David Cairn's excellent translation: The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz (London: Panther Books, 1970) or to the relevant extracts in an online translation by Michel Austin [1]translator's note.
  6. See TH 300.
  7. Rimsky-Korsakov worked on his Third Symphony from 1866 to 1873, but revised it again in 1886 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. See also TH 257, where Tchaikovsky discusses Rimsky-Korsakov's First Symphony (1865) and comments on its novel "purely Russian harmonic patterns", but at the same time points out how it unsuccessfully tried to adapt itself to the German classical model.
  9. Tchaikovsky uses the word «филистер», which if translated directly as "Philistine" into English would have far too negative connotations (i.e. of ignorance and insensitivity to art) that Tchaikovsky obviously does not have in mind here. The Russian word is in fact closer in meaning to its German source: "Philister", where ever since the Romantic period (especially in the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann) it has been used to affectionately mock the worthy, law-abiding burghers of small provincial towns. Despite his criticisms, Tchaikovsky is definitely using the word in this jesting but essentially affectionate sense — translator's note.
  10. Dmitry Dmitriyevich Klimov (1851–1917), Russian pianist, piano teacher, and conductor; taught at Odessa from 1887 where he became director of the city's musical college (which became the Odessa Conservatory in 1913) — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  11. Carl Tausig (1841–1871), Polish pianist and composer, studied with Lisztnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  12. i.e. in the sense that he is free from many of the usual defects in pianists — translator's note.
  13. The notable Czech violinist and teacher Ferdinand Laub (1832–1875), whom Tchaikovsky admired greatly, had been forced by illness to retire from his teaching duties at the Moscow Conservatory in 1874. After an unsuccessful course of treatment at Karlsbad he travelled to the spa of Merano, but died on the way there in March 1875, just two months after Tchaikovsky wrote this article. The composer would later dedicate his String Quartet No. 3 to Laub's memory — translator's note.
  14. See TH 296 for Tchaikovsky's review of Jan Hřímalý's outstanding performance of a famous virtuoso concerto by Viotti.
  15. Yuly Gustavovich Gerber (1831–1883), Russian violinist, violist, composer and conductor of ballet music — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  16. Nadezhda Aleksandrovna Muromtseva (1848–1909), Russian pianist, studied with Nikolay Rubinsteinnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  17. See the opening paragraphs of TH 298 for Tchaikovsky's ironical explanation as to why he had decided to use terms drawn from the jargon of the stock-exchange whenever referring to the Italian Opera.