The First Concert of the Russian Musical Society. Madame Laura Kahrer. Beethoven's 8th Symphony. The Italian Opera. Madame Patti

The First Concert of the Russian Musical Society. Madame Laura Kahrer. Beethoven's 8th Symphony. The Italian Opera. Madame Patti (Первый концерт Русского музыкального общества. Г-жа Лаура Карер. 8-я симфония Бетховена. Итальянская опера. Г-жа Патти) (TH 259 ; ČW 523) [1] was Tchaikovsky's third music-review article for the Moscow journal Contemporary Chronicle (Современная летопись), in which it was published on 15 November 1871 [O.S.].

This article contains reflections on the lack of musical appreciation and discernment in the Moscow public and how the Russian Musical Society was helping to put matters right; an enthusiastic description of the Prelude to Wagner's Lohengrin; an appraisal of Joachim Raff's classical style, which Tchaikovsky compares favourably to the sentimentalism of Mendelssohn and his imitators; some brief remarks on Beethoven's Eighth Symphony; and a tribute to the superhuman qualities of Adelina Patti's voice whilst regretting at the same time that Russian opera was being so sorely neglected in Moscow

History

Written by 15/27 November 1871 (date of publication). It concerns the First Russian Musical Society concert in Moscow on 5/17 November 1871, which was conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featured Wagner's overture to Lohengrin, Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major (soloist Laura Kahrer), Joachim Raff's concert piece La fée d'amour for violin and orchestra, Op. 67 (soloist Ferdinand Laub), Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93; and the Italian Opera Company's production of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on 6/18 November 1871, starring Adelina Patti as Rosina

English translation

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English text copyright © 2008 by Alexander Geidelberg
Original notes copyright © 2009 by Luis Sundkvist
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Muscovites undoubtedly love music, but each in his own way. Some of them are content exclusively with Italian opera, others with gypsy whooping. There are persons belonging to the educated classes who hardly know that Mozart, Beethoven, and Glinka ever existed; yet alongside these one also comes across circles of individuals whose musical appreciation is at the pinnacle of artistic criticism.

But individual circles do not constitute a public, that cohesive mass whose voice would be able to determine and influence the progress of our national art. Indeed, we do not yet have a public capable of creating public opinion, that is an opinion which is respected by everyone. All we have at present is a motley crowd which rushes to the pseudo-Russian concerts of Mr. Slavyansky [2], but at the same time has no desire to become acquainted with the so obviously non-Russian works of Glinka, Dargomyzhsky, and Serov—a crowd which failed to stand up for its own national opera-house [3]

Yet by no means can this crowd be blamed for its ignorance. To become enlightened, it needs sensible guidance. This is a difficult matter that requires effort and perseverance, but the cause is a noble one. The Russian Musical Society in Moscow dedicates all its activities to that cause. It was established some twelve years ago under most unfavourable circumstances, but currently the Society is strong and optimistic about its future. The services rendered by the Society to the musical education of the masses are invaluable. Over the past ten years of its existence it has provided much enlightenment to our dark musical kingdom [4]. Thanks to the strenuous efforts of the Society's directors, the development of the arts in Russia has taken such a huge leap forward that in my capacity of chronicler of Moscow's music life, I could not begin my chronicle in any other way than by saluting this truly national cause.

The First Concert of the Russian Musical Society

The current season's concerts of the Russian Musical Society commenced last Friday on 5th November. The programme, as always, was extremely interesting.

The concert started with Wagner's splendid prelude to Lohengrin. This, perhaps, is the most successful and inspired composition by the celebrated German composer [5]. It depicts the kingdom of light, truth and beauty from which the knight Lohengrin has descended to rescue the beautiful and wronged Elsa. Here Wagner used for the first time a brilliant orchestral effect that has subsequently been used by all contemporary composers when they need to represent something highly poetical in their music. Even the renowned maestro Verdi did not hesitate to borrow from Wagner in order to express the final languishing of the dying Traviata. This effect involves using string instruments in their highest register. The striking mastery with which Wagner gradually amplifies the gentle, luminous theme depicting the Grail is remarkable. Next he reaches a deafening fortissimo, before returning gradually to the initial presentation of the theme, which ultimately fades away in the extreme upper range of the strings. The audience succumbs instinctively to the highly poetical mood of this piece, and usually enthusiastic applause breaks the deathly silence in the auditorium, where it seems as though the ethereal images traced by Wagner are still rushing around.

Madame Laura Kahrer

After this Prelude we heard a brilliant piano concerto by Liszt. This concerto, which is already familiar to the public thanks to its having been performed by Messrs Rubinstein, Klindworth and Joseffy [6], was played this time by a young pianist Madame Laura Kahrer [7], who was making her first appearance in Moscow. Madame Kahrer is still very young but already enjoys a considerable reputation. This is what one well-known reviewer from the city of Leipzig wrote about her a year and a half ago. "The playing of this fourteen-year-old girl is distinguished not solely by its wonderful virtuosity and expressive sound, but also by the masterful intuition and sensitivity of her interpretation. She conveyed the pathetic mood of Beethoven's sonata and the elegiac character of a Nocturne by Chopin with an equal maturity of understanding that is possible only in a virtuoso of the highest calibre. And all this she can play by heart! We hope that this promising pianist, after completing her studies with Liszt, will soon join the ranks of the most outstanding virtuosi of our times" [8].

Madame Kahrer has already justified to a large extent the hopes that were placed on her. Her playing is indeed distinguished by brilliance and talent, although the strict criteria of artistic virtuosity cannot be applied to her yet. A comprehensive development of her talent is still a matter for the future. We must mention, though, that Liszt's concerto has already been heard by the concert-goers of the Russian Musical Society as performed by such a first-class artist as Nikolay Rubinstein; and this circumstance has been unfavourable for Madame Kahrer's debut in Moscow. In any case she passed the first trial with flying colours, and had a very warm reception from the audience. From my heart I wish this young pianist every success and encouragement, for hers is a very welcome appearance on the musical horizon of Moscow.

In this concert Mr Laub [9] played a very interesting fantasy by Raff [10]La fée d'amour. Raff belongs to the most outstanding contemporary composers of the German school. His music does not display striking originality, he does not astonish the listener by exuberance of the creative faculties and imagination, but he is able to capture a sensitive connoisseur by the sophistication of his technical development and by his perfection of form. It is very remarkable that Raff has been able to preserve himself from the seductive influence of Mendelssohn, whose monotonously sentimental music has produced such an abundance of feeble imitators who endlessly repeat some of his typical stylistic devices, which have long ago become rather trite commonplaces [11].

Raff displays a very close affinity with the Beethoven school, from which he has borrowed the noble simplicity of his themes, the logical thematic development of his ideas, and in particular artistic moderation in the choice of orchestral effects. A great deal of character and artistic commitment is required to refrain from the bombastic, awkward effects which modern composers are so liberal with. The second theme in the abovementioned piece is particularly charming. It is full of passionate languor and caressing tenderness. Mr Laub's interpretation was above all praise—Moscow has every right to be proud of having within its walls this Titan amongst violinists.

Beethoven's Eighth Symphony

The concert concluded with a performance of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony. I am not inclined to proclaim the principle of Beethovenian infallibility, and, whilst by no means denying the great historical significance of Beethoven, I nevertheless consider that expressing unquestioning and uniform astonishment at every one of his works would be contrary to the truth. It is beyond argument, though, that in some of his symphonic compositions Beethoven reached such heights as to be without, or almost without, any rivals whatsoever. The symphony performed on Friday most definitely belongs to these unattainably great works of his. I hope the reader will forgive me if I refrain from a detailed analysis of this superb piece, for it is indeed extraordinarily difficult to come up with enough laudatory epithets to do full justice to this work, and so I shall just limit myself here to a brief characterization.

Uniquely amongst all of Beethoven's symphonies, this one maintains a joyful, celebratory mood right through to the very last note. Beethoven, who was endowed with such a remarkable capacity for immersing the listener in a tragic mood, this time pours into the latter's heart whole torrents of joyful and spirited feelings. The last movement, in particular, is full of humorous contrasts, abrupt transitions and enchanting surges of fantasy which one can only find in Beethoven, and will always remain an incomparably beautiful paragon of symphonic music. This symphony was performed superbly under the fiery conductorship of Nikolay Rubinstein.

The Italian Opera. Madame Patti

As a conscientious journalist, I ought to say something now about the Italian Opera, which is of such interest to Muscovites. However, I will postpone the fulfilment of this obligation until next time.

I am prepared to concede that it would be improper for a self-respecting capital city to content itself with not having an Italian Opera. However, while listening to Madame Patti's [12] trills, can I, as a Russian musician, forget even for a moment the humiliation that our native art has to endure in Moscow, where neither the place nor the time can be found to provide it with a haven? Can I forget the miserable existence that our Russian Opera is forced to lead, even though in our repertoire we have a number of such operas which any other self-respecting capital would take pride in as a most valuable treasure?

I know that people will say that when La Patti is in Moscow, it is ludicrous even to think about Russian opera. In my reply to this argument, however, I would point to Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Munich, Dresden and Prague. As far as Madame Patti herself is concerned, I am not in the least surprised by the raptures which she calls forth, and I laugh at the purists who speak about her with feigned indifference simply because the pleasure of listening to her is expensive. Madame Patti is a delightful phenomenon. Phenomena are expensive, and the reason for that is quite straightforward: they are rare. Whoever, like me, had the opportunity to listen to Madame Patti on Saturday, the 6th of November, in Il barbiere di Siviglia, will not regret having had to dig deep into his pockets for this pleasure. Her singing in this opera struck me as truly astonishing. There is something superhuman in the enchanting beauty of her voice, in the nightingale purity of her trills, in the fabulous effortlessness of her coloratura. Yes, superhuman indeed…

P. Tchaikovsky

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'The First Concert of the Russian Musical Society. Madame Laura Karer. Beethoven's 8th Symphony. The Italian Opera. Madame Patti' in TH, and 'The First Concert of the Russian Musical Society—Ms Laura Kahrer—The 8th Symphony by Beethoven—The Italian Opera—Ms. Patti' in ČW.
  2. Dmitry Slavyansky (originally Agrenev; 1836–1908), Russian singer and choir-master who became very popular in the 1870s and 80s with his choral performances of Russian folksongs, and even toured the United States with his choir. See TH 261 and TH 278 for more detailed criticisms of Slavyansky's concerts.
  3. In the early 1870s, the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow was handed over to the Italian opera manager Eugenio Merelli (1825–1882), who arranged for operas to be performed there on five or six evenings every week. Russian operas, however, were staged but very rarely, e.g. Glinka's A Life for the Tsar was only performed on solemn occasions — note by Herman Laroche.
  4. The phrase Tchaikovsky uses here—«тёмное музыкальное царство»—is a direct allusion to a famous 1860 article by the radical critic Nikolay Dobrolyubov, 'A Ray of Light in the Dark Kingdom' (Луч света в тёмном царстве), which dealt with Aleksandr Ostrovsky's tragedy The Storm and its representation of the merchant milieu of Moscow with its tyrannical family customs and prejudices — note by Luis Sundkvist.
  5. For further observations on Wagner, see TH 270, TH 314, and TH 319. For Tchaikovsky's attitude to Lohengrin in particular, see the following letter from 1879 to Nadezhda von Meck: "I know that you are not overly fond of Wagner, and I too am certainly not a fanatic Wagnerian. Wagnerism appeals to me very little as a principle, and the personality of Wagner awakens feelings of antipathy in me, but I feel that I cannot but do justice to his huge musical gifts. These gifts, in my view, manifested themselves in no other work more strikingly than in Lohengrin. This opera will forever remain the crown of Wagner's oeuvre—it was after Lohengrin that his talent began to decline, ruined as it was by this man's satanic pride. He lost his sense of measure, started to over-reach himself, and everything that he wrote after Lohengrin is packed with examples of music that is unintelligible, impossible, and which has no future. I am now, strictly speaking, interested in Lohengrin from the point of view of its orchestration…" — extract quoted by Vasily Yakovlev and translated by Luis Sundkvist.
  6. Rafael Joseffy (1852–1915), Hungarian pianist and composer.
  7. Laura Rappoldi-Kahrer (1853–1925), well-known Austrian pianist — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. The source of this extract has not yet been established — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  9. Ferdinand Laub (1832–1875), Czech violinist, conductor, and composer, taught at the Moscow Conservatory from 1866 to 1874 and was also chief conductor of the Russian Musical Society's symphony orchestra. Tchaikovsky dedicated his String Quartet No. 3 (1876) to his memory.
  10. Joachim Raff (1822–1882), Swiss composer, teacher and pianist.
  11. See TH 268 for a more balanced assessment of Mendelssohn, which points out many of his merits.
  12. Adelina Patti (1843–1919), renowned coloratura soprano, who appeared frequently in Russia between 1869 and 1877. See the last paragraph of TH 271 for an interesting comparison of La Patti with Christina Nilsson, whom Tchaikovsky considered to be the greater artist.