The Italian Opera. The Russian Musical Society's Quartet Sessions

The Italian Opera. The Russian Musical Society's Quartet Sessions (Итальянская операКвартетные сеансы Русского музыкального общества) [1] (TH 266 ; ČW 530) was Tchaikovsky's fourth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 24 October 1872 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

This article contains a discussion of Auber's career as a composer, which shows Tchaikovsky's life-long fondness for French music; a critical remark about Verdi's popular "barrel-organ melodies" whilst at the same time acknowledging the genuine talent and "sincerity of feeling" which shine through in his music; very interesting reflections on Verdi's new, 'Wagnerian' style in Aida; an enthusiastic review of Adelina Patti's performance as Violetta in La Traviata; reflections on the richness of the German tradition in chamber music; an enthusiastic tribute to Schubert's "inexhaustible wealth of melodic invention" and further valuable remarks on Beethoven.

History

Completed by 24 October/5 November 1872 (date of publication). Reviewing a performance of Auber's Fra Diavolo at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on 19/31 October 1872; a performance of Verdi's La Traviata in Moscow on 14/26 October 1872 starring Adelina Patti; and a chamber music matinée organised by the Russian Musical Society in the Moscow Hall of the Nobility on 15/27 October 1872, which included Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 12, No. 3, and Schubert's String Quartet No. 13 in A minor ("Rosamunde"), Op. 29 (D.804) with Ferdinand Laub playing first violin.

English translation

Copyright notice
English text copyright © 2009 Luis Sundkvist
See our Terms of Use

The Italian Opera

I have been waiting for quite a while for notable events to take place in our musical world which might be suitable as material for my musical conversations with the reader. But more than three weeks have gone by and I can point to just about only two such events worthy of being recorded in my chronicle: the appearance of Madame Patti with the Italian Opera Company and the opening of the Russian Musical Society's season of matinée concerts, which got underway with its first series of string quartets. Since my last article, which dealt with the first performance given by Signor Merelli's company in Moscow, the latter has already revived and staged a number of operas from the Italian repertoire—Il Trovatore, Rigoletto, Ernani—as well as two from the French repertoire—La muette de Portici and Fra Diavolo.

A very great deal has already been written and published about Verdi's operas, and I therefore do not consider it necessary to share with this newspaper's readers such platitudes as the fact that this maestro's works, in spite of their occasional flashes of inspiration, are full of all kinds of commonplaces such as are, in general, characteristic of composers of the Italian school.

It was, however, quite refreshing for me to hear those two operas by Auber—a composer who is not of the first rank, but who is nevertheless not without many considerable merits. Like all good composers of the French school, Auber stands out for the elegant clarity of his harmonization, an abundance of delightful and rhythmically striking melodies, sensible moderation in the use of outward effects, and for his beautiful instrumentation. What you cannot expect to find in Auber, though, are passionateness, moments of tempestuous yearning and powerful inspiration. In his works he appears before us as the same smart, cheerful, intelligent and well-bred Frenchman that he was in real life. It is sufficient to point out one remarkable aspect of this composer's life in order to delineate Auber's personality as an artist.

In all the years of his very long life in Paris, amidst all the dazzling and fine things that you can find in this 'capital of the world', as the French like to call it, he never felt the need to refresh himself with new impressions, unlike any other Parisian whom the prospect of these would certainly lure out of the stuffy confines of his city. He openly confessed that he could not stand the beauties of nature and that outside of Paris, without the habits of high society which he had acquired there, he could not be happy. Thus it was that the aged composer lived in Paris exclusively for almost all of his life, devoting his mornings to courting the young girls who were studying at the Conservatory of which he was Director, flitting to and forth between the backstage and the dressing rooms of fair singers in the evenings, and, like an artisan, working the whole night through on his operas, of which he wrote a vast quantity in the course of his long life.

There was something about him which makes one think of the gallant petits-maîtres and marquises of the previous century. A kind of armour-plating made up of aristocratic impassivity and scepticism protected Auber from the Romantic ravings and fanciful sentimentality which were so much in vogue in his youth and which had such a strong effect on artists of a different temperament, such as Berlioz for example. That is why the attractive qualities of this French composer nowhere manifest themselves more strongly than in his comic operas, especially in those whose plot is taken from high society life. In La muette de Porticithere are many fine passages, it is a work written with a great deal of knowledge and intelligence, but, still, it lacks the warmth and depth which would have been essential in the music to so strongly dramatic a plot as that of this opera. It is evident that in making this transition from the Opéra-Comique to the Grand Opéra, Auber was going against his own nature, whereas in operas like Le Domino noir [2], Le Cheval de bronze, and Fra Diavolo he is fully in his element, and it is there that his delightful qualities can display themselves in all their charm.

In view of the bombastic works which make up the Italian Opera Company's staple repertoire, it is refreshing to have such a charming opera as Fra Diavolo for a change. As far as the principal roles are concerned, this was a very satisfactory performance, and Monsieur Naudin [3] caused a veritable furore in the striking part of the gentlemanly bandit. In this context I should add that my doubts concerning this singer have been dispelled entirely. Monsieur Naudin really was ill during his first appearance as Vasco da Gama: he had to sing beyond his powers that evening, and it was only for the sake of helping Signor Merelli out of an embarrassing situation that he decided to brave our capricious public which is so terrible in its wrath. This readiness to sacrifice himself certainly does credit to Monsieur Naudin, and I am very glad that immediately after this début, at the second performance of L'Africaine, he was acknowledged with waves of applause, and that these now accompany every appearance of this singer on the stage.

Monsieur Naudin's voice is not particularly strong, but he knows how to make use of his vocal means so intelligently that he is able to outdo all his fellow-tenors, who owe their fame more to the strength of their chest muscles than to any ability to sing beautifully as such. The point is that Monsieur Naudin has fully mastered the art of nuance, that is of employing and alternating at the right time the various registers that make up his voice (chest, head, and middle registers), and it is in fact precisely this which constitutes the art of singing.

How splendidly, for example, does Monsieur Naudin perform the scene with the English lady in Act I, in which the untimely appearance of the jealous lord cuts short the elegant bandit's declarations of love, forcing him to pick up his guitar and strike up his song! There is so much elegance in his phrasing, such graceful simplicity and feeling in his well thought-through and skilful interpretation! True, the merciless hand of Time has not failed to take its toll on the capacities of Monsieur Naudin's voice, but it also means that he has been able to acquire such experience and stamina as one will unfortunately never find in young singers!

That is how it always is in our transient world. As soon as a person, by dint of hard work over many years, after experiencing many bitter moments of terrible disillusionment and fruitless rage, after overcoming masses of obstacles, finds himself at last on the right track, no sooner has this happened, than he already starts to feel the waning and weakening of that mighty force in himself which he had worked so long to harness properly, erring along the way and losing courage at times but always returning to his work—in short, of that force for the sake of which he had lived. These thoughts crossed my mind during a performance of Verdi's La Traviata in the Bolshoi Theatre.

This child of the sunny south has sinned a lot against his art by flooding the whole world with his tasteless barrel-organ melodies [4], but a lot must also be forgiven him for the sake of that indisputable talent and genuine sincerity of feeling which are inherent in every work of Verdi's.

And yet towards the end of his artistic career, when the source of his inspiration had already begun to dry up significantly, Verdi finally bethought himself better and in his manner of composition made a drastic turn into a new direction which took him far away from the established stylistic devices of the Italian school of music—a direction which took him where would you imagine?—to Wagner! This new turn, which was heralded by Don Carlos at its premiere in Paris in 1867, manifested itself fully in Verdi's most recent opera Aida, which he was commissioned to write for the Cairo Opera House by the Khedive of Egypt. When I recently, with understandable misgivings, glanced at the piano reduction of Aida, which has been published in a splendid edition in Paris, I was agreeably surprised by the very first bars of the marvellous Introduction, which is written under a strong influence of Wagner's muse (something that couldn't be said at all of Verdi's earlier works), by the delightful harmonic combinations, by how its original form is rounded off so well, and by the melodic design which really is exquisite in its novelty.

So it was with great interest that I then looked through the whole score of Verdi's new opera, and this made me think with sadness about the terrible effect which writing operas for an audience so undemanding in the aesthetic sense as the majority of Italian audiences are had on Verdi. Just to think of what we would have if in the years of his youth, when his young creative powers were gushing forth in him, Verdi had had his eyes opened as they have been opened now! How many sweet moments he would have been able to give to yearning mankind! But, alas!, alongside great advances in technique and the use of Wagnerian devices in Aida, we constantly sense in this opera a decline in Verdi's ability to invent new melodies.

I should, though, return to La Traviata. Adelina Patti was singing. Now in Moscow and, so it seems, in Petersburg too, it has become fashionable to speak of this singer in a condescending and nonchalant tone. As soon as someone acquires a reputation for knowing his onions (however much this may actually be so), you can be sure that he will consider it his duty to say that La Patti leaves one cold, that she sings without any expressiveness, like a bird, or, to put it even more harshly, like a mechanical instrument. And there are even such cranks who will not hesitate to simply call her a log or a block of wood. I wholeheartedly assure my readers that all this is downright nonsense or spiteful dissembling on the part of these critics. For one cannot imagine anything more perfect than the singing of this truly amazing singer.

True, from such a childishly graceful little woman as La Patti, full of feline agility and delightful coquettishness as she is, it is difficult to expect such striking flashes of genius and mighty talent as displayed by singers of the exclusive and rare calibre of, say, a Pauline Viardot [5], Angelina Bosio [6], Désirée Artôt, Tamberlik [7], or Mario [8], but this does not in any way mean that, apart from the charm of her voice (which everyone agrees on), Madame Patti has no other fine qualities. Leaving aside for one moment the ideal clarity of her coloratura singing and intonation, one just has to think how splendidly she has trained her voice, as a result of which all her vocal registers are of equal strength and quality. Her interpretation of her roles is, moreover, marked by a great deal of taste and plenty of genuine inward emotion. Here in La Traviata, in her Act II duet (with Signor Graziani [9]), where there are none of those dazzling roulades and trills on which La Patti's enduring success is above all founded, she nevertheless caused a profound impression thanks to the sense of inescapable anguish and despair with which her performance was suffused.

It goes without saying that the theatre was packed to the rafters and that the audience's enthusiasm was limitless, despite the opinion of the 'experts'. Signor Graziani in this performance of La Traviata seemed to me to have aged a great deal and to be very close to the final collapse of his reputation as a singer. He does not sing any more, but seems instead to fire off, as it were, the notes from within himself, evidently hoping that his sickly-sweet phrasing (something which, by the way, has long been characteristic of him) can make up for the lack of beauty and freshness in his voice. One must unfortunately confess that he is not quite wrong in his supposition, and that the audience seems to fall for this innocent delusion. The question is how long the latter will last!

And so, having now mustered all the members of Signor Merelli's company, I can now conclude by saying that he has given us a star of the first magnitude or, rather, a resplendent meteor in the person of Madame Patti, a charming little star of a lower magnitude in Madame Duval, and also a remarkably fine, albeit somewhat aged singer in Monsieur Naudin. As we have to pay a lot of money for the pleasure of hearing these singers, we do not owe Signor Merelli any thanks. The point, though, is that even a dozen outstanding singers do not by any means make up a true opera-house in the sense that this is understood in every self-respecting western European city.

For, indeed, on what other opera stage would the audience put up with such delights as our voiceless choruses or our feeble orchestra?! Worst of all, though, is this unimaginable chaos in the ensemble scenes and this coarse carelessness and ignorance in the overall staging of every performance! One really must have visited Moscow at least once, simply just to get an approximate idea of all this.

The Russian Musical Society's Quartet Sessions

The day after Madame Patti's brilliant début, the Russian Musical Society's new season opened modestly and quietly in the Little Hall of the Assembly of the Nobility. The audience which came together for this concert was not very large, but no less enthusiastic for that.

It really does seem that this wonderful branch of music has trouble catching on in Moscow, even though it can boast a repertoire which is surely richer than that of any other musical genre. For let us not forget that Haydn devoted his finest energies to chamber music; that Mozart, who in general composed his works with a facility that was unique to him and which sometimes bordered on carelessness, lovingly worked over and polished his string quartets (the six that are dedicated to Haydn); and that, finally, the greatest works of Beethoven (the string quartets which he dedicated to Razumovsky and Golitsyn), the most profound creations by this greatest of all composers also belong to this humble musical genre which contents itself with the narrow limits imposed by just four string instruments and therein is able to achieve an incredible rich polyphonic development of musical themes.

The lack of sympathy for these string quartet performances on the part of the Muscovite public is all the more surprising in that here in Moscow we have a player whom all the western European capitals envy us for. I am referring to Mr Laub [10], who, as far as his performances of chamber music from the classic repertoire are concerned, is unmatched in the whole world except by Herr Joachim [11], whom we heard here last year and who surpasses Laub in the ability to draw forth touchingly gentle melodies from his violin, but is undoubtedly inferior to him in the richness of his tone, in passion and lofty energy. The other members of the quartet—Messieurs Hřímalý, Gerber [12], and Fitzenhagen—were thrown into the shade by the amazing qualities of Laub's playing, but the point is that Mr Laub wouldn't have been able to find co-players equal to himself either in Moscow or anywhere else. In any case, these three musicians played with sufficient clarity and artistry, striving as far as they could to be worthy of their primarius.

The programme consisted of string quartets by Haydn and Schubert and a violin sonata by Beethoven [13]. The latter does not belong to Beethoven's greatest works, though it is still endowed with the usual merits of this composer's style—that is, with a profoundly elaborated perfection of form and inimitable originality. Schubert's String Quartet in A minor is one of the most delightful works in the whole chamber music repertoire. What an inexhaustible wealth of melodic invention we find in this composer whose career was cut short at such an untimely early age! What lavish imagination and sharply delineated originality! Had it not been for that haste with which Schubert worked—a consequence of his circumstances in life—that haste which makes itself felt in all his works and quite often marks them with the character of insufficient completeness, and sometimes also with the flaw of excessive length, he would of course be spoken of in the same breath as his great predecessors Mozart and Beethoven. With regard to Haydn's delightfully naïve and cheerful string quartet, I would like to suggest to the board of directors of the Russian Musical Society that it should try to fill the programmes of its string quartet series mainly with works by this father of all contemporary music. His music is more suitable than that of the colossus Beethoven for our public, whose training in the appreciation of music still has a long way to go.

"B. L."


Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'The Italian Opera. The Russian Musical Society's Quartet Season' in TH, and 'The Italian Opera—The Quartet Sessions of the Russian Musical Society' in ČW.
  2. In 1868 Tchaikovsky was asked to write some additional recitatives and choruses for this opera so that it could be staged for Désirée Artôt's benefit performance with the Italian Opera Company. See TH 175.
  3. Emilio Naudin (1823–1890), Italian tenor of French extraction. See also TH 265 where Tchaikovsky had written very critically of his performance as Vasco da Gama in L'Africaine.
  4. The phrase " by flooding the whole world with his tasteless barrel-organ melodies" was omitted from the republication of this article in the Soviet collected edition of Tchaikovsky's writings— П. И. Чайковский. Полное собрание сочинений, том II (1953, edited by Vasily Yakovlev)— but restored here by way of P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000, edited by Ernst Kuhn).
  5. Pauline Viardot-García (1821–1910), famous French mezzo-soprano of Spanish origins; she championed Tchaikovsky's music in France, performing a number of his songs. Tchaikovsky visited her in Paris in the summer of 1886, spoke with her about Turgenev, and had the unique opportunity to look through the original score of Mozart's Don Giovanni which was in her possession (see his letter 2988 to Nadezhda von Meck, 28 June/10 July 1886) —translator's note.
  6. Angelina Bosio (1824–1859), Italian singer, who from 1856 appeared with the Italian Opera Company in Saint Petersburg note by Ernst Kuhn.
  7. Enrico Tamberlik (1820–1889), famous Italian lyric and dramatic tenor, guest appearances with the Italian Opera Company in Saint Petersburg between 1850 and 1863 which left an indelible impression on the young Tchaikovsky, as testified by Laroche in the Preface to his 1898 edition of the composer's collected writings.
  8. Giovanni Mario (1810–1883), famous Italian tenor, sang in Saint Petersburg from 1849 to 1863.
  9. Francesco Graziani (1828–1901), Italian baritone — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  10. 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.
  11. Josef Joachim (1831–1907), famous Austro-Hungarian violinist, conductor, and composer. When Tchaikovsky says that he had played in Moscow "last year" it should actually be "in the last season" because Joachim appeared as soloist with the Russian Musical Society on 21 January/2 February 1872 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  12. Yuly Gerber (1831–1883), Russian violinist, violist, composer and conductor of ballet music — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  13. The specific works performed were a string quartet in D major by Haydn; Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 12, No. 3; and Schubert's String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, "Rosamunde", Op. 29 / D.804 — note by Ernst Kuhn.