The Musical Society. Madame Patti's Benefit. Mr Demidov

The Musical Society. Madame Patti's Benefit. Mr Demidov (Музыкальное общество. Бенефис г-жи Патти. Г. Демидов) [1] (TH 310 ; ČW 576) was Tchaikovsky's forty-fifth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 15 November 1875 [O.S.].

This article contains a further discussion of Beethoven's Fidelio in which Tchaikovsky expands on what he had remarked in TH 269 about its dramatic weakness and "bourgeois-sentimental plot" and how its relatively few moments of original musical beauty had more to do with their "symphonic" qualities than with opera as such; yet another tribute to the "overwhelming and majestic grandeur" of theLeonore III overture; observations on Nikolay Rubinstein's poetic interpretation of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2; an extensive and objective appraisal of Adelina Patti as an exceptionally fine singer whose strength, however, did not lie in dramatic roles and who would never command the same affection as Désirée Artôt, Christina Nilsson, or Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya; an attack on the theatre management for its peremptory treatment of a Russian singer; and yet another ironical remark in passing about the pseudo-Russian concerts of Dmitry Slavyansky and his choir.

History

Completed by 15/27 November 1875 (date of publication). Concerning the Russian Musical Society's first symphony concert of the new season which took place in Moscow on 7/19 November 1875, was conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein, and featured Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 in C major, two choruses from Grétry's opera La double épreuve ou Colinette à la cour, Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor (soloist Nikolay Rubinstein), and the premiere of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 3 in D major, Op. 29; a staging of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots by the Italian Opera Company at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 11/23 November 1875, starring Adelina Patti as Valentine; and the dismissal of the bass Stepan Demidov from the Russian Opera Company.

English translation

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The Musical Society

The Russian Musical Society's first symphony concert, which attracted a numerous audience, took place last Friday, the 7th of November. The most important work performed at this concert was the famous overture by Beethoven which is generally referred to by the name of Leonore III. As everyone knows, Beethoven wrote only one opera—Fidelio. As a musico-dramatic author Beethoven did not manifest himself in this sole opera of his as the colossus amongst the composers of all times and peoples which he so clearly appears as in symphonic and chamber music.

With regard to both the subject he chose—one that is based on a very trivial, bourgeois-sentimental story about a husband and wife who love each other mutually—and the musical illustration of this subject, which does not really shine with elements of original beauty and is pervaded through and through by Mozart's influence, Beethoven shows himself here to be a composer endowed with very little flair for the specific conditions of the stage as determined by operatic tradition and style. One feels that, in undertaking this opera, Beethoven stepped out of the sphere which was his own, and that in this new field he was unable to unfold that astonishing, inexhaustible originality of his fantasy which his other works are bursting with.

Those few outstanding passages in the score of Fidelio in which we can glimpse sparks of Beethoven's gigantic creative power, such as, for example, the Introduction to Act III [2], Florestan's aria, and the duet between Rocco and Fidelio, contain beautiful features which are in fact characteristic of the symphonic style and indeed of instrumental music in general. Thus, in this Introduction to Act III the listener is struck by the original effect of timpani tuned to a tritone (a diminished fifth); in Florestan's aria there is an incredibly beautiful oboe solo which conveys the agitated state of the opera's hero; in that duet we are fascinated by the double bass passages illustrating how the grave is being dug for Florestan, who has been condemned to death. From these descriptions it should be clear to the reader that all these beautiful, original, and staggering effects have nothing in common with music for an opera.

However, nowhere else did Beethoven's original genius manifest itself with such overwhelming force than in the four overtures which he wrote for his opera on different occasions. Of these four overtures, the one which was played at the first symphony concert is definitely the best. Two years ago I discussed it in detail [3] and tried (perhaps in vain) to give readers an idea of what constitutes the perfection of this work, which is equally splendid from the point of view of the majestic grandeur of its ideas and from that of the technical premises for musical beauty. Now all I wish to add is that the better one gets to know this work, the more one is filled with astonishment at Beethoven's inimitable mastery. This is one of those works of art which can drive a second-rate composer to despair. No matter how much you try, no matter how zealously you search for and strive after novelty, originality, and mastery—you realize that you will never be able to reach such lofty heights and perfection…

N. G. Rubinstein played Chopin's Piano Concerto. How difficult it is for someone who intends to submit for printing a review of this magnificent pianist's playing to find new expressions which could serve as an accurate assessment of his virtuoso qualities! The combination of strength with tenderness, of stormy inspiration with a fine sense of measure—all this has been noted long ago and repeated in all kinds of ways! In his interpretation of this elegant work by Chopin, however, the qualities that came most to the fore were, in accordance with the character of the music, a soft and pearly touch, song-like phrasing, taste, and gracefulness in the elaboration of details.

But Mr Rubinstein also amazed us by his indefatigability at this concert. After having conducted that huge overture and a nice little chorus by the ancient French composer Grétry [4], and having then played the solo part in Chopin's long concerto, he also managed to conduct the orchestra with extraordinary enthusiasm and verve in the performance of a long and very difficult new symphony by a Russian composer! [5]

Madame Patti's Benefit

Madame Patti has already left Moscow. She gave her farewell performance last Tuesday, as Valentine in a staging of Les Huguenots which was also intended as a benefit production for her. Madame Patti received an ovation which consisted of a veritable rain-shower of laurel wreaths and flower bouquets, several valuable presents, and… boisterous curtain-calls and applause. Oh yes! When these products from the vegetable kingdom began to be hurled onto the stage, followed by the products from the mineral kingdom which were presented to her in a more personal fashion, the audience, warmed up by this striking spectacle, did indeed start screaming and raging. But that was precisely because it had been deliberately warmed up beforehand.

One shouldn't forget that, in addition to being a famous singer, Madame Patti is at the same time also a marchioness [6]. This high-flown title does two things for her: first of all, it doubles her stage prestige, and, secondly, wherever she may happen to be it opens doors for her, giving her access to the very cream of society. The cream of society organizes ovations for this finest of song-birds, and the public, impressed on the one hand by the ringing fame of her name, and on the other by her undeniable merits as a first-rate singer, merely supports the initiative of the organizers—and, to be honest, it does so rather passively.

For the truth is that La Patti is not really loved here. She is marvelled at, admired for her pretty looks, but she does not command that ardent sympathy which such singers as Artôt, Nilsson, and Lavrovskaya are able to instil in people so that they, and even singers who are far inferior to La Patti in terms of artistic quality, become objects of almost universal veneration across the width and breadth of the country. In the case of Madame Patti there is none of that. The lack of spontaneous affection towards La Patti on the part of our public is reflected in the smaller box-office returns for concerts in which she has participated, as well as in the sparse and feeble applause—almost as if it were being given just for propriety's sake—with which she has always been received and with which she was indeed received at her last performance in the role of Valentine. It is even reflected in the fact that two hours before the performance I was able to buy from a ticket-tout a seat in the stalls for a sum which was just one ruble more than the box-office price.

At first everyone was interested in her as a most extraordinary novelty. Now everyone has heard her, the interest attaching to her rareness and novelty has faded, and so it is the singer's friends who now have to set up artificial triumphs for her.

And yet, as I record this fact, I am amazed and puzzled at the same time, because Madame Patti has for many years now quite rightly occupied first place amongst the most famous singers. The wondrous sound of her voice, its great range and power, her faultless clarity and lightness in coloratura, the extraordinary conscientiousness and artistic integrity with which she performs every one of her roles, her gracefulness, warmth, and elegance—this astonishing artiste combines all these qualities in the requisite proportion and in harmonic balance. She is one of those few chosen ones who belong to the very finest amongst artistic personalities of the first rank!

Nevertheless, Moscow's attitude towards her is far from what it should be in view of her merits, and there is no doubt that the artiste herself is under no delusion whatsoever as to the degree of affection which she instils in the public here. In all likelihood she feels that here she is not appreciated as she deserves, and it is quite possible that this fact will in future influence her choice of the place where she intends to continue her artistic career. Well, and what if Madame Patti decides not to sing in Moscow next year? After all, she is the conditio sine qua non for the greenhouse-like flourishing of the Italian Opera in our city. What will our music-lovers do then? What will the management of our theatre do? What will happen to the 'poor' impresario? I shudder to think what might be the consequences of this very real possibility!

I have already pointed out once that as I see it Madame Patti is above all suited for operas which are not too dramatic, nay, even comic ones, such as Il barbiere di Siviglia, L'Elisir d'Amore, Don Pasquale etc. For as long as she is still young the overall impression which she makes is one of naïve flirtatiousness, childishly graceful charm and gaiety—that is, an impression which does not at all square with such tragic figures as Norma, Semiramis, or Valentine. Thus, in Les Huguenots Madame Patti sang beautifully, acted diligently, and put a great deal of warmth and heartfelt emotion into her performance, but overall she was still not satisfying as Valentine. However far one may be carried away by the illusion of the stage, no matter how much one accepts the conventional falseness of the operatic genre in general [7], it is still impossible to picture the passionate, resolute, and energetic Valentine in the guise of this small person, with her narrow little shoulders and the delightful little head resting on them which might have come straight out of a painting by Greuze [8].

M. Capoul [9] was a complete disaster as Raoul. He is a very talented and elegant singer, but his limited vocal resources simply do not allow him to take on such demanding roles as that of Raoul in Les Huguenots. He did perform the romance in Act I charmingly, but this romance was pretty much all that he was up to in the whole opera. In the sextet in Act III and the great duet in Act IV he was simply caricature-like. True, M. Capoul did try to make up for the deficiencies of his voice by passionate acting, but that only made his performance look even worse. Shuffling and running about, wild gestures, frenetic shaking of the head, regular forays into the proscenium—there was plenty of all that, but no real singing whatsoever. The overall impression made by this production was also extremely poor. It was evident that the company hadn't rehearsed Les Huguenots properly this time, and there was infinitely less ensemble spirit in the cast compared to when it was staged a month ago.

Mr Demidov

During the course of twelve years the singer Mr Demidov [10] performed regularly with our Russian Opera Company. Indeed, he was the mainstay of its whole repertoire, that is for better or for worse, but the point is that he sang Susanin, Farlaf, the Miller, and the Old Pilgrim in Rogneda. And now, suddenly, one fine day he is summoned and without any further ado dismissed from the theatre, without even being given the chance to bid farewell to the public. This bureaucratic whim on the part of the opera-house's management needs no comment. The facts speak for themselves!

The reader may perhaps be expecting me to say something about Mr Slavyansky [11] and his Russian concerts. Never! This exploitation of narrow-minded patriotism of the Zamoskvorech'e [12] mould has nothing in common with music!

P. Tchaikovsky.


Notes and References

<references> [1] [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]

[12]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Entitled 'The Musical Society—Benefit Night of Ms. Patti—Mr. Demidov' in ČW.
  2. 2.0 2.1 It seems that Tchaikovsky was familiar with the original three-act version of Fidelio (which Beethoven revised and cut down to two acts in 1806, a year after the opera's premiere), or perhaps the opera was staged in three acts in Russia at the time — translator's note.
  3. 3.0 3.1 See TH 269. This article was in fact written not two but three years earlier, in November 1872.
  4. 4.0 4.1 The Villlagers' Chorus and the Knights' Chorus from the opera La double épreuve ou Colinette à la cour by the French composer of Walloon origin André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry (1741–1813). It is worth noting that fifteen years later, when composing The Queen of Spades, Tchaikovsky would have the Countess sing the refrains of "Je crains de lui", an aria from Grétry's most famous opera, Richard Cœur-de-Lion (1784), when she reminisces about her youth — note by Vasily Yakovlev, supplemented by the translator.
  5. 5.0 5.1 The premiere of Tchaikovsky's Third Symphonynote by Vasily Yakovlev.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Adelina Patti's first husband was the Marquis de Caux — translator's note.
  7. 7.0 7.1 This notion of the "conventional falseness"[«условная фальшь»] of opera is one of the key components of Tchaikovsky's aesthetic credo. See, for example,TH 284 for his rejection of the extreme realism aspired to by Dargomyzhsky in The Stone Guest. Similarly, in his letter 2356 of 28 September/10 October–30 September/12 October 1883 to Nadezhda von Meck from Verbovka, Tchaikovsky would again defend the "false conventionality of the action on the stage in an opera" [фальшивая условность оперного действия] against those who, like Tolstoy or Madame von Meck herself, were inclined to reject it for the sake of 'truth' — translator's note.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Jean Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805), French painter, the greatest exponent of sentimental genre painting, which, thanks to the rather melodramatic but fascinating expressions on the faces of his portrait figures and his moral pathos, was very popular all over Europe for a long time. His portraits of women and young girls were especially admired — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Joseph-Amédée-Victor Capoul (1839–1924), French tenor, engaged for a while at the Opéra-Comique in Parisnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  10. 10.0 10.1 Stepan Demidov (1822–1876), Russian bass — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  11. 11.0 11.1 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. Tchaikovsky had a very low opinion of him (see e.g. TH 261)..
  12. 12.0 12.1 Zamoskvorechye (Замоскворечье), which literally means "Beyond-the-Moskva-River", is a historical area of Moscow to the south of the Moskva River, the setting for many of Aleksandr Ostrovsky's plays about the merchant class with its deeply ingrained traditions and prejudices — translator's note.