The Second Symphony Concert. Madame Patti's Benefit (1874)

The Second Symphony Concert. Madame Patti's Benefit (Второе симфоническое собрание. Бенефис г-жи Патти) [1] (TH 296 ; ČW 561) was Tchaikovsky's thirty-first music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 27 November 1874 [O.S.].

This article contains an extensive and enthusiastic discussion of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, this "symphonic wonder" with its "astonishing" second movement that reveals "an ideal world of eternal beauty and harmony"; encouraging remarks about the great progress made by Jan Hřímalý in his musicianship, even if Ferdinand Laub would always remain the supreme violinist for Tchaikovsky; valuable observations about Rossini's unrivalled mastery in the comic genre and Il barbiere di Siviglia as "a priceless pearl of Italian music"; and a glowing tribute to Adelina Patti with regard to her last appearance with the Italian Opera in Moscow during the 1874–75 season.

History

Completed by 27 November/9 December 1874 (date of publication). Tchaikovsky reports on two concerts:

  • The second symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow on 22 November/4 December 1874, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92, Giovanni Battista Viotti's Violin Concerto No. 22 in A minor (1792) (soloist Jan Hřímalý), the overture to Tchaikovsky's opera Vakula the Smith, as well as arias from Handel's oratorio Athalia, Dargomyzhsky's song Elegy and Pauline Viardot's Évocation (a setting of Pushkin's poem Заклинание («О, если правда, что в ночи...»), translated into French in 1862 with the help of Turgenev), all sung by Madame Iskritskaya;
  • A benefit performance of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia for Adelina Patti at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 19 November/1 December 1874, which also featured Antonio Cotogni as Figaro.

English translation

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The Second Symphony Concert

Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, thanks to its famous Andante, is one of the works most beloved by audiences. Amongst the great symphonist's works, this Andante [2] has a status akin to that of the so-called air favorit or favourite aria in every popular opera. Very often the only difference between this "favourite aria" and the numbers which precede and follow it is that its melody is more insipid, its rhythm more banal, its harmonization crude and devoid of poetry. When evaluating the artistic colours of a work, the great mass of the public is always short-sighted: only glaring colours, decorative design and colouring, and eye-catching effects will draw its attention. Soft tones, finely polished details, and elegantly rounded contours, however, invariably escape the notice of this lamentable short-sightedness.

It takes time—a lot of time indeed—for the great mass to begin to pick out in the background of a painting those details which it had failed to notice and understand at first glance. The more a work of music becomes the common property of this majority, the greater the amazement with which it starts to discover the numerous beauties in that work which it had not appreciated at first. At the same time it becomes disappointed with its air favorit, starts to find the latter banal, and finally consigns it to the street for it to be seized on by the grateful organ-grinders who have to deal with a public that is quite incapable of ever going beyond the air favorit.

There do, however, exist such rare works which have the quality of appealing in equal measure to both the fine connoisseur and the uneducated majority. The beauty of such works is unfading—the more we listen to them, the greater our love for them becomes. The strength and originality of their main idea are of a kind that it is impossible to get accustomed to the latter. This idea can never sink into commonplaceness because it is unassailable by imitation and plagiarism.

It is to the very select number of such compositions that the renowned Andante of the Seventh Symphony belongs, and for sixty-two years now it has constituted a prolific source of the highest aesthetic pleasures for the whole civilized world. The preceding and subsequent movements of this amazing symphony, which in 1874 shines with those very same imperishable charms that so astonished the European public in 1812, when Beethoven had only just released it from his writing-desk, are in no way inferior to the Andante, but the point is, as I repeat, that the latter enjoys the privilege of being especially popular with the public. And this can be explained partly by its enchanting melodiousness and the absence of intricacies in its thematic development, and partly by the physical loveliness of the sound, that is the splendid instrumentation.

The symphony's first movement begins with a broad, sweeping Introduction, in which we are riveted by the gradation of ever increasing interest with which Beethoven develops, by means of what in the technical language of music is referred to as figuration, a simple, short, and energetic theme. The opening of this Introduction is especially original and can be regarded as the prototype of an orchestral effect which has subsequently been often repeated: the whole orchestral mass immediately strikes a strong and dry chord, from which the oboe detaches itself, quite imperceptibly at first, and announces in sustained notes the theme of the Introduction. The first theme of the Allegro, which is distinguished by a pastorally naïve melodic design, was picked on by the purists amongst Beethoven's contemporaries as a pretext for accusing the composer of being undiscriminating in his choice of themes for his symphonies. As if a painter who has created a grandiose landscape of Alpine nature or a sea-storm cannot with equal success set about the depiction of a simple village scene! The rhythm of this theme, with its original accent on the third beat of the bar, is sustained with astonishing mastery throughout this whole first movement. Modulations, thematic variations, strikingly novel and bold harmonic effects succeed one another with ever heightening interest, but the basic rhythm of the principal theme remains unaltered.

It is impossible to convey in words how astonishing this infinite variety in unity is! Only such colossi as Beethoven can cope with such a task, without exhausting the listener's attention, without diminishing for one minute the latter's pleasure by this obstinate repetition of the first rhythmic figure. Amongst the details of this symphonic wonder I should like to single out the stretta at the end of this first movement, when the double basses, cellos, and violas repeat eleven times in a row a small two-bar phrase at the same time as a progressive development of ever more intricate figurations on the tonic chord takes place in the higher registers of the orchestra. This original effect, just like the opening chord of the Introduction, has served as a model for many imitators, amongst which we also find Berlioz, who used a very similar device at the end of the first movement of his programmatic symphony Roméo et Juliette.

The Andante consists of the development of a rhythmic motif which is extraordinarily simple in its conception, and it is this very simplicity of the basic idea which gives the symphony's second movement that irresistible charm to which it owes its wide popularity. This motif appears first in the orchestra's lower register (violas, cellos, and double basses). When it is taken up by the violins, there appears in the cellos a contrapuntally linked phrase in the minor mode that is like a plaintive groan. Little by little the basic motif grows and, rising ever higher, it finally resounds with the mighty strength of the whole orchestral mass. After that comes a melody of opposite character: it is bright, joyful, and seems to express the hope of a distant happiness. All along, though, the initial rhythm can still be heard as a silent threat, as a sombre memento mori, in the basses. When the principal theme returns, it does so in an altered form, acquires its definitive shape in the ensuing fugato, then dies away, breaks up into various fragments, is unable to finish what it was saying as it were, until, finally, it comes to a stop on a final chord of an indefinite nature.

If sixty-two years on we still find ourselves being struck by the novelty, freshness, and strength of this conception and by its execution in this wondrous piece, we can readily imagine what our grandparents must have felt when Beethoven, with the magical power of his immeasurable genius, lifted before them the veil which conceals from human eyes the ideal world of eternal beauty and harmony!

The Scherzo is full of life and joyful vivacity, and in the middle section Beethoven endowed it with a solemnly triumphant character. In the transition from the second figure of this trio to the reprise of the first, we again come across a harmonic effect which is striking in its originality and novelty for the time in which it was written. I am referring to the pedal-point on the dominant which is sustained by the French horn in a rhythm that contrasts with the upper register and has its accent on the appoggiatura.

Whereas in contrast to the melancholic Andante the Scherzo is distinguished by its joyful and celebratory mood, the Finale depicts a veritable Bacchanalia of tones—a whole sequence of scenes full of wholehearted merriness, happiness, and joy of life. When listening to this magnificent concluding movement of the symphony, it is difficult to decide what deserves the greater astonishment: whether it is the richness of Beethoven's creative fantasy or the perfection of form it displays, that is the composer's amazing mastery as he musters all the conceivable means of thematic development and his lush and exuberant instrumentation [3].

Such is the splendid work which constituted the highlight of the programme for the Russian Musical Society's second symphony concert. Everything else was naturally eclipsed by it, including even the arias of Handel and the songs by Dargomyzhsky and Madame Viardot, as well as the violin concerto by Viotti [4] which was admirably played for us by Mr Hřímalý. This virtuoso, so it seems to me, has made great strides in his self-perfection lately. The regrettable (and I hope only temporary) absence of Mr Laub [5] has placed Mr Hřímalý in a very delicate situation both at the Conservatory where, so we have heard, he is successfully substituting for Mr Laub as professor of violin studies, and on the concert podium, where he cannot avoid being compared with such a master of his profession as Mr Laub.

However, every cloud has a silver lining. The need to emerge with dignity from this inevitable competition with the overwhelming memories that the public has of the perfection of Mr Laub's violin playing, has acted as an excellent incentive for Mr Hřímalý to work steadfastly on his natural virtuosic gifts (which, by the way, are quite splendid). Mr Hřímalý had long ago earned the reputation of a highly conscientious and talented virtuoso, but at this last concert of the Musical Society it was literally impossible to recognize him. For Mr Hřímalý displayed here such confidence, such richness of tone and clarity in the polishing of details, such melodiousness, brilliance, warmth, and sense of measure as are to be found only amongst truly first-rate virtuosi. One cannot but rejoice at the fact that this talented artist is at the same time also proving to be a conscientious person.

Complacency and blind faith in one's merits—qualities which are unfortunately so frequently encountered amongst young Russian artists in particular—might have undermined the solid reputation of Mr Hřímalý. Now, though, thanks to his diligence and hard work, Mr Hřímalý has risen greatly in the esteem of the public, and even if he could not make people forget Mr Laub (which is impossible, since the latter has no rivals in the field of virtuosity on the violin), he has given us a fine display of his own strength, which is quite sufficient for him to occupy a very prominent place amongst the most famous virtuosi of our times.

Madame Iskritskaya, who performed the aforementioned vocal numbers at this concert, was not altogether unsuccessful. She has a very deep contralto voice with a beautiful timbre. Unfortunately, though, like all the pupils of Madame Nissen-Saloman [6] (with the exception of Madame Lavrovskaya), her singing is dry, lifeless, and cold. Madame Iskritskaya leaves one with the impression of a pupil who has learnt her lesson by rote. Let us hope that with time the flame of passion and inspiration will blaze up in her too, and that this flame will warm and liven up her emotionally still quite deficient and childishly immature manner of interpretation.

Madame Patti's Benefit

I shall now move on to a brief report on the farewell benefit performance for Madame Patti. We were treated to a staging of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, this priceless pearl of Italian music. Rossini was great in little things: his sphere was the light comic genre, and in this field no one could rival him, not even the highly gifted Auber. There is nothing more thrilling than the spontaneous and artless merriness of Rossini's music. It is so coquettishly sweet, graceful, and sincere like no other music belonging to the light genre, and if in addition to all this we also take into account Rossini's mastery of harmony and the art of writing for the voice in such a way that the singer finds it both pleasurable and convenient to sing, as well as his brilliant and skilful instrumentation, then what we end up with is an exemplary and yet at the same time inimitable opera.

If there is one singer in the whole world who is up to the mark of this magnificent music, then that singer is, of course, none other than Madame Patti. Her wondrous voice, her enchantingly sweet appearance, her acting which is free of any artificiality, the reliability of her intonation, her extraordinarily conscientious approach to her roles, the absolute purity of her coloratura technique—all these qualities combined mean that Madame Patti fully deserved the ovations with which she was honoured at her benefit performance.

With regard to these ovations one could recount a few anecdotes which show our Muscovite public in a very comic light, but I have no right to encroach on the sphere of my colleague who signs his contributions to the feuilleton of the Russian Register with the pseudonym "A Modest Observer" [7]. Anyway, however that may be, the fact is that Madame Patti received several valuable presents and was showered with flowers and laurel wreaths—which I am indeed very glad about because Madame Patti, I repeat, is not only a splendid and incomparable singer, but also the most conscientious of artistes.

But what is one to say about the unseemly and disgraceful buffoonery of Signori Bossi and Cotogni [8], which is entirely out of place on the stage of an Imperial Theatre? Signor Bossi was braying like a donkey, crying like a circus clown (evidently to flatter our patriotism) [9], and generally pulling faces and rushing about like a madman. Signor Cotogni kept capering like a goat, jerking his legs, and even contrived to sneeze in a very personal manner—in short, both artists were trying to surpass one another in clownery and tomfoolery.

Let us assume that Signor Cotogni, who is accustomed to playing villains and is devoid of innate comic gifts, was forced to resort to such "tricks" in order to make up for the lack of cheerfulness which is so essential for performing the role of Figaro. But for what reason Signor Bossi, who is a highly venerable artist and has a strong natural flair for comedy [10], decided that he too had to resort to banal farce, that is something I simply cannot fathom. As for Signor Vizziani's performance as Count Almaviva, I had the impression that this singer was ill and had lost his voice, for he was barely audible.

I was unable to attend the staging of Faust with Madame Nilsson [11] in the role of Marguerite, but I have heard that she was given an enthusiastic reception.

P. Tchaikovsky.


Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Second Symphony Concert. Madame Patti's Benefit' in TH, and 'The Second Symphonic Assembly—The Benefit-Night of Ms. Patti' in ČW. Tchaikovsky also wrote another article with the same title in 1872 (see TH 269).
  2. Tchaikovsky is in fact referring to the Seventh Symphony's Allegretto (although the movement was indeed originally marked Andante by Beethoven, who then changed his mind about the tempo he wanted from the orchestra) — note by Vasily Yakovlev, supplemented by the translator.
  3. It is worth comparing this appraisal of the Seventh Symphony with the detailed and no less enthusiastic analysis of it by Berlioz (in an essay that is available online, as translated by Michel Austin [1], with which Tchaikovsky would probably have been familiar. Tchaikovsky's likening of the Finale to a Bacchanalia is also reminiscent of Wagner's famous description (in an article of 1849) of the whole symphony as an "apotheosis of the dance" — translator's note.
  4. Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755–1824), famous Italian violinist and composer.
  5. The notable Czech violinist and teacher Ferdinand Laub (1832–1875), whom Tchaikovsky admired greatly, had been forced by lung disease to take sick leave from 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. Tchaikovsky would dedicate his String Quartet No. 3 to his memory — translator's note.
  6. Henriette Nissen-Saloman (1819–1879), Swedish mezzo-soprano and singing pedagogue, studied singing with Manuel García and had piano lessons with Chopin; she made her début at the Italian Opera in Paris in 1843 and was subsequently engaged at the leading opera-houses of Europe; in 1859, she moved to Saint Petersburg where she taught singing at the Conservatory until 1873 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  7. The reviewer in question was Aleksandr Petrovich Lukin (d.1905), who was a contributor to the Russian Register (Русские ведомости) for some forty years and wrote on events from Russian social, literary, and theatrical life — translator's note.
  8. Antonio Cotogni (1831–1918), famous Italian baritone, appeared with the Italian Opera Company in Saint Petersburg from 1872 to 1894 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  9. Although the first Russian Circus was not opened until 1873 (by the Nikitin brothers), there was a rich tradition of clownery in Russia which went back to medieval times and the skomorokhi (wandering minstrels and clowns) of Kievan Rus. Indeed, we find such figures in many Russian operas with a historical or legendary setting, e.g. in Borodin's Prince Igor, Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden, and in Tchaikovsky's The Enchantresstranslator's note.
  10. See TH 260 for very positive remarks on an earlier interpretation of Don Bartolo by Bossi.
  11. See TH 271 for a glowing review of Christine Nilsson's interpretation of Marguerite in Moscow in 1872, and TH 297 for a much more critical appraisal of a later performance by the famous Swedish soprano in this very same role.