The Second Week of Concerts. The Ninth Musical Society Concert. A Few Words About Productivity. Mr Kashperov's Concerts

The Second Week of Concerts. The Ninth Musical Society Concert. A Few Words About Productivity. Mr Kashperov's Concerts (Вторая концертная неделя. Девятое собрание Музыкального общества. Нечто о плодовитости. Концерты г. Кашперова) [1] (TH 304 ; ČW 569) was Tchaikovsky's thirty-ninth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 19 March 1875 [O.S.].

This article contains fascinating insights into what Tchaikovsky considered to be an essential feature of the creative process—namely, not being overly self-critical at first, as that had led "two such great Russian artists" as Gogol and Glinka to destroy the sketches of some of their final works; a defence of Anton Rubinstein from critics like César Cui who accused him of being over-prolific, whereby Tchaikovsky emphasizes that productivity in creative artists often depended on various external circumstances and could not be used as an indicator of the quality or otherwise of their individual works; an interesting quotation from George Henry Lewes's biography of Goethe, which points forward to Tchaikovsky's later reading of Dickens and Thackeray, as well as his great admiration for George Eliot; a catalogue of the works of two composers who died very young— Mozart and Schubert—which Tchaikovsky leaves to speak for itself; an objective but rather critical assessment of Anton Rubinstein's latest symphony; some valuable observations in passing about the final period of Beethoven, "this greatest of all creative geniuses in music"; and a fleeting remark full of praise for Wagner's "magnificent" Tannhäuser overture.

History

Completed by 12/24 March 1875 (date of publication). Concerning the Russian Musical Society's ninth symphony concert in Moscow on 14/26 March 1875, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Anton Rubinstein's Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 95 ("Dramatic"), excerpts from Tchaikovsky's opera The Oprichnik (sung by Aleksandra Aleksandrova-Kochetova and Aleksandr Dodonov), and the overture to Wagner's Tannhäuser; and a concert organized by Vladimir Kashperov at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 13/25 March 1875, featuring, alongside several younger singers, the veteran contralto Anna Petrova-Vorobyeva, who performed Ännchen's aria from Weber's Der Freischütz.

English translation

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The Second Week of Concerts. The Ninth Musical Society Concert. A Few Words About Productivity

At the ninth symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society we were introduced to a very interesting new work: the latest symphony, written last summer, by A. G. Rubinstein, one of the most talented representatives of contemporary music. Although the name of Mr Rubinstein has acquired universal fame, above all thanks to his outstanding qualities as a virtuoso pianist of the first rank, it is nevertheless also the case that as a composer, too, he deservedly stands in good repute—even if the critics have not yet formed a definite opinion on the significance of his compositional works nor indicated the specific place which corresponds to him amongst the most prominent exponents of the contemporary school of musical composition.

So unanimous when it comes to acknowledging his genius as a performer, the musical authorities of Europe are at considerable variance with one another in their assessment of his creative talent. Even the most characteristic feature of Mr Rubinstein's career as a composer—his strikingly great productivity—to this day continues to influence, both in a positive and a negative sense, judgements about the quality of the works issuing from his pen. Some see in this truly almost incomprehensible facility with which he composes one work after the other the most compelling proof of his genius. Others explain Mr Rubinstein's prolificity as a sign of that lack of discrimination in the choice of one's principal musical ideas and of that complacent faith in one's own infallibility and inexhaustibility which are so characteristic of lesser talents who lack originality.

To my mind, though—and I am very much convinced about this—when judging the qualities of a work, critics have no justifiable reason whatsoever to take into account the author's greater or lesser degree of productivity. And yet whenever we pick up a newspaper review on this or that work by Mr Rubinstein, we will inevitably find there some allusion to his extraordinary productivity. Not so long ago in fact, one music critic in Saint Petersburg expressed the following opinion about Mr Rubinstein: that "he writes far too much, and as a result he does not have enough time to adopt a critical attitude towards his works" [2].

This stereotypical phrase about the "critical attitude" which authors should have towards themselves and their works is one that I have heard and read many times with regard to Mr Rubinstein and several other composers. I would very much wish that these gentlemen would clarify what they mean by this expression, which has a somewhat scholastic and pedantic air about it. Do they fully realize the exact way in which such a critical attitude is supposed to come about? Are they trying to imply that the author must strive as far as possible to polish carefully his work from the point of view of form and technique? But surely that goes without saying anyway! Or do they mean that a composer, once he has completed his work, must and can decide with total impartiality whether the latter is good or bad, whether or not it is worth publishing, whether or not it has new, original, and interesting ideas and stylistic features to offer? But who could be so naïve as to imagine that such self-assessment is always possible and always infallibly correct?!

After all, as everyone knows, there is no such thing as absolute perfection on earth, and if one were to take this notion of a self-critical attitude on the part of authors to its extreme, then it would surely be more logical to advise all those who have any aspirations to authorship to never take up a pen again. For what are the proper criteria, where is the limit which must not be overstepped by the author who has decided to subject himself to a comprehensive critical interrogation, trial, and perhaps even accusation?

We have only to recall that we are 'obliged' to morbid fits of critical self-chastisement for the fact that Gogol burnt the second part of Dead Souls and Glinka a whole act of The Bigamist and a significant part of his Taras Bulba symphony [3]. Of course, some critic, ever true to his beloved principle of the "critical attitude" which authors are to adopt towards their creations, will no doubt be delighted that these last, and perhaps even most valuable, fruits of the creative imagination of two great Russian artists went up in flames. The rest of the Russian people, however, are almost certainly unanimous in lamenting that Gogol was not able to get by without a critical attitude towards himself, and that with regard to his destroyed works Glinka did not leave the role of critic to the nearest available music reviewer in the nearest available newspaper.

For a work of art there can be no worse, more partial and biased judge than its author, at least at the moment when it has just been completed by the latter. It is only with the passing of time, when the painfully sensitive inner bond attaching an artist to his creation has been broken, when both the sweet sensations and the torments and doubts which any creative process inevitably entails have long since been forgotten—it is only then, I stress, that the author becomes fit for calm, objective contemplation, for a critical analysis of his work and the pronouncement of a fair verdict on it.

Sometimes one does lament having wasted time and energy in vain, sometimes one does reproach oneself for mistakes one has made, perhaps even to the extent of feeling downright ashamed of them. But of all those who have ever at all written, composed, painted, sculpted, and constructed, who has not suffered such fits of disappointment in oneself? Amongst those who are older, who has not sometimes regretted the past and wished that he or she could somehow make up for the unprofitably and aimlessly squandered hours and days of their irretrievably lost youth? All this is quite natural, and a thousand critics banging on about "critical attitude" will never succeed in inducing man to spend all his life doing only that which he will never come to regret later on.

Thanks to our critics, especially the music critic of the Saint Petersburg Register, Mr Cui, it has become an established notion in our country that to write a lot means in effect to write badly. However, the biographies of all great musicians provide the best refutation of this completely false assertion. I do not deny that those who write a lot may sometimes perhaps write badly, but after all there are also such authors who write both badly and little. And vice versa, one also comes across authors who, irrespective of whether it is a lot or a little, invariably write well.

I think that the quantity of an author's oeuvre should never be allowed to influence a critic's judgement about the quality of a particular work he is analyzing, for the very simple reason that quantity can only ever be a completely extraneous consideration, as it is directly tied to the individual make-up of the author's talent and to his circumstances in life [4]. Of two talents which are identical in terms of creative power, in terms of the quality of what they are able to come up with, one may certainly happen to be more productive than the other. For someone who is reading the biographies of these two artists, it is of course very interesting to try to find out the reasons for this quantitative imbalance, but what does this all matter to the critic? Everyone does his work to the best of his abilities, talents, good intentions, and also to the extent to which, in devoting himself to his occupation, he manages to emerge victorious in the struggle against obstacles of all kinds.

Unfortunately, this truth, however simple it may be, is never taken into account by the sworn critics in all branches of art. On the contrary, indeed—these gentlemen are quite happy to reproach an artist for his prolificity. Lewes, referring to Goethe's great range of works, has observed quite rightly that fecundity can impair an artist's reputation: "For when many targets are ranged side by side, the clumsiest archer will succeed in striking one"! [5]

To return, though, to the question of productivity. It is a well-known fact that Russian artists, perhaps as a consequence of this excessively critical attitude towards themselves, are not exactly over-endowed with the aforesaid quality. Perhaps the reader may care to find out something about the quantity of works with which various first-rate Western European composers have enriched the art of music. As examples I shall cite Mozart and Schubert. Both of them died in their prime and at the height of their powers: Mozart when he was 35, and Schubert at the age of 31.

Mozart (born in 1756, died in 1791) wrote: 19 masses, 1 requiem, 49 other works of sacred music with orchestral accompaniment, 17 organ sonatas, 6 cantatas (as well as 4 arrangements of cantatas and oratorios by Handel!), 23 operas, 66 arias, vocal trios, quartets, and other vocal works with orchestral accompaniment, 41 songs, 23 canons, 22 sonatas and fantasias for piano, 16 sets of themes and variations for piano, 23 smaller piano pieces, 11 piano works for four hands, 11 piano trios and quartets, 6 string duos and trios, 32 string quartets, 9 string quintets, 49 symphonies, 33 serenades and divertissements, 27 marches and other orchestral pieces, 39 dances for orchestra, 55 concertos for various instruments.

Schubert (b. 1797, d. 1828) [6]: (I) Published works: 4 symphonies, of which one is complete, one is in two movements, and the other two have survived in piano transcription; 8 overtures (two of them in piano transcription), 1 octet, 9 string quartets, 9 string quintets, 4 piano trios, 18 sonatas, 3 fantasias, 220 marches, polonaises, écossaises, and other dances, 43 piano pieces for two and four hands, 7 masses, 5 operas, a few cantatas and other major vocal works, 490 smaller vocal works. (II) Unpublished works: 5 symphonies, 5 overtures, a violin concerto, 14 minuets and other dances for orchestra, 1 octet, 10 string quartets, an overture for string quartet, an overture for string quintet, 2 string trios, a few polonaises, 11 sonatas, 3 fantasias, 60 minuets, allemandes, and écossaises for piano, 1 requiem, 2 Stabat Mater, 8 other major works of sacred music, 12 operas, 60 cantatas and other works for several voices, 138 romances and songs.

Now back to Mr Rubinstein's symphony, which is the reason I started talking about the relative productivity of composers in the first place. This work certainly belongs to the most interesting works I have heard lately. What the listener is above all struck by is the abundance, perhaps even excess, of basic motifs, many of which appear only episodically, without being elaborated on by the author, so that they are in effect just hinted at as it were. From the point of view of sheer inventive force and creative spontaneity, this wealth of musical ideas speaks well for the symphony, but from the point of view of form, ease of comprehension and appreciation, it is a significant drawback.

Our musical organism is so built that, when hearing the development section of a symphonic work for the first time, we are only capable of clearly distinguishing and committing to memory two, at most three basic motifs, and, in accordance with this premise of aesthetic appreciation, the generally established form for a symphonic work is based on just two principal themes, with at most one secondary theme joining these. No matter what the fanatical admirers of Beethoven may claim, the fact is that the works from the final period of this musical genius will never be fully accessible to the understanding even of a musically competent audience, precisely because of an excess of basic themes and the imbalance of form which arises from this.

The beauties of such works reveal themselves to us only when we familiarize ourselves closely with them—something that cannot be expected of an ordinary listener, even if he happened to be musically sensitive. In order to understand them properly, it takes not only a favourable and receptive soil as it were, but also that the latter should have been cultivated to an extent which is only possible in professional musicians. Without seeking in any way to compare Mr Rubinstein with the greatest of all creative geniuses in music, I should like simply to observe that the style of his symphony shows a rather close affinity with the works of Beethoven's final period.

Apart from this peculiarity of its form, Mr Rubinstein's symphony is also remarkable for one predominating general feature: namely, the mastery of technique and boldness in his selection of means and exposition of ideas, which can be attributed to his long-standing experience and highly developed writing mechanism. As for the individual movements of the symphony, it is the Finale which produces the most satisfying impression overall, with its two principal themes distinguished by an extraordinary charm, inspiration, and ardour. The first Allegro, in spite of many splendid details, is marred by its rhapsodic and incoherent form. In the Scherzo there is a great deal of humour and capricious flashes of the imagination, but here too the overall impression is undermined by an insufficiently organic cohesion between its constituent sections. The simplest, but perhaps also the most colourless, of the four movements is the Andante, which is not devoid of melodiousness and grace, but fails to sparkle with true creative originality and reminds one now of Schumann, now of Mendelssohn.

At the close of the concert which I am reviewing here we were also treated to an incredibly thrilling performance of Wagner's magnificent Tannhäuser overture.

Mr Kashperov's Concerts

Last week, apart from the Russian Musical Society's ninth symphony concert, there was not a single concert worth being recorded in my chronicle of the current concert season. In accordance with my obligations as a chronicler, I did attend one of the two concerts organized by Mr Kashperov, both of which had apparently been devised as public examinations for his students, and each one featuring no less than sixty "persons", as the posters put it. I, however, managed to hear just one "person", namely Madame Petrova [7], who, in front of the Bolshoi Theatre's deserted auditorium, sang a long aria from Der Freischütz with her very pretty voice, albeit very much out of time and very much at loggerheads with the orchestra. I cannot say anything about the other "persons" because I did not manage to hear them, although I am quite sure that everything went marvellously, since where every participant is a "person", it cannot be otherwise of course.

P. Tchaikovsky.


Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Musical Chronicle (The Second Week of the Concert Season—The Ninth Assembly of the Musical Society—About Proflicacy—Concerts of Mr. Kašperov' in ČW.
  2. The source of this quotation has not been identified either in the Soviet collected edition of Tchaikovsky's writings— П. И. Чайковский. Полное собрание сочинений, том II (1953), edited by Vasily Yakovlev—or in the German edition of Tchaikovsky's articles—P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000), edited by Ernst Kuhn—but is very likely that it is taken from an article by César Cui, who, like most of the members of "The Mighty Handful", was notoriously hostile towards Anton Rubinstein as a composer. This is all the more likely given that Cui is mentioned explicitly later on in the article —translator's note.
  3. The Bigamist, or The Robbers of the Volga, based on an eponymous play by A. Shakhovskoy, was an unfinished project for an opera which Glinka worked on in 1855. Likewise, in 1852 he had also started composing a Cossack Symphony "Taras Bulba" (based on Gogol's historical story). As the composer was not satisfied with the sections of these works which he had managed to complete, he asked his Spanish private secretary Don Pedro to destroy them. Thirty years later, some themes from this symphony were written down by Glinka's friends Engelgardt and Balakirev and have been subsequently included in Soviet editions of his works — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  4. See TH 264, where Tchaikovsky also makes this point with regard to Glinka and how the aristocratic milieu in which the latter had lived condemned him to dilettantism (with regard to just productivity of course). In letter 4114 of 18/30 May 1890 to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, Tchaikovsky returned to this idea again, lamenting how "If Glinka had been a cobbler rather than a gentleman [in his attitude to work], then instead of just two (admittedly magnificent) operas, he would have written a good fifteen of them!" («Будь Глинка сапожник, а не барин—у него вместо двух (правда, превосходных) опер было бы их написано пятнадцать») — translator's note.
  5. Tchaikovsky is quoting here from The Life of Goethe (London, 1855) by George Henry Lewes (1817–1878), the notable English philosopher and critic. This was Lewes's most successful book and was translated into many languages (including Russian in 1867), so Tchaikovsky may have read it either in Russian or in French. Later, around 1879–80, Tchaikovsky actually started teaching himself English so that he could read the works of his favourite English authors in the original. As he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck on 21 July/2 August 1880 Letter 1546: "To be able to read Shakespeare, Dickens, and Thackeray in the original—that will be a joy for me in old age!" Dickens was probably the English writer Tchaikovsky admired most (after Shakespeare of course!), and it was in fact the experience of re-reading Little Dorrit (Крошка Доррит, in Russian) in Clarens in the early months of 1879 that had induced him to take up studying English. Even later still, Tchaikovsky also became acquainted with the works of Lewes's wife George Eliot [Mary Ann Evans], which filled him with such admiration that he considered writing operas based on three of her works (TH 244, TH 245, and TH 246) — translator's note.
  6. See Nottebohm's Thematisches Verzeichnis der im Druck erschienenen Werke von Franz Schubert ( Vienna, 1874) — note by P. Tchaikovsky.
  7. Anna Yakovlevna Petrova-Vorobyeva (1816–1901), famous Russian contralto, created the roles of Vania and Ratmir in Glinka's two operas; at the time of this concert she was of course near the end of her performing career — note by Ernst Kuhn, supplemented by the translator.