The Start of the Concert Season

The Start of the Concert Season (Начало концертного сезона) [1] (TH 277 ; ČW 540) was Tchaikovsky's fourteenth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 10 March 1873 [O.S.], signed only with the initials "B.L.".

This article contains observations on the art of singing and its current state of decline, as Tchaikovsky saw it; an appraisal of Berlioz, together with a very interesting distinction between composers depending on whether their inventive faculty or their imagination was the stronger (only "the very greatest composers"—Mozart and Beethoven—were able to combine the two in equal strength).

History

Completed by 10/22 March 1873 (date of publication). Reviewing the following events:

  • "A Grand Concert Soirée of Vocal and Instrumental Music" which took place on 26 February/10 March 1873 at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre and featured the tenor Emilio Naudin, the violinist Vasily Bezekirsky, the singer Nadezhda Engalycheva, and Nikolay Rubinstein, who played Balakirev's transcription of Glinka's Jota aragonesa;
  • The ninth Russian Musical Society symphony concert in Moscow on 27 February/11 March 1873, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Berlioz's Les Francs-Juges overture, Op. 3, Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 (soloist Ferdinand Laub), Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major, S124, performed by Frits Hartvigson, who also played Chopin's Nocturne in D-flat major, Op. 27, No. 2, Niels Gade's Air de dance scandinave, and Anton Rubinstein's Trot de Cavalerie as encores, and Max Bruch's Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 28;
  • A "Second Concert Soirée of Vocal and Instrumental Music" at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 28 February/12 March 1873, conducted by Yuly Gerber and again featuring the tenor Naudin and Vasily Bezekirsky, who played a violin concerto by Vieuxtemps, as well as Vera Timanova, who played one of Mendelssohn's piano concertos;
  • "A Grand Concert of Vocal and Instrumental Music" at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 1/13 March 1873, conducted by Yuly Gerber and featuring Glinka's incidental music to the play Prince Kholmsky, as well as a number of soloists;
  • A concert given by the pupils of Vladimir Kashperov in his honour on 2/14 March 1873.

English translation

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

The past week was packed with concerts. It isn't easy for a poor music chronicler during the Great Fast concert season—especially at the start, which is its most intensive phase—because every evening he is obliged to head off to witness a new musical triumph by this or that visiting or local artist, not all of whom, unfortunately, manage to give performances at which one doesn't find oneself waiting with feverish impatience for the last number. And yet it is essential to attend almost every concert. Sometimes you can anticipate beforehand that nothing other than boredom or even drearier sensations await you at a forthcoming musical event, but a music reviewer is obliged to point not only to the bright sides of music life, but also to lamentable or ridiculous facts—otherwise his humble activity would not only be unable to contribute even just a little bit to the development of aesthetic understanding in the broader public, but would even become meaningless. So I hope that those of our local artists whom I find it necessary to criticise in the course of the current concert season—which, judging by its start, promises to be very lively indeed—won't protest at what I am doing. I will, though, try to show as much restraint as possible.

It is with great relief that I can now proceed to describe Moscow's music and concert life, since it is only fair to say that last week it was agreeable and bright events which predominated. The first concert was that given by Messrs Naudin and Bezekirsky, and it is with this that I shall begin my dialogue with the reader, as my aim is to report on everything that has happened so far in chronological order. Thus, on Monday, 26th of February, we had the concert of Messrs Naudin and Bezekirsky [2].

The first of these two artists is quite well-known to, and justly appreciated by, our public thanks to his appearances with Signor Merelli's Italian Opera Company. M. Naudin was received enthusiastically: each number he sang had to be repeated da capo, to the audience's general delight. And there really was something to be excited about! For this singer is a great, exemplary master of his profession; he is one of the miraculously still-surviving remnants of the old school of classical Italian singing, and therefore a living reproach to modern singers, who are obsessed exclusively with effects produced by brute force, that is with impossibly high notes and all those stentorian cries which may perhaps at first elicit the audience's applause (especially in the gallery and upper slips of the theatre), but which people gradually start to tire of and perceive as banal, and which end up by ruining the singer's innate vocal means.

The Moscow public surely remembers the case of the handsome Italian tenor Stagno [3], who some five years ago created such a furore here with his sonorous chest voice. Now, did he not always exert all his strength to win the favour of the public? Was he not the idol of the gallery because of his high chest notes? And where did all this lead to? Well, that within no more than two years this imprudent use of his vocal means, this method of brash yelling instead of singing caused the public to quickly lose their sympathy for him, and the poor fellow, having completely lost his voice, was forced to leave our capital and, ultimately, the stage too.

The same thing will soon happen to the present favourite of a significant part of our theatre-going public, namely to Signor Masini [4]. I can confidently predict that when, perhaps in the not-so-distant future, there is nothing left of Signor Masini except for his funny mannerisms and faults, the true artist and singer Naudin will still be gaining laurels on all the opera stages of Europe. That the art of singing is currently in a phase of steep decline, is beyond doubt, and it is equally undeniable that it will take a long time yet before it experiences a renaissance akin to that splendid epoch which saw the emergence of such star singers as Pasta [5], Malibran [6], Schröder-Devrient [7], Rubini [8], Tamburini [9], Lablache [10], the Russian tenor Ivanov [11], Mario [12], the Grisi sisters [13], and Viardot [14]. Judging by our young aspiring male and female singers, and judging by the high number of singing-masters who, with the brazenness of charlatans, systematically ruin these young voices, we cannot but conclude that for a long time yet, instead of singing, we will have to put up with shrill wailing, ear-deafening cries, ridiculously refined phrasing, trills which sound like gargling, scales and fiorituras with lots of notes missing, and all the other delights of contemporary singing.

However, I have digressed enough from the concert of Messrs Naudin and Bezekirsky. The latter was performing in Moscow for the first time since his very successful concert tours abroad, which have secured for Mr Bezekirsky a considerable reputation, especially in Germany. He has a highly-developed technique, clean intonation, a tone which is pleasant, though not too strong, and his playing is suffused by undeniable musicality. He is not a star of the first magnitude, but all the same he shines quite brightly on the dim horizon of modern virtuosity, and if I say that Mr Bezekirsky produced a strong impression on an audience which is accustomed to hearing Mr Laub's amazing performances, then that should be sufficient in itself to adequately commend our talented compatriot.

I cannot speak so approvingly of Mr Bezekirsky's talent for composition. His violin concerto, which he himself performed for us, is to such an extent confined to the routine elements of mediocrity that I had the impression of having already heard this work many times before. Everything in it is crafted smoothly, everywhere you can see signs of indisputable taste and knowledge, but it doesn't have the least vestige of originality. By the way, even amongst the most renowned virtuosi it is rare to find interpretative talent combined with creative gifts, and I think I am not at all wrong in saying that, as far as violinists are concerned, Vieuxtemps, Liszt, and Wieniawski are perhaps the only exceptions to the rule that you cannot chase after two hares at the same time.

At this very same concert we also heard the highly attractive and talented Madame Engalycheva [15], who is endowed with an uncommonly beautiful voice but who, alas!, has still done little to perfect it further, as well as N. G. Rubinstein, who gave us a brilliant rendition of Glinka's Jota aragonesa in Balakirev's splendid transcription.

The ninth symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society took place on Tuesday, that is the day after the concert discussed above. Its programme consisted of Berlioz's Les Francs-Juges overture and a symphony by Max Bruch, one of the most outstanding composers of the new German school. As soloists we heard the pianist Hartvigson from London in Liszt's piano concerto and Mr Laub in Beethoven's violin concerto.

Berlioz's overture is one of the earliest works by the renowned French symphonist. I think I have not yet had any occasion to speak of this remarkable composer, who died four years ago, after the great successes which he scored in Saint Petersburg and Moscow towards the end of his life, after a whole series of triumphs and ovations with which the two Russian capitals managed to give some encouragement and consolation to the old master, who had spent his whole life in a fruitless struggle with his obtuse compatriots' lack of appreciation, who forfeited his good health, energy, and faith in his vocation as a result of coming up against endless obstacles and the many stinging thorns with which his feverishly active career was strewn.

In the history of music Berlioz is as striking a phenomenon as he is an exceptional one. Although in certain spheres of his art he attained, on the way to the ideal, such heights which very few artists ever reach, he nevertheless did not create a single work showing that balance, comprehensive technical perfection, and accordance between depth of content and beauty of form, which are characteristic of the greatest works of art. In many respects he opened up new paths in music, but at the same time he never came to be the head of a new school and did not bring forth a single imitator of his style. He awakened lively interest everywhere, but nowhere did he find such fervent devotees and supporters of his music as Mozart and Beethoven had before him, or as Wagner can count on in our times.

The enthusiastic reception which was almost always accorded to him in Germany (with the exception of the doggedly conservative Leipzig), and in Russia too, especially during his last visit [16], can be ascribed not so much to universal sympathy for his music, as to certain external factors which contributed to his success. For in the person of Berlioz German and Russian audiences paid tribute to selfless hard work, ardent love of art, and to the noble and resolute struggle against the obscurantism, insensitivity, routine, intrigues, and ignorance of that menacing collective entity which the poets refer to as the masses.

However remarkable some aspects of Berlioz's music may be, however prominently his appealing personality may stand out amongst the most notable musicians of our century, I confidently assert that his music will never catch on among the wider public, that it will never become the common property of the latter in the sense that the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Meyerbeer evidently has, and as will no doubt also happen with Wagner's music at some point. That Berlioz was a victim of lack of appreciation on the part of the French public and the musicians who governed its tastes, that he was neither understood nor valued in his own country, that this hard-working and untiring artist deserved a better and happier fate than that which ultimately fell to his lot—all that no one can deny. But his isolated position among the composers and musicians of his time, his lack of success, the indifference of both the wider public and music-lovers towards his music, can be accounted for by certain peculiarities of his truly exceptional musical nature and by the inadequacy in many respects of his innate compositional gifts.

In the creation of music it is necessary to distinguish between two different factors: sheer faculty of invention and imagination. The history of music presents us with examples of composers who were remarkably endowed in the former respect: their soul was an inexhaustible fount of beautiful melodic ideas and graceful harmonies, which they arrived at not by means of hard effort and work, but rather by virtue of innate instinct and inclination. On the other hand, though, their imagination was not lively and rich enough to enable them to present their musical ideas in various different lights, to nurture and foster them, and, by means of manifold thematic development, to create works which would be rich in both content and form. Amongst the composers of this kind we can include Schubert, Chopin to some extent, and our Dargomyzhsky.

With other composers it is the second of these factors that predominates in their creative spirit, i.e. despite relative poverty of invention, they are able to extract from the embryo of a musical idea everything that is contained in it, and they do so by means of contrasts of mood and colour, and all the various devices that make for external beauty of form. As examples of such composers I will cite Mendelssohn, Liszt, and our Balakirev.

An even combination of melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic inventiveness with richness and luxuriance of imagination is to be found only in the very greatest composers, that is in Mozart and Beethoven. Now, as for Berlioz, there is no doubt that he belongs to the second category of composers. The predominance of fiery poetic imagination over pure musical creativity is all the more obvious in his music given that the art of harmonization, which is so essential for a rich development of the main ideas in a work, did not at all come easily to Berlioz. In his harmonies there is something misshapen and sometimes quite unbearable for a finely developed musical ear; you are struck by a certain morbid incoherence, the lack of an innate sense for musical texture, a certain awkwardness and inconsistency in the voice leading, which prevent his works from appealing directly to the listener's musical feeling.

Berlioz's music acts on the imagination: he can engage and awaken your interest, but very rarely will he succeed in moving you. Deficient in melodic inspiration, lacking in a fine sense of harmony, yet endowed with an amazing ability to influence the listener's imagination, Berlioz concentrated all his creative force on the external components of musical beauty. The result of this tendency were those miracles of orchestration, that inimitable beauty of sound, that distinctness in the musical reproduction of Nature and the realm of the imagination in which he appears before us as a sensitive and inspired poet, as an unattainably superior master. We only have to recall the poetic charm with which he depicts, say, the fantastic world of the tiny elves in his La damnation de Faust, or that of the fairies in the La reine Mab scherzo from his Roméo et Juliette symphony. This music illustrates its fantastic subject so vividly that one's imagination is carried away into a far-away, unknown realm of beautiful reveries, where ideal beauty that is inaccessible to our 'vale of tears' reigns eternally.

The overture which prompted me to make these general observations about Berlioz was in fact written at a time when his style had not yet developed fully, but we can already sense in it very clearly the hand of the master who would go on to create La damnation de Faust, Roméo et Juliette, and the Symphonie fantastique. The instrumentation is splendid from start to finish, and although the second theme is extremely ugly and banal, its rhythmic elaboration and the resulting variations of this theme serve as the basis for the striking stretta in the finale. The overture was performed with great enthusiasm and caused a strong impression.

The pianist Mr Hartvigson, who arrived in Moscow straight from London on the day before the concert, achieved a considerable success, chiefly thanks to his marvellous technique. I did not notice any particular passion, enthusiasm, and poetry in his interpretation, but he does play confidently and elegantly, with a remarkably fine touch. I have already spoken about Mr Laub on many occasions, so this time I shall limit myself to remarking that, as always, he was received enthusiastically by the audience.

As for Max Bruch's symphony, with which the concert concluded, it certainly is not lacking in talent and betrays the hand of an experienced, hard-working artist. I especially liked the first two movements, of which the second (a scherzo) is scored excellently and quite original in terms of both content and form.

On Wednesday was the second concert given by Messrs Bezekirsky and Naudin. This time M. Naudin was rewarded with such ovations by the audience as I do not remember having witnessed for quite a while. Mr Bezekirsky gave a splendid performance of a concerto by Vieuxtemps, as well as a number of shorter pieces. In this very difficult concerto by Vieuxtemps the orchestra, under the not particularly competent baton of Mr Gerber [17], not only failed to support the soloist but even seemed to be doing its utmost to put him out of time. The same observation applies to the orchestral accompaniment in the piano concerto by Mendelssohn which Madame Timanova [18] so strikingly performed for us. This successful young pianist is making huge strides as far as her musical development is concerned, and, like the whole audience, I too was amazed by her skilful, fiery, and brilliant interpretation of this splendid work by Mendelssohn.

On Thursday we then had the Inspector of Music Mr Gerber's concert. Mr Gerber is a highly talented composer of ballet music, a splendid viola player in the Russian Musical Society's chamber music matinées, and a most diligent superintendent of our theatres' orchestras, but in this concert he had organized he made his appearance as a conductor, and in all fairness I must say that in this regard he is not particularly accomplished. He isn't resourceful enough in adapting himself to the soloists he is meant to accompany, his conducting is impassive and somewhat insensitive.

What I am particularly surprised by is that despite having at his disposal the assembled mass of our city's three orchestras, which, so it is said, have great affection for their boss, Mr Gerber didn't bother to rehearse properly so significant a work as Glinka's music to the tragedy Prince Kholmsky in such a way that the musicians could play it, if not with enthusiasm, then at the very least faithfully to the score. For this work of genius was performed dismally: we kept hearing blunders and irregularities all the time, and there was a general lack of ensemble spirit and confidence.

Of the various soloists that evening, the following were received with particular enthusiasm by the rather small audience: Messrs Laub and Rubinstein, and Madame Engalycheva. A singer from Saint Petersburg, Madame Raab [19] also scored a considerable success: she has a beautiful voice, and her singing is intelligent and tasteful.

On Friday was the concert of Mr Kashperov… pardon me, of Vladimir Nikitich Kashperov [20], as his name was printed on the poster. I really do like this patriarchal manner of giving one's Christian name and patronymic, which reminds me of the provincial simplicity of customs in some quaint backwater like Tsarevokokshaysk [21], where instead of Mr Ivanov or Mr Petrov, people are addressed only as Vladimir Nikitich, Avdotya Tikhonova, Perepetuya Timofeyevna, and so on.

Vladimir Nikitich's concert was very much a family celebration in the sense that its dedicatee brought onto the podium his numerous family of male and female pupils as performers. We witnessed here a whole series of stormy ovations, accorded one by one to all the participants of the concert. The applause for Madame Tarkhova was especially enthusiastic: she is a singer of considerable warmth and musicality, with a rather attractive voice and an outward appearance which awakens all the more affection in that her face bears a striking resemblance to that of Madame Lavrovskaya.

Of course, all cavilling, all critical zeal must fall silent before the purely familiar character of this concert. Mr Kashperov has evidently succeeded in winning the affection of his pupils, since they presented him with a valuable gift that they had all pooled their money together to buy. This at any rate speaks well for the venerable professor, whose diligence and good intentions I have never doubted. I shall just make two observations:

1) Mr Kashperov's pupils adopt such strange expressions, indeed pull their faces to such an extent when singing, that in some it looks simply ridiculous, whereas in others the effect they produce is one of plain ugliness. Thus, for example, one singer moulds his lips into a stereotypically fixed smile; one young girl purses up her mouth when doing trills and roulades, another stretches her mouth wide open, and so on and so forth.
2) It seems to me that Mr Kashperov is far too much concerned with teaching his pupils how to dazzle their audience, to the detriment of simple, broad singing. Moreover, his female pupils execute their melismatic ornaments with insufficient clarity and accuracy. With regard to his way of teaching them trills, I cannot refrain from giving Mr Kashperov a theoretical explanation of what this ornament actually consists of. And so I open Lobe's Katechismus der Musik at p. 67 (§ 206) and read: "Q. What is a trill?—A. A rapid repetition of the main note and its upper auxiliary, which may be a half tone or whole tone apart" [22]. Harras's Music Dictionary [23] gives a more categorical explanation of the trill and adds: "Trillo caprino—an incorrect form of the trill which sounds like the bleating of a goat". Either I am terribly mistaken, or it is precisely this trillo caprino which predominates in the coloratura singing of Mr Kashperov's pupils. Mr Kashperov's male choir sings very harmoniously, but I cannot say the same about his female choir.
"B. L."


Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'The Beginning of the Concert Season' in ČW.
  2. Vasily Bezekirsky (1835–1919), Russian violinist, joined the orchestra of Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre in 1855.
  3. Roberto Stagno (originally Andreoli; 1840–1897), well-known Italian tenor, performed in Moscow in the 1869–70 season — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  4. Angelo Masini (1844–1926), Italian tenor, famous for his virtuoso singing, but notorious for his poor acting. See Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), p. 201 — translator's note.
  5. Giuditta Pasta (née Negri; 1797–1865), famous Italian soprano, sang in Sant Petersburg in the 1840–41 winter season.
  6. Maria Malibran (née García; 1808–1836), renowned Spanish soprano—"the most astonishing singer of her century" according to the critic F-J. Fétis. She was the sister of Pauline Viardot-Garcia.
  7. Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient (1804–1860), famous German soprano, one of the greatest interpreters of Leonore in Fidelio and Agathe in Der Freischütz.
  8. Giovanni Battista Rubini (1794–1854), celebrated Italian tenor, sang in Saint Petersburg in 1843 and 1844.
  9. Antonio Tamburini (1800–1876), famous Italian baritone, appeared frequently in Saint Petersburg and Moscow from 1849 to 1852.
  10. Luigi Lablache (1794–1858), renowned Italian bass with an enormous repertory, toured Saint Petersburg in 1852 and Moscow in 1856/57.
  11. Nikolay Ivanov (1810–1880), Russian tenor, travelled with Glinka to Italy in 1830, where he spent most of his career (he never returned to Russia); admired greatly in operas by Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini.
  12. Giovanni Mario (1810–1883), famous Italian tenor, sang in Saint Petersburg from 1849 to 1863.
  13. Giulia Grisi (1811–1869), renowned Italian soprano, and her sister, the mezzo-soprano Giuditta Grisi (1805–1840).
  14. Pauline Viardot-Garcia (1821–1910), famous French mezzo-soprano of Spanish origins, younger sister of Maria Malibran.
  15. Princess Nadezhda Yengalycheva (stage name: Elvira Angeli), Russian opera and lieder singer.
  16. Berlioz visited Moscow in December 1867 to conduct various concerts featuring his works, and a banquet was given in his honour at the Conservatory at which Tchaikovsky made a speech in French, enthusiastically praising his life's work and achievements — see Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), pp. 52–53.
  17. Yuly Gerber (1831–1883), Russian violinist, violist, composer and conductor of ballet music — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  18. Vera Timanova (1855–1942), Russian pianist and piano teacher, studied with Liszt in Weimar in 1872–73, gave many performances of Russian piano music in Western Europe. Tchaikovsky dedicated to her the Scherzo humoristique— No. 2 of the Six Pieces, Op. 19 note by Ernst Kuhn.
  19. Vilgelmina Raab (née Balik, Pliushchevskaya-Pliushchik in her second marriage; 1848–1917), Russian soprano, soloist at Saint Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre from 1871 to 1885 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  20. Vladimir Kashperov (1827–1894), Russian operatic composer and professor of singing at the Moscow Conservatory from 1865 to 1872. Kashperov was a witness of Glinka's last days in Berlin in 1857, and wrote a very negative account of the great composer's character in a letter to Turgenev, who for some years had very high expectations of Kashperov, hoping that he would become Glinka's heir. Kashperov was based in Milan for several years and wrote a number of pseudo-Italian operas there before returning to Russia where he unsuccessfully tried to make a name for himself with operas based on such popular works of Russian literature as Ostrovsky's The Storm and Gogol's Taras Bulba. As with Glinka, Kashperov seems to have been jealous of Tchaikovsky's genius, and there was some ill feeling between these two colleagues at the Conservatory, which perhaps explains the ironic tone of some of Tchaikovsky's remarks above — translator's note.
  21. The historic name of Yoshkar-Ola (in Kazan Province), a typical provincial small town, which is mentioned ironically in Gogol's Dead Souls (chapter 7). This whole paragraph is very much written in a Gogolian vein! — translator's note.
  22. Tchaikovsky is citing here his own translation of the Katechismus der Musik (1853–57) by Johann Christian Lobe (1797–1881). His translation was published by Pyotr Jurgenson in 1869 as Musical Catechism (TH 333), with a second edition in 1874 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  23. Adolf Harras was a teacher of German in Moscow who published a Pocket Dictionary of Music in 1850 — translator's note.