Richard Wagner

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Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

German composer (b. 22 May 1813 in Leipzig; d. 13 February 1883 in Venice), born Wilhelm Richard Wagner.

Tchaikovsky and Wagner

Before 1862, the year that he enrolled in the newly established Saint Petersburg Conservatory, Tchaikovsky could only have heard very few, if any, excerpts from Wagner's operas, either at concerts of the Russian Musical Society (RMS) or during the summer season in Pavlovsk directed by Johann Strauss [1]. Some thirty years later, in January 1893, Tchaikovsky would write an open letter to a Parisian newspaper protesting at an article which had appeared in Le Figaro and described the French conductor Lamoureux's recent concerts in Moscow and Saint Petersburg as a long-awaited opportunity for Russian audiences to hear Wagner's music because, as the author of the article insinuated, Anton Rubinstein had been so jealous of the German composer that, while he was at the helm of music life in his country, he had made sure that all doors were closed to Wagner in Russia! [2] Tchaikovsky refuted this gross misrepresentation and jumped to the defence of his former teacher:

Wagner's music is anything but unknown in Russia. Not only is it a fact that Anton Rubinstein never prevented its dissemination in our country, but it was actually he who, as the founder of the Imperial Russian Musical Society in 1859, acquainted our public with it. Wagner himself came to Russia in 1863 and organized in both capitals a long series of concerts which were very much epoch-making. Since then the music of this great German master has taken root in our country [3].

Although Anton Rubinstein was in fact not so keen on Wagner, it is fair to say that he did not actively prevent its entry into Russia, and, moreover, his younger brother Nikolay, once he became director of the RMS branch in Moscow, did regularly programme orchestral excerpts from Wagner's works into the concerts he conducted there [4]. Thanks to this many of Tchaikovsky's review articles of the 1870s (which he wrote at the same time as he was teaching at the Moscow Conservatory) contain very interesting comments on Wagner and his music (see the detailed list below). Indeed, Rosamund Bartlett has convincingly argued that "Tchaikovsky's reviews represent some of the most important and professional writing on Wagner in Russia in the nineteenth century" [5].

To return, though, to another fact mentioned in this open letter, the "epoch-making" series of concerts which Wagner gave in Russia between February and April 1863 was one of the most memorable musical experiences of Tchaikovsky's life — perhaps not quite on a par with the revelation of Mozart's Don Giovanni when he was 16, or his impressions of Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, or the overwhelming effect produced on him by Bizet's Carmen in 1876, but certainly equally unforgettable. For the young Tchaikovsky, then in the first year of his studies at the Conservatory, attended all six of the concerts which Wagner gave in Saint Petersburg. At these Wagner, one of the most important conductors of the nineteenth century, had featured not just excerpts from his own operas but also conducted several symphonies by Beethoven (Nos. 3 and 5–8). In a letter of February 1879 to Nadezhda von Meck (quoted below), Tchaikovsky emphasized that only those who had heard these Beethoven symphonies in Wagner's interpretation could fully appreciate their greatness. Wagner would always remain one of the conductors Tchaikovsky most admired, alongside Nikolay Rubinstein, Eduard Nápravník, and Hans von Bülow, even if in an article of 1875 he observed that in order to get a full picture of Wagner's talent in that respect it would have been necessary to hear him also conduct works by other composers (TH 306).

As for his own music, Wagner at his six concerts in Saint Petersburg conducted the following excerpts (without any singers in all cases, it seems): the Sailors' Chorus and Senta's Ballad from Der fliegende Holländer (score completed in 1843); the Overture, the Act II March and chorus, Wolfram's Song to the Evening Star, and Elisabeth's aria from Tannhäuser (1845); the Preludes to Acts I and III, as well as Elsa's lament from Lohengrin (1848); the Prelude and "Liebestod" music from Tristan und Isolde (1859); the Overture, the Guild Meeting and Pogner's address from Die Meistersinger (not completed until 1867); Siegmund's Spring Song, the Ride of the Valkyries, and Wotan's Farewell and Magic Fire music from Die Walküre (1856); the Forging Song and Hammer Song from Siegfried (not fully completed until 1871); as well as the Faust overture (1855) [6].

Of these, three purely orchestral pieces would be praised in glowing terms by Tchaikovsky in later years: the Lohengrin prelude, the Ride of the Valkyries, and the Faust overture (see the references listed at the end). The music of Isolde's "Liebestod" as performed under Wagner's baton at one of these concerts also caused a strong impression on him, as we can see from an article he wrote in 1872 (TH 270), but when he heard a production of the whole opera for the first time in Berlin in January 1883 he was terribly disappointed — evidently because the development of the beautiful "Liebestod" theme was now combined with the singers' voices in a way that Tchaikovsky found wholly unsatisfactory (see letter 2184 to Nadezhda von Meck quoted below).

Indeed, the only operas by Wagner which Tchaikovsky would acknowledge as successful stage works were these two from his early period: Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. Despite some reservations about the use of choruses in the latter (see TH 270, which pokes fun at the cries of the townsfolk of Brabant as Lohengrin appears in his boat drawn by the swan!) — reservations which Tchaikovsky shared with Vladimir Stasov and the members of the "Mighty Handful", who attacked Wagner, amongst other things, for what they saw as his disdainful attitude towards the people — we know that he went to see Lohengrin on at least five occasions: in Saint Petersburg at some point between 1868 (when the opera was first produced in Russia) and 1872 [7], in Berlin (1883), Saint Petersburg (1886), Kiev (1890), and Paris (1892). Tannhäuser he heard on the stage at least three times, in Saint Petersburg (1876), Magdeburg (1888), and Hamburg (1892), the latter performance being particularly memorable because it was directed by the young Gustav Mahler, whose genius as a conductor Tchaikovsky immediately recognized. In these two operas, where the orchestra part, in contrast to the later music dramas, may still be described as an accompaniment for traditional vocal numbers, there was clearly much that appealed to Tchaikovsky.

As for Wagner's central idea of redemption through love, which is already present in these early works and would later underpin The Ring and Parsifal in particular, Thomas Kohlhase has rightly observed that Tchaikovsky never seems to have taken any notice of this [8]. Tchaikovsky's fascination with Wagner was very much a response to his music, especially the splendid orchestration, rather than to the ideas expressed in his works. Between January and March 1878 we know from several letters exchanged with Nadezhda von Meck that Tchaikovsky was reading about Schopenhauer's philosophy, and although he found the latter quite interesting in some respects, he was not at all convinced by the German thinker's arguments in favour of renouncing the world altogether [9]. Tchaikovsky may not have been aware of the connection between Schopenhauer's ideas and Tristan or The Ring, but his instinctive rejection of a philosopher to whom Wagner repeatedly paid tribute in his works does suggest why the Russian composer judged the latter solely by the criteria of musical beauty and emotional credibility, rather than seeking in them any sort of enlightenment.

If we return, however, to Wagner's concerts in Russia in 1863, when Tchaikovsky first heard some orchestral numbers from Lohengrin, it is worth noting that his initial reaction to the famous prelude was quite atypical. In contrast to all the other Conservatory students and professional musicians in Saint Petersburg, Tchaikovsky had remained "cold and sceptical" about Wagner's music, according to Herman Laroche, and even the Lohengrin prelude had failed to make an impression on him [10]. Looking back on their student years, Laroche observed more generally that "Wagner's music produced very little effect on Pyotr Ilyich back then or, rather, he didn't even like it. But his orchestration was quite another matter" [11]. Now amongst the scores which Tchaikovsky and Laroche played through in arrangement for piano duet during their first year at the Conservatory (1862–63) was also that of Lohengrin (which was probably readily available after the sensational effect caused by the prelude at Wagner's concerts), but it seems that of all the composers whose music they studied in this way "Tchaikovsky least of all liked Richard Wagner. He even openly criticized the famous prelude to Lohengrin, and only many years later did he reconcile himself to the whole opera" [12]. One reason for the young Tchaikovsky's indifference towards this overture, which just eight years later he would describe as "perhaps the most successful and inspired composition by the celebrated German composer" (TH 259), may well have been that the musical style of Lohengrin was so different to the Italian operas for which he still had a weakness. It may also have been due to Tchaikovsky's reluctance to fall under the sway of sudden new fashions. As Laroche remarks in his memoirs, both he and Tchaikovsky had maintained an ironical stance towards such concepts as the "organically unified work of art" (Gesamtkunstwerk) and the "artwork of the future" (Kunstwerk der Zukunft), which even before 1863 had been zealously preached in Russia by the Wagnerian Aleksandr Serov. Thus, "in spite of Wagner and Serov" they had both continued to take delight in the Grand Opera settings of Meyerbeer! [13]

Full-scale productions of Lohengrin and Tannhäuser were mounted at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg in 1868 and 1874 respectively, but these operas were not staged at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow until the 1880s [14]. In an article of 1875 Tchaikovsky laments the fact that Moscow's principal stage was dominated by the standard Italian repertoire, in contrast to the situation in Saint Petersburg, where theatre-goers had the chance to see more varied and interesting operas, including those two by Wagner (TH 301). It seems that before his visit to Bayreuth in the summer of 1876 to report on the inauguration of the new festival theatre with the first complete performance of the Ring cycle, the only operas by Wagner which Tchaikovsky had been able to hear on the stage were Lohengrin and Tannhäuser (and just once in each case). Now although the 'symphonic' use of recurring themes is not as pronounced in these two operas as in the later 'music dramas', it is significant that in those articles from the first half of the 1870s in which he discusses Wagner at length, Tchaikovsky already writes critically of his strong reliance on the orchestra, to which the vocal lines were wholly subordinated. This indicates, as Rosamund Bartlett has pointed out, that Tchaikovsky had been thinking a lot about Wagner's theories for the reform of opera, which he had probably read about not in the original essays as such, but in articles in the Russian and German press that referred to them [15].

For example, in 1872, before reviewing a performance in Moscow of the Faust overture — which in his view was comparable to Beethoven and Schumann's finest symphonic works — Tchaikovsky devotes several paragraphs to a discussion of Wagner's leitmotif technique and its use in the characterization of personages (TH 270). His criticism in this article of the way in which Wagner assigned most of the expressive burden to the orchestra, to the detriment of the singers, was not based on much direct evidence, though. Referring to the only opera of Wagner's which he had heard on the stage so far, Tchaikovsky describes the choral groups in Lohengrin as "a characterless mass of voices echoing the orchestra as they sing". He also cites the way in which the love-duet from Tristan (with its announcement of the "Liebestod" theme) had been played without any singers at Wagner's concerts in 1863 as proof of how Wagner was at heart a symphonist who had no interest in writing for the voice! This notion of Wagner as a composer who had been led astray from his true symphonic vocation by a mixture of misguided theories and inordinate ambition is one that Tchaikovsky repeated in many subsequent articles and letters. He would formulate it most pithily perhaps in a statement he wrote down for an American newspaper in 1891 — Wagner and His Music (TH 319).

But Tchaikovsky's criticisms of Wagner as an opera composer in the articles he wrote in the first half of the 1870s were of course based more on hearsay than on first-hand impressions, and this was in fact probably one of the main reasons why he accepted one last assignment as a music critic and agreed to report on the inaugural Bayreuth Festival in the summer of 1876. In spite of all his misgivings about Wagner's approach to opera, which, it must be stressed again, were until then informed mainly by an acquaintance with the German composer's theories rather than their practical realisation, Tchaikovsky had some reason to look forward to this notable event in the musical life of Europe. After all, at an RMS concert in Moscow in April 1875 he had been greatly impressed by a performance of the Ride of the Valkyries (see TH 306), and in the autumn of that year, together with Laroche, Nikolay Rubinstein, Karl Albrecht, and the singing teacher Berta Walseck, Tchaikovsky had regularly attended the soirées at Karl Klindworth's flat to hear him play through, act by act, his piano-vocal transcriptions of the four operas of the Ring cycle (which Klindworth was working on at the request of Wagner himself) [16].

As Tchaikovsky wrote in a letter to Hans von Bülow, Klindworth had amazed them all with "his masterly interpretation of this complicated and difficult music" [17]. Now Tchaikovsky felt himself greatly indebted to Klindworth, his colleague at the Conservatory, because, through his contacts in his native Germany, Klindworth had done a lot to promote his music in the West (e.g. in 1871 he had made a piano arrangement of the overture-fantasia Romeo and Juliet, which soon became very popular in Germany). Laroche would later suggest that it was out of a sense of gratitude to Klindworth, who happened to be a fanatic Wagnerian, that Tchaikovsky had not dared to criticize The Ring as openly as he might have wished in the concluding chapters of his article on the first Bayreuth Festival: "Pyotr Ilyich trembled before him [i.e. Klindworth] like an aspen leaf, so he never dared to disclose his true feelings about the creator of the Nibelungen, and, to my extreme surprise, even in his feuilleton articles he sugared the pill as far as he could, out of fear of angering Klindworth" [18]. For there is no doubt that the experience of hearing the complete Ring cycle in August 1876 really did turn out to be a disappointment for Tchaikovsky. Or perhaps not so much a disappointment as a confirmation of his worst fears, since by the start of the summer of 1876 it seems that Tchaikovsky was no longer very keen on travelling to Bayreuth. Moreover, as he would himself admit at the end of his article The Bayreuth Music Festival (TH 314), he had failed to prepare himself adequately beforehand by studying Wagner's text for the four operas of The Ring [19].

Tchaikovsky arrived in Bayreuth on 12 August 1876 [N.S.], just in time for the first performance of Das Rheingold the following day, which opened the inaugural Ring cycle. Already waiting for him in this picturesque Bavarian town were Laroche, who had also been commissioned to report on the festival for a Russian newspaper, and Klindworth, who had tried in vain to persuade Tchaikovsky to come earlier so as not to miss the dress rehearsals [20]. It was probably armed with a letter of recommendation from Klindworth that Tchaikovsky later that day made his way to Wagner's house, perhaps hoping to obtain an exclusive interview (!) for the journal which was paying his travel expenses, but it is understandable that Wagner on the eve of the realisation of his boldest dreams was refusing to receive any callers. Tchaikovsky just seems to have caught a glimpse of the great German composer from afar, whilst watching the reception for Emperor Wilhelm I at the railway station (see Chapter IV of TH 314).

In two letters to his brother Modest quoted below and Chapters IV and V of The Bayreuth Music Festival (TH 314) Tchaikovsky gives a vivid account of his impressions of the festival, as well as of the inconveniences which he and the many other visitors had to endure in Bayreuth, a small town that seems to have been quite unprepared for such an influx of tourists! According to some comments later made by Laroche for Modest Tchaikovsky's biography of the composer, in private conversations with him at the time Tchaikovsky had made no secret of his dislike for The Ring, but whenever Klindworth was present he had been careful not to say anything against Wagner. On the whole, though, "listening to and watching the never-ending acts of Wagner's tetralogy (especially Das Rheingold and Act I of Götterdämmerung, both of which dragged on for some two hours without any interval); having to sit there locked up in the dark and tropically hot amphitheatre; the futile attempts to make sense of anything in the verbose libretto, which was, moreover, written in an archaic language that even the Germans themselves had trouble understanding — all this had a dispiriting effect on Pyotr Ilyich, and he literally only came to life again after the last notes had rang out and he was sitting in front of a tankard of beer waiting for dinner to be served, though the latter was in most cases quite unpalatable" [21].

Despite Laroche's suggestion that Tchaikovsky had not dared to voice in public his true opinion of The Ring, for fear of offending Klindworth, the concluding paragraphs of his article for the Russian Register (TH 314)).are remarkably frank and, taking into account all the observations about Wagner that Tchaikovsky made in the course of his life, there is no way that one could accuse him of inconsistency:

And so, by way of conclusion, I should like to say something about the overall impression which this performance of Der Ring des Nibelungen has left me with. Firstly, it has left me with a vague recollection of many strikingly beautiful musical features, especially of a symphonic kind, which is very strange, given that Wagner least of all intended to write operas in a symphonic style. Secondly, it has left me with respectful admiration for the author's tremendous talent and his incredibly rich technique. Thirdly, it has left me with misgivings as to whether Wagner's view of opera is correct. Fourthly, it has left me greatly exhausted, but at the same time it has also left me with the wish to continue my study of this most complicated work of music ever written.

Although Tchaikovsky does not seem to have subsequently studied the scores of the four operas of The Ring in the same way that he went over the score of Lohengrin when working on the orchestration of The Maid of Orleans in 1879, hoping to learn something from Wagner's techniques (as he explained in letter 1171 to Nadezhda von Meck), or that of Parsifal in the summers of 1884 and 1886, towards the end of 1877 he did attend a performance of Die Walküre in Vienna, mainly with a view to checking his first impressions from Bayreuth the year before. This renewed experience of Die Walküre resulted in a fascinating letter to Nadezhda von Meck (letter 661, also quoted below) in which Tchaikovsky re-iterated his view of Wagner as a symphonist of genius who had unfortunately strayed into the genre of opera. Written at a time when he was working on Yevgeny Onegin, Tchaikovsky's letter recording his thoughts about Die Walküre also contains an interesting remark about how it was impossible to feel any sympathy for "all those Wotans and Brünnhildes" because they were "so impossible and un-human" as characters. This criticism of Wagner's use of Nordic mythological figures in his operas, which ties in with his rejection at around the same time of the "Egyptian princesses and pharaohs" depicted by Verdi in Aida, shows how it was indeed partly in reaction to Wagner that Tchaikovsky "developed and articulated his own views about the composition of opera" [22]. Indirectly perhaps, the negative experience of Bayreuth and the dense mythical narration of The Ring with its gods, giants, dragons, and dwarves, caused Tchaikovsky to take up with such enthusiasm Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya's suggestion in May 1877 that he should write an opera based on Pushkin's Yevgeny Onegin — an opera which he entitled "lyrical scenes", and in which, significantly, he set out to depict the emotions of "real people, not puppets"! [23]

Tchaikovsky, unlike Laroche, did not stay on at Bayreuth for further performances of the Ring cycle but rushed off (via Nuremberg and Vienna) to Verbovka in the Ukraine, to spend the rest of the summer with his sister Aleksandra's family. It is worth emphasizing, though, that in spite of the feeling of "exhaustion" which the tetralogy had left him with, in his review of the festival he sincerely praised the "tremendous artistic endeavour" which Wagner had accomplished in creating a whole new theatre and festival out of nothing. For Tchaikovsky, this notable event was a vindication of the value of art against the utilitarians, both in Russia and the West, who believed only in technical progress (see Chapter V of TH 314). Ironically, the unprofitability of this first festival at Bayreuth almost scuppered Wagner's ambitious project, as the ticket sales failed to cover the huge expenses, leaving a debt of some 148,000 marks and preventing a repeat of the festival until 1882, when Parsifal was premièred. Tchaikovsky did not travel to Bayreuth on that occasion…

However, it was not just with a sense of "liberation from captivity" (as he put it in a letter to his brother Modest) that Tchaikovsky boarded the train from Bayreuth on 18 August 1876 [N.S.], but also with plenty of impressions in his musical baggage. This much is clear from a conversation which he had with Nikolay Kashkin once he was back in Moscow for the start of the new academic year at the Conservatory: "With regard to The Tempest [1873] Tchaikovsky and I had the following conversation shortly after his return from Bayreuth, in 1876. When he set off there he was not a very ardent Wagnerian, and he was even less so on his return. After listening to Der Ring der Nibelungen he was dissatisfied not so much with the music as with the overall nature of the subject and its pomposity. In the music, on the other hand, there was a lot that he considered to be touched by genius. Recalling the introduction to Das Rheingold, which is based entirely on a figuration of a very simple chord, he once said: 'Now that is a true genius who has the courage to carry out his conception in all its purity. I had exactly the same idea for the opening of The Tempest, but was afraid that it might appear as far too monotonous, and that's why I added some small phrases for the wind instruments, which I didn't really need at all'" [24].

A number of works by Tchaikovsky have been described as showing signs of Wagner's influence — indeed, already in his lifetime some Russian critics argued that he was moving closer to Wagnerian practice in his later operas, such as The Enchantress (1885–87) [25]. However, Thomas Kohlhase has called for caution in this respect, pointing out that many of the associations that have been made (e.g. between Tristan and Tchaikovsky's last opera Iolanta) are speculative or even downright subjective [26]. There is one work, though, in which Tchaikovsky did openly recognize that he had been influenced by what he had heard in Bayreuth in August 1876, namely the fantasia Francesca da Rimini.

It is interesting that Tchaikovsky's original plan had been to write an opera on the tragic story of Francesca and Paolo from Dante's Inferno. In February 1876, he received a libretto on this subject from Konstantin Zvantsev, who was a fanatical Wagnerian and had translated into Russian the librettos of Lohengrin and Tannhäuser [27]. However, Zvantsev seems to have demanded that the opera should be written according to Wagnerian principles, and since Tchaikovsky would not accept any such interference in his creative work, nothing came of this projected opera (see TH 212). Still, the idea so appealed to Tchaikovsky that one of the first tasks he applied himself to upon his return to Russia in the autumn of 1876 was to write Francesca da Rimini as a symphonic fantasia. It was completed by November that year and premièred in Moscow on 25 February/9 March 1877. When the fantasia received its first performance in Saint Petersburg the following year (on 11/23 March 1878) Tchaikovsky, who was then living abroad, was informed of its great success by his relatives and friends in Russia, including Sergey Taneyev, who passed on to him some observations made by César Cui after the concert. Cui, the only member of the "Mighty Handful" who had attended the Bayreuth festival in 1876, had pointed out that Francesca da Rimini betrayed the influence of The Ring (this was apparently not meant as a criticism). In his reply to Taneyev (letter 799 quoted below) Tchaikovsky agreed completely with Cui's observation and added that he himself had felt this influence when working on his fantasia! Tchaikovsky was clearly not at all embarrassed to recognize such a 'debt' to Wagner, for earlier in 1878 he had admitted in another letter to Taneyev, this time concerning Yevgeny Onegin, that "my music, in spite of myself, is suffused with Schumannism, Wagnerism, Chopinism, Glinkaism, Berliozism, and all the other 'isms' of our time" [28]. Besides, if even Maestro Verdi had learnt a thing or two from his great German contemporary and decided to write a 'Wagnerian' opera, Aida (as Tchaikovsky had argued in an article of 1872 — see TH 266), Tchaikovsky realised that it was impossible to escape the spell of Wagner's mastery of the orchestra. In an interview of 1892 (TH 324) he would again emphasise the debt which all European composers of the second half of the nineteenth century, himself included, owed to Wagner (see the relevant extract from this interview below).

Thus, it seems that by 1878 the negative impressions of the Bayreuth festival in 1876 and of that performance of Die Walküre in Vienna at the end of 1877 — that is exhaustion at having to listen to "endless symphonies" on subjects which were not close to Tchaikovsky's heart, and where the singers, however much they were prominent on the stage, had a merely peripheral role in the musical development of the 'drama' — had given way to a more objective appraisal of Wagner's merits by Tchaikovsky. Certainly, his love for Wagner's early operas, Tannhäuser and Lohengrin, would always remain unabated, especially the second of these. While studying the score of Lohengrin in May 1879 he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck (letter 1171 quoted below) that no matter how loathsome he found Wagner's personality and Wagnerism as a principle, he could not but admire his "tremendous musical gift", which had nowhere manifested itself so brightly as in Lohengrin, "the crown in Wagner's oeuvre"! It was probably his view of Lohengrin as the pinnacle of Wagner's achievement that led him to have rather high expectations of another early opera, Der fliegende Holländer. On 16 March 1880 [N.S.], Tchaikovsky informed his brother Modest that he had decided to stay in Berlin for an extra day because "I saw a bill-board advertising a performance this evening of Der fliegende Holländer, which I have been yearning to hear for such a long time", and at the end of this letter he added: "How glad I am that tonight I shall get to hear The Dutchman!" [29]. However, as was to happen three years later when he heard Tristan for the first time (again in Berlin), this opera with its bleak atmosphere proved to be a disappointment for Tchaikovsky and he didn't even stay until the end.

In the late summer of 1884, Tchaikovsky decided to study the score of Wagner's last work, the 'sacred festival drama' Parsifal, and he recorded his impressions in another extensive letter to his benefactress: as on so many other occasions, he first paid tribute to Wagner's 'symphonic' mastery, in particular the richness of his chromatic texture, before proceeding to criticize in the harshest terms the way in which Wagner assigned a merely secondary role to the singers, as Tchaikovsky saw it, and also reproaching him for his choice of such an "incredibly stupid subject" teeming with various "fairy-tale figures" that were more suitable for a ballet than for a serious dramatic work (see letter 2545 quoted below) [30]. Again, Tchaikovsky, for whatever reasons, seems to have been unable to respond to the philosophical and religious symbolism of Wagner's works. Nevertheless, Parsifal clearly interested Tchaikovsky from a musical point of view, since in the summers he spent at Maydanovo in 1886 and 1887 he studied and played through the score of the opera on several occasions [31]. Indeed, Laroche emphasized in his memoirs of the composer that when Tchaikovsky resumed his study of Parsifal in 1886 he had been tremendously enthusiastic about the final scene of Act I, and that from then on his attitude to Wagner had changed, even to the extent of influencing some technical aspects of his own later works [32]. Laroche does not specify what exactly so fascinated Tchaikovsky about the ending of Act I of Parsifal, but it is very likely that it was the wonderful intonation of the Bell Motif as the knights of the Grail enter the hall of their castle, followed by the ethereal chorus announcing the Motif of Faith from the dome [33]. Perhaps the Grail Motif (the so-called Dresden Amen), which resounds later in this scene, also appealed to Tchaikovsky as he would have remembered this rousing Lutheran theme from Mendelssohn's Reformation symphony that he had heard in Paris in 1879 (see the entry on Mendelssohn). Since Tchaikovsky did not travel to Bayreuth again in 1882, or any of the subsequent years during which the festival was organized by Wagner's widow, he obviously had no chance of seeing an actual performance of Parsifal, as Wagner had stipulated that it must not be staged anywhere other than Bayreuth. However, at a concert in Paris on 23 March 1889 [N.S.] Tchaikovsky, who stayed in the French capital for a few weeks during his second conducting tour of Western Europe, did hear some orchestral excerpts from Parsifal [34].

It was, however, in the context of his first concert tour to the west (December 1887–March 1888) that Tchaikovsky was able to attend some memorable stagings of Wagner operas. Thus, in Leipzig he heard performances of Das Rheingold on 4 January [N.S.] and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on 10 February 1888 [N.S.]. Both operas were conducted by Arthur Nikisch and Die Meistersinger was in fact specially staged at Tchaikovsky's request, since he had never heard it before! [35]. In a letter to his brother Modest from Prague on 14 February [N.S.] he just mentions the fact of this performance of Die Meistersinger, adding briefly that it was "very interesting". In Chapter IX of his Autobiographical Account of a Tour Abroad in the Year 1888 (TH 316) Tchaikovsky enthusiastically praises Nikisch's ability in guiding the orchestra through the "difficult and intricate scores of Wagner's operas", but unfortunately says nothing about Die Meistersinger as such. It is also in this fascinating Autobiographical Account (TH 316) that Tchaikovsky reflects on how the idolization of Brahms by conservative concert-goers and critics in Germany was a reaction to Wagnerism. Significantly, despite all his respect for Brahms's "proud refusal to make any concessions to triumphant Wagnerism", Tchaikovsky was never moved, let alone fascinated, by Brahms's music, whereas he clearly was by Wagner's (see Chapter VI of TH 316).

In March 1889, when Tchaikovsky was abroad on his second major concert tour, Angelo Neumann's travelling Wagner company put on several performances of the complete Ring cycle at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. In an interesting letter from Hanover to his nephew Vladimir Davydov (letter 3814 quoted below), Tchaikovsky notes with some frustration that his own tour wasn't receiving any attention back home, whereas the German newspapers were awash with reports about the triumphant first performances of The Ring in Russia. In this letter he also expresses his fears that very soon Russia, too, would have her own fanatic Wagnerians. (Tchaikovsky was certainly right about this, and the Wagner craze in Russia was such that Neumann's company returned there again two years later, in 1891, this time staging The Ring in Moscow). However, it was not just fanatic devotees who rallied to this first performance of The Ring in Saint Petersburg: serious musicians such as Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Sergey Taneyev, and Aleksandr Glazunov were, like Tchaikovsky, profoundly impressed by Wagner's orchestration [36]. A diary entry for 13/25 March 1889, made while Tchaikovsky was in Paris, testifies to his surprise, and perhaps even alarm, when he found out that Glazunov was a Wagnerian!

Citing the fact that in the autumn of 1889 Tchaikovsky attended RMS concerts in Moscow and Saint Petersburg which included excerpts from Tristan und Isolde (thereby allowing him to refresh his earlier impressions of the opera), David Brown and Arkady Klimovitsky have made a strong case for the influence of Tristan, with its novel harmony, dissonances, and chromatic texture, on Tchaikovsky's last opera Iolanta (composed between July and December 1891) [37]. However, as mentioned above, Thomas Kohlhase has recommended some caution in making such comparisons, and for many listeners it would surely be difficult to hear any direct echoes of Wagner in Vaudémont's Romance, for example, or even in the sombre overture to this one-act opera?

The last two performances of Wagner operas attended by Tchaikovsky happened to be stagings of his two life-long favourites: Tannhäuser in Hamburg, in January 1892 (conducted by Gustav Mahler) and Lohengrin in Paris, in June of that year [38].

It is interesting that in most of the memoirs of Tchaikovsky written after his death which deal with the question of his musical sympathies, the Russian composer's distance to Wagner is stressed. Thus, Glazunov, for example, who first became acquainted with Tchaikovsky in the autumn of 1884, later wrote: "Pyotr Ilyich was rather indifferent to the music of the composers of the new Russian school, and likewise to the works of Liszt and Wagner, since by his very nature he was alien to their tendency and principles" [39]. Tchaikovsky, however, in an interview he gave to a Saint Petersburg newspaper in 1892 (TH 324) protested that it was wrong to speak of his estrangement from the "new Russian school", and, similarly, he paid tribute to Wagner's overwhelming influence on all European composers, including of course himself and his Russian contemporaries! It might be argued that Glazunov did not know Tchaikovsky so well, but even such a close friend as Kashkin still emphasized the negative side of Tchaikovsky's attitude to Wagner: "Pyotr Ilyich could not stand bombast in music, and that is why he did not rate Liszt particularly highly. As for Wagner, he valued him immeasurably more, but the ultra-Romantic sub-text of the plots in Wagner's last operas, their strained symbolism, and the no less strained solemnity of the action were profoundly antipathetic to him, so that he did not even [try to] hear Parsifal, even though he knew the work from excerpts which had been performed at concerts, as well as from the piano reduction" [40].

A certain understandable patriotism may have induced these memoirists to stress Tchaikovsky's independence from the most famous composer of the nineteenth century after Beethoven, but, from the evidence presented here, it would clearly be wrong to describe Tchaikovsky's attitude to Wagner as aloof in any way. As Rosamund Bartlett rightly points out, Tchaikovsky "wrote a great deal about Wagner during his lifetime, and certainly more than any other Russian composer [41]. Likewise, we have seen how Tchaikovsky himself was not ashamed to admit to having been influenced by Wagner (notably in the case of Francesca da Rimini). Of all his contemporaries, Herman Laroche was probably closest to the mark when he remarked that the influence of Wagner was "undeniable and very palpable" in his final years. One reason why, despite his veneration of Mozart and love of Italian opera, Tchaikovsky responded so intensely to Wagner (even when disagreeing with him) was perhaps the following trait in his character, as described by Laroche: "Having been initially received by our critics as a product of Conservatory routine and backwardness, he, on the contrary, showed a keen sympathy for the advances of our century in everything that concerned music, and, just as he searched for 'new paths' himself in many cases, so he also appreciated and liked this striving in others" [42]. Wagner, as one of the greatest pioneers in music, could not fail to awaken Tchaikovsky's sympathy!

General Reflections on Wagner

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • TH 266 — deals with what Tchaikovsky sees as Wagnerian influences in Verdi's Aida.
  • TH 270 — Tchaikovsky describes Wagner as "undoubtedly the most prominent personality in European music"; observes ironically that one of Wagner's chief aims had been to draw attention to himself and achieve fame at all costs, in contrast to such composers as "Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Glinka" who just concentrated on their music; refers critically to Wagner's "delusions and self-aggrandizement"; states briefly but categorically that Wagner's goal of introducing truth into opera, whose effect was after all based on "conventional, but beautiful lies", was a quixotic endeavour; discuses the leitmotif technique; points out that Wagner's obsession with the orchestra meant that the singers were very much relegated to the periphery, and that this prevented any convincing individual characterization of his heroes; speaks admiringly of Wagner's technical mastery, but asks whether his "tremendous symphonic talent" was not perhaps out of place in the operatic genre; concludes that Wagner had been led astray from his true vocation as a symphonist by "preconceived theories" and "misguided ambition"; praises enthusiastically the Faust overture; and makes some ironic remarks about Wagner's anti-Semitic barbs at Mendelssohn.
  • TH 284 — defends Mozart's Don Giovanni from those who denied its historical significance, in particular Wagner; observes ironically how Wagner had succeeded in "subordinating the singers to a whole orchestral regiment" which drowned out their voices!
  • TH 285 — while referring enthusiastically to the Lohengrin prelude, Tchaikovsky stresses again that Wagner was "first and foremost a symphonist" who had been led astray by "false aesthetic theories"; criticizes his "bulky operas" in which the feelings of the characters were expressed by "a huge orchestral barrage whose roaring completely drowns out the colourless and unwieldy recitative"!
  • TH 286 — emphasizes how Karl Klindworth was regarded very highly for his piano arrangements of orchestral works by pointing out that Wagner, "the most renowned composer of our times" always entrusted to him the task of making piano transcriptions of his operas.
  • TH 306 — enthusiastically praises the "astonishing vividness" of the Ride of the Valkyries and remarks with a sigh of regret that the "symphonist" Wagner had decided to concentrate his efforts on 'music drama' rather than pure orchestral music!
  • TH 314 ("The Bayreuth Music Festival") — in this series of articles Tchaikovsky first discusses the genesis of The Ring and how the Bayreuth Festival Theatre was built according to Wagner's specifications; gives a synopsis of all four operas which make up the Ring cycle; shares his impressions of Bayreuth during the bustle of the inaugural Festival in 1876 and recounts various humorous anecdotes, as well as giving a fascinating snap-shot of Wagner with his "aquiline nose" and "mocking lips"; Tchaikovsky begs his readers' forgiveness for not being sufficiently well prepared and qualified to give a detailed analysis of the Ring, but still makes some very interesting general observations: on the one hand he praises Wagner for having succeeded in such a tremendous artistic enterprise as creating from nothing a whole new theatre and festival, but criticizes the "principles" Wagner adhered to in his music; the latter was "astonishingly rich" technically and "equipped with an instrumentation of unprecedented beauty", but unfortunately it was entrusted exclusively to the orchestra, the singers being utterly neglected; Tchaikovsky also points out that Wagner's lavish palette of orchestral sound and chromatic subtleties produced in the end a sensation of "fatigue"; makes ironical remarks about the "dwarves, dragons, and swimming maidens" which riveted the attention of those in the audience who were perhaps not so musical, as well as about certain Wagnerians!; Tchaikovsky ends, though, on a positive note by stressing the historical significance of this Festival and saying that he was eager to continue his study of "this most complicated work of music ever written".
  • TH 316 — in Chapter V of this account of his first tour of Western Europe as a conductor Tchaikovsky speaks highly of Brahms's character, praising in particular his modesty, which he illustrates by an anecdote concerning one of Wagner's spiteful sallies against Brahms; also emphasizes Brahms's "firmness and proud refusal to make any concessions to Wagnerism"; Tchaikovsky seems to retract his earlier observations about Verdi having been influenced by Wagner in Aida; reflects on how the Brahms cult in Germany was a reaction against the "triumphant onslaught of Wagner in the field of opera".
  • TH 319 ("Wagner and His Music") — at the request of an American journalist during his stay in New York in 1891, Tchaikovsky sets down his views on Wagner in a few pithy statements; professes his admiration for Wagner as a composer, but unequivocally rejects Wagnerian theories; stresses that Wagner's influence on music in the second half of the 19th century had been "enormous", but that unfortunately he was "a genius who followed a wrong path"; Tchaikovsky asserts that "Wagner was a great symphonist, but not a composer of opera".

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

I only got here the day before the performance, that is on Saturday 12 [August]/31 [July]. Klindworth was waiting for me at the station; I met a whole bunch of acquaintances and immediately found myself plunged into the midst of a whirlpool in which I've been spinning all day long like a madman. I've made the acquaintance of masses of new people; I called on Liszt, who received me exceptionally kindly; I went to see Wagner, but he isn't receiving anyone now, etc. As for people whom you know, there's Rubinstein, with whom I'm sharing lodgings and who also arrived on Saturday in the evening; Laroche, who's tipsy the whole day long; Cui, whom I brought together with Laroche, only for them to quarrel again two hours later, etc.
Yesterday was the performance of Das Rheingold; as a theatre production this thing captivated my interest thanks to the astonishing staging; but as music it's an incredible chaos, through which there occasionally flash some extraordinarily beautiful and striking details" [43].
Bayreuth has left me with unpleasant recollections, although many things happened there that were flattering to my artistic pride. It turned out that I am not at all so unknown in Germany and other foreign lands as I had thought. The unpleasant recollections have to do with the fact that there was an incredible bustle all the time. Finally, on Thursday [17 August 1876 [N.S.]] everything was over, and with the last notes of Götterdämmerung I felt as if I had been released from captivity. Perhaps the Nibelungen is a very great work, but what I do know for sure is that never before has there been anything as boring and tedious as this spun-out yarn. An accumulation of the most complicated and refined harmonies, the colourlessness of everything that is sung on the stage, endlessly long dialogues, the pitch darkness in the theatre, the absence of anything interesting and poetic in the plot — all this exhausts one's nerves to the utmost degree. So this is what Wagner's opera reform is striving after? Composers in the past sought to delight people with their music; now what they do instead is to torment and exhaust them. Of course, there are wondrous details, but everything taken together is frightfully boring!!! [footnote by Tchaikovsky]: How many thousand times dearer to me is Sylvia!!!
I've heard Wagner's Die Walküre. The performance was splendid. The orchestra managed to surpass even itself; the outstanding singers did everything they could to show it to good effect, and yet it was boring. What a Don Quixote this Wagner is! Why does he wear himself out in this way, chasing after something impossible, when right under his very nose he has a tremendous gift, from which, if he were to give himself up to it fully and submit to its natural thrust, he would be able to draw forth a whole ocean of musical beauty?! In my view Wagner is a symphonist by nature. This man is endowed with a talent of genius, but he is being ruined by his tendency; his inspiration is paralyzed by the theory which he devised, and which at all costs he is determined to put into practice. By chasing after reality, truthfulness, and rationality in opera he has wholly neglected the music, which for the greater part is conspicuous for its complete absence in his last four operas. For I cannot describe as music these kaleidoscopic, parti-coloured musical pieces which keep following on from one another non-stop, never leading to anything and not once allowing you to rest on a musical form that can be easily assimilated. There is not one broad and well-rounded melody; not once is the singer given full scope. Rather, he must all the time chase after the orchestra and take care not to miss his note, which in the score is of no more significance than some small note assigned, say, to the fourth French horn. But that he is a marvellous symphonist — of that there can be no doubt whatsoever. Let me give you an example of the extent to which the symphonist in him predominates over the vocal and indeed the operatic composer. You will probably have heard at concerts his famous "Walkürenritt" [Ride of the Valkyries] — what a grandiose, wonderful picture! One literally sees before one's eyes these wild gigantic figures, flying with roaring thunder across the clouds on their magic steeds. In concerts this piece always produces a tremendous impression. In the theatre, when one sees all these cardboard rocks, clouds made out of rags, soldiers galloping very clumsily across the stage in the background, and this unimposing painted sky, which is meant to illustrate the tremendous heavenly vaults beyond the clouds, the music loses all its graphic vividness. Thus, the theatre doesn't serve to intensify one's impression here, but acts instead like a glass of cold water. Finally, I do not understand and have never understood why the Nibelungen is supposed to constitute a literary masterpiece. As a national epic poem perhaps, but as a libretto no. All these Wotans, Brünnhildes, Frickas etc are so impossible, so un-human — it's just so difficult to feel keen sympathy with them. And, besides, there's so little life in all this! Wotan spends a good three quarters of an hour scolding Brünnhilde for her disobedience. How boring! And yet there are lots of amazingly striking and beautiful individual episodes of a purely symphonic nature" [44].
I've been to the theatre a few times and heard Wagner's Walküre, from which I carried away memories of two or three glorious minutes and a whole ocean of boredom and utter emptiness [45].
In Vienna I heard Wagner's Die Walküre and was able to confirm my first impression from Bayreuth. If music really is fated to have in Wagner its principal and greatest exponent, then that is enough to cause one to despair. Can this really be the last word in music?! Will future generations really enjoy this pretentious, cumbersome, and unsightly nonsense, as we now take delight in [Beethoven's] Ninth Symphony, which in its time was also regarded as nonsense? If yes, then that's terrible.
By the way, in all my life I have only seen one true conductor — and that was Wagner, when in 1863 he came to Saint Petersburg to give some concerts, at which he also conducted a number of symphonies by Beethoven [Nos. 3 and 5–8]. Those who haven't heard these symphonies in Wagner's interpretation cannot appreciate them fully and understand all their unattainable greatness.
This is how I spent the day yesterday. After writing letters to you and my brother Anatoly I sat down to study the score of Lohengrin, which I had brought with me. I know that you are not overly fond of Wagner, and I myself am far from being a fanatic Wagnerian. Wagnerism as a principle appeals to me very little, and Wagner's personality awakens feelings of aversion within me, but I cannot fail to do justice to his tremendous musical gift. This gift nowhere manifested itself so brightly as in Lohengrin. This opera will always be the crown in Wagner's oeuvre. For it was after Lohengrin that the decline of his talent started — a talent that was ruined by this man's satanic pride. He lost his sense of measure and started to overreach himself, so that everything which is written after Lohengrin can serve as a model of music that is unintelligible, impossible, and has no future. I am actually interested in Lohengrin now from the point of view of orchestration. In view of the task which lies ahead of me [completing the orchestration of The Maid of Orleans], I wanted to study thoroughly the score of Lohengrin in order to find out if I needed to adopt one or two of his orchestral techniques. His mastery is exceptional, but, for reasons that would require technical explanations, I nevertheless do not intend to borrow anything from him. All I should like to point out to you is that Wagner's orchestra is far too symphonic, far too plump and heavy-going for vocal music, and the older I get, the more I become convinced that these two genres, i.e. symphony and opera, are in all respects diametrically opposed. And so, my acquaintance with Lohengrin will not force me to change my manner, but it was at any rate an interesting and, in the negative sense, useful acquaintance.
  • Letter 1544 to Sergey Taneyev, 21 July/2 August 1880 (one of the various letters which Tchaikovsky wrote that summer reflecting on the significance of Bizet's Carmen in an age of 'decadence' in music):
[I] could prove that Mendelssohn, Chopin, Schumann, Glinka, and Meyerbeer were epigones of the Golden Age of music, but that already they (together with Berlioz) represent a phase of transition leading to a period of savoury, but not good music. Now it is only savoury music which is written, and essentially even Wagner and Liszt are just high priests of savoury music…
I've been in Berlin two days now. The journey so far has gone very well, and I decided to stop here for a day to get some rest. However, yesterday's performance at the opera-house (it was a staging of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which I had never seen before) induced me to stay an extra day. I did not like this opera at all, but I am still glad that I saw it, since this performance helped me to clarify further my views on Wagner. For although I have long since formed a definite opinion on him, I was afraid that, not having heard all of his operas on the stage, this opinion might not be entirely well-founded. Here is my opinion in brief: Wagner, in spite of his huge creative gifts, his intelligence, poetic talent, and erudition, has rendered merely negative services to art in general and to opera in particular. He has taught us that the earlier conventional forms of opera music have no aesthetic or logical raisons d'être. But if one shouldn't write operas as in the past, does this, however, mean that one has to write them as Wagner does? My unhesitating reply to this is 'No!'. Forcing us to listen for four hours in one go to an endless symphony, which is rich in the most luxurious orchestral beauties but poor in clearly and simply presented thoughts; forcing the singers in the course of these four hours to sing not independent melodies, but various little notes which have been grafted onto this symphony, whereby very often these notes, no matter how high they may be, are utterly drowned out by the thundering of the orchestra — all that is of course in no way the ideal which contemporary composers ought to strive towards. Wagner has shifted the centre of gravity from the stage into the orchestra, and, since this is an evident absurdity, that means that, unless one takes into account the aforementioned negative result [the rejection of earlier operatic forms], his celebrated reform of opera comes to nought. As for the dramatic interest of his operas, I consider them all to be very insignificant and sometimes childishly naïve, but I must say that nowhere and never before have I experienced such boredom as at this performance of Tristan und Isolde. It is the most exhausting and empty drawn-out yarn, without action, without life, and truly incapable of awakening the spectator's interest and eliciting warm sympathy for the protagonists. It was quite clear that the audience (even though it was a German one) was terribly bored, and yet at the end of each act there was a burst of stormy applause. I am at a loss as to how to explain this. Most likely it was out of patriotic sympathy for an artist, who has indeed devoted all his life to poeticizing the Germanic spirit.
As a consequence of his death Wagner has suddenly become the idol of the Parisian public. All three Sunday concerts (Pasdeloup, Colonne, Lamoureux) are dedicating their whole programme to Wagner, and they are having a tremendous success. What curious people! It's imperative that one should die in order to win their attention.
How funny the French are! When Wagner was alive they didn't want to know anything about him; now all Paris is crazy about Wagner. All the concerts here are packed with his works, and the furore they cause is indescribable. One has to be dead in order to be deemed worthy of the attention of Paris.
  • Letter 2285 to Nadezhda von Meck, 3/15 May 1883, in which Tchaikovsky says that he is not entirely happy with an article about him recently published in a Leipzig periodical, Musikalisches Wochenblatt, by the Russian music critic Osip Levenson:
I do not like it when people repeat that long-established verdict about me: namely, that I am supposedly incapable of writing dramatic music or that I want to worm myself into the favour of the public. Besides, what does it mean to have an aptitude for drama? Evidently Mr Levenson is a Wagnerian and he probably considers Wagner to be a great master in that realm. I on the other hand maintain quite the opposite. Wagner's was a talent of genius, but he utterly lacked the ability to write for the stage, that is with breadth and simplicity, and without the orchestra predominating. For in his works the latter has taken everything upon itself, leaving to the singers merely the role of talking mannequins.
You are quite right that the French have become Wagnerians. But in this enthusiasm for Wagner — which has reached a point where they are now even indifferent to Berlioz, who a few years ago was the idol of the Parisian concert-going public — there is something false, put on, and lacking any serious foundation. For I refuse to believe that Tristan und Isolde, an opera which even on the stage is unbearably boring and consists of an uninterrupted whining, the monotony of which is enough to depress one — I refuse to believe, I say, that this opera could ever actually fascinate the French public. In my view this is all some comedy — I mean that for the Parisians (who are essentially keen on operettas by Lecocq and salacious chansonettes) it is flattering and agreeable to pretend that they relish the music of Wagner's late period, which is so difficult to appreciate. There would be nothing surprising in such a magnificent opera as Lohengrin, or Tannhäuser or Der fliegende Holländer, entering the repertoire of opera-houses here. For gradually these operas, which were written by a first-rate master and are full of originality and inspiration, must necessarily become the property of all. But the operas of the final period, which are stuffed with lies, which are false by their very principle and are quite devoid of artistic simplicity and truth, can only maintain themselves in Germany, where Wagner's name has become a rallying-cry for German patriotism. Of course, even in these one constantly senses a mighty talent, but still they are no more than the works of a sick German, who has lapsed into monomania. Never will a Frenchman, who by his very nature seeks simplicity and clarity in art, be able to become an extreme Wagnerian
  • Letter 2545 to Nadezhda von Meck, 8/20–10/22 September 1884, in which Tchaikovsky says that he had finally got round to do two things that had been on his agenda for a long time, namely to study the scores of Musorgsky's Khovanshchina and Wagner's Parsifal (see the entry on Musorgsky for his comments on the former):
Parsifal produces a totally different impression [to Khovanshchina]: here you are dealing with a great master, with an artist of genius, albeit one who has lost his bearings. The richness of its harmony is astonishing, extraordinary, but far too luxurious, and eventually it ends up wearying even the specialist — I wonder what mere mortals must feel like after having been regaled for three hours with this never-ending stream of the most intricate harmonic tricks? I have always had the impression that those Wagnerians who are not professional musicians affect an enthusiasm which in their heart of hearts they do not really feel. Wagner, as I see it, killed his tremendous creative power through theory. Every preconceived theory cools one's spontaneous creative feeling. Could Wagner give himself up to such a feeling any longer after he had grasped through reason some sort of peculiar theory of music drama and musical truth, and after he had voluntarily renounced, for the sake of this alleged truth, all that constituted the strength and beauty of his predecessors' music?! If in an opera the singers don't sing, but merely utter, accompanied by deafening thunder from the orchestra, various hastily grafted-on, colourless successions of notes against a background of a splendid, but incoherent and formless symphony, what kind of opera can that possibly be?! However, what really astonishes me is the earnestness with which this over-philosophizing German illustrates by means of music the most incredibly stupid subjects. I mean, who could possibly be moved by the plot of Parsifal, where, instead of people with temperaments and feelings that we are familiar with, we are shown various fairytale figures who might perhaps be suitable for embellishing the content of a ballet, but never that of a drama? I am surprised that anyone can listen, without succumbing to laughter, or rather to boredom, to these figures' endlessly long monologues about the various spells from which all these Kundrys, Parsifals, etc. are suffering!!! I mean, is it possible to empathize with them, to be filled with heartfelt sympathy for them, to love and hate them? Of course not — because their sufferings, feelings, triumphs or failures are utterly alien to us. And what is alien to the human heart cannot be the source of musical inspiration.
In the realm of music Beethoven's style has often been copied to the point of excess, and it still is. I mean, isn't Brahms, at bottom, just a caricature of Beethoven? Isn't all this pretension to depth, power, and strength loathsome when the content he pours into the Beethovenian mould is lamentable and insignificant? Even in Wagner (whose genius, by the way, is indisputable), wherever he overreaches himself, that is essentially a product of Beethoven's spirit.
  • Letter 3814 to Vladimir Davydov, 5/17 March 1889, from Hanover, in which Tchaikovsky complains about the lack of coverage his second conducting tour to Western Europe (January–March 1889) was receiving in the Russian press:
Unfortunately, in Russia, judging from letters [I've received], the newspapers in the two capitals are continuing to ignore me, and apart from people close to me nobody seems to care anything about my successes. In contrast, the local newspapers here every day publish long telegrams with all the details about how Wagner's operas are being staged in Saint Petersburg [during February–March 1889 Angelo Neumann's touring opera company put on the Ring cycle at the Mariinsky Theatre — its first performance in Russia]. Of course, I am no Wagner, but still it is desirable that people in our country should know how cordially I'm being welcomed by the Germans.
I would be interested to know what you made of the tetralogy [i.e. The Ring]. I can foresee that now we, too, will have our own Russian Wagnerians. I do not like that breed. Having been bored to death the whole evening, but enticed by some captivating, effective moment, they imagine that they have come to appreciate Wagner and will plume themselves on their exquisite sensitivity, thereby merely deluding themselves and others. When all is said and done, Wagner (I am speaking of the author of the tetralogy, not about the composer of "Lohengrin") cannot appeal to a Russian person. These German gods with their Valhallaesque squabbles and impossibly long-winded dramatic gibberish must inevitably just seem ridiculous to a Frenchman, an Italian, or a Russian. As for the music, in which wondrous symphonic episodes cannot make up for the monstrosity and artificiality of the vocal aspect of these musical freaks, that can surely only depress people. But just as is happening in France and in Italy, I am sure that the vile breed of Wagnerians will also make headway in our country, too. If all these attacks on Wagner surprise you, I should like to make it clear to you that I think very highly of Wagner's creative genius, but detest Wagnerism as a principle and cannot overcome my disgust at Wagner's manner in his late works…" [46].
The question as to how one should write operas I have always resolved, continue to resolve, and will always resolve extremely simply. They should be written (and everything else, too, by the way) just as they occur to one. Through my music I have always striven to express as truthfully and sincerely as possible what was in the text. Now truthfulness and sincerity are not the result of theorizing, but rather a spontaneous product of one's inner feeling. In order for this feeling to be alive and warm, I have always tried to choose subjects which were capable of stirring me. However, I can only be stirred by subjects which involve real living people, who feel just as I do. That is why I cannot stand Wagnerian subjects, in which there is nothing human; likewise, I would not pick a subject like yours [Oresteia], which contains monstrous acts of evil and has the Furies and Fate as actual characters on the stage. And so, after choosing a subject and setting about writing the opera I would always give free rein to my feeling, resorting neither to Wagner's recipe, nor to imitation of classical models, nor even striving to be original. In all this, however, I did not by any means try to prevent the spirit of the age from influencing me. I confess that if it weren't for Wagner, I would have composed differently; I admit that even kuchkism [the ideas of the "Mighty Handful"] shows through in my operatic compositions; and probably both Italian music, which I passionately loved as a child, and Glinka, whom I worshipped in my youth, have had a strong effect on me, not to mention Mozart of course. But I never consciously invoked any of these idols — rather, I allowed them to act on my musical intuition just as they pleased.

In Tchaikovsky's Diaries

  • Diary entry for 13/25 March 1889, Paris:
A letter from Glazunov. (He's a Wagnerian!!) [47].

In Interviews with Tchaikovsky

Q. — What do you think about the contemporary state of music in the West and its future?
A. — It seems to me that music in Western Europe is going through a sort of phase of transition. For a long time Wagner was the only major composer of the German school. This man of genius, from whose overwhelming influence not one of the European composers of the second half of our century has been able to escape, stood there in splendid isolation, so to speak. And just as was the case during his life-time, now, too, there is nobody who could replace him. True, there is in Germany one highly respected and esteemed composer: Brahms, but the cult of Brahms is more like a way of protesting against the excesses and extremes of Wagnerism. For all his mastery, for all the purity and earnestness of his endeavours, Brahms can hardly be said to have made an eternal and precious contribution to the treasure-house of German music. Of course we can also point to two or three other outstanding German composers: Goldmark, Bruckner, the young Richard Strauss; indeed, here one should also mention Moritz Moszkowski, who, in spite of his Slavic name, is based in Germany; but, on the whole in the classical land of music one can sense a certain scarcity of talents, a certain lack of life and stagnation. The only place where there is true life is in Bayreuth, in this centre of the Wagner cult, and whatever our attitude may be to the music of Wagner, it is impossible to deny its power, its fundamental significance and influence on all contemporary music.
Later on in this interview Tchaikovsky talks about the composers of the "Mighty Handful" and argues that it was unfair to call them radicals and revolutionaries:
Never did this circle [the Balakirev circle] break all links with the past, as Wagner and the Wagnerians did. The most outstanding members of this circle never disdained old and traditional forms.

Views on Specific Works by Wagner

Bold references indicate particularly detailed or interesting references.

In Tchaikovsky's Music Review Articles

  • Das Rheingold, opera (1869) — TH 314
  • Prelude — TH 319
  • Der fliegende Holländer, opera (1843):
  • Overture — TH 276
  • Der Ring des Nibelungen, tetralogy (1876; see also the individual operas) — TH 314, TH 319
  • Die Walküre, opera (1870) — TH 314
  • Ride of the Valkyries — TH 306, TH 319
  • Faust, overture (1855) — TH 270, TH 319
  • Götterdämmerung, opera (1876) — TH 314
  • Siegfried's Death and Funeral March — TH 319
  • Lohengrin, opera (1850) — TH 270
  • Prelude to Act I — TH 259, TH 285, TH 319
  • Parsifal, opera (1882) — TH 319
  • Siegfried, opera (1876) — TH 314
  • Siegfried's Forging Song — TH 314
  • Tannhäuser, opera (1845/1861):
  • Overture — TH 304
  • Tristan und Isolde, opera (1865):
  • Liebestod scene — TH 270

In Tchaikovsky's Letters

I found The Dutchman terribly noisy and boring. The singers were very bad, the prima donna (Mallinger [48]) had lost her voice, and overall this was very much a below average performance. I didn't even stay until the end.
It was very interesting for me to read these opinions about Francesca da Rimini. But it wasn't Cui's own idea when he says that the first theme resembles a Russian song. I told him that myself last year. If I hadn't told him, he wouldn't have noticed! [Cui]]'s] observation that I wrote this work under the impression of the Nibelungen is very accurate. I felt this myself when I was working on it. If I am not mistaken, this is particularly noticeable in the introduction. Isn't it strange that I submitted to the influence of an artistic work which I generally dislike?" [49].
Letter 862 to Nadezhda von Meck, 24 June/6 July 1878, in which Tchaikovsky discusses his method of composition and then observes how there was no danger of diatonic melodies ever running out:
In the music of Beethoven, Weber, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and especially Wagner one constantly comes across melodies based on notes of a triad, and a gifted musician will always be able to come up with a new and beautiful fanfare-like melody. Don't you remember how beautiful the 'sword' melody in the Nibelungen is?
[In Leipzig] in the evening [of 10 February [N.S.]] I was at the opera-house, where they were putting on Die Meistersinger. Very interesting.
Today at the opera-house they're putting on Lohengrin, which I consider to be the best of all of Wagner's works, and I'll probably go and listen to it.
I think I've already told you in an earlier letter that in the evenings I am studying Parsifal. Lord, how tedious it is, and, in spite of the mastery of genius which it shows, what falseness and nonsense there is in this whole monstrous thing!
He is too much of a German. The programmes for his concerts are far too German, and, for example, he doesn't include any French music at all and is disdainful of Russian music (except mine). Thus, for example, yesterday Taneyev's overture [on a Russian theme in C major] was played in a very slovenly manner, whereas Wagner's inferior piece [Siegfried Idyll] was given a splendid performance. The first of these two works he had barely even rehearsed with the orchestra, whilst the second was clearly a labour of love for him.
By the way, the conductor here is not some medium-quality fellow, but positively a genius, and he is burning with eagerness to conduct the first performance [of Onegin]. Yesterday I heard him conduct an astonishing performance of Tannhäuser. The singers, the orchestra, Pollini, the stage directors, the conductor (his name is Mahler) are all in love with Yevgeny Onegin.
Tonight at the opera-house they're putting on Tristan und Isolde. At last I'm in luck! Of course I'll go and see it.

In Tchaikovsky's Diaries

  • Tannhäuser, opera (1845/1861) — Diary entry for 12/24 January 1888, Magdeburg:
Performance at the Stadtstheater. Tannhäuser. A boring opera. Atrocious singers, but the staging was good.

External Links


Notes and References

  1. Herman Laroche, «Предисловие» in: Музыкальные фельетоны и заметки Петра Ильича Чайковского, 1868-1876 (1898). Cited here with reference to: P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000), xxxii.
  2. This article of 1893, entitled "Un voyage musical en Russie", was penned by the journalist André Maurel (1863–1943) and also included various ironical remarks against the Germans, especially Hans von Bülow, whose influence on music life in Russia, so Maurel argued, had long since been resented by the Russians themselves, and that was why they had now welcomed Lamoureux so enthusiastically! In his open letter Tchaikovsky indignantly emphasized Bülow's great services to Russian music, as well as pointing out how many of Wagner's operas had been staged in Russia over the last twenty-five years, and that orchestral excerpts from these had been a staple of RMS concerts in both capitals long before the French were even aware of Wagner's existence! Both Maurels article and Tchaikovsky's open letter are included in: Modest Tchaikovsky, Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 3 (1997), p. 523–526. They are also discussed by Rosamund Bartlett, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. A reassessment (1999), p. 111–112.
  3. Quoted in: Modest Tchaikovsky, Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 3 (1997), p. 525.
  4. Rosamund Bartlett, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. A reassessment (1999), p. 97.
  5. Rosamund Bartlett, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. A reassessment (1999), p. 113.
  6. See also Thomas Kohlhase, Čakovskijs Wagner-Rezeption. Daten und Texte (1998), p. 308–309.
  7. Tchaikovsky's attendance of a performance of Lohengrin before 1883 is not actually recorded in any of his published letters or such comprehensive chronologies of his life as Дни и годы П. И. Чайковского. Летопись жизни и творчества (1940). However, from what he says about Lohengrin in the abovementioned article of 1872 (TH 270), it is clear that he was speaking from first-hand experience of the opera on the stage. Otherwise, the earliest documented reference to Tchaikovsky attending an opera by Wagner is during a brief stay in Saint Petersburg in January 1876 on his way back to Moscow from a trip abroad. From letter 439 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 20 January/1 February 1876, we know that the previous day Tchaikovsky had seen Tannhäuser at the Mariinsky Theatre, although he says nothing about the performance.
  8. Thomas Kohlhase, Čakovskijs Wagner-Rezeption. Daten und Texte (1998), p. 303.
  9. See also the following remark in letter 782 to Nadezhda von Meck, 10/22 March 1878: "In spite of Schopenhauer I am every minute of the day filled with a sense of love for life and Nature.
  10. Herman Laroche, «Предисловие]]» in: Музыкальные фельетоны и заметки Петра Ильича Чайковского, 1868-1876 (1898). Quoted here from: P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000), xxxii.
  11. Herman Laroche, Из моих воспоминаний. Чайковский в консерваторий (1897), in: Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 52.
  12. Herman Laroche, Из моих воспоминаний. Чайковский в консерваторий (1897), in: Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 54.
  13. Herman Laroche, Из моих воспоминаний. Чайковский в консерваторий (1897), in: Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 57.
  14. Rosamund Bartlett, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. A reassessment (1999), p. 97.
  15. Rosamund Bartlett, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. A reassessment (1999), p. 99.
  16. Modest Tchaikovsky, Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 325.
  17. Letter 418 to Hans von Bülow, 19 November/1 December 1875.
  18. Herman Laroche's observations are quoted in: Modest Tchaikovsky, Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 326.
  19. While he was in Kiev in early June 1876 Tchaikovsky wrote to Karl Albrecht in Moscow, asking his colleague at the Conservatory to send him "a small book dealing with The Nibelung's Ring" (Letter 466 to Karl Albrecht, 2/14 June 1876), and it seems to have been with the help of this book that Tchaikovsky hastily drew up the synopses of the four operas of The Ring that he used for the second and third chapters of his article The Bayreuth Music Festival (TH 314).
  20. Rosamund Bartlett, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. A reassessment (1999), p. 101.
  21. Herman Laroche as quoted in: Modest Tchaikovsky, Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 467.
  22. Rosamund Bartlett, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. A reassessment (1999), p. 95.
  23. See also letter 716 to Sergey Taneyev, 2/14 January 1878, which is quoted in more detail in the work history for Yevgeny Onegin.
  24. Nikolay Kashkin, Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), p. 110–111. In his Chronicle of My Musical Life [Летопись моей музыкальной жизни] (1910) Rimsky-Korsakov also refers to a similar conversation with Tchaikovsky, but seems to have confused the facts. He recalls there how Tchaikovsky attended one of the gatherings of the "Mighty Handful" in Saint Petersburg in 1876 or 1877 and had informed them that he was working on an orchestral fantasia based on Shakespeare's play The Tempest, and that for the evocation of the sea "he intended to borrow, up to a certain point, from Wagner's prelude to Das Rheingold, based on a triad figure". (The relevant section from Rimsky-Korsakov's memoirs is included in: Tschaikowsky aus der Nähe. Kritische Würdigungen und Erinnerungen von Zeitgenossen (1994), p. 81]. The Tempest, however, was completed by Tchaikovsky in October 1873! It seems that Rimsky-Korsakov, who had been greatly impressed by the fantasia at its première in December that year, later associated Tchaikovsky's admiration for the Rheingold prelude after his return from Bayreuth in 1876 (as described by Kashkin above) with the composition process of The Tempest, but this is evidently a misunderstanding. The Rheingold prelude was not included by Wagner in the concerts he gave in Saint Petersburg in 1863, and Tchaikovsky, as far as we can tell, heard it for the first time at the Bayreuth festival in 1876, so it cannot have influenced the writing of The Tempest (1873) in any way.
  25. See also a review of that opera quoted in: Дни и годы П. И. Чайковского. Летопись жизни и творчества (1940), p. 424.
  26. Thomas Kohlhase, Čakovskijs Wagner-Rezeption. Daten und Texte (1998), p. 301–302.
  27. Rosamund Bartlett, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. A reassessment (1999), p. 104.
  28. Letter 716 to Sergey Taneyev, 2/14 January 1878.
  29. Letter 1440 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 4/16 March 1880.
  30. Perhaps Klingsor's magic castle and garden reminded Tchaikovsky of the evil sorceress Naina and Chernomor in Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila, who also have their own Flower Maidens to beguile unwitting travellers! Like Serov, Tchaikovsky refused to see in Ruslan an effective work for the opera stage, mainly because of these 'fairy-tale' elements and the excessive richness of the music (see TH 264).
  31. This is recorded in diary entries for 1/13 July 1886 ("Tea. Read and played Parsifal."), 26 August/7 September 1886 ("Dinner. Afterwards I played Parsifal."), and 28 April/10 May 1887 ("Work. A wondrous, astonishing sunset! Work. Parsifal."). See: Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), pp. 75, 90, 141 respectively.
  32. Herman Laroche, «Предисловие]]» in: Музыкальные фельетоны и заметки Петра Ильича Чайковского, 1868-1876 (1898). Cited here with reference to: P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000), xxxyi–xxxiv.
  33. Gustav Kobbé (1857–1918) wrote of this chorus in his famous guide to the operas, The Complete Opera Book (1919): "When sung as it was at Bayreuth, where I heard the first performance of Parsifal in 1882, this makes the most exquisite effect of the whole score. For spirituality it is unsurpassed, an absolutely perfect example of religious music — a beautiful melody without the slightest worldly taint".
  34. See also Дни и годы П. И. Чайковского. Летопись жизни и творчества (1940), p. 468, where a diary entry for 11/23 March 1889 is quoted.
  35. See also letter 3488 to Praskovya Tchaikovskaya, 30 January/11 February 1888, where he does not actually say anything about the opera or the performance.
  36. Thomas Kohlhase, Čakovskijs Wagner-Rezeption. Daten und Texte (1998), p. 306. See also also a letter from Sergey Taneyev to Tchaikovsky, 11/23 April 1889: "Wagner interests me enormously, especially with regard to his harmony and instrumentation. There is a lot one can learn from him — amongst other things, how one should not write operas. Some time I will talk to you in detail about him." See also П. И. Чайковский. С. И. Танеев. Письма (1951), p. 158.
  37. David Brown is quoted on this point by Rosamund Bartlett, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. A reassessment (1999), p. 110. In his article 'Čajkovskij und das russische Silberne Zeitalter]]' (1995), pp. 155–164, Arkady Klimovitsky also discusses the similarities between Tristan and Iolanta (tonal vagueness, harmonic colour, chromaticism) but argues that Tchaikovsky was seeking to refute Wagner in a certain sense. He quotes a letter which Tchaikovsky wrote to an old friend I. V. Yakovlev when he started to work on Iolanta: "I have found a subject with which I shall prove to the whole world that the lovers in the finales of operas can stay alive, and that this is completely true and authentic!" Klimovitsky makes the interesting conjecture that Tchaikovsky was thinking of Tristan in this letter, and that he intended the happy ending of Iolanta, with the marriage of Vaudémont and Iolanta now cured of her blindness, as a refutation of the inevitable "Liebestod" of Tristan and Isolde.
  38. See also Rosamund Bartlett, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. A reassessment (1999), p. 111.
  39. Aleksandr Glazunov, «Моё знакомство с Чайковским», in: Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 208–211 (211). This passage is also included in: David Brown, Tchaikovsky remembered (1993).
  40. Nikolay Kashkin's obituary «Петрь Ильич Чайковский]]», published in the Russian Register (Русские ведомости), 6 November 1893 [O.S.], in: Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 356–362 (361–362). This section is also included in: David Brown, Tchaikovsky remembered (1993), p. 232.
  41. Rosamund Bartlett, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. A reassessment (1999), p. 96.
  42. Herman Laroche, «Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском» (1893), in: Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 44.
  43. One phrase in this letter requires particular attention: «был у Вагнера, который теперь никого не принимает». Translated quite literally, this would be in English: "was at Wagner's, who doesn't receive anyone now". Since it is not attested elsewhere that Tchaikovsky actually met Wagner, what seems to have happened is that he knocked at the door of Villa Wahnfried (perhaps with a letter of recommendation from Liszt or Klindworth) but was told that the composer wasn't receiving visitors. However, Tchaikovsky does seem to have spoken to someone who had been inside Wagner's house, since he describes its opulent interior in some detail in Chapter IV of TH 314.
  44. It is worth comparing this with a very interesting letter which Sergey Taneyev wrote from Paris to Varvara Maslova and Fyodor Maslov on 3/15 March 1877, describing his meetings there with Ivan Turgenev. Taneyev discusses, in particular, his musical tastes. Apparently Turgenev's favourite composer was now Schumann and he could not stand Wagner at all: "'His [Wagner's] music expresses various un-human feelings,' he [Turgenev]]] says, 'and his characters are not living people, so I can't empathize with them. How can I know what is going on in the heart of a young man who comes floating in on a swan (Lohengrin) or in that of a young girl who has the habit of riding through clouds on a horse at night-time (Walküre) — I mean, if I was also told that she sees through her mouth and listens with her nose, am I expected to believe that, too?! Anyway, whatever she does cannot move or touch me. And whenever in Wagner's operas there are supposed to be people on the stage, these aren't actually real people, just figures who are meant to illustrate some abstract idea'". Quoted by Abram Gozenpud, И. С. Тургенев. Исследование [I. S. Turgenev. A Study] (1994), p. 48. Also in: Grigory Bernandt, С. И. Танеев [S. I. Taneyev] (1950), p. 42–43. See also Tchaikovsky's very similar remarks about the exotic setting of Verdi's Aida, with its "Egyptian princesses and pharaohs" in the work history for Yevgeny Onegin.
  45. Quoted by Rosamund Bartlett, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. A reassessment (1999), p. 104.
  46. It is worth comparing the conclusion of this letter with the almost identical ending of Tchaikovsky's 1891 article for the New York Morning Journal: "Wagner and His Music" (TH 319).
  47. See: Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 230.
  48. Mathilde Mallinger (1847–1920), famous Austrian soprano. Tchaikovsky had heard her in a production of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots in Moscow in 1873 (see TH 273).
  49. This passage from Letter 799 to Sergey Taneyev, 27 March/8 April 1878, is quoted in: Дни и годы П. И. Чайковского. Летопись жизни и творчества (1940), p. 179. The passage in question was deleted by Soviet censorship from the text of this letter as presented in: П. И. Чайковский. С. И. Танеев. Письма (1951), p. 33–35. No indication was given there that a part of the text had been excised. In: П. И. Чайковский. Полное собрание сочинений, том VII (1962), however, the full text of the letter is given. This censorial intervention has also been pointed out by Ernst Kuhn in: Tschaikowsky aus der Nähe. Kritische Würdigungen und Erinnerungen von Zeitgenossen (1994), p. 99, note 235.