Wagner and His Music

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Wagner and His Music (Вагнер и его музыка) (TH 319 ; ČW 593) was an article written by Tchaikovsky for the New York newspaper New York Morning Journal, in which it was published on 3 May 1891 [N.S.].

The article contains a recapitulation of Tchaikovsky's ambivalent attitude towards Wagner and his music, together with an unequivocal rejection of Wagnerism as a doctrine—a very pithy recapitulation made at the time of his tour of the eastern United States in 1891 for the benefit of American readers who had good reason to be interested not just in the illustrious visitor's own music but also in his views about music generally.


Completed by 19 April/1 May 1891. This brief but remarkable essay owes its existence to Tchaikovsky's concert tour to North America in the spring of 1891. While preparing for the opening concerts to mark the inauguration of the Carnegie Hall in New York, at which several of his works were to be played, Tchaikovsky found time, in between rehearsals and sight-seeing excursions, to receive the many American journalists who were eager to interview the world-famous Russian composer. One of these journalists was a certain Miss Ivy Ross [1], who called on Tchaikovsky at his hotel on 18/30 April 1891 and asked him for a contribution for her newspaper—the New York Morning Journal. On 19 April/1 May, Tchaikovsky noted in his diary [2]: "I sat down to compose a small article for Miss Ivy […] Back home [after visiting various sights in New York] Back home, I still had to finish writing the little article (on Wagner) for Miss Ivy" . And the diary entry for 2/14 May reads: "Miss Ivy Ross appeared. My letter on Wagner, which I sent to her, has been published and produced quite a sensation, and Mr Anton Seidl, the celebrated Wagnerian conductor, has responded to it at quite some length, in quite a friendly tone towards me. She came to ask me to reply to Seidl's letter. I started to write a reply, but Mr Ditman appeared…" [3].

Starting with the composer's brother Modest, biographers and scholars of Tchaikovsky who had seen these diary entries tried in vain for many years to locate this article (their efforts were made more difficult by the fact that Tchaikovsky did not name the American newspaper in question, and also by the fact that Miss Ivy Ross does not seem to have been a particularly well-known journalist), but in 1942 the American musicologist Herbert Weinstock discovered the article as it had been published in the 3 May 1891 issue of the New York Morning Journal.

The original language of Tchaikovsky's article, and the identity of its translator (if any), have not been determined [4].

English text

I am asked to tell the readers of the New York Morning Journal [5] my opinion of Wagner. I will do so, squarely and frankly. But I must warn them that I recognize two sides to the question: first, Wagner, and the rank he holds among the composers of the Nineteenth Century and secondly, Wagnerism. It will at once be seen that, while I admire the composer I have but little sympathy with what constitutes the cult of Wagnerian theories.

As a composer, Wagner is certainly the most remarkable musical character of the latter part of this century, and his influence upon music is enormous.

He was gifted with great powers of musical invention; he discovered new forms of his art; he led the way into paths until his advent unknown; he was, it may be said, a man of genius, capable of ranking in German music with Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann.

But according to my deep and unalterable conviction, he was a genius who followed a wrong path.

Wagner was a great symphonist, but not a composer of opera. Instead of devoting his life to the musical illustration of German mythological characters in the form of opera, had this extraordinary man written symphonies, we should, perhaps, possess masterpieces of that order, worthy rivals to the immortal ones of Beethoven.

All that we admire in Wagner belongs essentially to the symphonic order. That in his music, which leaves a great and profound impression, is now a masterly overture in which he pictures Dr Faust [6]; or it is the prelude of Lohengrin [7], in which the celestial regions for some of the most beautiful pages in modern music; now it is the ride of the Valkyries [8], the funeral march of Siegfried [9], or the blue waves of the Rhine in the Rhinegold [10]—are they not all essentially symphonic? In the Tetralogy and Parsifal [11] Wagner gives no thought to the singers; in those beautiful and majestic symphonies they are treated as instruments, forming part of the orchestra.

Now, what is Wagnerism? What are the dogmas, which one must profess to be a Wagnerite? One must deny absolutely all that is not of Wagner; it is necessary to ignore Mozart, Schubert, Meyerbeer, Schumann, Chopin; one must be intolerant, exclusive, narrow, extravagant. No! While venerating the sublime genius that created the prelude of Lohengrin, and the ride of the Valkyries, devoutly kneeling before the prophet—I will not profess the religion he has founded.


First published in the New York Morning Journal, New York, 3 May 1891 [N.S.], under the title: '"Wagner and His Music" by P. Tchaikovsky—The Noted Russian Composer'.

Notes and References

  1. Among the many fascinating reviews which Tchaikovsky's conducting of his own works generated in the American press, those of Ivy Ross for the Morning Journal, whilst not as erudite perhaps as the articles penned by the distinguished music critic Henry Fink for the Evening Post, are no less enthusiastic for that. For example, following up the Wagner connection a few days after she had persuaded Tchaikovsky to share his views on Wagner with readers of her newspaper, Ivy Ross wrote in the 8 May 1891 issue of the New York Morning Journal: "Since Wagner is dead there is no question that Tchaikovsky ranks foremost among living composers. That was proven on Thursday when he conducted his Third Suite for Orchestra, a wonderful work" — note by Luis Sundkvist (with reference to American press reports on the 1891 concert tour compiled by Thomas Kohlhase, An Tschaikowsky scheiden sich die Geister. Textzeugnisse der Čajkovskij-Rezeption, 1866-2004 (2006), p. 148–166).
  2. Extracts from Tchaikovsky's diary are quoted in Rosa Newmarch's translation from her famous biography of the composerTchaikovsky. His life and works. With extracts from his writings, and the diary of his tour abroad in 1888 (first published in 1900; revised edition in 1908).
  3. Tchaikovsky does not seem to have actually written the counter-reply to Anton Seidl (1850–1898)—a Hungarian conductor who was a colleague of Walter Damrosch in New York in those years—that Miss Ross came to ask him for on 2/14 May.
  4. The original manuscript of this article was written in French, and was sold at auction in New York in 1976 after being thought lost for many years (see Letter 4369a). A Russian translation was published as Вагнер и его музыка. Неизвестная заметка П. И. Чайковского» (1949), and reprinted in 1953 under Vasily Yakovlev's editorship in the Soviet edition of Tchaikovsky's complete works (П. И. Чайковский. Полное собрание сочинений, том II). The Morning Journal article is reprinted in: Elkhonon Yoffe, Tchaikovsky in America. The composer's visit in 1891 (1986), p. 71–72, and this edition has been used as the basis for the text presented on this website — note by Luis Sundkvist, based partly on information provided by Vasily Yakovlev.
  5. The New York Morning Journal was founded in 1882 by the Hungarian-born American publisher Albert Pulitzer (d.1909)—the brother of Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911), who was to establish the famous Pulitzer Prize—and was bought in 1895 by the great newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (1863–1951). It later became known simply as the New York Journal and had a certain reputation for running sensationalist stories — note by Luis Sundkvist.
  6. One of the works conducted by Wagner during his six concerts in Saint Petersburg in February–April 1863 (all of which were attended by Tchaikovsky) was his Faust overture (final version of 1855). Tchaikovsky discussed this work in an article of 1872 (TH 270), where he called it "one of the most splendid creations of German symphonic music" — note by Luis Sundkvist.
  7. Tchaikovsky writes enthusiastically of the Prelude to Lohengrin in an article of 1871 (TH 259), describing it as "the most celebrated and inspired composition by the celebrated German composer". All his life it remained one of his favourites, although the opera as a whole (which Tchaikovsky heard on the stage at least four times: in Berlin in 1883, in Saint Petersburg in 1886, in Kiev in 1890, and in Paris in 1892) appealed to him somewhat less. When working on the instrumentation of The Maid of Orleans in 1879, Tchaikovsky decided to study the score of Lohengrin thoroughly (mainly to see if he could learn something from Wagner's orchestral techniques), and he wrote about this experience in letter 1171 of 5/17 May 1879 to Nadezhda von Meck from Brailov: " 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 [«Эта опера останется венцом вагнеровского творчества»]. For it was after Lohengrin that the decline of his talent started—a talent that was ruined by this man's satanic pride […] His mastery [in orchestration] 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 [упитан] and heavy 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 polar opposites. 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" — note by Luis Sundkvist,based partly on detailed information provided by Thomas Kohlhase in, Čakovskijs Wagner-Rezeption. Daten und Texte (1998), p. 299–326.
  8. Tchaikovsky praises the Ride of the Valkyries in an article of 1875 (TH 306). See also Note 5 there for a relevant quotation from letter 661 of 26 November/8 December 1877 to Nadezhda von Mecknote by Luis Sundkvist.
  9. Tchaikovsky does not seem to have discussed this memorable and powerful orchestral episode from Götterdämmerung separately elsewhere, but it is clear that when he refers, in his article on the inaugural Bayreuth Festival (TH 314), to the "strikingly beautiful musical features of a symphonic kind" which one could find in the Ring cycle, he must have also been thinking of Siegfried's Death and Funeral March note by Luis Sundkvist.
  10. Nikolay Kashkin later recollected a conversation which he had with Tchaikovsky in the autumn of 1876 about the latter's impressions of the Bayreuth festival that summer: "Recalling the introduction to Das Rheingold, which is based entirely on a figuration of a very simple chord, Pyotr Ilyich 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 [1873], 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'". Quoted from: Nikolay Kashkin, Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1954), p .110-111 — note by Luis Sundkvist.
  11. Tchaikovsky never saw a performance of Wagner's final opera (which, incidentally, was not performed in Russia until 1913), but he did study the score of Parsifal carefully in 1884, 1886, and 1887. Writing in letter 2545 to Nadezhda von Meck on 8/20 September 1884, Tchaikovsky said that he had recently done two things which had been on his agenda for a long time—he had familiarized himself with the music of Musorgsky's Khovanshchina and that of Wagner's Parsifal His remarks on the latter are worth quoting in full: "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" — note by Luis Sundkvist (reference to this letter provided by Thomas Kohlhase, Čakovskijs Wagner-Rezeption. Daten und Texte (1998).