A Frank Discussion with the Reader. The Italian Opera

A Frank Discussion with the Reader. The Italian Opera (Объяснение с читателем · Итальянская опера) [1] (TH 308 ; ČW 574) was Tchaikovsky's forty-third music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 7 October 1875 [O.S.].

This article contains an amusing account of the trials and tribulations which Tchaikovsky had to endure as a music critic, as well as an outline of some of the principles he was guided by in this kind of work; a vote of thanks to Yevlaliya Kadmina and Aleksandr Dodonov for their performances in The Oprichnik; enthusiastic reminiscences of Désirée Artôt in the role of Valentine in Les Huguenots; and a report on the encouragingly busy schedule of the private Russian Opera company in Kiev (which Tchaikovsky had discussed at greater length in TH 298).


Completed by 7/19 October 1875 (date of publication). Concerning Tchaikovsky's vicissitudes as a music critic; a performance of Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots by the Italian Opera Company at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on 29 September/11 December 1875, conducted by Enrico Bevignani; and scheduled productions of Iosif Setov's private Russian Opera troupe in Kiev.

English translation

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A Frank Discussion with the Reader

It is with a heavy heart, with a feeling close to disgust, that I, dear ladies and gentlemen who are my readers, take up my regular conversations with you about the musical affairs of our city. Now it would seem that for a musician by trade there could not be anything more refreshing and agreeable than to have a chat with favourably disposed and attentive readers about a subject so dear and close to his heart—about that art whose cultivation not only occupies all his life, but sometimes even makes it inconceivably and indescribably sweet. The relations which ought to establish themselves between a music reviewer and his readers are very straightforward indeed. This is how they come about:

The daily organs of the press, which consider it their duty to comment on all the phenomena of public life, are, amongst other things, also obliged to touch upon music, which in some way or other every reader is interested in after all. For this purpose the newspaper's editors invite a music specialist to join their staff and assign him the task of discussing, in the format of light feuilleton essays, the most salient facts of music life in that city in which the newspaper is published.

"Our readers like music very much," the editors tell their new colleague; "You are equipped with a considerable stock of knowledge in this field, and so go ahead and talk about your art as much as you like—they will listen to you with pleasure. But please," they add, "please be as fair, impartial, and accurate as possible." The music reviewer sets about performing his task with great enthusiasm to start with. Since, thanks to the circumstances of his life and his natural abilities, he is a person with a comparatively high level of musical understanding, he talks about his art with all the more ease and willingness because he presupposes his listeners to be people who are prepared to accept his views on trust, or who are at least capable of hearing out what he wishes to say to them.

Alas! the hapless reviewer soon finds himself bitterly disillusioned! Having assumed, in the naivety of his heart, that his chronicles would be like a cordial conversation between close acquaintances, he soon begins to notice that people listen to him with mistrust, that hostile looks are cast at him from all directions, that his discourse irritates and angers his interlocutors. Finally, a few bold fellows turn up and cut him short just like that: "Sir, you are telling lies, your opinions are false and biased! You are an unscrupulous person! You are talking nonsense! You don't have a clue about anything!" and so on and so forth. These are the imprecations which start to rain down on him from all quarters.

The disconcerted feuilleton-writer, convinced as he is about the rightness of his cause and having a conscience which is quite unburdened by any sense of guilt on his part, tries to raise his voice again. But then and there his situation becomes intolerable: a comprehensive chase of the unfortunate, completely innocent hare is launched—a chase which, even if it does not end with the hare's innocent blood being shed, will almost certainly drive its quarry to a state of utter exhaustion which makes it impossible for the latter to even think of running further.

It is in precisely this situation (or almost) which I find myself in, o my well-disposed… beg your pardon,ill-disposed readers! I am not at all exaggerating in this allegorical description of my truly quite lamentable situation. Every day, by the hour even, I reap the bitter fruits of my reviewing zeal, either in the form of unpleasant conversations, or in the form of anonymous letters, some of which contain nothing other than abusive, unprintable words. I was subjected to especially strong attacks whenever my comments on this or that idol of the multitude went against the opinion of the majority of the public.

When during the last season, for example, I dared to touch sacrilegiously the unattainable pedestal on which people here have put the soprano Christine Nilsson, when I timidly, and with certain reservations, dared to pronounce the fact that a singer who keeps singing out of tune all the time, who never pays heed even to the most elementary laws of rhythm, whose acting may be skilful but is cold and devoid of poetry—that such a singer can by no means be ranged amongst the greatest artistes, good God!, the things I was made to hear in punishment of my audacity! I was declared to be an insane profaner, an impudent hack writer, a vulgar liar.

I had it told to my face and in writing that it was an act of sheer folly for such a wretched nonentity as yours truly to take it upon himself to undermine the reputation of an artiste whose greatness is acknowledged everywhere—as if I really had wanted or been able to harm Madame Nilsson, as if, in expressing my disapproval, I really had been guided by the naïve aspiration to overthrow this idol. There were even some people who, whenever a convenient opportunity presented itself, would mock my efforts as a composer, as if there could possibly be any link between these and the merits of Madame Nilsson. Some ladies even assured me that from then on they would always hate me ferociously.

"But excuse me, what for?… I mean, all I did was to express what I was sincerely convinced of," I would timidly counter in my defence. "Be quiet, we hate you!" was the reply of these infuriated lionesses.

It became a torture for me to attend social gatherings with many guests because they would all be vying with one another to see who could mock and hurt me the most. Ladies, young girls, gentlemen of civil and military rank, merchants, doctors, lawyers, men of letters—they would all take revenge on me by turns, and continue to do so to this day, for both my lack of sympathy for the Italian Opera in general and my disapproving comments about Madame Nilsson in particular.

They all tell me that what I am writing is false. "But what, according to you, is the truth?" I would ask. This question would usually nonplus the person I put it to, although more often than not I would be given the reply that the truth is what one thinks and believes, and, vice versa, falsehood is what one doesn't really think and believe inwardly! "But why do you assume," I would ask further, "that in expressing an opinion which differs from yours I am saying something that I do not inwardly believe?" I would never get a reply to this last question, although implicitly I could read it in my antagonist's eyes: "Sir, if someone says something that is not wholly identical to my opinion, that person is lying, because I always think as one should!"

And, indeed, in order to satisfy the ill-disposed reader, all I would have to do is agree completely with all his thoughts. Of course, in view of the several thousand subscribers which this journal has, that would be quite difficult. However, it only seems so difficult at first glance. For, yes, there are some points with regard to which, if I wish to remain at peace with everyone, I must be the slave of the majority opinion. But there are other topics, too, where I am given the absolute freedom to say and write whatever I want. For example, were I to say that Beethoven and Schumann wrote nothing but nonsense, no one, apart from professional musicians, would pay the least attention to that, for the very simple reason that Beethoven and Schumann are about as interesting to the Muscovite public as last year's snow. If, however, I say that Signor Nicolini [2] is a very mediocre singer, or that Madame Nilsson is not a particularly great artiste, then I can expect to be eaten up alive.

As for that peculiar kind of unconditional truth which is demanded of me, I would like to say a few more words with regard to the latter. You assert that I would be a truthful critic if I were always and under all circumstances to say what I think. That is correct only to a certain point. It goes without saying that lying is as reprehensible in a reviewer as in any other person. Nevertheless, to push to the uttermost the principle that what I write has to accord exactly with what I think—that is surely not quite applicable to the task of an honest reviewer, at any rate of an honest music critic.

I am fully convinced that the public is not at all interested in my personal opinions, that the latter are of no consequence to it whatsoever. If the public, or at least a certain proportion of it, attaches some weight and significance to my judgements about music and the phenomena of the Muscovite music world, then that is solely because it sees in me a representative of the opinions and views of that circle in Moscow which is most competent in matters of music.

What ought to interest the public is not at all what I say, but rather what is said by that competent circle to which I have the very closest ties. And I for my part must never forget about the role which corresponds to me as a representative of that circle which in Moscow has the exclusive right of passing authoritative judgement on matters concerning my art. My position within the fraternity of those who write about the phenomena of public life is analogous to the role of a deputy in parliament. It may well be that, in advancing this or that political view, he is expressing precisely what he himself thinks, but it may also be otherwise. That is of no concern whatsoever to the government and the public: all that matters to them is that the deputy should in any case be setting forth the thoughts and views of the voters in his constituency. Of course, in general the deputy will be at one with his voters—otherwise they would not have returned him as their member of parliament—but in some individual details he may well be at variance with them, although in the interest of higher goals, of a higher truth, he will sacrifice his own personal inclinations and capricious deviations for the common good.

As is known, Chopin had a strange, insurmountable aversion to various works by Beethoven which the whole world had already acknowledged to be the greatest paragons of art. However, if he had had to write music reviews for some wide-circulation newspaper, he would of course have refrained from making public these idiosyncratic details of his musical temperament. In the field of music criticism, which lacks any philosophical and theoretical underpinning, and which rests exclusively on the wobbly foundations of personal inclinations, it is essential to lean for support on the voice of an authoritative, competent minority. If a reviewer lacks this support, then all his critical endeavours come down to no more than a dilettantish, aimless chattering about art, which may perhaps be very nice, but is devoid of any serious purport.

I hope that from what was stated above the reader will have realised just how many thorns are strewn along the path which a music reviewer has to tread. He has to endure a good many heavy blows from the merciless, distrustful, and capricious music-lovers who deign to read his articles. However, it is very likely that the greatest dose of deadly poison is poured into his chalice by precisely those whom he is supposed to talk about with his readers—namely, by his own artistic colleagues. No matter how much he tries to be impartial, moderate, and precise in his judgements, no matter how much he seeks to avoid excessively harsh words and to spare as far as possible the ticklish self-esteem of artists, he will never be able to please everyone—he will never be able to satisfy the unquenchable thirst of artists for eulogies and dithyrambs in the press.

A few years ago, when I hadn't yet embarked on the slippery career of a feuilleton reviewer, I did not have any enemies. The category of people from which the group of my ill-wishers today is drawn simply did not exist back then. Now, though it not only exists, but is reminding me constantly of its presence. How many unexpected reprimands and unpleasant tirades I have had to put up with from these artists who consider themselves to have been offended by me!

Some of them are gifted, others quite talentless; some are experienced and skilled, others ignorant and under-developed; in some it is the natural qualities of the voice which predominate, in others technical training; some are ardent but coarse, whereas others are cold but elegant; some put all their heart into their acting but keep singing out of tune, others sing conscientiously but without any feeling for the role; some are young and have yet to mature, others are over-mature and have started to wilt already. But what they all have in equal measure is self-esteem—infernal and immeasurable self-esteem!

Each and every one of them I am expected to praise each time, irrespective of whether there is a reason to do so or not, no matter whether it is appropriate or not—I have to shower praises on them to the point of absurdity, the main thing is to praise, praise, and praise! Many of them already consider themselves offended if I have failed to just mention them. If today I have commended Ivan Paramonovich for his performance on the concert podium, I must unfailingly then and there also sing the praises of Anisya Sidorovna, no matter that she did not even feature in that concert but was actually sitting at home and knitting herself a wool blanket. Otherwise, I get to find out the following day that Anisya Sidorovna is furious with me: "He's praising Ivan Paramonovich, but not a single word about me!"

I am horrified by this, and at the earliest available opportunity I hasten to praise Anisya Sidorovna to the skies. Well, do you think that she will now be grateful to me? Not at all! Anisya Sidorovna has become even more furious because in that very same article I had happened to commend the artistic perfection with which Agrafena Petrovna had performed her solo. There's just no way to please these folks! Indeed, the less talent they have, the more demanding they are!

Last year I casually made some flattering remarks about a famous and really quite excellent foreign artist. His fame had long ago been firmly established, and a flattering or unflattering word from a Muscovite reviewer could hardly mean anything to him. Nevertheless, this foreign artist was touched, and, to my great amazement, he called on me personally to thank me, as if I really had done him a service by saying what everyone had already known for a long time. This is one of the very rare, quite touching examples of modesty in an artist.

In most cases I receive tokens of gratitude of an altogether different kind. Quite literally just a few days ago, two venerable ladies from the chorus, who happened to chance upon me, kicked up a terrible row and lambasted me with a torrent… of insults just because in one of my reviews I had ventured to record the fact that the chorus's howling grated upon everyone's ears… "What have we done to you?" they said to me; "What are we to blame for? Why are you hounding us? After all, we are singing in your opera [3], aren't we?!"

And indeed, these two members of the chorus were right. They are singing in my opera, and I ought to grovel and shed tears of gratitude before them and all the other performers of that wretched creation of mine for its having been presented in such enchantingly endearing guise on our stage. I must, though, refrain from such a torrential pouring out of gratitude, since for so large a number of performers my supply of affecting emotions would be quite insufficient.

For the time being I can only pay a tribute of my sincerest gratitude to Madame Kadmina and Mr Dodonov. These two artists not only took part in the performance of my opera like the two abovementioned ladies from the chorus, but did so, moreover, in a most splendid fashion. In the great scene in Act III Madame Kadmina's acting and singing were truly masterly and thrilling in the highest degree…

The Italian Opera

The Italian Opera recently staged Les Huguenots. If one considers this staging from the point of view of ensemble, then one cannot fail to acknowledge that, thanks to the diligence of the conductor Signor Bevignani, the production, compared to earlier years, went smoothly and was quite solid, too. However, if one were to compare the current performers of the leading roles with those of the past, then it must be said that this production of Les Huguenots was considerably worse than back then, when the Italian Opera had only just started to flourish here.

One only has to recall that the role of Valentine was performed back then by an artiste of great genius who left her stamp on this role with such indelible strokes of high artistry and inspiration, that for a long time yet it will be well-nigh impossible to find anyone in Moscow capable of causing a comparable impression in the part of Valentine. The reader will have guessed that I am referring to Madame Artôt, who is currently in Moscow but for some reason is not taking part in the productions of the Italian Opera. Madame Wiziak [4] certainly has a beautiful voice and her performance was suffused by heartfelt warmth, but still she has a very long way to go before she can achieve an interpretation of the part of Valentine which might to some extent satisfy the listener who remembers Artôt in this role.

As for Signor Nicolini, it must be said that this magnificent artist is not as convincing in the role of Raoul as in Robert le Diable. His acting did seem skilful to me, but it was not infused with genuine feeling. In the famous love duet in Act IV Signor Nicolini did not manage to pull off the wonderful episode in G-flat major when, following Valentine's sudden confession, Raoul throws himself at her feet and is consumed by passion. His voice was not powerful enough for the high tessitura of this cantilena, and, instead of covering up this shortcoming by means of mezza voce, he quite literally messed up the whole part by his false intonation when trying to produce high chest notes.

In a couple of other places in the opera (for example, in his first aria to the accompaniment of a viola d'amore, which is normally replaced here by an ordinary viola) Signor Nicolini was quite good. But on the whole, from such a first-rate artist as Signor Nicolini one would really have expected a much more successful interpretation. By the way, what I am saying here refers to the fourth performance of Les Huguenots—it is quite possible that in the first three performances Signor Nicolini was in better vocal form.

Signor Colonese's interpretation of the Comte de Nevers was wooden and lacked the nobility which ought to be intrinsic to this role according to the author's intentions. Signor Bossi's performance as the Comte de Saint-Bris also left me with an unfavourable impression. Madame de Maësen [5] sang Marguerite de Valois conscientiously, with reliable and clean intonation, but without gracefulness and that feminine coquetry which constitutes the characteristic feature of this role. Only the attractive Madame Cary [6], in the role of the Queen's page, gave a performance that was splendid in all respects. What an intelligent, elegant, and technically impeccable singer she is!

The male choruses (these had been reinforced by twelve Italians with healthy and strong voices!) were sung quite decently. As for the female choruses… I am, though, afraid of those two ladies from the chorus who are so apt to take offence, and so I had better say nothing! The orchestra under Signor Bevignani, as I said above, sounded very good and full of verve.

P.S. I have received news from Kiev informing me that the Russian Opera there, under the adroit management of Mr Setov [7], is making excellent headway. Since the start of the season the following operas have already been performed several times each: A Life for the Tsar, Faust, The Oprichnik, Halka and Il Trovatore. At one performance of the latter opera His Majesty the Emperor was also present. The singers Madames Massini [8] and Cavedani, as well as the ballerina Madame Giovassi, each received a diamond brooch from His Majesty, and the baritone Domenici, together with Mr Setov in his capacity as director of the troupe, were each presented with an expensive ring [9].

Currently rehearsals for Les Huguenots are under way there, with a décor that, so I am told, promises to be quite spectacular. Most of the decorations have been ordered from Berlin. The costumes, though, are all new. The props were bought by Mr Setov in Paris this summer. The roles have been assigned as follows: Valentine—Madame Massini, Marguerite de Valois—Madame Makhina [10], Urbain, the Queen's page—Madame Nadeina, Raoul de Nangis—Mr Andreyev [11], Marcel—Mr Stravinsky [12], Le Comte de Saint-Bris—Mr Bryansky, Le Comte de Nevers—Mr Shchepkovsky.

After Les Huguenots the following operas have been scheduled for performance in Kiev: Rusalka, Rogneda, La Juive [13], Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto, Il barbiere di Siviglia, as well as the Russian premiere of Moniuszko's opera The Haunted Manor.

P. Tchaikovsky.

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Observations from Readers. The Italian Opera' in ČW.
  2. Ernest Nicolini (1834–1898), Italian tenor who often appeared with Adelina Patti on the Russian stage in the 1870s and later became her second husband..
  3. This is a reference to the first performance in Moscow of The Oprichnik, which had taken place at the Bolshoi Theatre on 4/16 May 1875 and had featured Yevlaliya Kadmina in the role of the Boiarynia Morozova and Aleksandr Dodonov as her son Andrey Morozov. The next performance of the opera in Moscow took place on 26 September/8 October — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  4. Emma Wiziak (real name: Vizjak-Nicolescu; 1847–1913), Croatian soprano, débuted in Italy in 1869 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  5. Camilla de Maësen (1842–1906), Belgian soprano (her actual name was: Camilla van der Maësen d'Avionpuits); from 1862 she sang in Brussels, Milan, and Paris; her signature roles were Lucia (Lucia di Lammermoor), Marguerite de Valois (Les Huguenots), and Elvira (I Puritani) — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  6. Annie Louise Cary (1841–1921), American mezzo-soprano, made her début in Copenhagen; in 1870 she sang at Covent Garden in London under the stage name Louise Cari; in 1874 she had a triumphant success in the role of the page Urbain (Les Huguenots) at the New York Academy of Music and appeared in this role in Russia from 1875 to 1877; in 1880 she had to retire from the stage because of severe problems with her voice — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  7. Iosif Setov (originally Setthofer, 1826–1894), Russian tenor who also worked as a stage director and impresario — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  8. Yekaterina Avgustovna Massini (real name: Vedeniapina; 1838–1912), Russian soprano, début at La Scala in Milan in 1866, sang subsequently in Madrid, Lisbon, and Russia — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  9. The last two sentences of this paragraph (from "At one performance…") were omitted from the republication of this article in the Soviet collected edition of Tchaikovsky's writings— П. И. Чайковский. Полное собрание сочинений, том II (1953), edited by Vasily Yakovlev— but restored here by way of P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (2000), edited by Ernst Kuhn.
  10. Yuliya Yakovlevna Makhina (1850–1902), Russian soprano, sang at the Kiev Opera from 1874 to 1877, subsequently at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow note by Ernst Kuhn.
  11. Nikolay Aleksandrovich Andreyev (full surname: Andreyev-Vergin; 1822–1898), Russian Heldentenor and Lieder singer; made his début in Germany in 1867, sang mainly in Western Europe until 1873; subsequently in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev; he was one of the leading Russian singers of the time — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  12. Fyodor Ignatyevich Stravinsky (1843–1902), famous Russian bass, sang at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg from 1876, father of the composer Igor Stravinsky.
  13. In the Soviet editions of Tchaikovsky's music review articles (1953 and 1986) the title of Halévy's opera was changed for reasons of censorship to The Cardinal's Daughter (Дочь кардинала) — note by Ernst Kuhn.