A Voice from Moscow's Musical World

Mr [[A Voice From Moscow's Musical World (Голос из московского музыкального мира) (TH 258 ; ČW 520) [1] was Tchaikovsky's second music-review article for the Moscow journal Contemporary Chronicle (Современная летопись), in which it was published on 4 May 1869 [O.S.]. It discusses the dismissal of Mily Balakirev as conductor of the Russian Musical Society concerts in Saint Petersburg.


Written by 4/16 May 1869 (date of publication).

English translation

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English translation Copyright © 2008 Brett Langston
Original notes Copyright © 2009 by Luis Sundkvist
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It has happened before that a young person, full of love for the truth, vitality, and with hopes blossoming, enters a field which is considered most suited to his abilities. His gifts are acknowledged, his merits are appreciated, and he begins, as they say, to build a career; but all at once the whim of a superior destroys the position he had earned through perseverance and honest toil, and the maligned victim of this overbearing capriciousness perishes in the abyss of idleness, in the tavern, or in his sickbed.

Something similar did happen recently in the capital city of Saint Petersburg. And in what field? In the peaceful world of art, where, one might suppose, a greater of lesser degree of success must singularly depend on a greater or lesser degree of talent.

Several years ago M. A. Balakirev appeared in Petersburg to search for a position in the musical world equal to his talents. This artist very soon acquired for himself an honourable reputation as a pianist and composer. Full of the purest and most selfless love for his native art, M. A. Balakirev demonstrated himself to be a most energetic worker in the field of strictly Russian music. Citing Glinka as his great model of a truly Russian artist, M. A. Balakirev advanced through his own activity as an artist the idea that the Russian people, with its rich gift for music, should also contribute its mite to the universal treasure-house of art. We will not explore in detail what this splendid musician has done for Russian art – as his merits have long since been appreciated duly by all who love music – but it would not be superfluous to refer to some of them, so that the Saint Petersburg public can be made aware that they are losing such a remarkable artist in this irreplaceable and untiringly active member of the Russian Musical Society.

Leaving to one side Balakirev's significance as an excellent composer, let us mention only the following facts:

M. A. Balakirev gathered and published an excellent collection of Russian folksongs, with which he opened up to us the richest materials for Russian music of the future [2]. He introduced the public to the great works of the recently-deceased Hector Berlioz. He fostered and trained several very talented Russian musicians, out of whom we might name N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov as the most outstanding.

Finally, he gave foreigners the opportunity to find out for themselves that Russian music and Russian composers really do exist, by arranging for Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila to be staged in Prague, one of the most musical cities of western Europe [3]. It was a mark of recognition of such brilliant talent and such helpful service that two years ago the enlightened Directors of the Saint Petersburg Musical Society invited Mr Balakirev to become the concertmaster for the Society's ten yearly concerts. The directors' choice proved to be a resounding success.

The programmes for these concerts were of particular interest because of the space now and then given to Russian compositions, and the outstanding orchestral performances and highly-trained chorus drew numerous members of the public to the Musical Society's events, who enthusiastically showed their sympathy for the untiring Russian concertmaster. Only as long ago as the last concert (on 26 April) it was reported in the press that Mr Balakirev received endless stormy ovations from both the public and the musicians [4].

But how the public was shocked when it soon learned that the aforementioned enlightened directors have, for some reason, found the services of Mr Balakirev to be unhelpful, even harmful, and that to occupy the post of concertmaster they have invited people who are as yet unsullied with a love of our national music that seems to be anathema to our enlighteners [5].

We do not know how the Petersburg public will respond to such an unceremonious treatment, but it would be most regrettable if this man who has been such a credit to the highest of musical establishments were expelled from it without provoking protests on the part of Russian musicians. We would dare to assert that in the present instance our modest voice speaks for the profound concern shared by all Russian musicians as a whole, and in conclusion we should like to remark that M. A. Balakirev is not at all in the position of those insulted and injured persons whom we spoke about at the beginning of our article. For the less this artist finds encouragement in those spheres from which the decree of ostracism came down upon him, the greater the sympathy which the public will feel for him, and the public is certainly a despot whose opinion deserves to be taken into account, because in the struggle with the forces that are hostile to a beloved artist it will always emerge victorious.

Mr Balakirev can now with equal right say what the father of Russian letters said in his time when he was told that he was going to be expelled from the Academy of Sciences:

"Lomonosov can get along without the Academy" said this hard-working genius, "but the Academy can't do without Lomonosov!" [6]
P. Tchaikovsky

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'A Voice from the Moscow Musical World' in ČW.
  2. Balakirev's Collection of Russian Folksongs (Сборник русских народных песень) was first published in Saint Petersburg in 1866.
  3. The Prague staging of Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila, conducted by Balakirev, took place on 16/28 February 1867.
  4. This concert on 26 April/8 May 1869 (which, amongst other works, featured Beethoven's Ninth Symphony) was also Balakirev's last appearance as conductor of the RMS symphony concerts — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  5. The Directors of the Saint Petersburg branch of the Russian Musical Society appointed Eduard Nápravník and the composer Ferdinand Hiller to succeed Balakirev.
  6. Mikhail Lomonosov (1711–1765), the famous Russian polymath, was once threatened with expulsion from the Academy by his patron Shuvalov and said this memorable phrase.