Josef Sittard

Tchaikovsky Research
Josef Sittard (1846-1903)

German musicologist, organist, teacher and music critic (b. 4 June 1846 [N.S.] at Vital, near Aachen; d. 24 November 1903 [N.S.] in Hamburg), born Joseph Heinrich Sittard.

After graduating from the Stuttgart Conservatory, Sittard taught singing and piano there from 1872 to 1885. In 1885, he took up the job of music critic of the Hamburgischer Correspondent, the daily newspaper in Hamburg with the most reputable feuilleton section, and he would devote a lot of space in his articles to Tchaikovsky's visits to the city and to his works.

Tchaikovsky and Sittard

Sittard first met Tchaikovsky during his visit to Hamburg in January 1888, when in the second half of a Philharmonic Society concert on 8/20 January the Russian composer conducted his Serenade for String Orchestra, the Piano Concerto No. 1 (soloist Vasily Sapelnikov), and the Theme and Variations from the Suite No. 3. In the first half of the concert, the Philharmonic Society's principal conductor Julius von Bernuth had conducted Haydn's "Oxford" Symphony, and the following day a review appeared in the Hamburgischer Correspondent, in which Sittard pronounced Haydn to be the "victor" in this "contest" with Tchaikovsky, who like all modern Russian composers, in his view, was incapable of reaching the same "free spiritual heights" and "universality" as German music. Sittard pointed out how it was impossible to deny Tchaikovsky's "originality" and "temperament", but lamented the way that when "the spirit of his people" came over him, the result was a "Witches' Sabbath of sounds which takes away our sight and hearing". "Flashes of genius alternate with musical banalities", Sittard continued, "delicate and ingenious features with ungainly effects [...] Tchaikovsky is a highly gifted, finely developed, and interesting artist; he is an artist who is capable of stimulating us by his ideas; however, we cannot call him a creative force in the high significance of the word". Going on to discuss separately the works performed at the concert, Sittard praised the beauty of the Serenade for String Orchestra, whilst noting how it was an "eclectic" blend of German, French, and Russian influences. The Piano Concerto No. 1, however, he found to violate in places "all the rules of measure, order and euphony", even if it contained "various beautiful and outstanding moments". Both in the concerto and in the "highly interesting, ingeniously elaborated and characteristic" Variations from the Suite No. 3 it struck Sittard as if the composer was "sometimes operating with musical dynamite". Nevertheless, at the end of his review Sittard praised Tchaikovsky as a "conductor of genius" who had inspired and steered the orchestra successfully through these difficult works, as well as Sapelnikov for his "brilliant" playing of the concerto [1].

It might seem surprising that after reading this review, which betrays a clear anti-Russian prejudice (even with militaristic overtones at times) that shows how even an educated man like Sittard could not quite detach himself from the atmosphere of Wilhelmine Germany, Tchaikovsky nevertheless noted in his diary while still in Hamburg: "Sittard's article. Am very happy" [2]. However, as Peter Feddersen has observed, Tchaikovsky had realistic expectations about the reception which his music might receive in Germany, and for him it was satisfying enough to see a leading critic like Sittard discuss his works in such detail and in an essentially sympathetic way, all reservations notwithstanding. In the account which he drew up of his tour in April 1888, Tchaikovsky would recall:

I was treated with exactly the same noble frankness and courtesy by the leading music critic in Hamburg, Herr Sittard. He attended my two rehearsals, thoroughly studied the scores of the works that were being performed, and wrote a long, detailed review in which he sharply censured the direction I was heading in, as well as my symphonic style, which he pronounced to be coarse, far too patchy, wild, and redolent of nihilism [3]. Herr Sittard frankly repeated these very same criticisms to me in person, but at the same time both in his article and in the words he spoke to me there was such genuine sympathy and he showed such friendly interest in my work, that I have preserved a very agreeable recollection of my brief acquaintance with him [4].

On 10/22 January 1888, the last day of his stay in Hamburg on that occasion, Tchaikovsky had apparently arranged to go with Sittard to see a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin at the opera-house, but he changed his plans at the last minute (see Letter 3465a). This did not prevent Sittard from paying a visit to Tchaikovsky at his hotel just before his departure, as the latter noted in his diary: "A still more unexpected visit of Sittard (I bluffed him — did not go to the theater)" [5].

Sittard also spent a lot of time with Tchaikovsky during the composer's next visit to Hamburg (26 February/10 March–4/16 March 1889). Thus, on 1/13 March he accompanied him to the benefit concert given by Julius Laube and his orchestra at the Wintergarten, the programme of which featured, among works by Liszt, Berlioz, Wagner, and Bizet, two movements from the Serenade for String Orchestra. Sittard's review of that concert appeared already the following day, and in it he noted how the two pieces by Tchaikovsky had been received with great applause, and how Tchaikovsky himself, "an artist who is as amiable as he is modest", was given "the most lively ovations" [6]. Most importantly, Sittard attended all of Tchaikovsky's rehearsals for the Philharmonic Society concert on 3/15 March 1889, at which the composer conducted the first performance in Germany of his Symphony No. 5 (after Prague, this was only the symphony's second performance outside Russia), and although Sittard did not attend the concert itself, choosing instead to go to the opera-house to hear the Austrian soprano Pauline Lucca in Bizet's Carmen, he was able to publish a detailed review of the symphony in the Hamburgischer Correspondent the day after the concert. This article was much more positive than his review of the previous year's concert and much less tinged by anti-Russian prejudice. Sittard began by describing Tchaikovsky as "the most gifted and outstanding Russian composer of modern times" and emphasized that what made his works so attractive the more one acquainted oneself with them, was the "intensive emotional life" which they expressed. He continued:

Even if the invention is not always original, even if the composer sometimes (as, for example, in the development section of the Andante cantabile) comes close to the style of lyrical opera, all four movements nonetheless contain so much that is beautiful, interesting, and distinctive, that we may certainly call the E minor symphony one of the most significant symphonic works of modern times. This applies also to the thematic development, as well as to the brilliant, albeit often too dense, instrumentation. Some of the motifs as such may perhaps not be able to lay claim to outstanding musical interest, yet Tchaikovsky knows how to shape them meaningfully and to lead them to a culmination which is as powerful as it is effective. No less deserving of praise is his sense for formal beauty, for the harmonic symmetry in which the individual sections of the movements are related to one another [7].

At the end of his review Sittard noted how Tchaikovsky had once again shown himself to be "an excellent conductor", and how both the musicians and the audience had burst into enthusiastic applause after the final movement. Tchaikovsky was so delighted by Sittard's discussion of his new symphony that he thanked him in writing (see Letter 3820a).

Sittard's extensive review of the Hamburg premiere of Yevgeny Onegin on 7/19 January 1892, conducted by Gustav Mahler (again, after Prague, it was only the second time that this work had been performed outside Russia), was rather less positive, although the brunt of Sittard's criticism was levelled at the plot of the opera which he found to be deficient in "dramatic vitality". Tatyana, with her "hysterical" outburst of "morbid passion" in the Letter Scene, and the "spiritually spineless" Onegin could awaken but little empathy in the audience: "We Germans do not understand such people, but still less understanding do we have for a so-called plot which strictly speaking isn't one at all". For the music, however, Sittard found great praise, though not so much for the vocal parts as for the orchestra, which, as he put it, made up the opera's "centre of gravity". He singled out the duet of Tatyana and Olga and the peasants' dance song in Act I, the finale of the ball scene in Act II, and the final scene between Tatyana and Onegin, "the opera's most significant scene". On the other hand, he dismissed Triquet's couplets as "superfluous" and deplored the abundance of dance tunes and scenes: "Such stop-gaps can hardly be reconciled with the notions which we Germans have of the character of opera since Gluck and Mozart". Sittard concluded his review by observing that "although Onegin is not an opera in the dramatic sense, still it does contain so many specifically musical beauties and delicacies that we considered the hissing which was heard after some scenes to be all the more inappropriate with regard to an artist who, like Mr Tchaikovsky, occupies such a prominent position among contemporary instrumental composers; but apart from that, people, even if only out of courtesy for the composer who was present, ought to have abstained from such demonstrations, which in this case were quite unjustified" [8].

In his review of the Hamburg premiere of Iolanta on 22 December 1892/3 January 1893, again conducted by Mahler (this time it was the opera's very first performance outside Russia), Sittard repeated his view that Tchaikovsky was "above all an instrumental composer", and that he lacked a dramatic vein and was unable to endow the vocal parts of his characters with sufficient individuality. "In spite of these defects", Sittard concluded, "this work has, from the purely musical aspect, left us with an attractive impression, which can be accounted for principally by the wonderful use of the orchestra" [9].

Sittard's obituary of Tchaikovsky appeared in the 7 November 1893 [N.S.] evening issue of the Hamburgischer Correspondent, that is just one day after the composer's death. Some of the judgements on Tchaikovsky's oeuvre in this obituary are questionable and in some places again marred by anti-Russian prejudice: "With Tchaikovsky we have lost one of the most productive and amiable composers of modern times. [...] His productivity was inexhaustible, even if the musical content of his works was often dubious. He had the technique of composition at his disposal in virtuosic fashion, and in those cases when the unruly Slavic spirit didn't come over him, Tchaikovsky could sing with touching beauty and win people's hearts. However, the impetuous character of his nation sometimes gained the upper hand to such an extent that musical beauty had to cover her head entirely. And yet he has left behind many a work which will outlive his name for a long time to come. [...] He was a musician with heart and soul, and it was the great German masters whom he revered most of all. At the same time, though, he felt himself drawn towards the French school, especially in the field of opera. This, together with his predilection for using Russian folksongs as the basis of his instrumental works, resulted in a blending of styles which puts upon many of his compositions the stamp of carelessness".

Of greater value are those passages in Sittard's obituary in which he dwelt on Tchaikovsky's personal qualities and looked back to his conversations with him in Hamburg:

I have rarely met an artist of such kindness of heart, personal selflessness, and genuine, unfeigned modesty. How attractively he could chat about art and artists, and even if the conversation sometimes turned on artists and artistic tendencies which he found disagreeable, his judgements were never harsh or unjust. Only once did I see him become angry. A young conductor who had attained quick renown and who swore only by the trinity of Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner, had permitted himself to make an unjustifiable observation about Schumann's artistic oeuvre. Tchaikovsky got up agitatedly and told the young hothead: 'As a Russian I am ashamed to see a German musician daring to insult the memory of one of Germany's greatest composers'. Thereupon he left the room. As impassioned as his words became when talking about the classical masters and about Schumann, so he was restrained with regard to Wagner and Brahms. In Wagner, for all his appreciation of his towering talent, he saw the downfall of pure musical taste, and in Brahms, the 'mathematician of sounds', as he once described him to me, he approved only of his outstanding ability for thematic development. 'He has no inspiration, no feeling', he cried when I tried to take the part of Brahms.

[...] There was an inexplicable contradiction between his character and many of his compositions. Tchaikovsky's was a soft, dreamy nature which recoiled from every sharp encounter with reality; and yet how often do we find storms raging in his compositions, how he sometimes rushes up hill and down dale with a frenetic impetuosity, ventre à terre as it were, such that we can no longer keep up with him. In view of his natural disposition, this often struck me as a mystery — no less so the fact that he, who had such sound aesthetic views, so often flouted all the rules of musical beauty. It was clearly the wild, unbridled spirit of his people which suddenly came over him in such moments and carried him away against his own will.

Now, in the night from Sunday to Monday, the destroying angel of cholera has taken away from us the 53-year-old composer in the prime of manhood. How many plans still stirred his spirit, how much more he intended to create and carry out! We shall always retain a friendly memory of this honest artist and dear and noble person [10].

Correspondence with Tchaikovsky

2 letters from Tchaikovsky to Josef Sittard have survived, dating from 1888 and 1889, both of which have been translated into English on this website:


External Links

Notes and References

  1. Sittard's review in the 21 January 1888 [N.S.] issue of the Hamburgischer Correspondent has been reprinted in Tschaikowsky aus der Nähe. Kritische Würdigungen und Erinnerungen von Zeitgenossen (1994), p. 191-195, and, in its original version, in Tschaikowsky in Hamburg. Eine Dokumentation (2006), p. 46-50.
  2. Diary entry for 9/21 January 1888. Here quoted from The Diaries of Tchaikovsky (1973), p. 225.
  3. Tchaikovsky probably had in mind that phrase in Sittard's article about how he was "operating with musical dynamite" in the Piano Concerto No. 1 and the Variations from the Suite No. 3. In Russia, the young revolutionaries who over the last decade had been resorting increasingly to terrorist acts (notably the assassination of Alexander II in 1881) were generally branded as "nihilists" — a word which had been given wide currency by Ivan Turgenev's novel Fathers and Children (1862) and its rebellious hero, Bazarov.
  4. Autobiographical Account of a Tour Abroad in the Year 1888, Chapter XI.
  5. Diary entry for 10/22 January 1888. Here quoted from The Diaries of Tchaikovsky (1973), p. 225.
  6. The relevant passages from Sittard's review in the 14 March 1889 [N.S.] issue of the Hamburgischer Correspondent are reprinted in Tschaikowsky in Hamburg. Eine Dokumentation (2006), p. 80-81.
  7. Sittard's review in the 16 March 1889 issue of the Hamburgischer Correspondent is reprinted in Tschaikowsky in Hamburg. Eine Dokumentation (2006), p. 91-93.
  8. Sittard's review in the 20 January 1892 issue of the Hamburgischer Correspondent is reprinted in Tschaikowsky in Hamburg. Eine Dokumentation (2006), p. 115-119.
  9. Sittard's review in the 4 January 1893 issue of the Hamburgischer Correspondent is reprinted in Tschaikowsky in Hamburg. Eine Dokumentation (2006), p. 131-134.
  10. Sittard's obituary of Tchaikovsky in the 7 November 1893 [N.S.] issue of the Hamburgischer Correspondent is reprinted in Tschaikowsky in Hamburg. Eine Dokumentation (2006), p. 149-151.