Regarding Mr Rimsky-Korsakov's "Serbian Fantasy"

Regarding Mr Rimsky-Korsakov's "Serbian Fantasy" (По поводу «Сербской фантазии» г. Римского-Корсакова) (TH 257 ; ČW 519) [1] was Tchaikovsky's first music-review article for the Moscow journal Contemporary Chronicle (Современная летопись), in which it was published on 10 March 1868 [O.S.], and includes enthusiastic and far-sighted observations on Rimsky-Korsakov's tremendous promise as a composer.


Completed by 10/22 March 1868 (date of publication). It discusses the premiere of Rimsky-Korsakov's Serbian Fantasy on 16/28 December 1867 at the third Russian Musical Society symphony concert in Moscow, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein, and a performance of the same work at a charity concert on 19 February/3 March 1868.

English translation

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At one of the concerts of the Russian Musical Society, and then once again, on 19 February, at a charity concert organised by the Theatre Directorate to raise funds to help the victims of the famine [2], we heard the Serbian Fantasy by a young Russian composer who is presently attracting the favourable attention of the Saint Petersburg public—Mr Rimsky-Korsakov.

We will not lament the fact that the Moscow public reacted quite indifferently to this charming work by a Russian musician who was presenting himself to our city for the first time. There is no public in the entire civilized world whose judgements, whether they may be expressed through noisy approbation or eloquent silence, could always be regarded as infallible. Although there certainly do exist such cities and countries where, thanks to their historical development and a long-standing critical tradition based on firm aesthetic principles, it is to some degree possible to detect the predominant tastes of the public, and, rightly assuming that the latter has reached a certain level of critical acumen, to expect it to be able to evaluate fairly all kinds of artistic phenomena, we cannot by any stretch of the imagination count Moscow amongst such cities.

It is after all only quite recently that the Russian Musical Society, through which Muscovites have discovered their musical America, was founded [3], and so its beneficial influence on the awakening musical instincts of our richly gifted people has not had that long to take effect as yet. As for the voice of serious criticism, that was heard here for the first time only three months ago on the pages of the Russian Herald, in an article penned by Mr Laroche [4].

However, even if, with the exception of the aforementioned writer, there is no or almost no outlet for rational philosophical musical criticism in the Russian press, we will still find in Petersburg, and Moscow too, plenty of 'inveterate reviewers' who regularly report to the public their personal impressions of this or that concert. There is only one thing we ask of them: that they should not communicate their often very vague impressions to their readers in the guise of categorical judgements requiring no supporting evidence. The reader should be able to see that if the reviewer is mistaken then it is an honest mistake; he might not understand, but he should want to understand.

We may positively acknowledge the critic who writes for the Moscow newspaper Antrakt to be precisely such a reviewer, that is one who may not understand but who always does want to understand. The musical reports printed in the columns of this newspaper reveal their author to be a person who is perhaps not wholly knowledgeable, but who nevertheless approaches his task honestly and with enthusiasm.

It was therefore all the more saddening for me to read the opinion of "Stranger" [5] concerning the Serbian Fantasy by the (in my opinion) highly gifted Mr Rimsky-Korsakov. Here is what we read on page 3 of issue No. 8 of the newspaper Antrakt: "The Serbian Fantasy by Mr Rimsky-Korsakov might as well have been called Hungarian, Polish or double Dutch, for all we know, since it was so colourless, impersonal and lifeless!".

It is distressing to think that these sad, hostile words were the only comment that appeared in the Moscow press about this work by a talented young musician in whom all those with a love for our art foresee such bright prospects. Let us therefore hasten to rectify Mr Unknown's mistake, and on behalf of the whole of Moscow's music world send a word of encouragement to the author of the Serbian Fantasy.

Mr Rimsky-Korsakov first appeared on our musical horizon two years ago, with a symphony which was performed in Saint Petersburg at one of the Free Music School [6] concerts under the baton of Mr Balakirev and elicited the enthusiastic approval of both the public and the local music critics [7].

This symphony, written in the traditional form of German symphonies, was the first youthful experiment by a still technically unskilled prodigy. Its first and last movements failed to shine in their novelty of melodic invention or beauty of polyphonic development, which latter aspect has attained such remarkable perfection in the great German school of music. Lacking, moreover, in integrity of form and sparkling instrumentation these were the weakest parts of this first attempt in the field of symphonic music. In the Adagio and Scherzo, however, a great talent manifested itself. The Adagio, in particular, based on a folksong about the Tartar yoke, is distinguished by an originality of rhythm (seven crotchets to the bar), a delightful instrumentation—which is in no way overly refined and does not strive after external effects—a novelty of form, and above all by the freshness of its purely Russian harmonic patterns, which amazed everyone. It was immediately apparent to all that Mr Rimsky-Korsakov has a remarkable symphonic gift.

After his symphony, Mr Rimsky-Korsakov has also written some songs, an Overture on Russian Folksongs, the Serbian Fantasy, and, most recently of all, a symphonic poem to a programme based on the Russian epic Sadko [8], the origins of which were described in the last number of the European Herald by V. V. Stasov, the well-known archaeologist and biographer of M. I. Glinka. Of all the aforementioned works by Mr Rimsky-Korsakov, I have unfortunately only been able to hear the Serbian Fantasy, that is the work which is the subject of this present note.

I am not sure how justified Mr Rimsky-Korsakov was in styling this fantasy as Serbian. If the motifs on which it is based are indeed Serbian, it would be very interesting to know why these melodies show such manifest signs of oriental influence on Serbia's musical folklore. But let us leave this matter to the Orientalists and Slavists, while we take a glance at the Serbian Fantasy from a purely musical perspective.

It begins with a delightful first theme which forms the basis for the introduction. This theme, pervaded as it is by a certain oriental languor, is very striking in its chromatic twists, and is in turn played by different sections of the orchestra, each time displaying it in a new light by means of varying the harmony and the instrumentation. However, in contrast to the opening, the melodic refrain, whilst being repeated continually, sticks with a certain morbid persistence to one and the same harmony. It is difficult to convey in words the enchanting impression produced by these harmonic contrasts, this playful conflict of different musical factors, which is ultimately resolved in one brief, but deafening chord from the whole orchestra. After a sufficiently long pause to allow one to catch one's breath again, we next hear a passionate and fiery dance theme, first on the stringed instruments alone, and then accompanied by sharp blasts from the trumpets and trombones.

The limited scope of a small newspaper article does not permit me to chart the course of all of Mr Rimsky-Korsakov's charming piece bar by bar. I would just like to observe how the two themes, which are continually relieving one another throughout, finally appear to merge together, and how then, after the most varied modulatory twists, they return to the main theme with impetuous solemnity.

We may confidently assert that our young composer, in the two years which have elapsed between the appearance of his symphony and the performance in Moscow of the Serbian Fantasy, has advanced considerably in all respects. However, this does not mean that Mr Rimsky-Korsakov is already striding along on his path with the firm tread of a fully-fledged talent. His style has yet to take definite shape, and the influence of Glinka and Dargomyzhsky, as well as his emulation of the manner of Mr Balakirev, can be clearly seen at every turn.

Let us not forget that Mr Rimsky-Korsakov is still very young, that his whole future lies before him, and there is no doubt that this remarkably gifted musician is destined to become one of the finest exponents of our art.

P. Tchaikovsky

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Regarding Mr Rimskii-Korsakov's "Serbian Fantasy"' in TH, and 'Apropos of the "Serbian Fantasy" by Mr. Rimskij-Korsakov' in ČW.
  2. In the early months of 1868 a severe famine and typhus epidemic struck the western and north-western provinces of Russia.
  3. The Moscow section of the Russian Musical Society was set up in 1860, its first symphonic concert taking place on 22 November/4 December of that year, under the baton of Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring works by Glinka, Bach, Handel, Wagner, and Beethoven. The Moscow Conservatory first opened its doors on 1/13 September 1866 — note by Vasily Yakovlev.
  4. Tchaikovsky is referring to Herman Laroche's monograph 'Glinka and His Significance in the History of Music' (Глинка и его значение в истории музыки), serialized in the Russian Herald between October 1867 and October 1868, in which Tchaikovsky's friend praised Ruslan and Lyudmila in particular and argued that Glinka was the saviour of European music from its stagnation. See Richard Taruskin, 'Glinka's Ambiguous Legacy and the Birth Pangs of Russian Opera', 19th-Century Music, 1 (1977): 142–162, for further details.
  5. "Stranger" (Незакомец) was the pseudonym of the notable journalist, publisher, and writer Aleksey Suvorin (1834–1912), who wrote music reviews for the Moscow newspaper Antrakt (Антракт) from 1868, and in 1876 became the owner and editor of the Saint Petersburg newspaper New Time (Новое время), which became increasingly conservative over the years. He was a friend of Dostoyevsky and later of Chekhov — note by Ernst Kuhn in his edition of P. Tschaikowsky, P. Tschaikowsky. Musikalische Essays und Erinnerungen (Berlin, 2000).
  6. The Free Music School was set up in Saint Petersburg in March 1862 by Mily Balakirev and the choir-master Gavryl Lomakin as a counterweight to the perceived academicism and foreignness of the Conservatory's syllabus. It offered free music lessons open to anyone, and organised concerts which featured mainly works by the composers of the 'Mighty Handful' — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  7. Rimsky-Korsakov's Symphony No. 1 in E-flat minor was first performed in Saint Petersburg on 19/31 December 1865.
  8. The works in question are the Overture on Three Russian Themes in D major, Op. 28 (1866), and the symphonic poem Sadko, Op. 5 (1867), which would later serve as the basis for Rimsky-Korsakov's famous opera on the same subject — note by Ernst Kuhn.