The Eighth Symphony Concert. The Italian Opera

The Eighth Symphony Concert. The Italian Opera (Восьмое симфоническое собрание · Итальянская опера) [1] (TH 301 ; ČW 566) was Tchaikovsky's thirty-sixth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 28 January 1875 [O.S.].

This article contains a remarkable discussion of Beethoven's Eighth Symphony with its famous metronome-like second movement whose consistently "joyful and festive mood", together with the myriad of "humorous effects" and "curious harmonic details", Tchaikovsky contrasts to the "unearthly, ideal" kind of joy expressed in the great choral finale ('An die Freude') of the Ninth, which only left one sadder when returning to reality; equally noteworthy reflections about the "human sorrow and despair" due to "unrealisable hopes and unattainable ideals" which Beethoven generally conveyed in his music; some comments full of praise on Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots; a glowing review of the young virtuoso Stanisław Barcewicz's performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto; and yet another invective against the Italian Opera Company's hegemony in Moscow, which Tchaikovsky contrasts with the situation in Saint Petersburg.


Completed by 28 January/9 February 1875 (date of publication). Concerning the Russian Musical Society's eighth symphony concert in Moscow on 25 January/6 February 1875, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein and featuring Joachim Raff's overture Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott, Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93, an aria from Étienne-Nicolas Mehul's opera Joseph, Glinka's song 'Was it Not Long Ago That You Blossomed Like a Rose?' (Давно ли роскошно ты розои цвела?), and Dargomyzhsky's song The Wedding (Свадьба), all of which were sung by the tenor Anton Nikolayev, and Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (soloist Stanisław Barcewicz); and the premiere of Anton Rubinstein's The Demon on 13/25 January 1875 at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, conducted by Eduard Nápravník and featuring the baritone Ivan Melnikov in the title role, with dance numbers choreographed by Marius Petipa.

English translation

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The Eighth Symphony Concert

Beethoven's Eighth Symphony differs from the symphonies that precede it and the one that follows it, the famous choral Ninth Symphony, in the extraordinary compactness of its forms and its joyful, festive mood, which is maintained throughout. It is the last unclouded smile, the last reply given by the singer of human sorrows and sombre, hopeless despair to the exhortation to take part in the joys of life.

It is true that in the Ninth Symphony Beethoven also ends his colossal creation with a hymn to joy, in which we find a depiction as it were of the infinite and universal rejoicing of everything that is alive, and which has come together in brotherly union in order to sing unanimously an enthusiastic dithyramb to Nature and its Creator. But in this joy there is something unearthly, something ideal and impossible, which does not offer a reconciliation with life, but rather carries man away just for a few moments into those radiant spheres which make up the exclusive realm of art and beauty, and from which the earthly vale of tears, with its eternal suffering, pangs of doubt, and unrealizable hopes, appears even more dismal and hopeless. In the Ninth Symphony we hear the cry of hopeless despair of a great creative genius who has irrevocably lost his faith in happiness, and who is departing from life into a realm of unfulfilled dreams and unattainable ideals.

The Eighth Symphony, on the contrary, is suffused by a joyful mood of contentment and wholehearted happiness. It depicts the peaceful and quiet pleasures of the human soul which is not yet prey to the spirit of embitterment, doubt, and despair. Both themes in the first movement are full of grace and elegance, and they are developed in a compact and simple manner, accompanied by a transparent and light harmony. The second theme is extraordinarily original thanks to the unexpected modulational turns and a capricious modulation of keys.

The second movement (Andante scherzando) belongs, together with the renowned Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony [2], to those passages in Beethoven's music most beloved by the public. Its originality consists above all in the fact that Beethoven, contrary to the usual manner of instrumentation, has entrusted the wind instruments here with the accompaniment, whilst the violins play a jestingly flirtatious, good-humoured melody and the double basses ponderously answer the latter with a similarly constructed phrase. The third movement, a minuet in terms of form and rhythm, resembles, both in its style and the unassuming simplicity of its main theme, the minuets of Haydn. In the Finale, one of the greatest symphonic masterpieces of Beethoven, there is a profusion of humour, unexpected episodes, striking harmonic and modulational contrasts—indeed, a whole mine of the most novel orchestral effects which only a genius could possibly devise. For example, there is the striking C-sharp blast by the whole orchestra which, after a long diminuendo based on various instruments calling out to one another in all possible registers a fragment of the first theme, suddenly irrupts, in the most unexpected fashion, into the remote key of C major. Likewise, there is the very humorous effect, twice repeated, of a combination of bassoons and timpani seesawing together on two broken F's in neighbouring octaves. In this Finale there is an endless multitude of curious details of this sort!

The overture by Raff [3] with which the Russian Musical Society's eighth symphony concert opened is based on exactly the same theme of the Lutheran chorale which Meyerbeer made such effective use of in Les Huguenots [4]. Luther's beautiful tune has been so splendidly elaborated in that opera, that it must have taken a great deal of courage and mastery to use this tune as a principal theme and illustrate it by means of polyphonic and orchestral development without falling into the trap of imitating such a master as Meyerbeer.

Raff was able to cope successfully with this challenge. Apart from the chorale theme, his overture also makes use of two themes of his own invention, of which the second is not without freshness and originality. At the end he also availed himself of a little German folk-song, which is quite banal in its melodic contours but has a certain warlike ardour, and, thanks to a brilliant instrumentation and splendid harmonisation, it serves as a most effective conclusion to the overture. Raff's creative gift is by no means of the first rank, but he is endowed with expertise and technical skill, which can to some extent substitute for talent and inventiveness in his case. His works are smooth, coherent, adeptly structured in terms of form, and splendidly instrumented, as a result of which one listens to them, if not with a shudder of enthusiasm, then most certainly with great pleasure.

At this concert we were also treated to some vocal numbers which were performed for us by Mr Nikolayev [5], an old acquaintance of the Muscovite public, for it was here in Moscow that he began his career as a singer. He sang with great taste and undeniable talent an aria from Méhuls Joseph [6], as well as two songs by Glinka and Dargomyzhsky. Mr Nikolayev's voice is not particularly big, but its timbre is uncommonly pleasant and soft like velvet. His diction is excellent, and he is able to phrase with elegance and sensitivity.

He is one of those rare tenors in our times who do not feel the need to scream and blurt out high notes. That is, you won't find him squeezing such notes out of himself whilst his eyes bulge out of their sockets, his cheeks are all puffed up, and his lips are contorted in the most monstrous fashion [7]. No, he belongs precisely to those singers who really do sing without any conspicuous effort and without overdoing it. It is a relief to see, or, rather, to hear that this singer, like Mr Dodonov (who recently caused such a profound impression with his interpretation of the role of Fernando in Donizetti's La Favorita at the benefit performance for Madame Kadmina [8] ), is working steadfastly on the development of his vocal gifts as much as he can, in spite of all the highly unfavourable circumstances which a talented singer has to struggle against over here, and which are so often apt to kill any aspirations to self-perfection that such a singer might have.

The hero of the evening was Mr Barcewicz [9], a young man aged just 17, who played for us Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto with the aplomb, confidence, fire, and strength of a seasoned virtuoso. If at any point during his performance we were reminded of this talented virtuoso's incredibly young age, that was only in the Andante, where Mr Barcewicz did not show sufficient breadth of tone, majestic calm, and self-command. The first movement and the Finale, on the other hand, he performed not merely faultlessly, but with real brilliancy, precision, and heartfelt inspiration. The audience welcomed this young virtuoso with great warmth, for he really does show tremendous promise and deserves every possible encouragement.

The Italian Opera

I would be very happy to tell my readers something about the Italian Opera, but the thing is that, although I am in possession of a season-ticket for the current season, it is now some two months since I last visited this magnificent temple of art, where five or even six nights a week [10], in front of a more-or-less fashionable gathering of Muscovite society, the impresario of the Italian Opera performs the rites of a public cult of Mammon. Now it is all right for all these elegant ladies in silk dresses and spruce gentlemen in coat-tails to attend, with all their dignity intact, these ceremonial offerings to the golden calf, which are devoid of any musical interest whatsoever.

But as a humble musician, my place is not amongst such refined society! Indeed, I prefer to devote my leisure hours to visiting Saint Petersburg every now and then—a city where a musician can breathe freer, where an admittedly less aristocratic, but on the other hand much more demanding public, quite unfazed by the greenhouse-like sprouting of the Italian Opera there, flocks to the Mariinsky Theatre [11], which may perhaps not be able to boast a Madame Patti but where you can always count on hearing good music.

So, whilst the bill-boards here in Moscow flaunt such delightful gems as Il Trovatore, La Traviata [12], Crispino e la Comare [13], Ernani, and so on, theatre-goers in Saint Petersburg can enjoy magnificent productions of A Life for the Tsar, Judith, Lohengrin, Ruslan and Lyudmila, Rusalka, Tannhäuser, and The Demon. The latter opera was staged for the first time just two weeks ago, as a benefit performance for Mr Melnikov [14]. I was able to attend this performance, and I cannot convey in words the feeling of elation and reconciliation with life which a downtrodden, insulted and injured musician from Moscow, who has to suffer his artistic pride to be humiliated at every step, cannot fail to experience at the sight of the warm and active interest which the Saint Petersburg public takes in the advancement of the cause of music in Russia…

When after such a trip you return to the impenetrable backwater otherwise known as Moscow, when you accidentally glance up at a bill-board and see advertisements for those very Trovatores and Traviatas again, when you pause to think that those same elegant ladies and spick and span cavaliers will continue, in all their dignity, to act as accomplices who do not just passively connive in, but also participate actively in the musical outrage which is systematically encouraged on our city's opera stage by both the theatre management and the public, then you cannot help cursing the unlucky star which brought you to the banks of the Presnia, or to Pyiushchikha or Yakimanka Street [15].

P. Tchaikovsky.

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Eighth Symphony Concert. The Italian Opera' in TH, and 'The Eighth Symphonic Assembly—The Italian Opera' in ČW.
  2. See TH 296 for a remarkable discussion of the famous slow movement in Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.
  3. Joachim Raff (1822–1882), Swiss composer, teacher and pianist. The work in question is the overture Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott [A Mighty Fortress is Our God], which Raff completed in 1865 and dedicated to Hans von Bülownote by Ernst Kuhn.
  4. See TH 273 and TH 308 for further valuable observations on Les Huguenots, an opera which Tchaikovsky admired greatly.
  5. Anton Nikolayevich Nikolayev (1836–1904), Russian tenor and composer of popular romances; made his début in Moscow in 1866, subsequently engaged at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg; in 1874 he also sang in Londonnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  6. Étienne-Nicolas Méhul (1763–1817), eminent French composer. The opera Joseph (1807) is his most well-known work — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  7. An allusion to the Italian tenor Angelo Masini (1844–1926), whose vocal showmanship and abysmal acting Tchaikovsky detested — translator's note.
  8. See TH 280 for more information on the mezzo-soprano and actress Yevlaliya Kadmina (1853–1881), whose talent Tchaikovsky rated very highly.
  9. Stanisław Barcewicz (1858–1929), famous Polish violinist and conductor. Barcewicz studied under Ferdinand Laub and also attended Tchaikovsky's composition class in 1875–76. From 1885 he was a professor (and director from 1910 to 1919) of the Warsaw Academy of Music; from 1893 he was also director of the Warsaw Opera-House (Teatr wielki) where he had previously been the orchestra's concertmaster — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  10. According to the contract signed by the Imperial Theatres' Directorate with the management of the Italian Opera Company in Moscow, the latter could mount performances at the Bolshoi Theatre for a minimum of three (later four) nights a week, the other nights being usually free for performances by the ballet troupe or the Russian Opera Company. However, by means of a special clause which allowed it to fit in extra benefit performances and concerts, the Italian management could frequently book the theatre for all six nights in a week (there were no performances on Saturdays). See also TH 294 and TH 300 for Tchaikovsky's attacks on this system — translator's note.
  11. The Italian Opera Company in Saint Petersburg was then based at the Bolshoi Kamenny [Grand Stone] Theatre rather than at the Mariinsky Theatre, whose auditorium was smaller and had worse acoustics. Thus, the city's Russian Opera Company effectively had the Mariinsky Theatre all to itself (although it did share it with a dramatic troupe), and performances of Russian operas there, conducted by the talented Eduard Nápravník (principal conductor from 1869 to 1913), were generally of a much higher standard than in Moscow. In 1886, however, the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre was declared structurally unsafe and demolished (the Saint Petersburg Conservatory eventually relocated to this site, and it has stood there ever since). The Mariinsky was then designated the city's principal venue for the Imperial Ballet and Opera, which meant that the Russian Opera Company there now did have to face greater competition from visiting foreign companies — translator's note.
  12. See note 6 in TH 291, where it is explained that Tchaikovsky's attitude to these two popular operas by Verdi was more complex than his frequently ironic remarks about them might suggest — translator's note.
  13. Crispino e la Comare ossia il medico e la morte [Crispino and the Fairy, or The Doctor and Death], opera in three acts by Luigi and Federico Ricci based on a libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, premiered in Venice in 1850 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  14. Ivan Aleksandrovich Melnikov (1832–1906), notable Russian baritone, sang in many of the premieres of Tchaikovsky's operas and was also an impressive first performer of the title roles in Boris Godunov and Prince Igor. Tchaikovsky dedicated I Never Spoke to Her—No. 5 of Six Romances, Op. 25—to Melnikovnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  15. The Presnia is a small river in the centre of Moscow. Pyiushchikha and Yakimanka are the names of two ancient streets in the city — note by Ernst Kuhn.