The First Quartet Series. The Italian Opera

The First Quartet Series. The Italian Opera (Первая квартетная серия. Итальянская опера) [1] (TH 309 ; ČW 575) was Tchaikovsky's forty-fourth music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 29 October 1875 [O.S.].

This article contains a tribute to chamber music as "the richest musical genre" and an exhortation to the public in Moscow to give the Russian Musical Society's series of chamber music matinées a chance rather than just disdaining such music for being too "serious"; an appraisal of the "outstanding talent" of Robert Volkmann, a composer who is almost forgotten nowadays, but whom Tchaikovsky placed above Brahms; yet another enthusiastic review of a performance by Sergey Taneyev whose great promise as a composer Tchaikovsky also mentions here; a spirited defence of Adelina Patti, "the most perfect of artists", against her detractors; an interesting comparison of Gounod's Faust and Roméo et Juliette, with preference clearly being given to the earlier opera; and warm praise for Enrico Bevignani's work as a conductor (even though he was serving the Italian Opera Company!)


Completed by 29 October/10 November 1875 (date of publication). Tchaikovsky reviewed the following events:

  • Three chamber music concerts organized by the Russian Musical Society in Moscow on 12/24 October, 19/31 October, and 26 October/7 November 1875, which featured the "Moscow Quartet" (Jan Hřímalý and Adolph Brodsky, violins; Yuly Gerber, viola; Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, cello) playing Beethoven's String Quartets No. 6 in B-flat major, Op. 18/6 and No. 10 in E-flat major, Op. 74 ("Harp Quartet"), Haydn's String Quartet in C major, Op. 33/3 ("The Bird"), Mozart's String Quartet No. 19 in C major, K.V. 465 ("Dissonance"), Schumann's String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Op. 41/1, and Joachim Raff's String Quartet No. 1 in D minor, Op. 77, as well as Fitzenhagen and one of the two violinists being joined by Nikolay Rubinstein at the piano for Anton Rubinstein's Piano Trio No. 4 in A major, Op. 85 and Robert Volkmann's Piano Trio No. 2 in B-flat minor, Op. 5, and by Sergey Taneyev for a performance of Beethoven's Piano Trio No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 97 ("Archduke Trio");
  • The Italian Opera Company's productions of Verdi's La Traviata and Gounod's Roméo et Juliette at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre on 11/23 October and 18/30 October 1875 respectively, starring Adelina Patti in each case, as well as a forthcoming benefit concert for Enrico Bevignaniat the same theatre on 9/21 November 1875.

English translation

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The First Quartet Series

The first series of chamber music concerts organized by the Russian Musical Society has now come to an end. Since concerts of this kind are devoted to the most refined genre in music—the one which is richest in great works of art and has been most cultivated by composers of genius—the audience which gathered for these concerts was, as was to be expected, very small. Chamber music is finding it very difficult to catch on here in Moscow. Being intended, as its very name implies, for the household use of highly proficient amateur and professional musicians, chamber music will of course never be able to attract such large crowds as a symphony concert or an opera performance, in which, apart from the music, other factors contribute to the overall aesthetic pleasure.

Chamber music here, as everywhere else, is performed mainly in smaller venues. And yet one might still have supposed that such a populous city as Moscow would be able to provide a cohort of listeners sufficiently large so as to fill the Small Hall of the Assembly of the Nobility during the chamber music concert series. However, in spite of the wonderful performances given by Messrs Hřímalý, Brodsky, Gerber [2], and Fitzenhagen in such magnificent works as those included in the prograMadame for the last series—in spite even of N. G. Rubinstein's participation in two of these concerts, as well as the appearance in one of them of such an appealing and interesting young artist as Mr Taneyev—our public continues as before to be afraid of so-called serious music, just as it is also afraid of serious books, for example (by which I mean all books that don't happen to be novels, short stories, romances etc).

In recording this lamentable fact I cannot refrain from telling all those who would like to banish the 'serious element' from music that, in order to dispel this quite unfounded prejudice of theirs, all they have to do is put themselves to the test by visiting at least one chamber music concert. I can guarantee those of them who have an aptitude for aesthetic appreciation that in listening to the chamber music works by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Schumann, they will experience such profound and new delights as they had never even dreamt possible until then.

No matter how lamentable the circumstances of music life in Moscow are, no matter how deficient the latter may be in significant events, and however low the level of musical culture and understanding still is here, there is nevertheless one fact which is apt to reconcile the musician living in Moscow with the anti-musical milieu that surrounds him. That fact is the lasting and brilliant flourishing of the Russian Musical Society's symphony concerts. Our public attends them with a fervour that shows no signs of cooling down. Thanks to them it has become acquainted with good orchestral music, and this music has now become an essential need of the most civilized sections of our society. This is a highly encouraging fact. However, it would still be much better if such sympathy were also shown for the chamber music repertoire.

The prograMadame for the last chamber music concert series comprised two string quartets by Beethoven, one respectively by Haydn, Mozart, Schumann, and the contemporary composer Raff [3], as well as three piano trios by Beethoven, A. Rubinstein, and Volkmann respectively. It would be inappropriate to go into a detailed analysis of these works, since for the majority of readers this would be like being faced with a page of Greek or some even more cryptic language, and I also consider it superfluous to preach to the small minority of professional musicians and amateur connoisseurs, all of whom regularly attend the chamber music concerts anyway, about the beauties which are so liberally strewn in these works. So I shall just dwell on the three splendid works by our contemporary composers Rubinstein, Raff, and Volkmann [4].

Rubinstein's piano trio is distinguished by gusty impetuosity, by the brilliancy and power of its ideas, and by the sincere passion which is generally characteristic of this composer's best works. It is well known that Mr Rubinstein, who keeps astonishing the musical world with his fabulous productivity, stands out more for the richness of his melodic invention and the overall beauty of harmony and form in his works than for subtlety in the polishing of details. All these qualities are reflected in the wonderful piano trio in question. The Scherzo is particularly effective: it is quick, lively, and full of charming rhythmic combinations, unexpected harmonic turns, and poignant ensemble effects from the three instruments. The piano part was played with extraordinary mastery by N. G. Rubinstein.

Raff's string quartet is exactly the opposite to Rubinstein's trio. Although he is no less prolific than the latter, Raff is by far the poorer in terms of ideas and imagination, even if he does considerably surpass his rival in the field of contemporary instrumental music with regard to the wholeness and perfection of his music's facture. In the quartet I am referring to here there is nothing outstanding, nothing that truly grips one, but on the other hand it does contain a lot of musical prettiness that can be accounted for by the wonderful technique, skilful calculation in the treatment of form and harmony, and especially by that know-how which the author has acquired in the course of many years of practice as a composer.

Of the three works by the composers who are our contemporaries, I would give the prize for excellence to the uncommonly talented and enchantingly beautiful trio by Volkmann. Now this composer is by no means a musical luminary on a par with Rubinstein or Raff, although I must say I am not sufficiently acquainted with the circumstances of his life, which he is peacefully whiling away in Pest [5], to be in a position to explain to readers why Volkmann, who now very much belongs to the older generation, has always remained somewhat in the background in spite of his tremendous gifts, and why he was unable to find that broad arena for his work as a composer in which his talent might have been fully unfolded. All I know is that Volkmann writes relatively little, and that amongst the leading lights of German music he has been accorded a much lower rank than that which he would certainly be entitled to by virtue of his talent.

The piano trio in question does not show the usual formal division into four movements (Allegro, Andante, Scherzo, and Finale) and belongs rather to those compositions which are generally referred to as "free fantasias". In terms of its mood it is extremely sombre, and it even has a Romantic tinge of that limitless, irreconcilable inner strife of the spirit which pervades Beethoven's last string quartets. It is only in the middle section that a wonderful episode in D-flat major appears in which a sense of joyful contentment with life prevails over the sullen outbursts of a disillusioned soul. Then comes a stormy and boisterous Allegro, and, after a few attempts to return to more joyful feelings which seem to be obstructed each time, the music is resolved into an Adagio full of that hopeless despair with which the fantasia had opened. This work, especially in such an inspired interpretation as that given by Mr Rubinstein, produces an indescribably profound impression.

At the second matinée music-lovers had another chance to hear Mr Taneyev, with whom they are familiar as a magnificent concert pianist, but who until then had not yet appeared in the more intimate setting of a chamber music concert. Mr Taneyev played the piano part of the famous B-flat major trio by Beethoven with an extraordinary self-possession and a subtle understanding of the meaning and spirit of the work which are so rarely to be found in such a young artist. There is no doubt that Mr Taneyev has a brilliant virtuoso career ahead of him. It would also be very interesting now for the public to get to know him as a composer, too, because his talent in this respect, as I can vouch for personally, deserves very much the same encouragement which he has been receiving at every appearance of his on the concert podium.

The Italian Opera

At the Italian Opera it is Madame Patti who is now reigning supreme. I have already spoken so many times about the astonishing qualities of this most perfect of all singers that I see no need to dwell on this again. She appeared in La Traviata and a few days later in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. The latter opera, which, if I am not mistaken, I have already spoken about once at some length [6], is very nice, and from the first to the last note it is suffused by that elegance, softness, and feminine gracefulness in the melodic turns that are characteristic of Gounod's engaging talent. However, everything that somehow or other stands out in this opera has been relentlessly stolen by its author from a person who is very close to him—from the composer of Faust in fact! Even if such a brazen encroachment on the inalienable property of the composer of Faust by the composer of Roméo et Juliette does not yet constitute a crime, there is still no reason to praise such an action. I emphasize again: both authors are very talented, elegant, and skilful, but the first is infinitely more inventive than the second [7].

The best part in this opera is the scene in Friar Laurence's cell. The figure of the monk is depicted in masterly fashion, and the trio which he sings together with Roméo and Juliette while he blesses their marriage is ardent, beautiful, and thrilling. The overall ensemble performance went smoothly. Madame Patti shone in all her splendour in Act I, especially during the Waltz, but in the other acts she was not sufficiently tragic, fiery, and passionate. It always infuriates me when someone says in my presence that Madame Patti is utterly unfeeling, but I cannot help agreeing with those who assert that her forte lies in the so-called light genre. Later on this week Madame Patti will also appear in Il barbiere di Siviglia, and I myself can't wait to see and hear her in the role of Rosina. That is where her unattainably high talent can manifest itself in all its splendour…

Next Sunday there will be a benefit concert by members of the Italian Opera on behalf of Signor Bevignani. Whilst I am an inveterate (albeit quite powerless) enemy of the Italian Opera as an enterprise which seeks with all its might to smother the art of Russian opera, I nevertheless cannot but do justice to those amongst the artists serving this wretched enterprise who are endowed with real artistic merits. Amongst these it is above all Signor Bevignani who deserves to be singled out. He is a very good, talented, diligent, and knowledgeable opera conductor, and I sincerely wish that his concert—in which Madame Patti will also actively participate—manages to attract a large audience and secures for this venerable artists both laurels and something that is even worth more than laurels!

P. Tchaikovsky.

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Musical Chronicle (The First Quartet Series—The Italian Opera)' in ČW.
  2. Yuly Gustavovich Gerber (1831–1883), Russian violinist, violist, composer and conductor of ballet music — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  3. Joachim Raff (1822–1882), Swiss composer, teacher and pianist.
  4. Robert Volkmann (1815–1883), German composer whose talent Tchaikovsky rated much higher than that of Brahms (see TH 300).
  5. Robert Volkmann composed his Piano Trio in B-flat minor, Op. 5, in 1850 (it was first published in 1852). In 1854, the composer moved to Vienna, but returned to Pest in 1858 and lived there until his death in 1883 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  6. Tchaikovsky's memory failed him here because he had only mentioned Gounod's Roméo et Juliette once (in TH 272), and then only in passing, without discussing the quality of the music — translator's note.
  7. In this periphrastic way Tchaikovsky expresses his opinion that Gounod's Faust (1859) shows greater powers of invention and originality than the later opera Roméo et Juliette (1867) — note by Ernst Kuhn.