The Russian Musical Society. Italian Opera. The Decisive Battle with my Journalistic Foes

The Russian Musical Society. Italian Opera. The Decisive Battle with my Journalistic Foes (Русское музыкальное общество. Итальянская опера. Генеральное сражение с моими газетными врагами) [1] (TH 313 ; ČW 579) was Tchaikovsky's forty-eighth and last regular music-review article for the Moscow journal Russian Register (Русские ведомости), in which it was published on 10 December 1875 [O.S.].

This article contains a further enthusiastic appraisal of Saint-Saëns's music, which in certain works of his achieved "a felicitous fusion" between the figurative elements of Bach's style and typically French poignant rhythms; a tribute to Schumann's "wondrous melodic gift" and "luxuriant harmony" with regard to his Third String Quartet (already discussed in TH 294); an ironic counter-attack against the apologists for Dmitry Slavyansky's "Russian Concerts"; and a certain dismay at the way in which one critic who wrote for Russia's most important newspaper had suddenly changed tack and started dismissing Tchaikovsky's works.


Completed by 10/22 December 1875 (date of publication). Tchaikovsky reported on the following:

English translation

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The Russian Musical Society

The most interesting musical event last week was the chamber music soirée organized by the Russian Musical Society in which M. Saint-Saëns [2] took part. Readers of the Russian Register will already be aware that the greatest success at this concert was reserved for M. Saint-Saëns's variations on a theme by Beethoven, which he himself performed together with N. G. Rubinstein. This piece shows that M. Saint-Saëns is not only a splendid musician, but also a fine connoisseur of the Beethovenian style.

M. Saint-Saëns acted very wisely in choosing as the subject for his variations one of the themes of that symphonist of genius, and in the consequential, organically developing elaboration of this theme he sought to copy the techniques which Beethoven adopted for the form of variations—sometimes so faithfully that the resemblance was striking! Here the individual traits which make up M. Saint-Saëns's natural compositional gift gave way to the overwhelming power of Beethoven to such an extent that a listener who did not happen to be sufficiently familiar with the great master's piano works might easily conclude that these variations had been done by Beethoven himself. How very clever and subtle on M. Saint-Saëns's part!

But on the other hand, the characteristic features of M. Saint-Saëns's talent showed themselves to great advantage in his piano quartet, which he performed for us together with Messrs Hřímalý, Gerber [3], and Fitzenhagen. If I am not mistaken, the original aspect of the French master's creative oeuvre lies in the fact that in his works you can hear an extremely felicitous fusion of the manner of Johann Sebastian Bach, whom M. Saint-Saëns is evidently a passionate admirer of, with national French elements, amongst which a poignant and characteristic rhythmic accentuation always keeps coming to the fore.

In the quartet's first movement, which is very compact in its form, the accumulation of so many different rhythms (dotted crotchet beats, various syncopations, grace-notes, semiquaver figurations, triplets etc.) actually seemed rather excessive to me—it makes the work's metrical division irregular and diffuse, so that without looking at the score you just cannot tell what the rhythm should be at any particular point. Of the two themes used in the first movement, I prefer the second one, which is very graceful and elegant. The second movement is magnificent. M. Saint-Saëns has constructed it on the basis of an exceptionally beautiful folk theme, embellishing the latter (again in imitation of Bach's style) with a very energetic figuration motif, which is developed in a broadly sweeping and logical manner throughout the whole piece.

The Scherzo is delightful thanks to its very nice and lively, humorously conceived motif, as well as the beauty of its symmetrically shaped form. In the Finale M. Saint-Saëns dazzled us with his technical, and especially contrapuntal, expertise, which enabled him finally to combine the various themes that we had heard in the course of the quartet and to merge them into a coherent whole, full of power and animation.

At this very same soirée, which was so rich in aesthetic delights, Messrs Hřímalý, Brodsky, Gerber, and Fitzenhagen also played for us, with their typically faultless sense of ensemble and shared enthusiasm, Beethoven's Second String Quartet (C major) [4], whose first movement is so wonderful, as well as Schumann's famous A major quartet, in which the great composer casts before the listener so many priceless pearls of his wondrous melodic gift and his luxuriant, always fresh and beautiful harmony [5].

No less interesting was the extraordinary symphony concert given by the Russian Musical Society on behalf of the Relief Fund for Artists' Widows and Orphans. Apart from the duet for two pianos which I discussed above and the symphonic poem Danse macabre, which was also a tremendous success this time round, too [6], we got to hear two further works by M. Saint-Saëns: his Third Piano Concerto and the orchestral piece Le Rouet d'Omphale.

M. Saint-Saëns's concerto is a wonderful work in all respects, especially the first movement in which one cannot fail to be captivated by the fresh and highly original motifs, their strikingly ingenious elaboration, a number of quite novel harmonic turns (amongst which I would like to draw the attention of specialists to the progression of major triads played in inverted order and accompanied by original figurations in the piano part), and a splendidly lush, massively effective instrumentation.

The symphonic poem Le Rouet d'Omphale appeals to me considerably less. In this work M. Saint-Saëns took a rather banal dance motif as the principal theme, but even after embellishing it by means of the most diverse orchestral effects he did not succeed in producing anything particularly attractive. There can be no doubt that this work of M. Saint-Saëns was written much earlier than the Danse macabre, the E-flat major concerto, and the Piano Quartet [7], in which he does appear before us as a mature master, whereas in Le Rouet d'Omphale we are clearly dealing with a musician who hasn't quite mastered the form yet and who is insufficiently sure of his ability to cope with the difficult task facing him.

Madame Svyatlovskaya [8] also achieved a great success at this concert. Her rendition of an aria by Stradella showed great intelligence and taste, and she also performed two songs for us [9]. All in all, this concert left a most agreeable impression on everyone, and I cannot but be delighted myself that our public received the French artist so warmly and cordially. M. Saint-Saëns, as I know from reliable sources, feels in his turn deeply moved and grateful for the reception accorded to him in Russia.

The Italian Opera

The Italian Opera is going through hard times. Last Tuesday I happened to attend a staging of Faust, which was put on as an extra performance not scheduled in the season's official programme. The audience—which was made up of the chief cashier, one actress from the Maly Theatre, one dancer, two ushers, as well as three ladies whose husbands hold prominent posts in the theatre management, and finally also M. Saint-Saëns and myself—warmly and unanimously applauded Messrs Capoul [10] and Jamet, as well as Madames Wiziak [11] and Scalchi [12]. Throughout the performance I was constantly under the impression that in between all the thundering of the orchestra I could hear a mournful whimpering and wailing from somewhere. At first I was quite perplexed, but then I reasoned that these sounds were most likely reaching me from the impresario's office, where that poor fellow, sensing the imminent downfall of his huge enterprise, was evidently succumbing to a truly heart-rending despair. Well, cry on, my poor foreigner, because things are indeed going pretty badly for you! On Wednesday you staged Der Freischütz with two new singers who were thereby given a unique chance to find out just how clearly and distinctly the Muscovites know how to hiss!

The Decisive Battle with my Journlistic Foes

Now I shall move on to some new little flowers from the luxuriant garden of Muscovite music criticism. I have become the recipient of such a great honour as I could never possibly have dreamt of: the newspaper Contemporary News in its issue No. 330 dedicated an entire leading article to me [13]. I would gladly go through this article with a fine comb in order to give readers an idea of the high esteem in which my activities as a critic are held by the venerable editors of the abovementioned organ of the Russian press, were it not for the fact that I am afraid to come tumbling down from the lofty pedestal on which the latter has put me, and on which I would like to remain at all costs.

The point is that the author of this unsigned little article was so carried away by his enthusiastic admiration for my compositional and critical endeavours that he forgot all the rules of grammar and syntax. For example, he turns out such phrases as: "recording Russian folksongs is something that only such an expert as only Balakirev can undertake", or "let us agree to believe on this, and if that is right", or "by way of as a small example we may cite", etc. etc.

I am sure you will agree with me that it would be rather embarrassing to pride oneself on praise and flattering remarks from people who have such a delightful way of expressing themselves in their mother tongue. However, the Contemporary News does call me "a musical authority, a Europe-wide musical expert, a Europe-wide towering musician", and, in view of such flattering appellations, I am willing to forgive them their illiteracy and naivety, even though there surely ought to be a limit to the latter. At one point in this little article the enlightened editors from Vagankovsky Lane express their amazement at the fact that, according to the "Europe-wide towering musician", sheer creativity is not the same as art, and that artistic form is the sine qua non condition for any work of art.

No, my venerable newspaper, you've made a big blunder there, and I will now explain to you by means of an example what my point is. Let us say that as the subject of a genre painting I have chosen to portray an illiterate quill-driver who is poring over a trashy little leading article. In that case, assuming that I do have a talent for painting, then it would be right to say that a creative process has taken place within me. But imagine now that I have neither a canvas, nor a paint-brush, nor a palette, nor colours, and that I don't even know how to use all these attributes of a painter anyway—can the picture that I had conceived so well in my mind but had failed to carry out be regarded as a work of art? I think not, and I advise you, my dear Contemporary News, to think the same unless you want to be accused of crass ignorance and a naivety beyond all reasonable measure. However, I do feel that by exposing these absurdities in such indiscreet fashion I am felling my own pedestal, and so I had better keep quiet.

Nevertheless, I hope it will not be taken amiss if, to round things off, I respectfully express my gratitude to the Contemporary News for the attention which it has lavished on me. Indeed, by dedicating a whole leading article to praising the achievements I have supposedly rendered on behalf of Hungarian folksong (with which, by the way, I am not in the least familiar), and by then acknowledging me to be "a musician educated to European standards", the Contemporary News has done a great deal towards advancing my reputation as a composer and critic. Believe me, I am capable of appreciating such flattering sympathy, and to prove it I intend very soon to compose a Symphony on Hungarian motifs, which I shall dedicate to the Contemporary News. However, I won't actually write down this symphony, seeing that the editors of this newspaper are quite satisfied with "sheer creativity" alone and do not ask for "form" at all.

Now I must say a couple of words to Mr Slavyansky. You sent a letter to the Moscow Register in order to put right "a few inaccuracies" (to use your own words) which had crept into my brief account of your artistic activities [14].

Well, to be honest, these inaccuracies are of a kind that even if they were put right, that would not change one iota in the crux of the matter. After all, what does it matter if you studied with Professor Piccioli or with Professor Ricci? What difference does it make if at so-and-so a concert you just sang a Mozart aria or if in addition to the latter, you also sang a romance by Glinka? Likewise, it makes no difference to the characterization I gave of you whether you adopted the pseudonym "Slavyansky" following the advice of Countess Rastopchina or whether you did so on your own initiative.

If I so wished, I could triumphantly counter each one of the seven points you make in your refutation! I could reprint extracts from Mr Slavyansky's "American Letters", which were published some three years ago in Notes of the Fatherland [15], and from which readers would be able to find out about some very unpleasant incidents in which you were involved during your stay in America. I could also find out the names of those fellow-countrymen of ours who appeared alongside you on the concert podium in their supposed capacity as Czechs. Finally, I could add a few more details concerning your failed attempts to make a career as an opera singer. However, all these details are of no interest to my readers and they are of no consequence to me either.

What does matter to me is the fact that, in putting right just "a few inaccuracies of mine", you are thereby implicitly recognizing the absolute fairness of the overall appraisal I gave of your artistic activities. Indeed, could one expect otherwise from someone who, as you say yourself, has the honour of belonging to the Muscovite gentry?! I must say I am very pleased to see that, by honestly and openly bowing your head before my strict verdict, you are confirming the reputation for unshakeable honesty, plain dealing, and nobility of character which is so intrinsic to Russian society's leading class.

Now I should like to grumble a bit about the publisher of the newspaper The Voice [16], who, due to his being so over-worked no doubt, has failed to notice the terrible dissonances which for some time now have started undermining the harmonic accord between the various forces working for his newspaper. Truly, one can only marvel at the frivolity of his Moscow correspondent for the feuilleton section of The Voice. Just imagine: this journalistic chameleon, who but two years ago was following with great interest and sympathy the beneficial work being done by the Russian Musical Society, as well as ardently protesting against any manifestations of that musical ignorance which makes itself felt here all the time—just imagine, I repeat: this man who always sang in unison with Mr Laroche, The Voice's principal music critic, has suddenly forgotten about all this and has become a crass ignoramus in musical matters, as well as an unyielding obscurantist who proclaims to all and sundry that Mr Slavyansky is "the Apostle of Russian folksong" and asserts that "these new gleams of the creative spirit of our people" are closer to his heart than all other music.

This sudden transformation is beyond my powers of comprehension. Likewise, I cannot understand the boldness with which he recently decided to give me a good bawling-out—especially since he had always spoken so warmly of me in the past and discerned so many fine qualities in my compositions! This chameleon-like feuilletonist, wishing to sting me even more painfully, talks ironically about my "lyrical inspirations" and plumes himself on simply ignoring my operas. But I ask you, my esteemed journalistic weather-vane, to think for a while about the caustic effect produced by your naïve escapades! Because, firstly, you used to show an interest not only in my operas, but also in my symphonies, concertos, overtures, quartets, and indeed you would comment on every work of mine that was publicly performed with the greatest sympathy. And, secondly, if you are now turning away from my works, then I can conclude with some reason that you are doing so because they aren't written to suit you, and I simply just cannot understand why you are boasting about this.

As a farewell remark, I would like to point out that in one of my preceding chronicles I dedicated so much space to an appraisal of Mr Slavyansky precisely because this artist, who manages to attract huge droves of a semi-literate public to his concerts, has acquired in Moscow a status which does not befit him. I would of course not have wasted so much paper, ink, and time on Mr Slavyansky if he did not happen to constitute a phenomenon which goes down so well with certain strata of the public. Now can you imagine this: the Moscow correspondent for The Voice's feuilleton contrived to see in my remarks about Mr Slavyansky an assertion on my part that this artist had not had any success in Moscow! All I can say is: "C'est trop fort!" [17], to copy the habit which that witty journalist has of larding his articles with French phrases. And to think that it is with such gentlemen that one has to dispute in the blessed city of Moscow...!

P. Tchaikovsky.

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'The Russian Musical Society. Italian Opera. The Continuing Battle With My Journalistic Foes' in TH, and 'The Russian Musical Society—The Italian Opera—The Decisive Battle With My Newspaper Enemies' in ČW.
  2. For more information on Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky's attitude to him, see the preceding article (TH 312). It is also worth nothing that after meeting Tchaikovsky in connection with the concerts he gave in Moscow at the end of 1875, Saint-Saëns promised that he would help to organize performances of works by his Russian colleague in Paris. The immediate result was that in December 1876 the overture-fantasia Romeo and Juliet was performed in the French capital for the first time. The last time the two composers would meet would be at Cambridge, in June 1893, where they were both to receive honorary doctorates from the University. In his memoirs Saint-Saëns discussed the first performance in England of Francesca da Rimini, which took place at Cambridge's Guildhall on 31 May/12 June 1893, and compared Tchaikovsky's work to Liszt's Dante Symphonytranslator's note(based on extra information provided by Lyudmila Korabelnikova on the Belcanto Tchaikovsky pages).
  3. Yuly Gustavovich Gerber (1831–1883), Russian violinist, violist, composer and conductor of ballet music — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  4. The key given here is incorrect, for the work in question is Beethoven's String Quartet No. 2 in G major, Op. 18/2 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  5. Tchaikovsky also gives an enthusiastic description of this string quartet in TH 294.
  6. See TH 312 for an extensive discussion of Saint-Saëns's Danse macabre.
  7. In fact, the Piano Concerto No. 3 was written in 1869, that is two years before Le Rouet d'Omphale (1871). The other two works mentioned by Tchaikovsky, however, do indeed come after this mythological tone poem: the Danse macabre was composed in 1874 and the Piano Quartet in 1875 — note by Vasily Yakovlev.
  8. Aleksandra Vladimirovna Svyatlovskaya(after marriage: Müller; 1856–1923), Russian contralto, sang at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre, where in 1887 she created the role of Solokha in Tchaikovsky's opera Cherevichki; she also gave singing lessons in Moscownote by Vasily Yakovlev, supplemented by Ernst Kuhn.
  9. The vocal numbers in question were Alessandro Stradella's aria "O, del mio dolce", Schubert's song "Der Tod und das Mädchen", and Joseph Dessauer's song "Verzweiflung" — note by Vasily Yakovlev.
  10. Joseph-Amédée-Victor Capoul (1839–1924), French tenor, engaged for a while at the Opéra-Comique in Parisnote by Ernst Kuhn.
  11. Emma Wiziak (real name: Vizjak-Nicolescu; 1847–1913), Croatian soprano, débuted in Italy in 1869 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  12. Sofia Scalchi (1850–1922), Italian mezzo-soprano; she made her début in Mantua in 1866 and subsequently sang at all the leading Italian opera-houses, as well as at Covent Garden in London from 1868; from 1883 until her retirement from the stage in 1896 she appeared mainly at the Metropolitan Opera in New York; she then returned to Italy, where she lived mainly in Romenote by Ernst Kuhn.
  13. Apart from this leading article, issue No. 330 (30 November 1875) of the Moscow-based newspaper Contemporary News (Современные известия) also included an "artistic résumé" [«артистический формуляр»] sent by Dmitry Slavyansky (1836–1908) to refute the statements Tchaikovsky had made about him in TH 311 and many other articles ridiculing his pseudo-Russian concerts — note by Vasily Yakovlev, supplemented by the translator.
  14. This open letter from Slavyansky, which the newspaper Moscow Register (Московские ведомости) had published on p.5 of its issue no.304 (29 November 1875), contains the same refutations as the "artistic résumé" published in Contemporary News (see note 12 above) except for Slavyansky's assertion that he was personally acquainted with Tchaikovsky. In the "artistic résumé" he claimed to have met the composer "while calling on mutual acquaintances of ours" — note by Vasily Yakovlev.
  15. Tchaikovsky is referring to Letter No 27 from the journalist Nikolay Slavinsky's Letters about America (Письма об Америке) which is divided under the following headings: "The arrival of Mr Agrenev-Slavyansky's Russian Chorus in New York. Their first concert in the Steinway-Hall", "Press reviews. Members of the Russian circle make the acquaintance of the impresario and his suite", "Second concert", "The New York staging of Verstovsky's opera Askold's Tomb"; as well as to Letter No. 28 with the following headings: "The Rape of the Sabine Women as staged by the Russian operatic troupe in New York", "The lawsuit between Mr Slavyansky and Madame Levitskaya", "Dr Mal-v and the singer Kr-aia. The attitude of the Russian circle towards them…". These Letters about America were published in the journal Notes of the Fatherland (Отечественные записки), Saint Petersburg 1872, vol. 6 (June): pp. 438–448 — note by Vasily Yakovlev.
  16. Andrey Aleksandrovich Krayevsky (1810–1889) was the founder, publisher, and chief editor of the Saint Petersburg-based newspaper The Voice (Голос), which appeared from 1863 to 1883 and was then the most important newspaper in Russia. Krayevsky was one of the founding fathers of the Russian press and a very influential figure in public life, although he was also criticized by some for his exploitation of the writers who worked for his various journals (especially of the great critic Vissarion Belinsky in the 1840s) — note by Ernst Kuhn (supplemented by the translator).
  17. French expression which is equivalent here to "That's too much!" or "That's a bit rich!" — translator's note.