TCHAIKOVSKY – MUSIC CRITIC
Music critique is often viewed as a ‘secondary’ profession, something ‘on the outskirts of art’. But this isn’t so when a true talent does the job!
Oh, those good old times! – Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries, and he himself, believed that good literature about music could even influence music processes. “I should like to be of use to my compatriots, aiding their musical-aesthetic development, guiding their tastes, explaining and elucidating to them the merits and failings of this or that musical phenomenon”, — wrote Tchaikovsky. And with such thoughts at the back of his mind, and not just out of “financial necessity” he wrote his 60 articles!
It sounds kind of strange: Tchaikovsky the musical observer. But in all truth he was in this capacity for three years of his life! To begin with, he worked at the newspaper “Contemporary Chronicles”, and then the famous “Russian Vedomosty”.
Incidentally, Tchaikovsky quite obviously displayed a leaning towards literary efforts himself. All his life he did translations: for example, the opera “The Wedding of Figaro” by Mozart – the Russian version of the text which still runs on our stage belongs to Tchaikovsky! Many now famous texts of his arias were also written by the composer – like the concluding aria of Herman in “The Queen of Spades” – “What is our life? – A Game!..”
Finally, Tchaikovsky wrote poetry. He was most critical of his own poetic efforts, but nonetheless, singled out some of his own opuses. Like the poem “Lilly-of-the-valley” — his favorite flowers.
What is the secret of your charm?
- I do not know. But your sweet scent
Like stream of wine, intoxicates and warms
Like music, it makes me catch my breath…
The weekly summaries of music life in Moscow penned by Tchaikovsky were written with flair and to the point. For example, this is what he wrote of the one-of-a-kind introvert nature of music by Brahms: “Never does he, like the rest of us, contemporary musicians, resort to outward striking effect, does not seek to stun or surprise with some new orchestral combination. Similarly, you will never encounter any triteness in his works. Everything is serious and very lofty. But there is one thing missing in all this: beauty.” Perhaps, there is certain tendentiousness in the final conclusions, but did anyone else write so aptly about Brahms’s main qualities and merits?
And this is about Haydn: “I sincerely respect the honorable, even great services that this good-natured old man rendered both symphonic and chamber music. Haydn immortalized himself, if not with his invention, undeniably with the perfection of the superlative, ideally rational form of the sonata and symphony.” Experts shall give due to the concise perfection of the phrasing, while all others will appreciate the exquisite effortless style!”
Incidentally, many phrases from Tchaikovsky’s articles became of a textbook nature and found their way into axioms of Russian literature! Like the newspaper monologue about the quite unpopular then orchestral piece by Glinka “Kamarinskaya”: “All of Russian symphonic music grew out of Glinka’s “Kamarinskaya”, just like an oak from an acorn.”
In his articles Tchaikovsky was the first to predict the remarkable gift of Rimsky-Korsakov – when the latter was but a youth taking his first steps on the music arena. Similarly, he ‘discerned’ the talent of the young Taneyev. When all of Europe booed down “Carmen”, Tchaikovsky dubbed it one of the greatest masterpieces in the history of opera art.
He wrote extensively about chamber music, much less familiar to the general public (for example, about the late quartets by Beethoven, which few could understand at the time). Generally, he quite consciously attempted to write about what was less well known. Like in Beethoven’s case: the 4th or 8th symphonies. We read: “What remarkable, engaging, perfect in ideas and form compositions! If I had to classify symphonic compositions according to spirit and character, the 4th symphony, alongside with the 8th, would have to be ranked among compositions dedicated to the description of exclusively joyous sentiments, reveling in life, overflowing with happiness and boundless love. This is not the tragic exultance of nature’s higher forces that we discern in the finale of the 5th or 9th symphonies. In these symphonies Beethoven as if attempts to express the idea that if man’s soul is fragile and weak and fated to eternal trials and grief, then in the final count, the spirit shall prevail over flesh, life – over death, the sky – over the earth. This music stuns… While the 4th and the 8th symphonies infuse one’s spirit with joyous sentiments and so much love for life that you forget that roses do not always bloom, that the hot sun doesn’t always shine, nor are fields ever verdant and the streams clear and buoyant.”
This is how Tchaikovsky could write about music!
Generally, the great Russian composer preferred written expression to oral speech, commenting this fact thus: “all my life I have suffered from a terrifying, painful and tormenting affliction, which is called “shyness”.
What is a real treasure is Tchaikovsky’s correspondence, now published in several volumes.
Here is one of the last – little-known interviews of the composer, given to one Petersburg newspaper a year before his death (They say the editor of the publication was …Tchaikovsky himself!)
“Where do you live?”
“I live at an estate near Klin, but lead more of a nomadic life, particularly the past 10 years.”
“At what time do you prefer to work?”
“When working I seek seclusion in Klin, or some quiet spot abroad, and lead a hermit’s life. I work from 10 in the morning till 1 in the afternoon and from 5pm till 8 in the evening.”
“How do musical ideas come to you?”
“My system of work is purely industrial, in other words – based on a regular rigid routine – the same hours, no slack. Musical ideas accost me the very moment I shed all affairs and thoughts that are alien to my work and I get down to writing music. Moreover, a majority of the ideas come to me during my daily walks…”
“There is an the opinion that it’s hard for a composer in our day and age to come out with something truly new…”
“No, that isn’t so. Musical material, or in other words, a melody, harmony and rhythm, are, without a doubt, inexhaustible. Millions of years shall pass, and if music in the form that we understand it today still exists, the same seven main scales in their melodic and harmonic combinations, brought to life by rhythm, will still serve as a source of new musical ideas…”