Second Symphony Concert · Mme Patti’s Benefit
(Второе симфоническое собрание · Бенефис г-жи Патти)
Article for the journal Russian Register (1872).
SECOND SYMPHONY CONCERT
Schumann's Symphony No. 3 in E♭ major, which was performed at the second concert of the series, belongs to the third period of works by this most significant of symphonists of the German school after Beethoven.
The German critics consider this period in Schumann's career as a composer to be one of decline in his creative powers—a decline that is attributed to the troubled state of his mind, which, as is well known, ended with Schumann's complete mental derangement and brought him first to the mad-house and ultimately into the grave. However, even in this late period, so the German critics point out, Schumann still managed to create a number of splendid works, including the music to Byron's Manfred—a powerful, profoundly conceived work, whose overture belongs to the greatest musical creations of the post-Beethoven era.
On the whole, though, there is no denying the decline of his talent in this period. Schumann's greatness rests, on the one hand, on the opulence of his inventive powers and, on the other, on the depth of the spiritual moods which his music is able to express and on the sharply delineated individuality which reveals itself in it. As for the external expression of these moods, it could always have been done much better. It was arguably only in his best moments that Schumann was able to achieve plastic clarity. The falling-off which we find in Schumann's later period manifests itself in the fact that although the inner strength and substance of these later works remain quite undiminished, their external shortcomings in terms of form have become more conspicuous.
Indeed, Schumann's finest creations, the most impassioned effusions of his mighty creative genius are considerably impaired by this incomprehensible discrepancy between magnificent content on the one hand, and the clumsiness of his orchestral and vocal technique, on the other, which discrepancy is particularly noticeable in the works of his late period, including the aforementioned Third Symphony.
Already shaken by forebodings of his mental illness, it seems as if this great artist is no longer able to experience those moments of a calm and objective attitude towards his works that would give him the opportunity to pay proper attention to the formal requisites of aesthetic beauty, which must also be satisfied if a work of art is to attain full completeness and perfection. A tormenting profusion of feelings seeks an outlet, and the artist, who has not yet fully come to grips with the inevitable technical formalities of one work, is already rushing to begin a second, not having allowed enough time for the first impulse of his inspiration to develop and take shape. In the last years of his life Schumann worked incessantly, as if he were afraid that the approaching catastrophe would break off what he so very much wanted to express through his music…
It was in particular orchestration that didn't come naturally to Schumann. He wasn't able to draw forth from the orchestra those contrasting effects of light and shade, those alternations between individual groups of instruments and orchestral tutti which, when carefully mixed, make for a successfully instrumented work. The colourlessness and dense texture of his instrumentation not only undermine, in many cases, the impression of first-rate beauty produced by certain passages in his symphonic works, but also sometimes leave listeners—especially those who have little musical training or who haven't been able to prepare themselves beforehand by studying the score—with no chance at all to appreciate these beautiful passages.
As an example of this I can point to the first movement of the aforesaid symphony in which the inspired and sweeping pathos, the sublime melodic and harmonic beauty of the music will always remain incomprehensible for the audience, simply because of the colourless and all too thick texture of the orchestration which is capable of irritating the auditory nerves of even the most musically sensitive listener. The second movement, written as it is in a minuet-like rhythm, with its simple, easily remembered melody and clear and straightforward form, is better suited to please the audience than the other movements. And so it was indeed when the symphony was played at the recent concert—at any rate this movement was not received with the deathly silence that invariably ensued upon the performance of the other movements of Schumann's work.
The Andante of the symphony is of a truly German, somewhat sentimental character, and does not stand out from Schumann's other compositions of this type, and in any case it cannot stand comparison with the splendid, enchanting Andante of his Second Symphony.
After that there comes a fourth, episodic movement which goes beyond the limits of the standard symphonic form and in which Schumann, according to popular tradition, was seeking to convey the sublime impression which seeing the Cologne Cathedral had produced on him. Never has anything more powerful or more profound been created by human artistic endeavour. Although whole centuries went by in the construction of the Cologne Cathedral and many generations did their bit of work for the realization of this grandiose architectonic conception, one brief page from the score of this great musician, inspired by the stately beauty of the cathedral, will constitute for future generations as resplendent a monument to the depth of the human spirit as the cathedral itself.
A short and gracefully angular theme, which acts as a kind of musical expression of Gothic tracery, runs through the whole piece, sometimes as the main motif, sometimes as the finest of details, thereby giving the movement that infinite diversity in the unity of its conception which is intrinsic to Gothic architecture. The magical effect of this splendid music is further strengthened by the characteristic charm of the key of E♭ major, which matches perfectly the sombre and solemn mood that Schumann sought to express, as well as by the massive instrumentation which this time is most definitely appropriate. Here more than anywhere else we find that striking affinity which exists between the two arts of music and architecture in spite of the different aesthetic substance and forms in which they both express themselves.
Indeed, elegance in the combination of lines, the beauty of a design which does not have to provide in any way a true representation of natural phenomena, the unity of an underlying motif, which reveals itself both in the overall effect and in the details, equilibrium in the episodic parts—are all of these not equally shared by both arts, which are so diametrically opposed in the material means that they use to represent beauty, and yet are so alike and intimately related in the realm of aesthetic creation!
The audience, as was to be expected, received this movement of the symphony rather coolly, but they cannot really be blamed for this. Even a professional musician would not be able to cope with such profound creations of musical genius if he were hearing them for the very first time. The Finale is the least successful of the symphony's movements. Evidently, Schumann, for the sake of contrast, wanted the sombre fourth movement to be followed by a piece of triumphantly jubilant character. But music of that kind did not come naturally to Schumann, this minstrel of human suffering above anything else. It is only at the end of the Finale that we come across a magnificent pedal point (a harmonic sequence above a sustained bass note), of the kind at which Schumann was a truly great master. All the other music of the Finale, with its artificially cheerful rhythm and ponderous playfulness, does not present anything of particular interest.
The performance of the symphony was satisfactory, but not brilliant. It is, however, understandably difficult to achieve a convincing overall effect when studying such a mixed and difficult score, which was written without any sort of consideration as to its being 'rewarding' in performance. Musicians are not all afraid of difficulties, as long as these are actually 'rewarding'—that is, as long as they have been written into the score with a purpose and they are suited to the character of the instrument. But it was precisely this ability that Schumann lacked: in his compositions there is always a lot of hard work for everyone to do, and what comes out in the end is something ponderous, massive, and lustreless.
The other symphonic work on the programme of this second concert of the Russian Musical Society was the overture to Beethoven's opera Fidelio which is referred to as the Leonore Overture No. 3. Beethoven wrote just one opera, based on a rather weak plot which smacks of petty bourgeois [meshchanskaya] sentimentality.
Florestan, an unjustly persecuted political prisoner who has been thrown into a dungeon is due to perish there as a result of the intrigues of his enemy, the governor of the prison. His faithful wife, however, Leonore, who has disguised herself in men's clothes and assumed the name of Fidelio, manages to gain access to the prison and wins the trust of the gaoler, who wishes to marry his daughter Marzelline to the alleged Fidelio. When it seems that Florestan's last hour has struck, and the gaoler is, with Fidelio's help, already digging a pit in which to bury the unfortunate prisoner, there suddenly resounds a trumpet signal which heralds the arrival of the minister, who, of course, punishes the evil governor and restores to the virtuous Leonore her beloved Florestan.
It was on the basis of this straightforward plot that Beethoven composed his opera, with music that is nice and delightful, but which not only cannot vie with that of his symphonies, but is actually considerably inferior to these as far as the strength of its inspiration is concerned and can under no circumstances be compared to the music of Mozart's operas. And this is not surprising if one thinks about it, for how could Beethoven's mighty imagination spread its wings amidst the sentimental effusions of Leonore, the semi-comic antics of the gaoler Rocco, and the somewhat cardboard-like villainy of the vengeful governor?!
With the exception of the splendid Introduction to Act III  and the aria of the languishing Florestan which follows it, as well as the duet which Fidelio and Rocco then sing as they are digging Florestan's grave, the music of Fidelio never attains those lofty heights in which Beethoven's fantasy would soar whenever he set to work on a symphony or a string quartet. In the overtures to Fidelio, on the other hand, Beethoven does appear before us as the unparalleled musical genius whom the whole world recognises as such on account of his chamber music and symphonic works.
Overall, Beethoven wrote four such overtures: one in E major, which is the one that is normally played at the start of the opera, and three in C major, of which the most significant is No. 3, and it was this that we heard at the Russian Musical Society's concert. I think that when Beethoven came to write this overture, his thoughts were very distant from the pale images of Leonore and her Florestan, because the grandiose majesty of its main themes, the tragic pathos of its mood, as well as its proportions and formal structure, all ensure that this colossal work of symphonic music has nothing in common with the moving, but domestically humdrum story of the faithful Leonore. Moreover, the opening of the overture, with its sinister mysteriousness, the passionate and stormy Allegro, the tragic groans from the wind instruments in the middle section (Durchführung) ['elaboration of the theme'], and the brilliant and fiery stretto which closes the overture, somehow do not tally with the pale dramatic elements of the opera's plot.
The most remarkable thing about this overture is its ideal wholeness, its perfection in all respects, which is such that even an unprepared listener would, subconsciously as it were, derive full aesthetic pleasure from the music, and, furthermore, the members of the orchestra, enthralled by its immense beauty, play it with a special zest. The latter fact explains why the overture was performed so splendidly under the skilful baton of Nikolay Rubinstein. The only fault one could find with it was Mr Rubinstein's decision to have the two trumpet fanfares which interrupt the middle section played in another room, so that they seem to be coming from afar: a cheap effect which panders to the primitive instincts of the public, keen as the latter is on all sorts of surprises, and which Beethoven did not intend at all.
After the overture, the hall resounded with loud and unanimous applause, which shows that our public is perforce beginning to become susceptible to the delicate musical beauties which German symphonic music is so rich in.
In the choral section of the programme we heard a fragment from Handel's oratorio Messiah—the famous "Hallelujah". Handel was an inimitable master in the way he was able to make use of his singers' voices. Without ever overtaxing the choir's vocal means, without ever overstepping the natural limits of each vocal register, he managed to elicit from the choir such splendid mass effects as had never been attained before by any other composers. This also explains why Handel's music, which in itself is extremely dry and colourless (I am speaking of his oratorios, not of his operas, which are written in an altogether different style), is even to this day still able to cause an impression.
I had the opportunity to hear this very same excerpt from Messiah at a concert in the Crystal Palace in London , where it was performed by several thousand voices, and there are no words with which I could describe the overwhelming effect of strength and might which this choral movement by Handel produced on the listeners, simply thanks to the expedient and carefully planned use of the choral masses.
The Russian Musical Society's choir, which is excellently conducted but rather weak in strength, performs very clearly and conscientiously—and sometimes even quite elegantly—such choral pieces which do not require special brilliance and volume (for example, the chorus "Tu es Petrus" which was performed at the preceding concert) , but for Handel's grandiose "Hallelujah" its limited means were inadequate. The high sustained notes in the soprano voice in the middle of the piece were performed particularly badly. That is not surprising, though, since we are not generally blessed with many high treble and tenor voices in our country, whereas, on the other hand, nowhere else other than in Russia will you find such an abundance of gloriously deep basses. Taking this fact into account, those responsible for drawing up the Russian Musical Society's programmes should if possible avoid such works where the high voices of the choir have to impress with their sound volume.
In this second concert of the Russian Musical Society's current series, Nikolay Rubinstein also played the solo part in Liszt's difficult but brilliant fantasia on the Ambrosian melody "Dies irae est venturus" . This magnificent and highly characteristic theme is developed as a set of variations by Liszt with amazing mastery. Here he was able to bring together all the richness of his orchestral and harmonic technique, in order to awaken in the listeners a notion of the fantastic horrors with which the medieval Dance of Death, as Liszt actually called his fantasia, was brimming.
What I cannot agree with, however, are the programme notes which explained to the concert-goers that Liszt in this work was seeking to represent "the various moments and situations in which death befalls its victims". To me it seems, rather, that the composer just wanted to express the overall impression which seeing a painting of the Dance of Death had left on him , and that it was not at all his intention that at every appearance of the "Dies irae" theme he should somehow have to convey the sad circumstances in which death's scythe may now strike down a king, now a merchant, now a peasant. Such prosaic pretensions to drag music down from its ethereal sphere to a level on which it is supposed to serve as a realistic reproduction of life  were, of course, far from the mind of so profound and at the same time so sensitive an artist as Liszt. As for the variation form, he probably chose that purely for technical reasons, i.e. because the structure of the "Dies irae" melody is such as to make it ideal for building variations upon. So Liszt simply exploited these qualities inherent in the melody, and did so most effectively, too.
A successful performance of this piece requires huge technical skill, great stamina, passion, experience, and maturity. It is difficult to find a pianist who combines all these qualities, and, indeed, so difficult is it that, without any exaggeration, only Liszt himself and the Rubinstein brothers are equal to the task of playing this fantasia. And we cannot but pay tribute to the mastery and virtuoso perfection of Nikolay Rubinstein's playing. He caused a profound impression on the audience, which was strengthened further still by the excellent accompaniment of the orchestra under the baton of Mr Laub. Moscow can certainly pride itself on having such splendid performers for the work in these two exceptionally gifted musicians.
MME PATTI'S BENEFIT
On Tuesday the 14th, we were able to enjoy the singing of the incomparable Mme Patti for the last time. For her farewell performance she appeared in Bellini's La Sonnambula, a delightful opera which is full of sweet and tender melodies. In the role of Amina, Mme Patti again provided us with ample evidence to refute the opinion expressed by certain alleged connoisseurs of music, who argue that this singer amazes, but does not touch the listener, and that the impression which the latter might take away from her performance does not even last as far as the walk to the cabs outside the theatre, as one opera-lover put it in my presence not so long ago. The entire role of Amina was interpreted by her with remarkable sensitivity, a fine feeling for measure, and in a most talented and well-judged fashion throughout.
M. Naudin  also gave an extremely fine performance thanks to his splendid classical Italian singing manner, which reminded one of the old days. It is from him that our young aspiring singers should learn how, by means of a sensible economizing of means, good taste, and careful planning, one can elicit irresistibly enchanting vocal effects even from a voice that is limited in its resources.
Among the main characters in La Sonnambula we also heard Signor Bagaggiolo, a singer with a voice which is still young and beautiful, but who comes across as wooden and impassive. I will also mention Mme Ivanova, a pleasant singer who, unfortunately, as a result of insufficient practice and lack of encouragement on the part of the theatre's management, is already beginning to become a rival for Mme Rozanova, Annenskaya  e tutti quanti. She is one of the victims of our supposedly so judicious theatre system. In any other country a singer with such a fine voice as Mme Ivanova once had would long ago have carved her way to success and a secure position in the theatre. Here in Russia, however, she has developed into an intimidated and cowed personality of the type which we so often encounter in our theatre world, thanks to the bureaucratic zeal of those persons who are at the helm of the theatre's administration—a zeal which would be worthy of being put to better use.
In this very minute, as I am writing these lines, La Patti will already be under the shelter of the greyish, but welcoming skies of Saint Petersburg. As her replacement we will soon be getting Mme Nilsson , who will equally quickly fly back to 'Piter'; and after her it will be the turn of Moscow's new favourite M. Naudin to fly off. What will the unfortunate season ticket holders of the Italian Opera survive on then, condemned as they are, for the pleasure of hearing two splendid and expensive singers in just two performances each, to having to content themselves during the rest of the season with the wild gestures of Mme Stella Bonneheure, the animal-like roaring of the tenor Bolis and other such delights?!
However, I have already had occasion to remark that, contrary to all the arguments of sound reason, in our ill-starred capital it is not Signor Merelli who is serving the public's need for aesthetic enjoyment, but, rather, it is the public which, as it were, seems to exist precisely so that this lucky foreigner's already nicely stuffed pockets can be stuffed even more.
English text copyright © 2009 Luis Sundkvist
This page was last updated on 13 February 2013