After graduating from the Stuttgart Conservatory Sittard taught singing and piano there from 1872 to 1885. In 1885 he took up the job of music critic of the Hamburgischer Correspondent, the daily newspaper in Hamburg with the most reputable feuilleton section, and he would devote a lot of space in his articles to Tchaikovsky's visits to the city and to his works.
Sittard first met Tchaikovsky during his visit to Hamburg in January 1888, when in the second half of a Philharmonic Society concert on 8/20 January the Russian composer conducted his Serenade for String Orchestra, the Piano Concerto No. 1 (soloist Vasily Sapel’nikov), and the Theme and Variations from the Suite No. 3. In the first half of the concert the Philharmonic Society's principal conductor Julius von Bernuth had conducted Haydn's Oxford Symphony, and the following day a review appeared in the Hamburgischer Correspondent, in which Sittard pronounced Haydn to be the "victor" in this "contest" with Tchaikovsky, who like all modern Russian composers, in his view, was incapable of reaching the same "free spiritual heights" and "universality" as German music. Sittard pointed out how it was impossible to deny Tchaikovsky's "originality" and "temperament", but lamented the way that when "the spirit of his people" came over him the result was a "Witches' Sabbath of sounds which takes away our sight and hearing". "Flashes of genius alternate with musical banalities," Sittard continued, "delicate and ingenious features with ungainly effects [...] Tchaikovsky is a highly gifted, finely developed, and interesting artist; he is an artist who is capable of stimulating us by his ideas; however, we cannot call him a creative force in the high significance of the word". Going on to discuss separately the works performed at the concert, Sittard praised the beauty of the Serenade for String Orchestra, whilst noting how it was an "eclectic" blend of German, French, and Russian influences. The Piano Concerto No. 1, however, he found to violate in places "all the rules of measure, order and euphony", even if it contained "various beautiful and outstanding moments". Both in the concerto and in the "highly interesting, ingeniously elaborated and characteristic" Variations from the Suite No. 3 it struck Sittard as if the composer was "sometimes operating with musical dynamite". Nevertheless, at the end of his review Sittard praised Tchaikovsky as a "conductor of genius" who had inspired and steered the orchestra successfully through these difficult works, as well as Sapel’nikov for his "brilliant" playing of the concerto .
It might seem surprising that after reading this review, which betrays a clear anti-Russian prejudice (even with militaristic overtones at times) that shows how even an educated man like Sittard could not quite detach himself from the atmosphere of Wilhelmine Germany, Tchaikovsky nevertheless noted in his diary while still in Hamburg: "Sittard's article. Am very happy" . However, as Peter Feddersen has observed, Tchaikovsky had realistic expectations about the reception which his music might receive in Germany, and for him it was satisfying enough to see a leading critic like Sittard discuss his works in such detail and in an essentially sympathetic way, all reservations notwithstanding. In the account which he drew up of his tour in April 1888 Tchaikovsky would recall:
On 10/22 January 1888, the last day of his stay in Hamburg on that occasion, Tchaikovsky had apparently arranged to go with Sittard to see a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin at the opera-house, but he changed his plans at the last minute (see letter 3465a). This did not prevent Sittard from paying a visit to Tchaikovsky at his hotel just before his departure, as the latter noted in his diary: "A still more unexpected visit of Sittard (I bluffed him—did not go to the theater)" .
Sittard also spent a lot of time with Tchaikovsky during the composer's next visit to Hamburg (26 February/10 March–4/16 March 1889). Thus, on 1/13 March he accompanied him to the benefit concert given by Julius Laube and his orchestra at the Wintergarten, the programme of which featured, among works by Liszt, Berlioz, Wagner, and Bizet, two movements from the Serenade for String Orchestra. Sittard's review of that concert appeared already the following day, and in it he noted how the two pieces by Tchaikovsky had been received with great applause, and how Tchaikovsky himself, "an artist who is as amiable as he is modest", was given "the most lively ovations" . Most importantly, Sittard attended all of Tchaikovsky's rehearsals for the Philharmonic Society concert on 3/15 March 1889 at which the composer conducted the first performance in Germany of his Symphony No. 5 (after Prague, this was only the symphony's second performance outside Russia), and although Sittard did not attend the concert itself, choosing instead to go to the opera-house to hear the Austrian soprano Pauline Lucca in Bizet's Carmen, he was able to publish a detailed review of the symphony in the Hamburgischer Correspondent the day after the concert. This article was much more positive than his review of the previous year's concert and much less tinged by anti-Russian prejudice. Sittard began by describing Tchaikovsky as "the most gifted and outstanding Russian composer of modern times" and emphasized that what made his works so attractive the more one acquainted oneself with them, was the "intensive emotional life" which they expressed. He continued:
At the end of his review Sittard noted how Tchaikovsky had once again shown himself to be "an excellent conductor", and how both the musicians and the audience had burst into enthusiastic applause after the final movement. Tchaikovsky was so delighted by Sittard's discussion of his new symphony that he thanked him in writing (see letter 3820a).
Sittard's extensive review of the Hamburg premiere of Yevgeny Onegin on 7/19 January 1892, conducted by Gustav Mahler (again, after Prague, it was only the second time that this work had been performed outside Russia), was rather less positive, although the brunt of Sittard's criticism was levelled at the plot of the opera which he found to be deficient in "dramatic vitality". Tatyana, with her "hysterical" outburst of "morbid passion" in the Letter Scene, and the "spiritually spineless" Onegin could awaken but little empathy in the audience: "We Germans do not understand such people, but still less understanding do we have for a so-called plot which strictly speaking isn't one at all". For the music, however, Sittard found great praise, though not so much for the vocal parts as for the orchestra, which, as he put it, made up the opera's "centre of gravity". He singled out the duet of Tatyana and Olga and the peasants' dance song in Act I, the finale of the ball scene in Act II, and the final scene between Tatyana and Onegin, "the opera's most significant scene". On the other hand, he dismissed Triquet's couplets as "superfluous" and deplored the abundance of dance tunes and scenes: "Such stop-gaps can hardly be reconciled with the notions which we Germans have of the character of opera since Gluck and Mozart". Sittard concluded his review by observing that "although Onegin is not an opera in the dramatic sense, still it does contain so many specifically musical beauties and delicacies that we considered the hissing which was heard after some scenes to be all the more inappropriate with regard to an artist who, like Mr Tchaikovsky, occupies such a prominent position among contemporary instrumental composers; but apart from that, people, even if only out of courtesy for the composer who was present, ought to have abstained from such demonstrations, which in this case were quite unjustified" .
In his review of the Hamburg premiere of Iolanta on 22 December 1892/3 January 1893, again conducted by Mahler (this time it was the opera's very first performance outside Russia), Sittard repeated his view that Tchaikovsky was "above all an instrumental composer", and that he lacked a dramatic vein and was unable to endow the vocal parts of his characters with sufficient individuality. "In spite of these defects," Sittard concluded, "this work has, from the purely musical aspect, left us with an attractive impression, which can be accounted for principally by the wonderful use of the orchestra" .
Sittard's obituary of Tchaikovsky appeared in the 7 November 1893 [N.S.] evening issue of the Hamburgischer Correspondent, that is just one day after the composer's death. Some of the judgements on Tchaikovsky's oeuvre in this obituary are questionable and in some places again marred by anti-Russian prejudice: "With Tchaikovsky we have lost one of the most productive and amiable composers of modern times. [...] His productivity was inexhaustible, even if the musical content of his works was often dubious. He had the technique of composition at his disposal in virtuosic fashion, and in those cases when the unruly Slavic spirit didn't come over him, Tchaikovsky could sing with touching beauty and win people's hearts. However, the impetuous character of his nation sometimes gained the upper hand to such an extent that musical beauty had to cover her head entirely. And yet he has left behind many a work which will outlive his name for a long time to come. [...] He was a musician with heart and soul, and it was the great German masters whom he revered most of all. At the same time, though, he felt himself drawn towards the French school, especially in the field of opera. This, together with his predilection for using Russian folk-songs as the basis of his instrumental works, resulted in a blending of styles which puts upon many of his compositions the stamp of carelessness".
Of greater value are those passages in Sittard's obituary in which he dwelt on Tchaikovsky's personal qualities and looked back to his conversations with him in Hamburg:
Tchaikovsky's correspondence with Josef Sittard:
This page was last updated on 14 February 2013