Tchaikovsky’s Bad Reviews

“Oh, how difficult it is to make anyone see and feel in music what we see and feel ourselves.”
– Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

I mentioned in my Sunday Salon a week or so ago that I had recently written program notes for upcoming Reno Philharmonic concerts that include Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 (performances are this Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, should you be in the Reno area). This caused me to reflect how remarkable it is that artists like Tchaikovsky carry on working, given the quality of the reviews and feedback they have sometimes received.

In the case of the Piano Concerto No. 1, Tchaikovsky had wanted the piece to be given its first performance by his friend Nikolai Rubinstein, who had hired Tchaikovsky right out of college as a professor at the Moscow Conservatory and who conducted several premieres of his works. But when Tchaikovsky played through the Concerto for Rubinstein, what was the reaction? According to Tchaikovsky, “It turned out that my concerto was worthless and unplayable; passages were so fragmented, so clumsy, so badly written that they were beyond rescue; the work itself was bad, vulgar; in places I had stolen from other composers; only two or three pages were worth preserving; the rest must be thrown away or completely rewritten.” Fortunately, Tchaikovsky found a more receptive collaborator in pianist-conductor Hans von Bülow (von Bülow was just about to take off for an American tour, which explains why the Concerto was given its first performance in Boston, of all places).

Another much-loved work, Romeo and Juliet, was said to feature music that “sounds rather like scratching a glass plate with a sharp knife.” Francesca da Rimini, the orchestral tone poem, “is a musical monster” with “ear-flaying horror.” And the conclusion of the Symphony No. 5 “sounds like nothing so much as a horde of demons struggling in a torrent of brandy, the music growing drunker and drunker.” In general, wrote one Vienna critic, Tchaikovsky’s music “scorns logic, wallows in torpor, and time and again, collapses in dissonant convulsions.”

Perhaps the most famous, and withering, scorn was heaped on the now-beloved Violin Concerto. After completing it in a frenzied couple of weeks in March and April of 1878, Tchaikovsky’s plan was to dedicate the Concerto to Leopold Auer, the famous Hungarian violinist and teacher who was also concertmaster of the Imperial Orchestra in St. Petersburg. However, Auer didn’t like the Concerto and refused to play it for many years, although he eventually gave in to its charms (as did Rubinstein, in fact, with the First Piano Concerto). Violinist Adolph Brodsky eventually received the dedication, and it was he that was featured in the work’s first performance in 1881. By all accounts, the performance didn’t go so well. It led to one of the most famously abusive reviews in music history, from the well-known critic Eduard Hanslick. Hanslick described Tchaikovsky as “surely no ordinary talent, but rather, an inflated one, obsessed with posturing as a man of genius, and lacking all discrimination and taste.” Of the Concerto’s solo part, Hanslick wrote that “the violin is no longer played; it is yanked about, it is torn asunder, it is beaten black and blue.” His grand conclusion: “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto confronts us for the first time with the hideous idea that there may be musical compositions whose stink one can hear.”

According to a survey by Bachtrack, Tchaikovsky came in at #7 in their list of most-often-performed composers of 2018. With 214 recordings listed for his Piano Concerto No. 1 at ArkivMusic.com, as well as 180 each for the Violin Concerto and Romeo and Juliet, it would seem that Tchaikovsky has had the last laugh, although the laughter may have been through a few tears.

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Sunday Salon 1-27-19

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 7:00 Sunday morning, getting an early start for a change, at my main computer.

Reading: As reported a couple of weeks ago, the reading year has gotten off to a fine start, with eight books completed already, and another two underway! Much of that recent reading has been related to the Japanese Literature Challenge 12, hosted by Dolce Belleza, that I have been participating in. I’ve already posted a review of the first book read for that Challenge, Masks by Fumiko Enchi. Reviews of two further books, Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen and The Japanese Sense of Beauty by Shuji Takashina, will be coming in the next week or two. My current focus is a volume I’ve been anxious to read since it came out a few months ago, The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Jay Rubin (who is also one of Haruki Murakami’s main English translators). For a blog article or two as well as a presentation on Impressionism I’m doing in a couple of months, I’ve also completed Karin Breuer’s Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism.

Viewing: I only watched two movies this week. One was middling, a Korean historical drama called Empire of Lust. But the other, Gabbeh, a 1996 film directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, was outstanding, atmospheric and poetic and wonderfully colorful. Makhmalbaf is a prolific, highly-regarded Iranian director, but Gabbeh was just the first film of his I’ve seen. I will be seeking out more!

Listening: My main listening for the last week was related to program notes I wrote for the next concert of the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. The program is an interesting one: Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) (this gave me an excuse to revisit her excellent Vespers for a New Dark Age that she recorded with her group Victoire), Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, and the famous Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky. The latter inspired a short blog post on Tchaikovsky’s bad reviews that I’m going to post tomorrow, so stay tuned.

Blogging: This week saw only the posting of my review of Fumiko Enchi’s Masks and a Wordless Wednesday bit of medieval illumination. Coming this week, I hope, are a look at Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto and the short article I’ve been planning for some time on the connections between Claude Monet’s work and Japanese art. My problem with the latter, which I’ve been thinking about for weeks, is the same one I often have – I enjoy the research too much, accumulate way too much information, and then have a hard time figuring out exactly what my subject is. I’ve got dozens of pages of notes for this darn Monet article, which probably won’t end up exceeding 1,000 words. We’ll see how it turns out, and what I actually end up writing about.

Pondering: I feel strongly the desire to travel, but also feel equally strongly the need to keep a close eye on my finances. What to do?

And finally: Something I came across this week, which has pleased me greatly and gotten itself lodged in my head, is a version of Queen’s song “Killer Queen” played on, of all things, a hundred-plus-year-old fairground organ. It’s much too delightful; the entry of the chorus (“She’s a killer queen…”) makes me laugh, in a good way, every time I hear it. The introduction to the video mentions a version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the same organ, which you’ll also find below in case you need it … which you might.

Fumiko Enchi: Masks

Masks
Fumiko Enchi
Translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter
Vintage Books, 1958 (translation 1983), 141 pages

Fumiko Enchi (pen name of Fumiko Ueda) is regarded as one of the most important female Japanese authors of the twentieth century, although, sadly, only a few of her novels and plays have been translated into English. One of the best-known of her novels is Masks, published in 1958. Masks is suffused with the literature and arts of Japan, and this is no surprise – Enchi (1905-1981) was the daughter of a linguist and philologist, and was introduced to both literature and traditional theater as a youth. She had some early writing successes, but her real fame waited until after World War II. Spirit possession and shamanism, especially shamanism among women, became a focus of her work in the late 1950s and 1960s, including Masks.

As Masks opens, Yasuko’s husband Akio, a professor at Tokyo University who studied spirit possession in ancient literature, has been killed in an avalanche on Mount Fuji. Yasuko has decided to carry on her husband’s research while continuing to live with Akio’s mother Mieko, who edits a poetry magazine. Both Ibuki, another professor who is married, and Mikame, a psychologist and bachelor, are in love with Yasuko. While much of the novel is told from the perspectives of Ibuki and Mikame, it is clear that Yasuko and Mieko are the central characters and drive the action.

Each of the three chapters of Masks takes its name from that of a mask from No (or Noh), the ancient theater of Japan. The first chapter’s “Ryo no onna,” a mask of a dead woman or ghost, represents, according to one website, someone “whose beauty has been destroyed by the suffering she has experienced in hell for her passionate attachments.” The mask seems to represent Mieko. All the other main characters come to feel that they are under her spell. As Yasuko says of her, “She has a peculiar power to move events in whatever direction she pleases, while she stays motionless. She’s like a quiet mountain lake whose waters are rushing beneath the surface toward a waterfall. She’s like the face on a No mask, wrapped in her own secrets.”

An old article written by Mieko is uncovered. “An Account of the Shrine in the Fields” tells of the Rokujo lady, a former wife of the Crown Prince who has an affair with Prince Genji in Murasaki Shikibo’s famous The Tale of Genji (between 1967 and 1973, Enchi translated The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese, a huge project encompassing ten volumes). The Rokujo lady is also a shamaness whose spirit kills one of Genji’s wives. Mieko sees her as “an archetype” of woman as the object of a man’s “eternal fear, representing, perhaps, the shadow of his own evil actions.” It becomes clear as the book goes on that Mieko in some way identifies with the Rokujo lady. Whether consciously or not, Mieko is projecting a spirit that is influencing the lives of the people around her.

The “Masugami” mask of the book’s second chapter, according to Toyoichiro Nogami’s No Mask Commentary that Enchi cites, represents “a young woman in a state of frenzy.” This seems to refer to Akio’s twin sister Harume, who was born with severe learning disabilities and now lives with Yasuko and Mieko. Ibuki has begun an affair with Yasuko. One fateful night, after his rival Mikame has announced his surprise engagement to Yasuko, Ibuki goes secretly to Yasuko’s home. They sleep together, yet when Ibuki wakes at one point, he mysteriously finds Harume next to him, her face twisted in the manner of the Masugami mask.

Mikame has done some research on the mysterious Mieko. He finds that Mieko’s late husband Masatsugu had a maid, and his mistress, Aguri, living with him when he married Mieko, and Aguri continued to live there after the marriage. When the pregnant Mieko later fell down some stairs and lost her child, it was apparently because Aguri had strategically placed a protruding nail near the stairs on which Mieko’s clothing got hooked, causing her to topple. Later, Mieko has her own affair, and she admits that she really wrote her article on the Rokujo lady for just one person to see – her lover, and, as it turns out, the secret real father of Akio and Harume.

According to the Japanese Performing Arts Resource Center, the third chapter’s “Fukai” mask represents “a middle-aged woman torn by separation from a loved one,” a face “filled with a melancholy that comes from experience and feeling.” Ibuki continues to carry on his clandestine affair with Yasuko, even as it has been discovered that Harume is now pregnant, likely by Ibuki. The family housekeeper Yu speculates that Mieko, or Mieko’s spirit, is somehow taking revenge on Akio and Harume, as well as her late husband Masatsugu because he was not their father. One article, though, speculates that what Mieko actually wants is a substitute for the dead Akio, a child with her lover’s and Akio’s blood. Harume, Akio’s twin, is to be that child’s mother, Ibuki the father, Yasuko the bait, and Mieko the manipulator of all. At the end of the book, Mieko receives as a gift the Fukai mask, and the final image is of Mieko contemplating it: “The mask seemed to know all the intensity of her grief at the loss of Akio and Harume – as well as the bitter woman’s vengeance that she had planned so long, hiding it deep within her…”

Enchi’s descriptions of places and moods are not only careful and precise, but also sensual. All the book’s characters are intellectuals to one degree or another, and so they, like the author, tend to see their situations and actions in the context of Japanese history, theater, and literature. While Enchi possibly presupposes some knowledge of these on the part of her reader, there is sufficient information to provide context for those who are unacquainted. Masks is a most mysterious novel, with fascinating characters and motivations that are rooted in and haunted by the past, yet come to inevitable, painful manifestation in the present.

Sunday Salon 1-13-19

Sunday Salon badge squareTime and Place: 9:45 Sunday morning, at my main computer, newly moved to the dining room table (a useful change).

Reading: 2019 has gotten off to a great start in my reading, as I’ve already completed five books! Granted, a couple of these were relatively short, and one was an art exhibition catalog with lots of illustrations. Still, I’m happy about the start. Not only that, but as I mentioned on the blog this week, I’ve joined the Japanese Literature Challenge 12, hosted by Dolce Bellezza. So I’ll be joining several bloggers in focusing on Japanese books through the end of March. Without even knowing about the Challenge, I had already decided to devote a lot of the coming year to novels in translation by Japanese authors. So the Challenge came along at just the right time. I finished my first book for the Challenge, Masks by Fumiko Enchi, yesterday; I hope to write about it in the coming week.

Viewing: After a gangbusters finish to 2018, with seven films viewed in the last five days of the year, I’ve gotten a bit of a slow start this year. I did, however, watch again Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first feature film, Maborosi, in a very nice new Blu-ray issue. The film moved me as much as ever, and remains in my Top Ten films of all time.

Listening: Music has been a bit of a non-issue in my life in recent weeks, so I’ll mention a couple of current favorite podcasts instead, both of which happen to deal with film. I continue to listen to and enjoy You Must Remember This, in which Karina Longworth talks about, as she puts it, “the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century.” I’m currently in the middle of a series in which she analyzes stories from Kenneth Anger’s famous, scandalous, very enjoyable, and occasionally accurate Hollywood Babylon. Newly a part of my podcast lineup is Her Head in Films, in which Caitlin talks about her favorite films in very personal terms. She is attracted to foreign and art house films, as am I, and the repertoire of films she has talked about in the podcast is such a close match to my own tastes that it feels I have found a friend in film in this podcast.

Blogging: My main accomplishment this week was returning to blogging at all. After a month away, this is my fifth entry in five days, which pleases me very much. The pace may slow a bit in coming days, but I have a couple of things in the works for this week, including the aforementioned review of Fumiko Enchi’s Masks and a short article on the connections between Claude Monet’s paintings and Japanese art and gardens.

Pondering: Should I take in some of Noir City 17, the festival of films noirs coming to San Francisco in a couple of weeks? I know I would love it, but I also need to be careful of finances, having little regular income at the moment. We’ll see…

And finally: With his most recent film Shoplifters having won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, and with my own recent viewing of Maborosi and The Third Murder, I’ve had the films of Hirokazu Kore-eda, one of my favorite film directors, much on my mind recently. One of the best introductions to his films is this short piece by the filmmaker and critic kogonada that I posted here on the blog several years ago (you can read what I wrote about it then here), and am happy to present again.

The World According to Koreeda Hirokazu from kogonada on Vimeo.

Beethoven’s Coffee

Along with being one of the great musical geniuses of all time, Ludwig van Beethoven is remembered for a variety of personal peculiarities – his wild hair, his explosive temper, his chaotic living arrangements (it is said that he changed residences between seventy and eighty times during the thirty-five years he lived in Vienna). His eating habits were distinctive as well. He loved salami as well as macaroni and cheese (parmesan was his cheese of choice). Every Thursday, he was served a very particular bread soup. As composer-conductor Ignaz Seyfried describes it, “Together with [the soup], ten sizable eggs had to be presented to him on a plate. Before they were stirred into the soup, he first separated and tested them by holding them against the light, then decapitated them with his own hand and anxiously sniffed them to see whether they were fresh.”

Beethoven also sometimes enjoyed cooking for guests. Here’s Seyfried again: “After waiting patiently for an hour and a half, while the turbulent demands of their stomachs were with increasing difficulty assuaged by cordial dialogue, the dinner was finally served. The soup recalled those charitable leavings distributed to beggars in the taverns; the beef was but half-done and calculated to gratify only an ostrich; the vegetables floated in a mixture of water and grease; and the roast seemed to have been smoked in the chimney … [his guests] found it barely possible to choke down a few morsels.”

In terms of his diet, however, Beethoven was remarkably fastidious about one thing – his coffee. His biographer and friend Anton Schindler once remarked, “coffee seems to have been the one indispensable item in his diet.” He always prepared his coffee himself, starting every day by counting out exactly sixty coffee beans and grinding them. Hot water would then be poured through the ground coffee via what has been described as a “glass contraption.” It is said that Beethoven’s sixty beans is about ten fewer than what would be used for a modern cup of coffee. Due to modern processing, though, the caffeine content in Beethoven’s coffee was likely far greater than that which we would enjoy today.

Beethoven wasn’t the only historical celebrity who had coffee idiosyncrasies. Remaining in the musical world for a moment, Johann Sebastian Bach was another famous coffee fan. He even went so far as to write a Coffee Cantata (Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211), in which a father demands that his daughter give up her coffee addiction so that she can find a suitable husband. She ultimately decides to marry only when she has found someone who loves coffee as much as she, and the cantata ends with an ode to the delight women take in the drink.

“Ah! How sweet coffee tastes,
more delicious than a thousand kisses,
milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
and, if someone wants to pamper me,
ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!”
(from Bach’s Coffee Cantata)

Theodore Roosevelt is said to have drunk a gallon of coffee in the average day. In 1907, he apparently also coined Maxwell House’s motto “Good To The Last Drop.” Mathematician Paul Erdös, who alternated between espresso shots and caffeine tablets, once said that “A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.” Honoré de Balzac supposedly drank fifty cups of coffee a day, starting at the same time he began his day’s writing, at approximately 1:00 a.m. Voltaire also drank between forty and fifty cups per day. He liked his coffee mixed with chocolate, and paid bonuses to his servants if they managed to secure particularly good coffee beans.

The award for the sweetest brew goes to philosopher and author Søren Kierkegaard. According to his biographer Joakim Garff, “Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled up above the rim. Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid.” He would then swallow the concoction in one gulp.

Sources:
“Beethoven’s Caffeine Addiction” (classical-music.com)
“Beethoven’s Kitchen” (The Daily Beethoven)
“Top 11 Famous Coffee Drinkers from the History Books” (Coffee Makers USA)
“Coffee: From Balzac to Beethoven, it has fueled artistic endeavor for centuries” (slate.com)