Sometimes the critics are downright wrong

Tuesday’s post featured the love theme from The Empire Strikes Back and contained the age-old allegation that film composer John Williams is somewhat of a scoundrel when it comes to crediting his inspirations. “Han Solo and the Princess” is undeniably derived from Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, first published in 1878 and debuted three years later under unfortunately auspicious circumstances.

Today, the work is considered the capstone of the nineteenth century’s quartet of immortal violin concertos, following in the footsteps of Beethoven (1806), Mendelssohn (1844) and Brahms (1878). It should be noted that the dedicatee of Brahms’ Violin Concerto, Joseph Joachim, added to this list as “the richest, the most seductive,” the Violin Concerto in G Minor written by Max Bruch and debuted in 1866. And this addition should call all the more attention to the fact that, in the words of that Sesame Street classic, “one of these is not like the others.” Tchaikovsky the Slav’s entrance into this elite circle of Teutonic titans was a slow and unsteady transition.

All this is apparent in an early and widely disseminated review of the debut of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, written by Brahms’ close friend Eduard Hanslick, who suggested the audience had been put through “hell” by the performance. In its most famous line, Hanslick callously claims “Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto brings us for the first time to the horrid idea that there may be music which stinks to the ear.”

We cannot imagine how Hanslick’s savage words struck the famously thin-skinned composer. The Concerto had already scarred him enough, having been rejected by its original dedicatee in an unfortunate and public rebuff which forced the cancellation of the planned debut in March of 1879. In an interview decades later, Leopold Auer denied he dismissed the Concerto as unplayable, but does admit returning to Tchaikovsky a number of edits which addressed “passages which were not suited to the instrument.” Although Tchaikovsky deeply admired Auer, it was published without his alterations, and debuted by a far less famous violinist, Adolph Brodsky.

Leopold Auer eventually did perform the Violin Concerto, but retained the changes he suggested to Tchaikovsky in 1878. Whether the composer ever saw such a performance is uncertain, but Auer claims in the same 1912 interview that he “received absolution” from Tchaikovsky before his death. By that time, of course, the work had already begun to enjoy its acceptance in the European repertoire in spite of the poor reviews of its debut.

Critics can be shocking biased, as in the case of Hanslick’s claim the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto was “odorously Russian.”  The UK’s Daily Telegraph, a hundred years later, ran a review of The Empire Strikes Back by a critic who admitted he hadn’t even seen the first film. Unsurprisingly, all of the Star Wars series’ substance is lost on Eric Shorter, who found the film “devoid of feeling.” It seems a given he didn’t understand the suffering of Chewbacca, who Shorter describes as a “grotesque animal,” as he watches Han Solo lowered into the carbon freezing chamber. At that moment his anguished cry is expressive in a way that words, and even music, can’t so readily express. For all his might the Wookie is helpless to stop the world around him from going to hell.

Shorter’s disconnect from the film’s characters was not uniquely British. In The New York Times, for instance, Vincent Canby claimed “The Empire Strikes Back is about as personal as a Christmas card from the bank.” The Shorter review of the film suggests a bias against science fiction in spirit with Hanslick’s hostility to the forward-facing music of his time, which he dismissed as “music of the future” in an twisted paraphrase of Richard Wagner’s 1860 essay. Hanslick wrote a cold review of Lohengrin and never warmed to Wagner’s enormous big-idea productions, which the composer collected under the concept of gesamtkunstwerk.

Wagner’s vision of a “complete work of art” to encompass theater, music and poetry was realized in the epic Ring of Nebelungen operas, the first opera of which just enjoyed a well-received run at the Minnesota Opera last month. Many people have drawn parallels between Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk and modern cinema. This would surely be lost on Hanslick just as was the larger story arc of Star Wars, with its triumph of the individual spirit over technology, misunderstood by Eric Shorter. At the time of their dismissive reviews, both critics were themselves relics, fast becoming left behind.

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The acceptance of Tchaikovsky into the western canon is still controversial at times, as we touched on here early this year when composer and conductor Pierre Boulez passed away. There remains a perception of Tchaikovsky as an outsider, music for the masses neither European nor Slavic, just as there remains a perception of Star Wars as popcorn-peddling fare without substance.

The Violin Concerto has been widely recorded by many of the modern virtuosos, including very different interpretations by Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler recorded in the 1930s. We recently came across this excellent recording featuring Uto Ughi, who is still a popular conductor in his native Italy, where he is known for his efforts to encourage more people to discover classical music.

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