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Tchaikovsky and "Othello"

Towards the end of an earlier Forum discussion “Tchaikovsky and Mahler” Antonio Garganese quoted some interesting remarks by Tchaikovsky on Verdi’s Otello. I would like to comment further on some of the issues raised there. What Tchaikovsky attended at the Stadttheater in Lübeck on 31 December 1887/12 January 1888 was a performance not of Verdi’s opera but of the play by Shakespeare, with the famous German actor Ludwig Barnay (1842–1924) in the title role. It is this which he described in his diary (as quoted in that Forum discussion), as well as in a letter to his brother Modest on 1/13 January 1888: “Last night I went to the theatre for Othello. Barnay came for one performance and was good – at some points absolutely wonderful. But what a torturing play. Iago is more than disgusting – there cannot really be such people. The sets are bad. Desdemona not quite hopeless; Iago awful; Rodrigo wonderfully sympathetic; Cassio really funny” (quoted from Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Letters to his Family. An Autobiography, transl. Galina von Meck, London 1981, p. 385). I don’t have access to the book on Tchaikovsky by Ferruccio Tammaro cited by Signor Garganese, so I can’t check how this misunderstanding may have arisen.

Having studied the score of Otello in June 1887 (as we know from the diary entry cited in that Forum discussion), Tchaikovsky first heard Verdi’s opera on the stage at the National Theatre in Prague on 31 January/12 February 1888. In her book on Dvořák (whom Tchaikovsky met for the first time during the interval) Valeriia Egorova writes: “That same evening Tchaikovsky attended a performance of Verdi’s Otello, which he hadn’t heard before. The production featured young singers who were memorable not only by virtue of their fine voices but also because of their splendid acting (Otello was sung by Vladislav Florjansky; Desdemona by Berta Foerstrová-Lautererová; Iago by Bohumil Benoni). Tchaikovsky liked it very much, and it seems to have played a decisive role in his decision to agree to a staging of Evgenii Onegin in Prague.” (V. N. Egorova, Antonin Dvoržak, Moscow 1997, p. 249). (At the Czech première of Onegin, conducted by Tchaikovsky himself on 24 November/6 December 1888, Benoni would sing the title role, Foerstrová-Lautererová was Tat’iana, and Florjansky was Lenskii. At the Czech première of The Queen of Spades, conducted by Adolf Čech in the composer’s presence on 30 September/12 October 1892, Florjansky and Benoni would sing, respectively, Herman and Prince Eletskii).

Christopher Robinson
13/09/2012 21:42

Dear Mr. Robinson,

Thank you for your clarification. I misunderstood reading the Diary of a musician. It was Shakespeare's Othello, not the opera by Verdi. However, even the musicologist Ferruccio Tammaro in his book, he made this mistake. The text speaks Verdi's Otello, but the linked note refers to the letter that I mentioned.

Unfortunately it happens ...


Antonio Garganese
30/09/2012 20:40

I still want to point out again, that I mentioned in my first post. The musicologist Ferruccio Tammaro refers (he writes in note) to the German translation of the 1903 biography of Modest Tchaikovsky ("Das Leben ..."), in the second book, p. 449-50.

I do not have the opportunity to check this text: I know that there is a current American edition: The Life And Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, University Press of The Pacific, 2004

Mr. Robinson refers, however, the book edited by Galina von Meck, and I am sure of your quote (I do not know directly that text).

Thank you again.

Antonio Garganese
30/09/2012 22:02

Finally, and I apologize for these posts in sequence, I just tracked down on the Internet the entire 2004 edition of the biography of Modest. On page 544 agrees with what Mr. Robinson says, and then, being of the same book in 1903, I have argued that the text of the musicologist Ferruccio Tammaro, has been made ​​a mistake. It goes without saying that the number of pages in the various editions is different.


Antonio Garganese
30/09/2012 22:35

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