A People Passing Rude
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8.  ‘Wilful Melancholy’ or ‘a Vigorous and Manly Optimism’?: Rosa Newmarch and the Struggle against Decadence in the British Reception of Russian Music, 1897-1917

Philip Ross Bullock

In the late 19th century, Russian music came to enjoy a particularly prominent place in orchestral concerts in London, especially in the wake of Tchaikovsky’s visit to Cambridge and London in 1893.1 In particular, Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (the ‘Pathétique’) soon became one of the most regularly performed works of modern symphonic music. Colourful, passionate, seductively orchestrated and with an apparent sense of narrative and drama, it rapidly came to enjoy great popularity with the growing audience for modern orchestral works. Yet not all commentators were happy with this development. The composer Hubert Parry, then Professor of Music at Oxford, used his position to write about Slavonic music with undisguised hostility, and his accounts mix racial superiority and Darwinian evolutionary theory with a general disdain for the emotional intensity of such compositions:

One of the most noteworthy features of recent music has been the increase of the taste of the works of semi-civilized peoples; not, indeed, their folk-music, but the imitation of types of classical art by composers who have by habit or descent a great deal of the ‘untutored Indian’ in their natures. The old classical forms […] seem to be infused with new life by the temperamental qualities of Slavs and Czechs and such races. But the products are strangely mixed. It is obvious that when the most cultured audiences prefer the music of the less developed races to their own, a lowering of the standard of their artistic perception and taste is implied, and a lessening of their sympathy with the productions of the best of their own composers is sure to follow.2

Parry’s most consistent target was Tchaikovsky. In keeping with many British prejudices about music, Parry described Tchaikovsky as having an ‘abnormally sensitive nature’, and detected in the colours and harmonics of the Sixth Symphony ‘the very profoundest mental gloom’, as well as ‘the despair which must accompany the admission of incapacity of self-mastery’.3 A particular factor soon complicated Tchaikovsky’s British reception. Although it would be some time before news of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality became widely known in Britain,4 British attitudes to music were predisposed to see music as a dangerously effeminate and morally dubious occupation. An article published in The Musical Times in August 1889 and entitled ‘Manliness in Music’ amply reveals the kinds of prejudices that faced anybody wishing to embark the serious pursuit of music as a career:

Few things have contributed more effectively to perpetuate in this country the prejudice against the musical profession […] than the impression that musicians are a class wanting in the manlier quantities. In a country like England, where devotion to athletics forms a cardinal tenet of the national creed, such an impression cannot fail to have operated greatly to the prejudice of the art—indeed, of all arts, for there are many excellent people with whom the term ‘artist’ is simply a synonym for ‘Bohemian’ or ‘black sheep.’ They are so firmly persuaded that exclusive devotion to the study of music is inevitably attended by a weakening of moral and physical fibre that they avoid all personal contact or association with such persons.5

The article provoked a reply from one particularly John Bull-ish character:

My own experience has taught me that immediately after that excess of feeling which has of its own force taken shape in the poem or tone-picture, the gun, the bicycle, the football or cricket ball, the rod and line, or the gloves are the best possible antidotes to the poisons of sedentary occupation and passions that alternately feed and waste the energies of life.6

Seen as either an activity for itinerant foreign musicians or as a form of feminine domestic accomplishment, music was often interpreted as un-British and effeminate. Men who wished to take up musical careers were obliged to project virile identities and write strongly nationalist music; Elgar would be the prime example here, as the work of recent scholars has amply demonstrated.

The link between music, sentiment and homosexuality became a key concern for many turn-of-the-century writers. Edward Carpenter, for instance, argued that ‘the defect of the male Uranian, or Urning, is not sensuality—but rather sentimentality. The lower, more ordinary types of Urning are often terribly sentimental; the superior types strangely, almost incredibly emotional’.7 This sentimentality was, according to Carpenter, crucial in turning the homosexual towards the arts as a mean of self-expression and personal satisfaction. The homosexual, he argued, had ‘the artist’s sensibility and perception’, and was ‘often a dreamer, of brooding, reserved habits, often a musician, or a man of culture, courted in society, which nevertheless does not understand him’.8 Of all the arts, it was in fact music that marked out the modern homosexual, and Tchaikovsky in particular:

As to music, this is certainly the art which in its subtlety and tenderness—and perhaps in a certain inclination to indulge in emotion—lies nearest to the Urning nature. There are few in fact of this nature who have not some gift in the direction of music—though, unless we cite Tschaikowsky, it does not appear that any thorough-going Uranian has attained to the highest eminence in this art.9

The potency of this discourse was such that anybody writing about Tchaikovsky was obliged to address the question of the emotional quality of his music, and—by implication—its ability to function as marker of modern sexuality. Moreover, stereotypes linking the emotions, sexuality and music were strongly linked to issues of national identity that tended to portray Russia in terms of a feminised, emotional oriental culture.

The impact of these ideas can be seen particularly in the writings of Rosa Newmarch—Tchaikovsky’s first English-language biographer and the most prominent, consistent and successful advocate of Russian music in turn-of-the-century Britain.10 In many respects, Newmarch subscribes to the dominant view of Tchaikovsky’s music as excessively emotional. In her 1900 biography, she gives the following assessment of Tchaikovsky’s ambiguous status in Britain:

Another source alike of weakness and popularity in Tchaikovsky’s music is his sympathy with the maladie du siècle; his command of every note in the gamut of melancholy. ‘A poet of one mood in all his lays,’ his monotony of pessimism, though it must at times weary the sane-minded individual, seems to engage the public and draw them to him most persistently in his moods of blackest despair.11

Specifically she claims that:

In the Sixth, Tchaikovsky seems to have concentrated the brooding melancholy which is the most characteristic and recurrent of all his emotional phases. Throughout the whole of his music we are never far away from this shadow. Sometimes this mood seems real enough; sometimes it strikes us as merely artificial and rhetorical. But melancholy in some form constitutes the peculiar quality of his genius, and nowhere does it brood more heavily or with more tragic intensity than in the last movement of this symphony.12

Furthermore, she faults his songs for their ‘monotonous vein of sentimental melancholy’, arguing that ‘the great preponderance of the ‘tearful minor’ in his songs suggests an unhealthy condition of mind’. Her description of Tchaikovsky as ‘this gentle and sensitive artist, possessed with an almost feminine craving for approval and encouragement’ even hints at the link between melancholy and sexuality that was so prevalent at the time, as does her reference to ‘his tender-heartedness and the almost feminine sensibility of his nature’.13

Newmarch’s writings are significant because of the way she handles this particular discourse in seemingly contradictory ways. On the one hand, she downplays the importance of melancholy and morbidity in his music—a crucial strategy if establishment doubters such as Parry were to be converted to appreciating a music that Newmarch valued highly. Rejecting rumours about the Sixth Symphony as some sort of autobiographical confession, Newmarch criticised British audiences for their interested in a limited range of Tchaikovsky’s works, and suggested that his reputation for morbidity said more about his listeners than about the composer himself:

We who in England know Tchaikovsky so well—so much too well—by his Sixth Symphony, are disposed to interpret the whole trend of his character by this one dark-toned work, which may reflect—for all we know—as much the tragic historical destinies of his country as the shadow of a personal sorrow. […] I think we shall never appreciate the true greatness of Tchaikovsky until we have forgotten, for a time, the over-wrought emotion of the Sixth Symphony […]. Then perhaps we shall turn with pleasure to the wholesome vigour and dramatic interest of The Tempest; to the poetic sentiment, the intense passion, the poignant—but controlled—melancholy of Francesca da Rimini, one of the most beautiful examples of programme music ever written; and the numerous other interesting works of his best and most robust period. Meanwhile it is good to see Tchaikovsky in a sober, business-like capacity, sane and clear-headed, exercising his critical faculties with a discretion and reserve that goes far to correct any false impressions of his extreme morbid subjectivity.14

As with so many aspects of her work, Newmarch derives her vocation as a writer on Russian music from countering the lazy stereotypes and ingrained prejudices that she encountered.

One the other hand, Newmarch strikingly accepts—albeit partially—the interpretation of Tchaikovsky as an overly subjective composer since she believed that his emotional range was something that British composers could learn from. At the time Newmarch was writing, British music was undergoing what is often termed a renaissance, and Newmarch was keen to play a part in shaping that process:

As to the influence exerted by foreign music on the revival, she thinks that some of our composers have submitted too much to the influence of Brahms, who, although a sincere and natural composer, produces on his disciples the curious effect of making them wearisome, even though he gives them academic respectability. As to young composers, the influence of Russian music has been extensive and salutary. They have learned from Tchaikovsky a certain emotional pessimism and in general the art of effective orchestration.15

Elsewhere, her argument was yet clearer:

The recent cult of Tchaikovsky’s music in this country may have been over-emphasised, but side by side with much imitation of his mannerisms it has left us with a distinctly emotional gain, our younger composers losing under his influence some of the Englishman’s self-conscious horror of ‘giving himself away’; while familiarity with the Russian school in general has imparted immense style and brilliance to our orchestration during the last ten years.16

The ‘emotional pessimism’ of Tchaikovsky’s music was, in Newmarch’s eyes, not a marker of a morbid sensibility, let alone an indication of sexual deviance. Rather, it was a vital and generative influence on the limited emotional range of British music, which was constrained by durable prejudices against music as an art form likely to encourage moral degeneracy.

If Newmarch’s writings on Tchaikovsky show her negotiating astutely between rejecting and endorsing such accounts of music, then her less well-known statements about Rimsky-Korsakov show a more determined attempt to defend Russian music against its British detractors, and to reject accounts of modern Russian music as dangerously melancholic and even worse. Newmarch in fact wrote about Rimsky-Korsakov more than nearly any other figure—there are at least 6 articles or chapters devoted to him in her output, dating from 1897 to 1914.17 Moreover, Rimsky-Korsakov is often held up as the direct opposite of Tchaikovsky on a number of important grounds. Writing in 1905, Newmarch claimed that ‘With a nature to which the objective world makes so strong an appeal, impassioned self-revelation is not a primary and urgent necessity. In this respect he is the antithesis of Tchaikovsky’. Later, she makes the same point a greater length:

Rimsky-Korsakov does not correspond to our stereotyped idea of the Russian temperament. He is not lacking in warmth of feeling which kindles to passion in some of his songs; but his moods of exaggerated emotion are very rare. His prevailing tones are bright and serene, and occasionally flushed with glowing colour. If he rarely shocks our hearts into a poignant realisation of darkness and despair, neither has he any of the hysterical tendency which sometimes detracts from the impressiveness of Tchaikovsky’s cris de cœur.18

By admitting the intensity of Tchaikovsky’s emotional range, Newmarch creates a space where Rimsky-Korsakov can instead be held up as a composer of interest to British audiences. Aware that Russian music was so closely identified with Tchaikovsky (and especially his Sixth Symphony), Newmarch seeks to establish a different account of Russian music that would accord more closely with British taste at the same time as challenging widespread preconceptions. For Newmarch, ‘his music is entirely free from that tendency to melancholy unjustly supposed to be the characteristic of all Russian art’,19 and British composers and critics would do well to listen to his music.

The high point of Newmarch’s espousal of Rimsky-Korsakov, both as a significant figure in his own right and as an acceptable representative of the Russian school, came in her brief 1908 memoir, written after the composer’s death. Her article began by summarising his role in the 1905 Revolution and describing him as ‘a man of the highest ethical ideals, a liberal in the best sense of the word’.20 It ends with her most explicit rejection of the ideas and ideologies that had shaped the reception of Russian music in Britain, against which she sets her own endorsement of Rimsky-Korsakov in strikingly explicit terms:

Of late years English critics have expended a good deal of censure upon the morbid and melancholy tendencies of modern composers. Death and sorrow, unhappy passion—all kinds of impolite and indiscreet tragedy—have incurred their displeasure and caused much shaking of heads over the decadence and pessimism of the younger generation. The influence of Tschaïkowsky has not altogether unjustly been held accountable for some of this wilful melancholy. That being the case, it is strange how few good words have been said in this country on behalf of a composer who combines in his music poetic interest with a vigorous and manly optimism. Rimsky-Korsakov was the embodiment of all those qualities which stage literature and a misinformed Press have taught us not to look for in the Russian character: sincerity, unpretentiousness, refinement, gaiety, and a sweet and healthy outlook upon life.21

Throughout Newmarch’s writings, we see an attempt to link a composer’s biography with an awareness of his musical language. The ‘vigorous and manly optimism’ of Rimsky-Korsakov’s music were allied, in her mind, to the engaged liberalism of his public politics, and offered an alternative account of Russian music that otherwise accorded too great a degree of attention to the supposedly pathological qualities of Tchaikovsky’s music. Moreover, in recommending Rimsky-Korsakov’s music as the embodiment of a kind of liberalism that would not have been out of place in Edwardian Britain, Newmarch was promoting a view of Russia that stressed its proximity to and similarity with values that were wholly and uncontroversially British, and thus set herself against Russophobic view that saw Russia as nothing more than an oriental, barbarian, half-developed interloper within modern Europe.

Ultimately, Newmarch’s attempts to downplay the deviant melancholy of Tchaikovsky and to advocate Rimsky-Korsakov as an alternative figure of interest to modern British critics and composers were unsuccessful. The forces of received opinion were just too strong to be resisted by one woman, however determined. As news of Tchaikovsky’s sexuality because common knowledge, he rapidly lost what little critical favour he had once enjoyed (even if popular audiences remained loyal to his works). Neither did the day come when Rimsky-Korsakov’s works (and especially his operas) began to enjoy the prominence Newmarch felt they deserved. Nonetheless, Newmarch’s writings constitute an important strain not only in writings on Russian music in turn-of-the-century Britain, but also in the development of discourses on the emotions that would continue to shape the theory and practice of music in Britain for some time to come, and indicate the complex interaction of gender, sexuality, emotion and national identity that was so central to the musical renaissance in a country that had long been held to be ‘ohne Musik’.


  1   See, in particular, Gareth James Thomas, The Impact of Russian Music in England, 1893-1929 (unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Birmingham, 2005).

  2   C. Hubert H. Parry, Style in Musical Art (London, 1911), p. 128.

  3   Ibid., pp. 206, 241.

  4   Malcolm Hamrick Brown, ‘Tchaikovsky and His Music in Anglo-American Criticism, 1890s-1950s’, in Alexander Mihailovic (ed.), Tchaikovsky and his Contemporaries: A Centennial Symposium (Westport and London, 1999), pp. 61-73, republished (in revised form) in Sophie Fuller and Lloyd Whitesell (eds.), Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity (Urbana and Chicago, 2002), pp. 134-49.

  5   ‘Manliness in Music’, Musical Times and Singing Class Circular (1 August 1889), pp. 460-1.

  6   Lennox Amott, ‘Manliness in Music’, The Musical Times, 1 October 1889, p. 620.

  7   Edward Carpenter, The Intermediate Sex: A Study of Some Transitional Types of Men and Women (London and Manchester, 1908), p. 13.

  8   Ibid., p. 33.

  9   Ibid., p. 111.

10   Philip Ross Bullock, Rosa Newmarch and Russian Music in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century England, Royal Musical Association Monographs, 18 (Farnham, 2009).

11   Rosa Newmarch, Tchaikovsky: His Life and Works, with Extracts from his Writings, and the Diary of his Tour Abroad in 1888 (London, 1900), pp. 2-3.

12   Ibid., p. 106.

13   Ibid., pp. 30, 25 and 69.

14   Ibid., pp. 112-3.

15   M., ‘Mrs. Rosa Newmarch’, The Musical Times, 1 April 1911, pp. 226-7.

16   Rosa Newmarch, ‘Chauvinism in Music’, The Edinburgh Review (July 1912), pp. 101.

17   Rosa Newmarch, ‘Rimsky-Korsakov: A Biographical Sketch’, The Musical Standard (6 March 1897), pp. 152-3; (13 March 1897), pp. 166-8; ‘Rimsky-Korsakov’, Zeitschrift der internationalen Musikgesellschaft, VII, no.1 (October 1905), pp. 9-12; ‘The Development of National Opera in Russia: Rimsky Korsakov’, Proceedings of the Musical Association, XXXI (1904–5), pp. 111-29; ‘Rimsky-Korsakov, Nicholas Andreievich’, in J.A. Fuller Maitland (ed.), Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, IV (London, 1908), pp. 102-5; and ‘Rimsky-Korsakov: Personal Reminiscences’, Monthly Musical Record, XXXVIII (August 1908), pp. 172-3.

18   ‘Rimsky-Korsakov’, p. 10, and ‘The Development of National Opera in Russia: Rimsky Korsakov’, p. 115.

19   ‘Rimsky-Korsakov, Nicholas Andreievich’, p. 104.

20   ‘Rimsky-Korsakov: Personal Reminiscences’, p. 172.

21   Ibid., p. 173.