Author: Nicole Restle
ca. 4 minutes

Peter Tchaikovsky, probably 1888 | Picture: Atelier E. Bieber, Hamburg, probably by Leonard Berlin (1841–1931), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With Francesca da Rimini Tchaikowsky created a moving and passionate tribute to Francesca and Paolo, the famous lovers from Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Berliner Philharmoniker first performed the piece in 1889 – under the baton of the composer. A performance that had a longer and somewhat delicate backstory... A philharmonic moment.

Art is sometimes a step ahead of politics. On 8 February 1888, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky stood at the podium of the Berliner Philharmoniker as the conductor of his own works. This, his first public appearance in concerts in the German capital, was a major event. 

The critic of the Neue Musikzeitung rejoiced: “Now, at last, he has seen fit to revive the German-Russian friendship, which had fallen into serious disarray, by appearing in person, at least on the neutral ground of art. That he succeeded to a certain extent is beyond question...” The political relationship between Germany and the Tsarist Empire was difficult in those years, but Tchaikovsky and his music conquered Europe.

A tenacious orchestra chairman

The Berlin audience owed this appearance by Tchaikovsky to the initiative of Otto Schneider, horn player and chairman of the Philharmoniker. He had read in a music journal that the composer was planning a European tour and invited him to Berlin for a concert with his orchestra. Tchaikovsky immediately accepted, but there were some problems in the run-up to the concert. 

The composer had hired the concert agent Dmitri Friedrich, who also represented Benjamin Bilse’s orchestra in Berlin, to organise his tour. Six years earlier, 50 musicians, including Otto Schneider, had parted company with this orchestra under less than amicable circumstances and founded the Berliner Philharmoniker. While Bilse had filled his decimated ranks with new musicians and continued to perform in the Concerthaus in Leipziger Straße, his former musicians went on to become the city's leading orchestra in the Philharmonie in Bernburger Straße.

Friedrich now tried to persuade Tchaikovsky to perform with Bilse. This was not at all out of the question, as the composer held Bilse's orchestra in high esteem, having already heard it several times during previous stays in Berlin. Moreover, Bilse was very committed to Tchaikovsky’s music; among other things, he had performed Tchaikovsky’s orchestral fantasy Francesca da Rimini for the first time in Berlin in 1878. Otto Schneider became aware of Friedrich's efforts on Bilse’s behalf. 

Under no circumstances was his former boss to be allowed to win the contract! Schneider reacted immediately. He wrote to Tchaikovsky imploring him to perform only with the Berliner Philharmoniker as the “best orchestra” in the city: “You owe that to yourself and to your good artistic name”. Tchaikovsky reassured him that he had “resolutely” refused Friedrich and had “decided exclusively on the Philharmoniker”. He confirmed 8 February 1888 as the concert date and also sent along a programme proposal: to open either with the Romeo and Juliet Overture-Fantasy or Francesca da Rimini.

Cool reception of a complicated piece

In early January 1888, he met in Berlin with Otto Schneider, a “very agreeable, friendly gentleman” according to his description, to discuss the more precise modalities of the planned concert. The preparation of the programme was – as Tchaikovsky reported – “fraught with not inconsiderable difficulties”. Tchaikovsky definitely wanted to present Francesca da Rimini, but Schneider advised against it. “He considered it risky to play such a complicated piece at my first appearance in Berlin, which in his opinion would be difficult for the audience to like,” Tchaikovsky wrote in his autobiographical account of a trip abroad in 1888. Schneider k

new what he was talking about, having played in the performance of the work in 1878 as a member of Bilse’s Kapelle and having experienced the audience’s cool reaction to it. His opinion was shared by Hans von Bülow, then chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, and Hermann Wolff, the orchestra’s concert agent. Tchaikovsky bowed to the decision of the three, dispensed with Francesca and conducted Romeo and Juliet instead.

Berlin audiences finally had the opportunity to hear Francesca da Rimini under the baton of Tchaikovsky the following year during the composer’s second major European tour. “The hall was full to overflowing,” the composer wrote to his brother Modest. “The success – a great one, although Francesca did not actually have the effect I was expecting: the orchestra played so wonderfully that it seemed to me that the audience was in raptures for that alone. I heard two or three whistles very clearly.” Tchaikovsky’s report is also consistent with the press reactions.

The critic of the Vossische Zeitung wrote: “We already knew the symphonic poem from Bilse's concerts. This time, too, its impression on us was not a favourable one. In part, it repels us with its violence of expression and tonal qualities, in part it tires us with the endless repetition of insignificant motifs.” Tchaikovsky accepted the press’s verdict calmly. Two days after the concert in Berlin, he travelled on to Leipzig and continued his successful tour through Europe.