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This moderately attractive brick structure in in the City of Westminster, London, is presently the home of Christie’s auction house. It used to be, however, a French-run hotel called the Dieudonné (the God-Given, no less), and this is where, according to a letter Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote to the London-based Russian singer Alexandra Svyatlovskaya on April 13, 1893, the great composer “usually” stayed when in London. Here is what he wrote specifically: “I usually stop in London at the Hotel Dieudonné somewhere near St. James Hall, although I simply can’t remember the street.” We can tell you it was Ryder Street and that the address was No. 9. Actually, another letter written a month or so later throws some confusion into things, but it would appear that it is a matter of the composer’s confusion. In any case, Tchaikovsky wrote to his friend and confidant, the pianist Alexander Ziloti that he was staying at the Dieudonné and gave the address as “Redgent Street.” To my knowledge there is only, and has only been, a “Regent” Street in London. And, in any case, all sources provide Ryder Street as the location of the Dieudonné. I think we can conclude that Tchaikovsky, although a flawless master of musical notes, was less than flawless when it came to other manners of signs and markers. One of the reasons why Tchaikovsky seemed unable to properly remember the address of his favorite hotel might have been that he, apparently, did not think much of London. In that same letter to Ziloti, he wrote, “I travel to London and Cambridge with uncommon aversion.” (Please note that the English translation that Wikipedia offers of this sentence is incorrect.) A brief check of various contradictory – as usual – sources indicates that Tchaikovsky stayed here at least in 1888 and 1893. He may have stayed here one other time as well.
Peter Gordon’s book Musical Visitors to Britain has the following to say about Tchaikovsky’s 1888 sojourn:
“He left Paris in a snowstorm on 19 April 1888 for the Channel Crossing from Calais and boasted that he was the only passenger who was not sea-sick. For his five-day stay in London, Tchaikovsky chose the luxurious Hotel Dieudonné in Ryder St., off Piccadilly, and within walking distance of the St. James Hall where he was to conduct. The two rehearsals had proved to be difficult, partly because of language problems, as Tchaikovsky spoke little English, and partly due to his less than perfect conducting technique… He wrote to his brother Modest two days later: ‘The concert was a brilliant success.’ He was called back three times after performing the Serenade, and London audiences acknowledged the presence of a gifted musician in their midst.”
Gordon offers up several quotes reminding us of the low esteem in which Tchaikovsky held London. On May 29, 1893, he wrote to his nephew of once again being in “this quite horrible city” where he could “never find anything” – “no men’s lavatories, no money exchange offices; it was with difficulty that I found a hat to fit my head.” Gordon also quotes a long letter that Tchaikovsky wrote describing the unrelenting, nasty fog that made him feel as if he were “sitting in a dismal underground dungeon.”
“Even without the fog, I find London very antipathetic,” Gordon quotes him as writing.
David Brown’s Tchaikovsky: The Man and his Music tells a similar story about the composer’s 1888 stay in London, concluding with this: “In London he had been spared the social round that had been forced on him in France, but instead found himself often bored, and London itself cheerless.” This is despite the fact that the promoters who had brought Tchaikovsky to London were so pleased with the results that they voluntarily increased the agreed-upon honorarium from £20 to £25. Writes Brown: “Though [Tchaikovsky] had conducted in only one concert, he would find that his popularity had become greater in Britain than in any other foreign country than the United States.”
The importance of Tchaikovsky’s personal presence in London to his international reputation is borne out in Gareth James Thomas’s PhD dissertation, The Impact of Russian Music in England, 1893-1929. Thomas writes:
“The first Russian composer to enter the broader English public’s consciousness was Tchaikovsky but the appreciation of his music was initially hampered by the somewhat sporadic presentation of each new work. The first major work to be heard in England was the First Piano Concerto (1874-75) in 1876, to be followed by the fantasy overture Romeo & Juliet (1869-70) and the Violin Concerto (1878) presented to London on 4 November 1876 and 8 May 1882 respectively, but neither appears to have attracted much attention. The publication of a number of piano pieces in 1883 (including Chant sans paroles Op. 2 No. 3, the first in England) and in July 1886 the 12 Morceaux Op. 40 and his most famous song, None but the lonely heart (Op. 6 No. 6), no doubt marked Tchaikovsky’s entrance into the wider conscience of the English musical public and by the end of the decade a nascent interest in his music is apparent, to which the Philharmonic Society responded by inviting Tchaikovsky to London. On 22 March 1888 Tchaikovsky made his first professional visit to London to conduct a concert at the Philharmonic Society. Despite his questionable celebrity his music was an immediate success with audience and musicians alike. The new works presented were the Serenade for Strings (1880) and the Theme and Variations Finale from the Third Suite (1884). Tchaikovsky’s rise was regarded alongside the more general interest that had developed in Slavonic music, as Joseph Bennett observed: ‘Nothing in the musical world is more interesting than the achievements and promise of the Sclavonic [sic] peoples, who only within a recent period have attracted notice to themselves in any special degree. That they are now closely watched by amateurs of thoughtful and far-seeing minds is due to the appearance among them of unusual talent, and to the steady manner in which Sclavonic compositions are making progress.'”
It was in and around these walls at Ryder Street that Tchaikovsky took significant steps in making the transition from obscure foreign visitor in London to one of the most popular composers of his, or any other, age.