Category Archives: Architecture

Erdman and Mayakovsky at the Hotel D’Europe, St. Petersburg

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There are surely 1001 tales I could tell about Russian writers, musicians, painters, actors, directors, and architects at the famed Hotel D’Europe in St. Petersburg. Who hasn’t stayed here at one time or another? And even if they didn’t stay here, who only hasn’t dined in the famed dining room on the top floor? Even I have done that. It wasn’t much of a restaurant when I was there in 1979, but it beat the hell out of almost all the rest of the slop joints in town at that time. I have a hunch that these days the restaurant is back in favor as a St. Petersburg hotspot. I’ll never know that for a fact, however, because I won’t be going back there again.
Today we go way-way back in the time machine to the late 1920s. Waiting to greet us are two of the most celebrated writers of the time – the poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky and the playwright Nikolai Erdman. Our conduit, our gondolier on the time machine taking us back, is Valentin Pluchek, then a young actor in the company of the Meyerhold Theater. But before we get all the way back to the 1920s, let’s jump ahead almost 60 years exactly to when you will find me sitting in Pluchek’s office in the Satire Theater in Moscow. The date is October 3. The year is 1988. One of the first things I notice about Pluchek, the theater’s artistic director, is how much he looks like his cousin Peter Brook. There is no mirror image there, but the resemblance cannot be denied. I had only just recently heard about that familial connection and it didn’t take more than a quick look to realize it was true. My understanding is that the two directors got together privately on rare occasion, but neither of them ever made a big deal about it. That’s not what Pluchek and I are talking about today, however. I am there to pick his brain about Nikolai Erdman. I’m starting my work on my PhD dissertation about Erdman, and I want to hear anything and everything I can from anyone who ever crossed paths with him. Pluchek, who was 79 at the time, was one of the first people to respond to my queries. I’ve always been grateful to him for that. He could have brushed off a kid from the States, but he didn’t. He responded immediately to my request for an interview, and he spent a good deal of time with me. I took that as a sign of his respect for Erdman. He was happy to contribute to a fuller picture of the writer’s life and work. Pluchek not only told some good anecdotes (one follows soon), but he shared some wonderful insights into Erdman’s writing. I published the bulk of my interview with Pluchek in the Russian periodical Contemporary Drama in the late 1990s. [The bibliographical information for those who might want to track it down: “Vspominaya Erdmana,” Sovremennaya dramaturgiya, No. 1 (1997), 227-242.] Pluchek also pulled a few rare items out of his archive and presented them to me as gifts – a program and a poster from the short-lived production he did of Erdman’s The Suicide in 1982. It lasted for just six performances before it was banned.

My favorite story of all those Pluchek told that day  concerned  Erdman and  Mayakovsky.  It involved an incident that took place during the Meyerhold Theater’s tour of Leningrad where, among other things, they performed the premiere of Mayakovsky’s newest  play, The  Bedbug. Here is the way the story made it into my book, Silence’s Roar: The Life and Drama of Nikolai Erdman. Pluchek, who performed in Meyerhold’s production of The Bedbug, is the de facto narrator here, although I didn’t put his words into quotes in the book:
“When the performance had ended, the troupe waited in vain for the author to come out and accept the plaudits of the crowd. Later, when they returned to the hotel they found Mayakovsky and Erdman engrossed in a game of billiards. Asked why he hadn’t come to the performance, Mayakovsky replied, ‘Because I need the money. And right now I’m going to whip this fop, here. I need money more than I do fame.'” The hotel in question was the Hotel D’Europe, where Mayakovsky had put up for the duration of the Meyerhold Theater’s performances in Leningrad.
But this was not the only time that the Hotel D’Europe played a role in the Erdman-Mayakovsky relationship. I again quote from my book:
“On April 13, [1930], the eve of Mayakovsky’s suicide in Moscow, Erdman read
The Suicide to a small group of actors and officials of the Moscow Art Theater in a room at the Yevropeiskaya Hotel in Leningrad. In a twist of fate that now rings with almost mystical overtones, this reading took place in the very room that Mayakovsky had occupied on his last trip to Leningrad.”
Could that have been the same night that Mayakovsky “whipped that fop” Erdman at a game of billiards?
The Hotel D’Europe, as a plaque on the wall informs us, was designed by architect Ludwig Frantsevich Fontana in the 1870s and reconstructed by the architect Fyodor Lidval (aka Johan Fredrick Lidvall) between 1907 and 1914. It is located at 1 Mikhailovskaya Street, right between Nevsky Prospect and the famous St. Petersburg monument to Alexander Pushkin.

 

 

Vasily Polenov and the Parthenon, Athens

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It has been called the most influential architectural structure in history; it has been called the most beautiful. I can only trust that the former claim is true, while the latter, I will say can only be understood as an understatement. Beauty, as great as the concept is, is not nearly sufficient to describe the impact one feels when standing beneath the columns of the Parthenon.
My approach to the Parthenon today is by way of the Russian painter Vasily Polenov (1844-1927). I recently wrote about a painting Polenov did of the Erechtheion, a structure right next to the Parthenon, in the course of approximately eleven days in the spring of 1882. Now I would like to spend a few moments considering the painter’s rendition of the Parthenon itself, done at the same time. Now hanging in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, it is the first image above.
I am pretty sure, though not certain, that Polenov painted the Parthenon’s short western face and the longer northern facade. This is the angle that all visitors first come upon when they enter the Acropolis through the Propylaea. (See photo immediately below.) If I am right about this, then the tiny fragment of a building we see in the far left of Polenov’s painting is of the Erechtheion, the other structure that interested him these days.
However, one could also argue that the painting was done from the “back” side, from the east, capturing the short eastern face and the longer southern facade. (My second photo above is taken from this angle.) These two images do fit, don’t they, because you see the damaged middle columns in the very same place in both the photo and the painting. But that can be explained away easily enough, for the major restorations undertaken by Nikolaos Balanos from 1894 to 1933 had not even yet begun when Polenov visited the Acropolis in 1882. And the middle columns had been severely damaged on both sides ever since the Venetians tossed a bomb up into Turkish ammunition reserves in the Parthenon on 26 September 1687. In fact, the structure then lay in ruins for nearly 200 years before the first minor attempts at renovation were undertaken in 1845. But it was not until the Balanos campaign that major repairs were done. (This goes beyond my topic, but I can’t help but mention it: It is considered that, for all his wonderful intentions, Balanos may have done more harm that good with his “repairs” because of the materials and methods he employed. But we’ll skip over that, now.) If, indeed, this is the angle from which Polenov worked, then the fragment of some structure in the far left of the painting would be a corner of the Propylaea.

Still, I am inclined to think that in The Parthenon. The Temple of Athena Parthenos, Polenov painted the western and northern facades. There are several reasons for this (aside from it being the most common view that all visitors see). The expanse to the left of Polenov’s Parthenon, to say nothing of that in front of it, is very much like the space that separates the structure from the Erechtheion and the Propylaea. The southern side has quite limited space, for here the Parthenon stands close to the Acropolis wall, overlooking the old Roman theater and the Greek Dionysian theater. The tiny figures of trees in the distance would correspond to several trees that still stand on that (far eastern) end today.
The loose stones we see in the foreground of the painting probably don’t tell us a lot. There are quite a few stones strewn around at both ends of the Parthenon today.
Polenov saw more of the (partially restored?) tympanum atop the Parthenon than we do today – that is the flat triangle space under what should be a roof, and over (what should be) the frieze. These are areas that once displayed beautiful sculptures and bas reliefs, many of which were cut out crudely and shipped back to England by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, in the early 19th century. These items, many of which are displayed in the British Museum in London, are known as the Elgin Marbles. There is a concerted effort now underway to get the British government to return the artworks. The possibility of this actually happening has increased thanks to Brexit, although one still assumes the chances are still slim it will happen. In any case, it has become a topic of regular diplomatic conversation nowadays.
In my previous piece about Polenov and Athens I quoted a few lines from his diaries of the time. So as not to repeat that here, but to provide as full a picture of Polenov and Athens as possible, I insert here what Polenov noted in his diary on a second trip to Athens on July 16 (July 29 Old Style), 1911:
Athens is now a large European city, with marvelous Greek buildings. We spent the mornings yesterday and today on the Acropolis. Very hot, but I work. In general, painting eases the exhaustion of traveling, and in recent days my exhaustion has increased due to the heat and everything I have seen… Tomorrow we go to Delphi…
I don’t know what “but I work” refers to. As far as I know, Polenov only did the two paintings in the Acropolis in 1882. If anyone can shine a light on my ignorance, there’s a place to do it in the comments below. Language Hat?

 

Ivan Bunin at the Acropolis, Athens, Greece

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Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) traveled to Athens during a tour – as was said then – of the “East” in 1907. According to “Antique Motifs and Images in the Work of I.A. Bunin,” a paper by Natalya Yablonovskaya, the journey had direct influence on Bunin’s later writing. She mentions at least eight poems that grew out of the experience, although a full listing of works bearing the mark of his experience of, and interest in, Greece is much larger. Bunin left a vivid description of his traveling company’s approach to Athens by sea, the ascent to the Acropolis in a carriage, and the entry into it on foot through the Propylaea. It was included in the book, The Shadow of a Bird, a collection of journal entries from 1907 to 1911.
When I recently visited the Acropolis for the first time, I made an attempt, if only on a small scale, to approach it as Bunin had. I, too, was stunned at my first glimpse of the Acropolis from afar; I, too, rose up the circular paths to the entrance (although on foot); I, too, took note of the “slippery slabs” leading to the Propylaea; I, too, noted bright flowers sticking up through slabs of marble. One thing I experienced in reverse: Bunin arrived in Athens by ship and gazed up at the Acropolis from afar; I, on the other hand, only looked back out to sea once I already stood amidst the stately ruins of the Parthenon, the Erechtheion and the Propylaea. I, too, noted the “purple-blue flame of the sky.” I, too, exclaimed, “My Lord, how simple, old and beautiful it is!”
In short, my own reaction to visiting the Acropolis was quite similar to that of Bunin. It felt as if the gods had come to consort with me. As if they had raised me up to give me a one-time-only glimpse of the world from their vantage point. I perceived the visit as a privilege. I felt at times that I was walking on eggs, and that it was my responsibility not to leave even the slightest crack behind me. At the same time, I felt very much at home. I also felt that way about the thousands of others who wandered amongst the marble walls and columns with me – this was a place built for us all, but it was a place that encouraged us to dig down deep inside ourselves to find the proper response.
My first glimpse of the Acropolis came the night before my wife Oksana and I walked up the mountain to visit it. We were in a cab that had been zigzagging through the narrow streets of Athens for so long I think we despaired we would ever leave that car again. Then I gasped and Oksana – as she told me just then – burst into tears. We looked out the window of our taxi which had just taken a sharp right turn and there it was, floating over us like a brilliant ship of light in the black night sky. It was an impossible vision – as though Gulliver on a self-illuminated flying machine was making a night landing in Athens. Bunin’s first glimpse was memorable; I wouldn’t trade it for my own.
The text that follows, a short excerpt from The Shadow of a Bird, includes pretty much everything Bunin wrote about his trip to the Acropolis. I accessed it on a Russian blog site about Athens. The translation is mine.

What will the Acropolis be like? All binoculars searched for it, some Greeks on the quarter-deck excitedly pointed their fingers into the distance. I finally discerned something vaguely yellow on a rocky hill, standing lonely behind a sea of ​​roofs in a valley – something like a small wild fortress. And, having gazed upon this naked hill of the Pelasgians, I sensed antiquity for the first time in my life with my whole being.
The horses slowly pull us along the stone chalk road, the pathway crunching underneath us, advancing up the hill in a circular motion and rising all the way up — I look around on all sides at the tanned stone of the walls of the Acropolis and its grooved columns… Finally, the carriage stops right in front of an entrance through a granite wall, behind which a wide staircase of glossy marble rises to the Propylaea and the Parthenon… And for a moment I am lost… Lord, how simple, old and beautiful it is! To the left, in the streaked shadows of the olive trees, stands another carriage. A tall, upright man with binoculars slung over his shoulder, in a gray suit and tropical hat, and a tall thin woman, also in a gray helmet and phyllode-patterned gloves, with a long thin stick in one hand and a book in the other, are directed toward the entrance. But even these most tranquil of people stare with amazed, round eyes at the golden ruins shining before us in the hot blue sky, at the fact that it is so divinely simple and harmoniously piled on the granite fortifications that have grown into the crown of this ‘Altar of the Sun.’ They enter, climb the stairs, growing small among the surviving columns of the Propylaea… I also walk on and look… But I have already seen everything!
“I walk on, but from the steamboat I had already touched the soul of antiquity which created all this. And then the divine perfection of the Acropolis is revealed in a single glance.
“Now I’m walking up the slippery slabs to the Propylaea and the Temple of Victory. I am lost in the boundless expanse of the Aegean Sea and I see from here the small port at Piraeus, and the infinitely distant silhouettes of some blue islands, and Salamis, and Aegina. And when I turn around, I am struck by the blue-purple flame of the sky flowing among the ruins of the temples, among the burnt-golden marble of the colonnades and capitals, among the grooved pillars of such beauty, power and harmony that words are powerless before them. I enter the colossus of the Parthenon splayed open, I see slippery marble slabs, a bright poppy in their crevices… What could create all this if not the sky and the sun?

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“Erechtheion. The Portico of Caryatids,” Vasily Polenov, Athens

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Vasily Polenov (1844-1927) made his painting, Erechtheion. The Portico of Caryatids during his first visit to the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. I have placed a reproduction of the painting at the top of the photos here. Polenov visited Greece in the spring of 1882 at the end of a journey through the ancient world that lasted from November 1881 to April 1882.  A small post on a Russian art site quotes Polenov’s own words about the visit:
We spent eleven days in Athens to April 4… The Acropolis is far from modern Athens, and you can dream of the great events that these buildings witnessed amongst the privacy of the clouds that cover the entire Acropolis. During our stay, the grass bloomed, and the scent of chamomile, which filled the air, delighted me.”
I don’t recall catching the scent of chamomile when I visited the Acropolis last week in mid-December, but the grass was even thicker than the day Polenov made his painting.
One could write a novel about this painting, what preceded it and what has followed since. It involves a marauding Brit in the early 1800s, Polenov’s delicate approach to his work in the 1880s, and even more delicate restorative work that took place in Athens in the 1970s and ’80s.
Polenov’s trip to the Acropolis came some 80 years after a disastrous visit by Lord Elgin, aka, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. At that time, under Ottoman rule, Greece’s archeological riches were vulnerable, and the authorities simply turned a blind eye to the fact that Elgin, over a period of ten years (!), systematically looted and defaced the architectural and artistic riches of the Acropolis. Let us note that Elgin hacked out a full 75 meters of the frieze atop the Parthenon and took it all back to  decorate his home in Scotland! But that is only the beginning of his barbarous activities, which are much too enormous for me to cover in this small blog. Suffice it to say that he also stole one of the famed caryatids that stood on the so-called “porch of the maidens” on the north side of the Erechtheion.  Here Elgin succeeded in chopping out a full figure (second from the left on the front row) and transporting it back to Scotland, while another, the one in the back right, proved harder to remove. His men started hacking and sawing away at it, virtually destroying it, then leaving its pieces behind when they realized it was no longer of use to them. You can see what is left of this figure in the first photo below – the caryatid in the far back exists now only in shards. I’ll explain that photo in a minute, but let’s jump to Polenov at this point.
When the famed Russian painter set up his easel to paint the caryatids of the Erechtheion, they were still missing the sister who had been hauled away by Lord Elgin. In order to cover that breach, Polenov took up an angle that allowed him to smudge over the missing sculpture. Interestingly, he also seems to have ignored the figure that was so badly damaged in the back. It simply doesn’t exist in his painting, although, if I understand correctly, the crudely repaired sculpture had been put back into place by then.
I was not able, in my photos, to replicate the exact angle from which Polenov painted his work. Guard ropes have been put up in order to keep people away from the sculptures.

Back now to the first photos in the block immediately above. These were taken in the gorgeous new Acropolis Museum that stands below the south side of the Acropolis. Here, on the second floor, now stand the original caryatids, the ones that Polenov painted. They were moved off-site from the Acropolis in the 1970s and 1980s when Greek restorers made the rather momentous and potentially controversial decision to replace the originals with copies that would be as exact as possible. The reason for this is that modern pollution was wreaking havoc on the sculptures, destroying them much more slowly, but ever as inevitably, as Lord Elgin. By moving the originals into a controlled environment, the restorers were able to stop the deterioration and even turn back the clock in some little way – by modern methods they continue to clean the caryatids little by little of the junk that has built up on them over the centuries and millennia. The reproduction work carried out by the restorers – including creating a copy of the stolen caryatid that now stands in the British Museum – was so detailed and so successful that the entire project was given the Europa Nostra award for restoration.
So it is that, while one can stand almost in the place where Polenov stood when making his painting, in order to to gaze upon the actual monuments that he painted, one must go the new Acropolis Museum.
My wife Oksana and I wandered back and forth at length in front of the original figures. We apparently were so intent in our actions that a museum guard came up to ask what we were doing. Oksana explained to her that I was planning on writing a blog about a painting of the caryatids by a famous Russian painter, and to make her point better, she googled Polenov’s painting and showed it to the guard, who was fascinated by the information. While Oksana still had a reproduction of the painting on her phone screen, I took it and held it up to the caryatids to show them how Vasily Polenov had depicted them some 135 years ago. I suspect that made little impression on the caryatids, but it did make an impression on the three of us standing beside them. Somehow 2,500 years of history all come together in that one moment.
As an epilogue let me bring in two other items.
1) First is brand new news indicating that the names “Parthenon” and “Erechtheion” – which we have used for thousands of years – may actually be incorrect. A team of Dutch scholars announced a week or so ago that the ancient Greeks used the word “Parthenon” to refer to what we know as the Erechtheion, while they would have used the word “Hekatompedon” to refer to what we have long called the Parthenon. If they are right, Polenov’s painting should actually be called Parthenon. The Portico of Caryatids, while his painting Parthenon, about which at a later date, should be called Hekatompedon.
2) Finally, sentiment in Greece supporting the return of the so-called “Elgin marbles” continues to grow. In November 2019 the Greek prime minister met with his Chinese counterpart, who agreed to support Greece’s claim to the cultural monuments. As recently as January 2019, the British Museum claimed it would “never return” the marbles, rather bizarrely describing their original removal as a “creative act.”  If you’re interested in following efforts to return the Parthenon marbles, see Jim Mellas’s Reunite The Parthenon Facebook page.

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Lidia Yavorskaya, London

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I have Natalia Dissanayake and her wonderful book Russian Lives in London (Russkie sud’by v Londone) to thank for today’s post. The photos have been lying around in my archive for several years, waiting for a reason to be used. Surely I had a reason to take them – there must have been some Russia-connected event that took place here at some time – mostly likely a performance of the Ballet Russes. Then I happened to pick up Dissanayake’s book the other day and, as I often do, I leafed through the pages looking for interesting stories. It’s chock full of them, I’m never disappointed. And sure enough, on pages 290 to 292 I came upon the tale of Lidia Yavorskaya, about whom I knew very little other than the fact that history claims she was a model for Anton Chekhov’s Arkadina.
Yavorskaya was a star in Moscow at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, and she had a good deal of success in London as well. Born in Kiev in 1871, she studied with Vladimir Davydov in St. Petersburg, and in Paris with François Jules Edmond Got, an actor of the Comédie-Française. With her parents opposing her desire to be an actress, she simply forged ahead. She married – against her parents’ will – and quickly divorced him when it became clear he did not support her either. She debuted in 1893 in the city we now know as Tallinn, Estonia, and quickly found herself playing star roles in Moscow at the famed independent (non-state) Korsh Theater. Two years later Alexei Suvorin invited her to St. Petersburg to take the lead with his troupe in the Literary-Art Circle Theater. She remained in St. Petersburg for over a decade, continuing her successes. However, she once again showed her independence by taking the brave step of leaving her position at the theater when she refused to perform in a play that she deemed to be anti-semitic. She performed for several years in a theater of her own making, the Novy, or New, Theater, where she favored cutting-edge, contemporary drama – Anton Chekhov, Lev Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Henrik Ibsen, plus plays by her husband Vladimir Baryatinsky. According to Dissanayake, the New Theater was particularly popular with young people. However Yavorskaya and Baryatinsky struck out in 1907 on a series of tours that took them to Russian provincial cities as well as, eventually, Vienna, Paris and London. It was in 1909 that they arrived in London. According to Dissanayake:
“[Yavorskaya’s] small troupe had such success at His Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket Street, that people began urging the actress to perform in English. She spoke French and German fluently, but she had to put a good deal of work into her English pronunciation and, despite excellent results, she limited herself to playing foreigners. She debuted in John Pollock’s Rosamund and a one-act play by her husband, Nablotsky’s Career, at the Little Theatre on what was then known as John Street. There she also played Nina Zarechnaya in The Seagull, and at the Kingsway Theatre staged the first production in England of Chekhov’s vaudeville The Bear.”
So, there we have Yavorskaya at His Majesty’s Theatre, as it was known from 1901 to 1952. It is, of course, currently known as Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Life, however, interrupted what looked like was going to be a sustained period of success for Yavorskaya. Her husband, homesick, headed back to St. Petersburg at the beginning of World War I. She followed him, but was blindsided when he asked for a divorce in 1916. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church granted Baryatinsky’s request and forbade Yavorskaya from remarrying for some time. She, however, always the rebel, headed back to London in 1918 after getting the Russian government to remove the ban, and married the playwright John Pollock in 1920. She died a year later of throat cancer at the age of 50. She is buried in a church cemetery in Old Shoreham, Sussex.
There are plenty of opinions about Yavorskaya. One Russian site boils down many of them into a single paragraph:
The popular dramatic actress Lidia Yavorskaya was one of the most controversial figures in the theatrical world of the early 20th century. One could not deny her astonishing work ethic and dedication, but that was combined with vanity, egocentrism and ambition. Theater critic Suvorin called her a phony creature, made of pretense and envy. Chekhov considered her an intelligent woman, but an overly loud and mannered actress. Despite this, they had an affair and it is said that Yavorskaya served as the prototype for Arkadina in Chekhov’s The Seagull.”
Other sites collect a whole bunch of catty comments about Yavorskaya by famous or semi-famous people. But if you know how to read these things, you see the limitation is stronger on the part of the writer or speaker than on the part of the individual being described. There is something mean and petty in a lot of the comments. I suspect we see more of the actress in Dissanayake’s description of her:
She was very interesting, with big, gray-blue, ‘mermaid’ eyes, a quick smile, golden curls, a beautiful figure, light, energetic movements and a kind of snake-like grace. Those who loved her said, ‘She’s no beauty, she’s better.'”
After returning to London in 1918 Yavorskaya was very outspoken in her opposition to the new Soviet regime, even as she did much to collect money to help feed the hungry in the Soviet Union. She was the chair of the Britain-Poland-Galicia fond, and she created the Society for Aid to Russian Artists, Victims of the Bolshevik Regime.
The anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin dubbed her Lidia Miss Freedom (Lidia Svobodnitsa) for her convictions and actions.
In her final years, Yavorskaya continued to perform in London at such venues as the Royalty Theatre on Dean St., the Coliseum on St. Martin’s Lane, the Ambassadors Theatre on West Street, the Scala on Charlotte Street, and elsewhere. It was at these latter two venues that she performed the title role in Anna Karenina, one of the highlights of her career.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff at the Savage Club, London

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Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) had four years left to live, but when he performed on tour in the UK in 1939 he was looking so haggard that even the newspapers were writing about it. Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music pulls together several comments about the pianist’s declining health at this time, such as one paper calling him a “weary titan,” and Rachmaninoff himself admitting in an interview in the Northern Echo that he had been ill for five days straight and wasn’t entirely sure he would be well enough to travel to Middlesbrough, let alone perform.
Perform he did, however, and apparently after the concert he told friends he was back to normal health again. It was either a case of Rachmaninoff brushing off comments of concern, or it was an example of that miracle known as “the stage heals.” Many a performer has walked onto a stage feeling under the weather; many have come back off feeling quit chipper.
Of course there is that one last time it doesn’t work, and that moment would come upon Rachmaninoff at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville on Feb. 17, 1943. Having pushed himself farther than he could go, he had to cancel the rest of that tour and return home to Los Angeles where he would die five weeks later.
But back to the UK in 1939. In February and March of that year Rachmaninoff undertook a tour that saw him perform 12 concerts in 25 days. He opened on Feb. 16 in Birmingham and appears to have concluded in Cardiff on March 12.  Other cities were London (Feb. 18), Liverpool (Feb. 19), Sheffield (Feb. 21), Southampton (Feb. 24), Middlesbrough (Feb. 28), Glasgow (Mar. 2), Edinburgh (Mar. 4), Oxford (Mar. 7), Manchester (Mar. 9), London (Mar. 11). Scott Davie’s wonderful Rachmaninoff site lists the Cardiff show on the 12th, although I have seen comments elsewhere stating that the March 11 London  performance at the old Queen’s Hall (destroyed two years later during the bombing of London) was the last of the UK concerts for that tour – and his last ever performances in the UK. It is after the London show – where his performances included Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and some of his own works – that Rachmaninoff would be taken to the Sydney Savage Club in the heart of London at One Whitehall Place, which you see pictured here from several angles. Fortunately, a monster delivery truck parked smack dab in front of the entrance for the entire time I was shooting, finally left after I decided to leave, so I ran back and got a few of the straight-on shots that you see here.
On the evening he spent at the Savage Club, Rachmaninoff came as the guest of his good friend, Odessa-born pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch. The Evening News reported the event as follows: “After his concert at Queen’s Hall on Saturday afternoon he was taken to the Savage Club, where, to his surprise, they made him an honorary member. A musician friend of mine who was a guest tells me it was amusing to see the great pianist’s reaction to the carefree abandon of the gathering.” Even today the Savage Club’s website still lists Rachmaninoff as an honorary member, along with Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Dickens, Dylan Thomas and others. Thanks to Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leda, the authors of A Lifetime in Music, we know it was Moiseiwitsch that brought Rachmaninoff to the club because they inserted that information in brackets in the middle of the Evening News report.

Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963) can now occasionally be found in “forgotten pianist” lists, although that seems awfully harsh. He was a deep admirer of Rachmaninoff, who was also a Moiseiwitsch fan, the former calling the latter his “spiritual heir.” As for Moiseiwitsch’s performances of Rachmaninoff’s works, here is what Grammophone wrote in a review of  The Moiseiwitsch-Rachmaninov Recordings, 1937-43: “No pianist other than the composer himself has been more intimately associated with Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and Paganini Rhapsody than Moiseiwitsch. And, as a corollary, no other pianist has played either work with such a feline ease and sensitivity.” Fortunately for us, Abram Chasins, a U.S. composer, pianist, author, and radio executive, did a radio interview with Moiseiwitsch in 1950 that we can still listen to on YouTube.
There Moiseiwitsch sheepishly tells of his first meeting with Rachmaninoff following his own piano recital at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1919. He had actually attended Rachmaninoff’s performance a week earlier but was too embarrassed to approach the great man. Rachmaninoff had no such qualms and came backstage with a friend to introduce himself after the Moiseiwitsch recital. Benno opines that it was his performance of three or four of Rachmaninoff’s preludes that was the “link that started our friendship.”
When I last saw him it was the year when the war broke out and he was in London in March, and he told me he was coming back in September to play his First Concerto for the first time. So although I studied it – they wanted me to play – I said I would not play, because I want Rachmaninoff to give the first performance. So we waited, and, of course, Rachmaninoff went back to America and [there] was no likelihood of his coming to play in England. So I was the first to play this work, in the new version at any rate.”
Later in the interview – which is definitely worth listening to in full – Moiseiwitsch tells more about the last time he saw Rachmaninoff in his hotel room – I’m guessing this would have been a day or two after the visit to the Savage Club. The two gossiped about numerous of their pianist colleagues, praising each for something, but damning each for something else. As Moiseiwitsch was leaving the room, Rachmaninoff said, “Thank you!”
No, thank you,” said the younger of the two men.
But Rachmaninoff continued, “No, I want to thank you because you killed everybody except me!”
To which Moiseiwitsch, clearly more emboldened than at their first meeting 20 years before, shot back, “Wait a moment, next week I’m lunching with [Josef] Hofmann. Then we’ll kill you! So the last I saw of him was mouth wide opened, roaring with silent laughter.”
I would like to acknowledge Natalia Dissanayake’s wonderful book Russian Fates in London (Russkie sud’by v Londone, London, NED, 2016), where I first ran across reference to Rachmaninoff’s visit to the Savage Club on pg. 243. Thanks also to Larissa Itina, who let me run off with her only copy of the book. I’ll have reason to refer to it again in the future.

 

Sergei Rachmaninoff at the Pantages, Hollywood

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On one hand it’s not that big of a deal, Sergei Rachmaninoff making his debut with the LA Philharmonic at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Rachmaninoff played around Los Angeles with some frequency (we’ve written about some of those concerts here), and he played many concerts throughout the United States. And still, there is something with a bit of magic dust about being able to walk up to the corner of Hollywood and Vine in LA and looking down Hollywood Boulevard to see that same Pantages Theater staring back at you, almost, if not exactly, as it might have appeared to Rachmaninoff that late January night in 1940 when, as a pianist, he performed his Piano Concerto No. 2 under the baton of conductor Leopold Stokowski. It is probably fitting that in program that night was also Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff having been something of friendly thorns in each others’ sides for decades by then.
The Pantages is rather worse for the wear at this point in its life. There’s something crass and commercial about it. You look at old photos of it and it has real gravitas, despite, or thanks to, the quirkiness of its architecture. Now it seems a bit squat and cramped in its quarters among other buildings. The advertising marquees plastered all over it don’t help (Hamilton had just opened here for its L.A. run the night before I took these photos). The place needs some paint and some new plaster as it also needs some good buffing up on its metallic features. And still, here it is, the place where Rachmaninoff first teamed up with the L.A. Philharmonic, and where he performed as the great Stokowski looked down over him from his podium.
As always when writing about Rachmaninoff or Stravinsky in L.A., I am grateful to the musician and music scholar Keenan Reesor, who has pretty much said what there is to say about these two composer-pianists and their lives in the Hollywood area. Once again, I lean on Reesor’s paper, “Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky in Los Angeles to 1943,” which is, thankfully, fully accessible on the internet (just do a search and download the PDF). Reesor quotes the L.A. Times music critic Isabel Morse Jones as writing about the evening at the Pantages, “The splendid moments [of the program] came with the playing of Rachmaninoff. His second concerto has so much of nostalgia, of longing for and realization of beauty that hearing him play it created a wave of emotional warmth and appreciation in the listeners such as we seldom enjoy in a concert. The audience stood to applaud this grand and ageless master.”
Some good soul on YouTube restored and remastered a full recording of Rachmaninoff and Stokowski performing the Piano Concerto No. 2, so you can actually get a feel for what Isabel Morse Jones was so excited about that night. I must say, it is remarkable – both the performance and the recording.

The Piano Concert No. 2 is, of course, central in Rachmaninoff’s work. To slight nothing else that he wrote, this is the work that established him and has sustained the often fanatic adoration that his person and his music continue to evoke today. It’s not terribly surprising that this would be true. If you skipped over the link just above, go back now and click on it. Listen for just the shortest amount of time and you will surely hear what I hear – the man himself in his music. Those notes are Rachmaninoff’s heart and soul, his thoughts, his memories, his dreams. He really did have an amazing ability to make his dreams come to life in sound. When Rachmaninoff writes them and then plays them, these are not merely notes. They are a gateway into a man’s vision of life and the world. Does that sound overdone? Have you done what I asked? Are you listening to the man play?
I get a kick out of what one website writes in order to offer, as the title of their blog declares, “A Detailed Explanation of Why Rachmaninov’s Piano Concert No. 2 is an Unassailably Epic Work of Genius.” The piece takes the reader/listener through the entire work, piece by piece, offering bits of explanations along with audio clips to back up the claims. The text begins: “You know the second movement, sure. But this whole concerto is one of the greatest works in the piano repertoire. Even its more reserved moments will have you cradling your head in your hands, begging for mercy.”
The blog reminds us that Rachmaninoff had been devastated when his Piano Concerto No. 1 was badly received. He licked his wounds for a couple of years, even resorting to visiting a hypnotherapist to overcome his depression. Surely he was one of the first artists to employ therapy in order to move on from a perceived defeat to continue his work. The blog picks the tale up with this: “Rachmaninov would have been unable to compose anything were it not for the Derren Brown-esque therapy he received from a man called Nikolai Dahl, to whom the concerto was dedicated. Thanks to his course of hypnotherapy, Rachmaninov was once again capable of smashing out great melodies and crunchy piano parts. The second piano concerto was Rachmaninov’s comeback and, like when Take That came back as a man-band with floppy haircuts, it was a huge commercial smash. Just what he needed.”
For those interested in the therapy story, another site tells the tale in a bit more detail:
Rachmaninov composed it [Piano Concerto No. 2] following a period of deep depression during which he questioned whether he could ever compose again.  Response to his First Symphony – after it was initially performed in St. Petersburg – was extremely negative, sending Sergei Vasilievich into a tailspin.
A brilliant pianist with a famously wide hand span, he began to think performing in concert (or conducting) might be a better career path for him.  Deeply unsettled, he began drinking too much alcohol.  By the end of 1899, he was drinking so much that his hands shook – preventing him from playing the piano.
Recognizing he needed help, Rachmaninov visited a Moscow specialist in ‘neuro-psychotherapy,’ named Nikolai Dahl, whom he regularly saw between January and April of 1900. 
Dr. Dahl reportedly used hypnosis to break Rachmaninov’s lethargy and depression, suggesting to him – during trance therapy – that he should compose a new piano concerto which had been commissioned by a London patron. 
The sessions with Dr. Dahl had the desired effect, prompting Sergei Vasilievich to throw himself into his writing.  Composing the 2nd piano concerto, reportedly with renewed zest, he dedicated it to Dr. Dahl.”
Give that some thought the next time you meander past the Pantages on Hollywood Boulevard.

 

The Almost Russian Theater, Los Angeles, CA

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Among my far-flung searches for places connected to Russian culture this surely is one of my favorite finds. As I was doing my scattershot, though deeply immersive, research this summer on Russian artists in LA., one thing led me to another which led me to another and I ended up reading bits and pieces of Sergei Bertensson’s book In Hollywood with Nemirovich-Danchenko, 1926-1927. Imagine my astonishment (well, you can’t if you already knew this, but it was new to me) when I read the following diary entry from June 1927:
Two of the directors of the Hollywood Playhouse payed a visit to Vladimir Ivanovich to discuss the possibility of organizing a permanent drama theater in Hollywood, a true art theater. Both of them are naive and primitive enough, one of them is frankly thinking only of profit. Vladimir Ivanovich spoke about three possibilities: 1) to organize a permanent company on the basis of the Art Theatre, 2) to stage one play using the tasks and methods of the Moscow Art Theatre in order that this play becomes a model for the future work, 3) to work out a detailed plan (artistic, administrative, juridicial) according to which the owners of this theatre could run the company without the help of Vladimir Ivanovich. Vladimir Ivanovich promised to inform them of his acceptance of the first or second plan no earlier than in a month when his plans for the future became clear. He could work out the third plan now. It has been decided to have a tour of the building of the Hollywood Playhouse in two days’ time and after that to come to the conclusion.”
Holy Moses! There was almost a Moscow Art Theater, or maybe a Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater in Los Angeles! Well, as you read on, you realize that this “almost” – like so many “almosts” in life, especially in the life of anyone trying to bridge the cultural gap between Russia and the United States – probably wasn’t much of a real “almost.” And yet, and yet… Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, while in Hollywood, actually visited this theater, the Hollywood Playhouse, and actually did consider – at least for a few moments – the idea of opening a Moscow Art Theater-type theater in Los Angeles.
Indeed, two days later, on June 17, Nemirovich-Danchenko and his secretary Sergei Bertensson headed over to the Playhouse, which you see photographed here in loving delight, for a meeting with the owners. I think it’s interesting – though it may or may not be important – that when the director discovered he had mistakenly scheduled two meetings at the same time, he chose to honor not a meeting with a big Hollywood honcho (Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) who wanted to do a film with him, he went to the Hollywood Playhouse for a tour of the plant and a discussion of the possibilities of collaboration.
The idea – at least of Nemirovich-Danchenko directing a play – remained alive until mid-October. Simeon Gest, brother of the more famous Russian-emigre producer Morris Guest, conducted the negotiations for the Russian director with the American theater owners.  According to Bertensson, the owners were to have informed him of their decision to go ahead with the project or not on Oct. 12, but asked for another day to consider. On Oct. 13 Bertensson writes in his diary, “All the business with the Hollywood Playhouse has fallen through, as the management either cannot or do not want to risk giving Vladimir Ivanovich the necessary financial guarantees. When from high-sounding words we proceeded to dollars, all their pathos disappeared immediately. And the Academy refused to support the initiative officially, referring to the point that the stage is beyond the scope of their interests as they only deal with pure cinematography. However, admitting the general significance of such an event as a production by Vladimir Ivanovich, certain members of the Academy promise their assistance!? Words, words, words...”
Ah, yes, Words! We have heard words, too. But allow me to brush aside my lyrical outburst and provide the proper bibliographical information for my quotes. They were drawn from pages 129-30, and 156 in Bertensson’s published memoir.

When I set out in search of this little theater-that-couldn’t-quite, I never expected to actually find it. I thought for sure it would be one of those places that has since fallen to the bulldozer and the parking lot. But no. As I drove north on Las Palmas Ave. toward Sunset Boulevard from De Longpre Ave. with my sister Margie riding shotgun, my eyes began to grow bigger and bigger as we drove through a mostly residential block in which a strangely theater-like building stood up ahead on the left, right about where 1445 N. Las Palmas Avenue should be. I jumped out of the car and began taking photos, hoping against hope this was what I thought it was. Then I walked around a big bougainvillea plant and looked up. I might as well have seen a live dinosaur. There it was, the old Hollywood Playhouse sign still intact. A bit worse for the wear, a bit faded for the years, but there was no mistaking what it said. I must also say that the maniac in me began having incredibly wild ideas, because there it is, written on two places on the building – the place is available for rent. Anybody got a couple million dollars they want to invest? With Russians flooding abroad these days (I recently read an article about 100 top Russian intellectuals who have abandoned Putin’s Russia in recent years), this could be the next big thing in L.A. Anybody think? I’ve got contact information here, if you get my drift… I got ideas…
Back to earth, however.
As much as it pains me to say it, this location had at least one more brush with Russian emigre cultural figures. I happened upon that tidbit recently when researching Ivan Lebedeff’s biography. You see, Alisa Rosenbaum’s debut play was staged here. Alisa Rosenbaum? Oh, you mean, Ayn Rand. Ugh. Yes. Ayn Rand.
As reported in Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Rand’s first stage play, The Night of January 16thopened as Woman on Trial at the Hollywood Playhouse in October 1934, in a production by sometime actor E. E. Clive and featuring former silent-screen actress Barbara Bedford. Critics and a star-studded first-night audience, including Rand’s Polish idol Pola Negri, Frank Capra, Jesse Lasky, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, three members of the White Russian aristocratic diaspora, and Rand’s friend Ivan Lebedeff, among other film celebrities, praised the plot and were beguiled by the volunteer jury” [drawn from the audience].
So there you have it. Stand back and squint. Do you see Nemirovich-Danchenko, looking not at all Hollywood-like in his heavy Russian beard, entering the door? Is that Bertensson – who would immigrate to the U.S. a few years later and would publish his notes of his time with Nemirovich and later write a biography of Sergei Rachmaninoff – following his friend in the door? Or is it Rand, the Russian wannabe emigre writer, sneaking out after the premiere of her play, not wanting to be noticed because she really didn’t like people? Or might that dashing figure coming out now be Lebedeff, monocled and mustachioed, who absolutely loved opening nights and Hollywood crowds!
Whoever it is, there are some pretty good Russian ghosts here.

 

Fyodor Dostoevsky plaque, Wiesbaden, Germany

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And now back to Wiesbaden, Germany, where we are able to travel in our minds thanks to my wife Oksana Mysina, who shot these photos when she was on a theater tour there last fall. This, according to legend, anyway, is the casino at which Fyodor Dostoevsky came up with the idea of writing a novel, The Gambler, which would save him financially. The plaque that hangs on the wall of the casino and spa (for it was originally built as such) indicates that is true, noting that the writer depicts Wiesbaden as “Roulettenburg” in his novel. The plaque also adds that the building was erected in 1808-1810, was the center of Wiesbadian haute société, and that Johann von Goethe lived here in 1814-1815. (If my rusty German has failed me, feel free to let me know, just don’t tell my old professors at Harvard who, probably, generously passed me on my German reading exam.)
In actual fact, Dostoevsky’s “Roulettenburg” was most likely a composite portrait of several casino cities that he knew – Wiesbaden, Baden-Baden, and Homburg (today known as Bad-Homburg). We know his first trip to Wiesbaden took place on June 12, 1862. Return trips were made in late summer 1863, the second half of 1865, and again in 1871.
The visit of June 12 was apparently the first time he gambled. He did not lose much that night, but was fortunate he had to move on soon in his travels. For he could tell that the gambling bug hit him.
His second trip to the casino we see pictured here came at a dramatic moment in his life. He was on his way to Paris to meet withAppolinaria Suslova, his lover and the model for many of the femmes fatales in his later novels. He did not know it yet, but it would be the end of his affair with Suslova. When he did finally make it to Paris, she was informed that it was all over, she had fallen in love with another. One can, perhaps, imagine one of the reasons why: Chances are Dostoevsky arrived looking like something the cat had dragged in, because the gambling bug had hit him hard this time. He had gone to the tables believing he had discovered a foolproof system to beat the croupier. And, indeed, he won big at first – 10,400 francs. He did have enough presence of mind to take half and send it to friends and family – even after he had lost the rest. Frankly, that’s no small sign of character. Here is how he described it in a letter to a friend (as quoted in the Delphi Complete Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky):
I have, dear Varvara Dmitriyeva, won 5,000 francs; or rather I had won at first 10,400 francs, taken the money home, put it in my wallet and resolved to depart next day and not go into the gaming rooms again. But I did not hold out and played away half the money again…
He actually sent the 5,000 that he had the wherewithal to hang onto to friends and relatives. Still, he arrived in Paris with nothing in his pocket, which can’t have made him look very attractive in Appolinaria’s eyes.

His third trip to Wiesbaden was even more dramatic. After his brother’s death, he had taken on his sibling’s debts and had no way to clear them up quickly. Presumably recalling the quick win on his last trip (and not quite remembering how quickly he lost the second half of his winnings), he set out for Germany precisely to win a large amount of money and correct his financial situation. Naturally, the opposite happened. He blew everything he had brought with him and was not even able to pay his hotel bill. To add insult to injury (as well as to make his situation totally unbearable), the hotel owner essentially put him under house arrest until he paid up what he owed. From his room Dostoevsky began shooting letters out to friends and acquaintances, asking for money. Ivan Turgenev, God bless him, was among those who sent him small sums. But it was a local priest who finally came and bailed him out, paying up the entire amount owed and even providing enough to send Dostoevsky home.
This, of course, is the incident to which the plaque on the Wiesbaden casino refers. For when Dostoevsky returned to St. Petersburg he was faced with signing a brutal contract by which he would have given away the rights to everything he had written for nine years, in return for having all his debts paid up. He was given a month or so to write a new novel that the publisher could sell, in order to avoid having the bad contract take effect.
As bad as Dostoevsky’s luck may have been on the roulette tables, his luck in life, at least this time, was significantly better. It was precisely at this moment that he hired a young woman, Anna Snitkina, to whom he would try to dictate his new novel in the small amount of time given him. Anna was modest, a hard worker, smart and organized. And, largely thanks to her, Dostoevsky delivered his novel, The Gambler, in 26 days. At 57 pages, it was more a novella than a novel, but it was enough to save him from a most humiliating fate. Anna Snitkina, became Dostoevsky’s third wife and, to the extent that it was possible, she was the one who tamed the tiger in him. One might even go so far as to say we have her to thank for the great novels. Would Dostoevsky have been able to write them had he lost the rights to his work for a nine year period? What might have happened in those nine years? No one can know that, of course, but one thing is certain: the impact of Snitkina on the great writer was enormous.
One more visit to Wiesbaden finishes off this little story. It came in 1871 – six years after Dostoevsky’s last debacle. He had sworn off gambling and, with the support of his wife Anna, had held true to his oath. But there is no victory without a fall. Dostoevsky just could not deny his desire to try his luck again, and so headed out for Weisbaden. When he blew the first amount he had taken with him, he wrote his wife and asked for a small sum that he would use to come home with. She sent it. And, what did you really expect? He blew that too. However, Anna finally got him home, and Dostoevsky would never gamble again.
So, there, in short, with a few corners cut and a few frills added, is the tale of Fyodor Dostoevsky and the casino at Wiesbaden.

 

Pyotr Tchaikovsky plaque, Moscow

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This is quite a place, the so-called “house of three composers,” which will be explained in due course. But first, the reason we’re looking at this place today is because Pyotr Tchaikovsky (composer No. 1) was a frequent guest here. At the time of his visits and stays, the building belonged to Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s close friend and benefactor. This would have been in the 1880s. Von Meck discovered Tchaikovsky, if you will, in 1876. A friend gave her the sheet music to a new work by the virtually unknown composer and she fell in love with it. Soon she was playing little else beside Tchaikovsky on her piano. Von Meck was born into a good family but she had high hopes for her future. Her marriage to Karl von Meck started off badly. He didn’t earn much as a civil servant and their growing family (13 children of which 11 survived) meant they needed more. Von Meck pushed her husband, who was a talented engineer, to invest in Russia’s railroads, and that changed their lives drastically. They became fantastically wealthy.  As such, when Karl died as Nadezhda was just entering her 40s, he left her with so much money she literally had no idea what to do with it all. Her own father had instilled in her a love of music and wanted her children to know it and play it. She hired Claude Debussy (composer No. 2) to tutor her daughters. She began to support the young Nikolai Rubenstein (composer No. 3) and other lesser known composers and musicians. Thus began her life as a well-known benefactor in the world of Russian music.
When she resolved to offer Tchaikovsky a stipend of 6,000 rubles a year, she apparently was afraid his pride might make him turn it down. According to one source, although this was less than a drop in the hat to von Meck, it was actually the kind of money that Russian generals received as yearly salaries. Tchaikovsky gratefully accepted the offer and their relationship began to develop. It did not, however, develop in anything that we would call a normal way. When the two entered into their pact, they agreed never to see each other. Von Meck, by all accounts (mostly contemporaneous to her, but also in modern-day sources) was an extremely difficult, imperious woman who breached no dissent and ran her family’s affairs and her children’s lives with an iron hand. But she did most of it from a distance. For instance, she might arrange her children’s marriages, but she would never meet any of their spouses, and would not attend the weddings. She was something of a hermit who could afford (at first at least) to bring a world, if not the whole world, to her wherever she might be. Von Meck continued to pay Tchaikovsky a stipend for 13 years, until 1890, and in that time they, indeed, never formally met. There were, however, at least three accidental meetings.

I don’t usually quote from Wikipedia, because it is such an ubiquitous source, but its description of the von Meck/Tchaikovsky meetings is admirably concise, fact-filled and interesting. So, here it is: The first  meeting…
“...happened on 14/26 August 1879, while Tchaikovsky was staying at the Meck estate at Simaki. He had gone for his daily walk in the forest somewhat earlier than usual, unaware that she was late for her daily drive through that same area with the rest of her family. As a result, they came face to face for a few moments; he tipped his hat politely, she was nonplussed, but no words were spoken. He wrote to her the same evening to apologise for the inadvertent breach of their arrangement. She responded, saying there was nothing to apologise for, and she even invited him to visit her home to see her new paintings, but at a time when she would be away. The previous year, while staying at her villa in Florence, Tchaikovsky had seen her and her entourage pass by every morning;  and they also glimpsed each other once at the opera, but only from a distance. Alexander Poznansky says of this last encounter: ‘It is not clear whether their both being at the theater was wholly accidental or arranged by Mrs. von Meck in order to see him, as seems not unlikely’.”
This, of course, makes Tchaikovsky’s connection to this building at 44/1 Myasnitskaya Street rather odd. (The short side of the building, where the plaque hangs, is on Maly Kharitonyevsky Lane, as the first picture in the second block of photos shows.) That is, this structure belonged to von Meck; Tchaikovsky stayed here with some frequency; yet never were the two here together at the same time. Or, if they were, they were aware of when the other would be coming and going and were careful not to cross each other’s path. I suppose that would be easy enough in a building this size, but it still must be one of the more wonderful quirks in the quirky story of these two individuals.
Throughout the years of 1877 to 1890, the friends exchanged some 1,200 letters. They are generally known as the von Meck/Tchaikovsky love letters, because the two, Tchaikovsky especially, increasingly let down their guards and shared many intimate secrets with each other. Of course, at least as many secrets remained behind seven seals. Von Meck was concerned that the letters might one day fall into the wrong hands – or, even worse, horrors! into the hands of the public – so she asked Tchaikovsky to destroy them. He did what any sane person would do in this situation: He said he had, but, in fact, he did not.
A few more words on this building, which is rich in history. Built in the 18th century, it was owned by a large number of major state figures. One of those families, the Urusovs, is worth noting because their extended family include several individuals of an artistic bent, including the novelist Yevgenia Tur and the playwright Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin in the 19th century, and the actress Eda Urusova in the 20th. In the late 1820s it is said that Alexander Pushkin may have visited this home, although there apparently is no hard proof of that. Franz (or Ferenc, if you are Hungarian) Liszt stayed here in 1843 when touring Russia.

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