Click on photos to enlarge.
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.