Tag Archives: Pyotr Tchaikovsky

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.



Dostoevsky at Haymarket, London

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I have a soft spot for things that are that aren’t. To wit, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the Haymarket district in London. Whatever Dostoevsky saw here in the first half of July, 1862, is gone, utterly gone, now. Here is a little of what he writes in his essay, “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions”:
Anyone who has been to London has probably visited Haymarket at least once at night. This is a district, where, at night, thousands of prostitutes crowd around on a few streets. The streets are illuminated by gas streams, of which we [Russians] have no conception. Fine coffee houses decked with mirrors and gold are to be found at every step. There are mobs here and there are havens. It’s even rather frightening to enter this mob. And it is strangely composed. There are old woman and there are beauties who will stop you in your tracks. Nowhere in the world is there such a beautiful type of woman as the Englishwoman. Everyone here pushes through these dense, crowded streets with difficulty. The crowd cannot be contained on sidewalks, and it spills over into the street. This mob hungers for spoils and throws itself at the first comer with shameless cynicism. Here you will see shiny and expensive clothes, tattered rags, and a sharp difference in ages, all jumbled together. The drunken tramp and the privileged rich man both come here and tromp through this horrible mob. You can hear the din of curses, quarreling, solicitations and the quiet whisper of the still-timid beauty. And sometimes what a beauty it is! Truly keepsake faces [Dostoevsky writes the word “keepsake” in Cyrillic in his Russian text]. I recall going into a casino one time. Music blared, people danced, there was an abyss of humanity crammed in there. The decoration was magnificent. But the grim nature of the British never leaves them even when they are enjoying themselves: they are serious, even gloomy, as they dance, as if each step they dance is done so out of obligation…”
I can’t help but point to the phrase, “I recall going into a casino one time.” The implication is that Dostoevsky came here more than once, although he was in London just for eight days, having arrived in the city July 9, 1862. The place obviously made an impression on him, a very strong one, whether good or bad. It is often written that Dostoevsky was horrified by Haymarket, by the goings-on there, and by London in general. And it is clear from this text that some things did horrify him. But it is just as clear that he was thrilled by much as well – not the least of which was female beauty. He also seemed well capable of admiring finely-appointed interiors, whether it be coffee houses or dance halls. Of course, let us not forget that beauty, particularly female beauty, was a test for Dostoevsky, or, at least, for some of his most complex characters. Which leads me to quote this little bit from Sarah J. Young’s nice blog on the topic of Dostoevsky in London: “[Dostoevsky] seems more sorrowful than shocked at the sight of ‘mothers who were bringing their young daughters into the business [of prostitution]. Little girls around twelve years of age take you by the hand and ask you to go with them’. Prostitution becomes a significant theme in the works Dostoevsky wrote in the next few years, in particular Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, and it seems quite likely that what he had seen at the Haymarket had some influence on that.”
One is intrigued (or amused) at Dostoevsky’s declaration that he heard the “din of curses” on the streets of Haymarket, when, as Kyril FitzLyon writes in the introduction to his translation of “Winter Notes,” the great Russian writer did not know English. “It is clear, of course,” the scholar writes, “that Dostoevsky did not form his impressions of England unaided. A week’s stay in London could not have either supplied him with the necessary material or given him a sufficient insight into the British character, particularly as he knew no English. (He admits to his ignorance of the language in one passage of the book, yet in another he claims to base certain of his conclusions on English newspaper reports.)
Then there is Dostoevsky’s curious use of the English “keepsake” in reference to unforgettably beautiful English women. This sounds like one of those instances of a writer picking up a local word somewhere, understanding it as best he could, and sticking it into a piece of his prose in order to give it a feel of authenticity. I’m not criticizing him for doing it, I like the phrase. But I do think it is another small detail that suggests Dostoevsky was out of place as he wandered the streets of London.

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Young also talks about two other locations that Dostoevsky probably visited – Whitechapel and the famous Crystal Palace (which makes a substantial appearance in Notes from Underground). The Crystal Palace was a “futuristic” structure of iron and glass built in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and moved in 1854 to Sydenham Hill, which is where Dostoevsky would have encountered it. (Pyotr Tchaikovsky was also a visitor.) “The Crystal Palace epitomizes the ‘proud and dismal spirit’ (p. 42) of materialism, and Dostoevsky perceives this same spirit in the two other places he describes: the Haymarket and Whitechapel,” writes Young. I briefly bring the Crystal Palace into this discussion because of a wonderful bit of serendipity that visited me when I, myself, was in the Haymarket district. I happened to look up and see that a bus passing me by was headed for, of all places, the Crystal Palace neighborhood, which is where the relocated Crystal Palace stood until it burned down in 1936. (See first photo immediately following.) In a place that, as I say, has very little left to connect a visitor to what Dostoevsky would have encountered, this provided an extra little tweak of connection. If you’re interested in more about Dostoevsky and the Crystal Palace, I suggest you see another of Sarah J. Young’s blogs on that precise topic.
Some of the buildings represented in my photos would probably have been standing when Dostoevsky was there. Take a look at the top photo above, for example. That lion with frame (with plaque missing) below the word “Haymarket” surely would have been witnesses to the venerable, surely dazzled, if not befuddled, Dostoevsky making his rounds here. There are still coffee shops and cafes here, which, while having absolutely nothing to do with anything that would have been here 150 years ago, do indicate that the tradition of informal eateries in this location remains.
I almost chose not to come here and photograph because my advance research suggested so unequivocally that today’s Haymarket and the Haymarket of the 1860s are virtually two different places. Fortunately, however, I overcame my instinct to save myself the time and labor. In part because of the almost magical Crystal Palace bus, in part because of the few walls and decorations that surely remain from that time, and in part because of the way that places and our thoughts about them are capable of acquiring unexpected meaning and substance, this turned out to be a memorable visit. Dostoevsky is long gone from this place. But in some intangible way I brought him back with my thoughts, jumbled and vague as they were. It was a genuine encounter.

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Tchaikovsky and the Dieudonne Hotel, London

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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.

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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.

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Tchaikovsky monument, Moscow

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Quite a story stands behind this monument honoring Pyotr Tchaikovsky in front of the Moscow Conservatory at 13 Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. It was conceived, created and almost finished by Vera Mukhina, the great Soviet monumental sculptor. I have written a little about her elsewhere in this blog space. In fact, Mukhina’s first stab at Tchaikovsky was taken in 1929 when she was commissioned by the Tchaikovsky museum in the city of Klin to create a bust of the composer. She was not yet then the renowned artist she would become. By the time a commission came around for her to create a monument to Tchaikovsky that would stand before the main building of the Conservatory, she was at the peak of her fame. This was 1944/45. I don’t think I’m stretching it at all to say that the authorities wanted to honor a universally beloved figure in Russian culture at a time of great national distress. The sufferings that came with the war were still very much in place as this work quietly began its life.
However, the commission that asked Mukhina to create the work did not like her first version, which was intended to depict Tchaikovsky standing and conducting. It was considered that the square in front of the Conservatory was too small to accept the large work she wished to make. Thus arose the plan, more or less, for the monument we now see today. I’ve always found it rather strange, myself: the composer captured in a moment of creative ecstasy as he conducts one of his works – in a seated position. How could anyone conduct one of the great Tchaikovsky works sitting down? At some angles, it looks more like Tchaikovsky is warding off evil ghosts than leading an orchestra. But maybe that’s just me. In any case, even this version suffered plenty of criticism.
As you’ll see in one of the photos below, the ensemble is a large one, with the composer at the middle, but with harps and drapes at either end, some distance from the center. In Mukhina’s conception, there were supposed to be people here, but the commission had her exchange them for harps covered by drapes.
And, still, the commission dragged its feet, constantly delaying the moment when the work would be unveiled to the public. Mukhina tried to hurry the process a couple of times by writing to Joseph Stalin and asking him to intercede, but this did not bring results. Finally, as Mukhina lay dying, some half a year after Stalin’s death, she wrote one more letter, this time to Vyacheslav Molotov, one of the top Soviet statesmen (who was Minister of Foreign Affairs at this point). This seems to be the action which finally brought about the decision to erect the monument. It was too late for Mukhina to see it, she died in October of 1953, but her work was officially unveiled in 1954. Mukhina’s pupils Zinaida Ivanova and Nina Zelenskaya put the finishing touches on the work.
The monument itself, like the outlying harps and drapes, are bronze. The pedestal, which forms a bench where people can sit beneath the composer, is of red granite. The text on the pedestal reads: “To the great Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.”

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Come curiosities involved with a major reconstruction of the monument in 2007 are also worth mentioning. It turned out that some 50 of the musical notes which were depicted in the sheet music beneath Tchaikovsky’s right arm were missing. Also missing was a pencil from his right hand. In fact, that was only part of the serious damage that had been done to the work over time. The sheet music on the music stand had been turned at an angle, several screws, bolts and brackets were missing or broken. The reason for this, apparently, is a student legend that the notes on the monument are good luck charms which bring good grades, a successful career and success in creative work. (Please note that these latter two kinds of success are quite different.) With a legend like that, it is a wonder that any notes were left at all. The notes and the pencil (I don’t know of any legend connected to the pencil, but maybe it was the only thing left that someone could snap off) were all restored during the rebuilding of the monument. I did not climb up on Tchaikovsky’s lap to see if any of them have disappeared since.
The notes included in the monument represent the first few notes from several of Tchaikovsky’s most famous works: the opera Eugene Onegin, the ballet Swan Lake, the 6th Symphony (Pathetique), String Quartet No. 1, the Violin Concerto in D Major, and the romance “Does Day Reign?”

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“Mayakovsky” bust et al, Laguna Beach, CA


“That’s not Mayakovsky!” you say. And you’re right. It’s not. But that is the Nutcracker Himself right there across from Not-Mayakovsky. And despite the fact that it was a German – E.T.A. Hoffmann to be exact – who first imagined the nutcracker as a character, where would the Nutcracker be without the Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky? And when you have been outside of Russia for nearly a month, as I have, and you see a hard chiseled face with a bit of a futuristic look in his eyes, you just might be fooled for an instant into thinking that this stoney bust I found at the Madison Square Garden Cafe in Laguna, CA, was of Vladimir Mayakovsky. I didn’t cling to that mistaken belief very long. My wife ridiculed me hard enough and quick enough to take care of that. But even by the time I left the cafe after a fabulous plate of Eggs Benedict I still thought this bust could easily be mistaken for some other Soviet Realist hero, say, one of the characters out of Alexander Fadeyev’s famous novel The Young Guard. If you want to test my hypothesis you can compare this bust to some of the sculptures of Fadeyev and his characters, about whom I wrote in this space a couple of months ago.


But in Laguna, CA, you don’t have to settle for fake Mayakovskys or oversized Nutcrackers if your Russian culture fix is getting thin. Later on the same day that I photographed “Mayakovsky” I ran across something more substantial as my wife and I passed by the Fingerhut Gallery on Coast Highway. I looked up through a window into the second floor where I saw some beautiful paintings by the Moscow painter Sergei Smirnov (1953-2006). I’ll admit I did not know Smirnov or his paintings, but what we discovered in Laguna makes me wish I had. He had a beautiful, subtle stroke that allowed him to paint women’s portraits with a touch of the Russian icon in them as well as a whiff of Eastern mystery. I went up to the second floor to look at the paintings you see here as well as several others, and I learned that Smirnov’s last two paintings were created on commission from Mr. Fingerhut himself, who was a big fan and patron. As I was told, Smirnov always left a newly-finished painting to dry two days  before he would go back and put on the final touches. The night he completed his last two paintings in 2006, he signed them and set them aside to finish in two days. The next day he reportedly enjoyed a big meal with his family and lay down to sleep happily. He never awoke, and those two paintings he made for Fingerhut were his last. If anyone is interested, there are numerous signed and numbered prints of Smirnov’s works still on sale at the Fingerhut Gallery, as well as a rare sculpture that has a price tag of $15,000. The top price that a Smirnov painting grabbed at the Fingerhut Gallery, I am told, was around $65,000.
This was an interesting enough discovery for me, but there was still another surprise waiting for me on the second floor of that gallery – a trio of signed, colored Marc Chagall illustrations on biblical themes. In all, today wasn’t a bad day for Russian culture in my life. From a fake Mayakovsky to three real Chagalls, all just a few steps from each other on California’s Pacific Coast Highway.
This all reminds me of a phrase one of my favorite aunts once uttered as we walked through the verdant Connecticut woods one summer day about two decades ago. Flowers were blooming and underbrush was thick beneath spreading canopies of trees laden with leaves. My Aunt Jen, who is now 103 I might add, looked down at the ground and happened to find a flower that she didn’t expect at that time of year and she uttered a phrase I have quoted whenever possible ever since: “That nature,” Aunt Jen exclaimed, “it just pops up everywhere!” Doesn’t it? It’s just like Russian culture in my life.