The Invisible Muse : Tchaikovsky and Mrs von Meck
by Alexander Poznansky
For Tchaikovsky, 1877 proved fateful: it was during this year that he entered into his most destructive as well as his most beneficial involvements with women. The growing wish to "be like everyone else" (that is, conquer his desire for young men) and keep his relatives happy had confronted him with the problem of what to do. Destructive and very nearly ruinous for him was his marriage, contracted that year, to a former conservatory student, Antonina Milyukova. Beneficial and even salutary proved his extraordinary, indeed unique, "epistolary friendship," which began almost at the same time with Nadezhda von Meck.
There is no doubt that Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck was an exceptional woman. As far as was possible within the straitened conditions of Russian "Victorianism," she developed into an accomplished personality with a rich inner life despite her considerable eccentricity. The daughter of landowner and music lover Filaret Frolovsky, she married Karl von Meck, a Baltic-German engineer of then very meagre means, at the age of 16; by her own admission, her younger years were spent in poverty, which perhaps made her responsive to the plights of others. The dizzying financial success of her husband, who became a railroad tycoon, made them multimillionaires. The couple had 18 children, of whom 11 survived. After Karl von Meck's death in 1876, his widow, according to her husband's will, took over the management of his financial empire. All this might seem sufficient to fill the life of even a very energetic woman. But it did not satisfy the spiritual and cultural needs of Nadezhda von Meck.
A major philanthropist, she was crucially involved with Russia's cultural life. Her celebrated friendship with Tchaikovsky was only the most prominent example of the unswerving support she offered talented artists, including Nikolay Rubinstein and Claude Debussy, among others. Nine years older than Tchaikovsky, she was a person of great learning. Besides her fanatical love of music, which she had studied quite thoroughly, her letters to Tchaikovsky reveal her vast knowledge of literature, history, and philosophy, her mastery of foreign languages, and her capacity for appreciating visual arts. The overall impression from their correspondence suggests ethical, spiritual, and mental comparability of both correspondents. Their dialogue in letters was conducted on remarkably equal terms. On Tchaikovsky's part, one finds not the slightest trace of condescension: when he argues with his "best friend" (as he called her), he does so with seriousness and passion; her letters, for their part, do not betray any hint of the social snobbery one might expect from a wealthy patroness. All this makes clear that their communication was one between kindred minds. In spite of the significant erotic component in her attitude, she was quite content with their implicit mutual agreement never to meet under any circumstances. She thought of eros in a sentimental rather than physical sense, and thus her platonic relationship with the great composer must have satisfied her important inner needs. Conversely, it may be argued, that experience of emotional engagement with Nadezhda von Meck prefigured, on a lofty and significant plan, Tchaikovsky's later attachment to his nephew Bob Davydov.
As a result, this long friendship, despite each of their numerous personal shortcomings (also reflected in their letters), despite the neurasthenia common to them both (and which they both called "misanthropy"), even despite their eventual—and mystifying—estrangement, represents perhaps the most attractive chapter in Tchaikovsky's biography. By her generous financial support, Nadezhda von Meck provided the composer with more than 13 years of comfortable existence (he was able to resign from his professorship at the Moscow Conservatory, hitherto the main source of his income) and made possible his full immersion in creative work. In turn, Tchaikovsky bestowed on her not only his Fourth Symphony, dedicating it to his "best friend," and his confidence, replete with tenderness and gratitude, which filled her with much consolation and pleasure ("a fate against which I am powerless"), but also a sort of immortality: no study or re-creation of his life leaves her unappreciated.
The earliest reference to the Fourth Symphony occurs in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck written on 1 May 1877, in which the composer states that he was "immersed in a symphony," which he had begun to write "as far back as the winter." On 3 May, he reported that the first three movements were fully sketched and that he had begun work on the finale. This movement was completed in rough by the end of May. In the summer of the same year, Tchaikovsky also started working on his opera Yevgeny Onegin, but his creative élan was interrupted by events immediately following his marriage: the composer and his wife proved incompatible in all respects, and their relationship was never consummated. After only 20 days of cohabitation, he left her, and for the next month and a half stayed with his sister at her estate in Kamenka, Ukraine. His return to Moscow in September was followed by a final break with his wife; in a most desolate mood, the composer fled abruptly to Saint Petersburg and then abroad, never to see her again.
It was in Switzerland, where he settled for a while to recover, that Tchaikovsky resumed scoring the music for his opera's first act while continuing to work on the Fourth Symphony. The latter was completed and orchestrated during November and December and sent to Russia.
Mrs. von Meck herself attended the work's premiere on 10 February 1878 in Moscow under Nikolay Rubinstein's direction. "The audience received it very well, in particular the Scherzo," she wrote to the composer two days later. "There was much applause and at the end the audience was calling for you, and Rubinstein must have had to come out." (She having left the concert before Rubinstein's appearance.)
The response of Tchaikovsky's friends and colleagues was, however, contradictory. Nikolay Rubinstein, for instance, liked the finale, while Sergey Taneyev wrote of it to the author with candid scepticism. It was not until its triumphal performance in Saint Petersburg on 25 November 1878, under the direction of Eduard Nápravník, that the Fourth Symphony was recognized as a masterpiece.
Exceptional in its mature complexity, the Fourth Symphony testifies to Tchaikovsky's steady progress toward the peak of his powers. That very complexity, however, makes it difficult to tie the work too directly to the painful experiences Tchaikovsky had recently undergone. In its chief characteristics, the symphony had been conceived and developed before the matrimonial disaster, though it was orchestrated and modified in its aftermath. Still, Tchaikovsky clearly considered the work a seminal achievement, embodying his emotional and creative anguish of the previous autumn and winter.
Replying to Mrs. von Meck's letter on 17 February 1878, Tchaikovsky admitted: "I was severely depressed last winter, when this symphony was being written, and it serves as a faithful echo of what I was then experiencing. But it is precisely an 'echo.' How to translate it into clear and definite sequences of words? — I cannot, I do not know."
In the same letter, he attempts nonetheless to formulate the symphony's program, postulating as its principal theme the implacability of fate — "which impedes the impulse towards the happiness of reaching one's goal, which jealously ensures that prosperity and peace never be complete and cloudless, which hangs overhead like the sword of Damocles and steadily and continually poisons the soul. It is invincible, and you will never overpower it." Yet with respect to the fourth movement, he notes: "If you can't find reasons for joy within yourself, look at others. Go among the common people. See how they are able to make merry, to give themselves up entirely to joyous feelings... Joys there are, simple but powerful. Delight in the merriment of others. Life is still possible."
In this last sentence Tchaikovsky summarizes the psychological and creative lesson derived from this most difficult period of his life. The "best friend" responded most enthusiastically: "How delighted I was to read your description of 'our' symphony, my dear, priceless Pyotr Ilyich," she wrote on 27 February. "How happy am I to have found in you the perfect corroboration of my ideal of a composer!" By taking his personal anguish, the pain and baseness of the world, and transforming it into something sublime, Tchaikovsky had indeed fulfilled the Romantic image of the artist she held so dear.
About the Writer
Alexander Poznansky is one of the world's foremost and most active Tchaikovsky scholars. He is the author of a biography of the composer, Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man (1991), and a documentary study, Tchaikovsky's Last Days (1996); an editor of Tchaikovsky Through Others' Eyes (1999) and co-compiler of the two-volume Tchaikovsky Handbook (2002). He works at Yale University Library in the Slavic and East European Collection.
All dates in this essay are based on the Julian calendar, which remained in effect in Russia until 1918 and in the 19th century lagged 12 days behind the western Gregorian calendar.
Copyright © 2004 Alexander Poznansky
This page was last updated on 12 February 2013