Tchaikovsky: A Life
by Alexander Poznansky (continued)
At the end of 1876 a second woman entered Tchaikovsky's life. This was Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a wealthy railway magnate. She had heard and admired some of Tchaikovsky's music, and when she found out that he was encountering financial problems, she began to commission pieces from him. Both agreed on the one condition—that they should never meet. Their strange relationship, expressed through over 1200 letters, was to last for almost fourteen years. They only met twice, by accident, and hurried off without greeting each other. When Mrs von Meck learned what had happened with Tchaikovsky during his abortive marriage, she agreed on his request to arrange for him to receive a regular allowance of 6000 roubles. This way the composer resolved his permanent financial crisis, and Mrs von Meck’s money allowed him to dedicate himself to creative work.
Tchaikovsky’s relationship with Nadezhda von Meck, despite their obvious eccentricities, occasional frustrations and their gradual (although on the surface almost imperceptible) deterioration, can be argued to have been among the most gratifying experiences of the composer’s life. Their silent understanding never to meet endowed their “epistolary friendship” with a particular “platonic” colouring, which was deeply emotional, and at times almost ecstatic. In the case of Mrs von Meck the erotic component was very significant (even at the conscious level), although always neutralized through her emphatic sentimentalism. This proved satisfactory to both parties, providing a safe outlet for their feelings by ruling out any obvious manifestation of sexual love. In her correspondence with the composer, Mrs von Meck displayed an exceptional degree of tact, sympathy and understanding in the light of Tchaikovsky’s psychological idiosyncrasies, and the specific characteristics of their epoch. There are reasons to believe that she may have been aware of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality from the very start of their friendship, even if in a somewhat vague and inexplicit fashion, in keeping with the general Victorian attitudes towards the subject.
At the end of 1877 and the beginning of 1878, Tchaikovsky and his brother Anatoly (later replaced by Modest) proceeded with their European tour through Switzerland, France, Italy and Austria, hoping to put the whole disastrous business of Tchaikovsky’s marriage firmly behind them. Iosif Kotek arrived in Vienna at the end of November, and spent some time with the brothers travelling. By January 1878 Tchaikovsky had finished his Fourth Symphony, the first of his mature symphonic works, which he dedicated (secretly) to Nadezhda von Meck. The other major work which occupied him during the period of his ill-fated marriage was the opera Yevgeny Onegin. At first the opera made a modest impression on the audience, and it took several years to achieve the public acclaim it deserved. One other masterpiece also emerged from this period of self-exile: the Violin Concerto, written in Switzerland. This was inspired by Iosif Kotek, but for opportunistic reasons Tchaikovsky initially offered the dedication to the virtuoso Leopold Auer. However, it seemed that Tchaikovsky's new concerto would suffer the same fate as his First Piano Concerto four years earlier, when Auer claimed it was far too difficult and refused to play it. In 1881 an up-and-coming violinist, Adolph Brodsky, gave the first performance in Vienna, at which the legendary critic Eduard Hanslick, in his newspaper review of the concert, declared that the music "gave off a bad smell". Just like the piano concerto, the Violin Concerto is now well established as one of the best-loved pieces in the repertory, among musicians and audiences alike.
In April 1878, Tchaikovsky returned to Russia, depressed by the prospect of resuming his teaching duties, and short of inspiration. Nevertheless, he finished some smaller piano pieces, including the popular Children's Album (Детский альбом). Returning to Moscow after his usual summer visit to Kamenka, and also after a visit to Mrs von Meck's estate at Brailov, he took a decisive step. He resigned his teaching job at the Conservatory, and shortly thereafter set off on his travels once again. He was to spend the next few years constantly on the move, avoiding Moscow and Saint Petersburg as much as possible.
First he travelled to Florence, then to Paris, and then to Clarens in Switzerland, where he started to work on another opera—The Maid of Orleans (Орлеанская дева), which did not prove to be one of his greatest successes. Back in Russia by the autumn, he began a Second Piano Concerto. Later he travelled to Rome, where he composed the Italian Capriccio (Итальянское каприччио). Tchaikovsky then returned to his homeland, where he spent much of 1880 in the country. There he completed the Serenade for String Orchestra, and the piece most often associated with his name—the overture 1812, a commemoration of the historic Russian defeat of Napoleon's army. Early in 1881, still in Rome, Tchaikovsky learned that the seriously-ill Nikolay Rubinstein had gone to Paris for treatment, and had died there soon afterwards. He rushed to Paris to pay his last respects to Rubinstein, and in December he began working on a musical memorial, the Piano Trio dedicated "to the memory of a great artist" (Op. 50). This trio was first played on 18/30 October 1882 in Moscow with Sergey Taneyev, Jan Hřímalý and Wilhelm Fitzenhagen . By now Tchaikovsky's music was being performed more often, thanks in a large degree to the efforts of the late Nikolay Rubinstein, who played and conducted a Tchaikovsky programme at the Paris Exhibition of 1878, and premiered many of his new compositions in Moscow, though rarely with total success.
The main work of 1882–83 was the opera Mazepa, based upon Pushkin's epic poem Poltava. During the course of its composition his enthusiasm flagged considerably. Writing to Mrs von Meck on 14/26 September 1882 he admitted: "Never has any important work given me so much trouble as this opera. Perhaps it is a decline in my powers, or have I become more severe in my self-judgment?" . Mazepa was performed in both Moscow and Saint Petersburg in February 1884, but Tchaikovsky left for Europe without attending the Saint Petersburg premiere, since the opera was not very cordially received in Moscow. He had hardly spent three weeks in the French capital before he was summoned back to Russia to appear before Alexander III and receive an official decoration—the Order of Saint Vladimir (4th class).
By the beginning of 1885 the composer was feeling the need to cease his restless wandering and settle down. He found a manor house in Maydanovo, near Klin, in the countryside outside Moscow. This residence also had the advantage of being on the direct route between Moscow and Saint Petersburg. He moved there on 14/26 February, and the view from the windows, the quiet, and the sense of "being home" delighted him. Soon he settled down to a regular routine: reading, walking in the forest, working in the mornings and afternoons, and playing cards or duets with friends in the evenings. He wrote to his brother: "I am contented, cheerful and at peace" . He was occupied at this time with the revision of Vakula the Smith, which was to be re-issued under the new title of Cherevichki—and also with a new opera based on Ippolit Shpazhinsky's play The Enchantress (Чародейка), the story about an innkeeper's daughter who is courted by two princes (father and son), with predictably disastrous consequences . In May Tchaikovsky began to fulfil a promise made to Balakirev to compose a symphonic work on the subject of Lord Byron's Manfred. This task cost Tchaikovsky immense effort and was finished only in September 1885. All the autumn he continued to work on The Enchantress while travelling for a few days or weeks at a time to Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Kamenka.
Tchaikovsky was very pleased when, on 11/23 March 1886, Manfred was successfully performed for the first time in Moscow, conducted by the German conductor and composer Max Erdmannsdörfer. At the end of this month he decided to visit his brothers—Ippolit in Taganrog and Anatoly in Tiflis (Tbilisi) in the Caucasus. At Tiflis, where he spent the entire month of April, he met with a triumphant reception: a concert was organized on 19 April/1 May consisting entirely of his works and conducted by his great admirer Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov, who was a composer and later professor at the Moscow and the Tiflis Conservatories. The concert was followed by a supper and the presentation of a silver wreath. From the Caucasus, Tchaikovsky travelled by sea to France, where in Paris he met the French composers Léo Delibes, Ambroise Thomas, and Gabriel Fauré, and spent almost a month combining professional meetings with entertainment. In mid/late June he returned to Russia to continue work on The Enchantress.
In October 1886 Tchaikovsky paid a visit to Saint Petersburg in order to be present at the first performance of Eduard Nápravník's opera Harold (Гарольд), where he met his fellow composers Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Aleksandr Glazunov and Anatoly Lyadov.
This page was last updated on 09 June 2013