Tchaikovsky: A Life
by Alexander Poznansky (continued)
The first performance of Cherevichki (the new version of Vakula the Smith) took place at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on 19/31 January 1887. It had a far-reaching influence on Tchaikovsky's future, for it was then that he made his first successful attempt at conducting. The work had a great success, perhaps due to the composer’s presence, but it remained in the repertory for only two seasons. He appeared in the capacity of conductor again on 5/17 March at a concert of the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Society which was totally devoted to his works. Now Tchaikovsky began to think of venturing on a concert tour abroad. He spent most of the spring at Maydanovo working on the orchestration of The Enchantress. At the end of May/start of June, Tchaikovsky set off on another Caucasian journey to visit his brother Anatoly, taking a pleasant steamer trip down the Volga from Nizhny Novgorod to Astrakhan, through the Caspian Sea to Baku, and then on to Tiflis and Borzhom. In Borzhom he received a telegram from his old friend Nikolay Kondratyev, who was dying in Aachen . Tchaikovsky decided to visit him there and by 15/27 July he was already in Aachen, where he spent over a month, contemplating God, life and death, while watching Kondratyev's agonizing end.
On 20 October/1 November his new opera The Enchantress was produced at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. Tchaikovsky conducted again but, in spite of a personal ovation, the opera left audiences cold. On the seventh night, the work was sung to a half-empty house, and was quickly withdrawn. On 14/26 November Tchaikovsky conducted another very successful concert in Moscow consisting of his own works, including the premiere of his suite Mozartiana. At the end of December he set out on his first European concert tour as a conductor, which included Leipzig, Berlin, Prague, Hamburg, Paris and London. It was a very successful tour, especially in Prague, Paris and London, where he met several well-known composers (among them Brahms, Grieg and Dvořák) and established many good relations with famous musicians.
In mid/late March, Tchaikovsky returned to Russia, again visiting his brother Ippolit in Taganrog and his brother Anatoly in Tiflis. He returned home only in April, but this time to a new house in the village of Frolovskoye which, like Maydanovo, is located near the small town of Klin. There he began a new symphony, inspired by the death of his friend Nikolay Kondratyev. The Fifth Symphony was first performed under Tchaikovsky's baton in Saint Petersburg on 5/17 November and was well received, in spite of discouraging reviews. At the end of November Tchaikovsky travelled to Prague, where he conducted a successful performance of Yevgeny Onegin.
In December he retired to Frolovskoye for six weeks in order to compose a ballet—The Sleeping Beauty (Спящая красавица)—based on a French fairy tale and commissioned by the directors of the Saint Petersburg Theatres. Tchaikovsky worked with genuine enthusiasm, until he was forced to lay the work aside to go on another concert tour in late January/early February 1889. Tchaikovsky made his first appearance as a conductor on 31 January/12 February at a concert in Cologne, from whence he travelled to Frankfurt am Main, Dresden, Berlin, Leipzig, Geneva, and finally back north to Hamburg. Here he found himself in the same hotel as Brahms, and felt gratified to hear that the concert performance of his Fifth Symphony had pleased the latter, with the exception of the finale. Before going to London at the end of March, as scheduled, Tchaikovsky spent a few weeks in Paris. After the London concert he returned to Russia by the Mediterranean, visiting Batum on the Black Sea and seeing his brother Anatoly in Tiflis. The local music society again celebrated his visit with concerts from his works. The summer was spent as usual in his country home, and his time was occupied by the completion and orchestration of The Sleeping Beauty.
Tchaikovsky spent the greater part of the autumn travelling between Saint Petersburg and Moscow, conducting concerts of his own works, those of Anton Rubinstein (on the occasion of the latter’s Jubilee Festival), and rehearsing his new ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre. The first performance of The Sleeping Beauty took place on 3/15 January 1890 in a splendid production, choreographed by Marius Petipa. The day before Alexander III had expressed his approval of the ballet at a gala rehearsal attended by the imperial court.
On 14/26 January Tchaikovsky went to Florence, where he began work on another opera, The Queen of Spades, Op. 68, the libretto of which had been adapted by his brother Modest from Pushkin’s novella. Tchaikovsky composed the opera with an enthusiasm almost without parallel in his career. The entire score was written in a fit of creative frenzy that lasted just forty-four days. In the process, as we learn from Tchaikovsky’s letters, the composer came to identify with its characters and its action. "I almost totally lost my appetite, my sleep, my cheerful disposition, in a word, all the attributes of health,” he wrote to a friend soon after finishing, ”but I really performed a heroic deed and wrote a great opera in seven weeks" . Elsewhere Tchaikovsky wrote: "I worked on [the opera] with unbelievable ardour and excitement, and actually experienced everything that happens in the story, at one time even fearing the appearance of the old dame's ghost, and I hope that my authorial tumult and absorption will echo in the hearts of the audience" .
As was the case with almost all Tchaikovsky's major compositions, the immediate public and critical response to The Queen of Spades, in the Saint Petersburg production first presented on 7/19 December 1890, was mixed. While he never doubted the quality of his art, the composer was genuinely modest and sensitive to unfavourable feedback. Furthermore, he tended to deprecate his own work and lose interest in it upon completion. It was not so with The Queen of Spades. Despite the scepticism of many, he adamantly held to the belief that the music of this opera belonged among the finest in the world. The judgment of posterity has proved him right.
Tchaikovsky had spent the summer of 1890 in Frolovskoye, preoccupied with the finishing touches for his opera, and composing the sextet Souvenir de Florence. On 17/29 December, he attended a very successful production of The Queen of Spades in Kiev.
In the last ten years the pathos and enthusiasm so characteristic of its initial stages, had gradually diminished in Tchaikovsky's correspondence with Nadezhda von Meck. Her financial assistance would still continue for more than a decade, but eventually they so accommodated themselves to one another that they could treat the whole situation as a matter of fact—quietly and more prosaically. Nevertheless, the intellectual level of their correspondence remained high, and ranged from theoretical discussions to intimate confessions. During September 1890, however, he received a letter from Mrs von Meck informing him that she was on the brink of ruin, and therefore unable to continue either his allowance or their correspondence. The suddenness of this news wounded him deeply, and left him depressed for some time.
His satisfaction with The Queen of Spades led Tchaikovsky to accept two more commissions from the Imperial Theatres for an opera (Iolanta) and a ballet (The Nutcracker). In the meantime, however, Tchaikovsky accepted an invitation to conduct his own works in America on the occasion of the grand opening of Carnegie Hall in New York. On 6/18 March he left Frolovskoye for Paris, where he was to conduct one of Edouard Colonne's concerts on 24 March/5 April. The success of this concert, which consisted entirely of his own works, was marred when he read news of his sister Aleksandra's death in a French newspaper.
Nevertheless, he decided to go ahead with his tour of America. Tchaikovsky sailed from Le Havre on 6/18 April 1891 and landed in New York eight days later. During the voyage, and throughout his American visit, he kept a diary of his experiences. Tchaikovsky conducted six concerts in which his own works were performed: four in New York, one at Baltimore and one at Philadelphia. He also visited Niagara Falls. The composer was greatly impressed and heartened by the warmth and hospitality of his American hosts and by the enthusiastic reception given to his music. On 9/21 May he sailed back from New York to Hamburg, feeling fully gratified with his American tour.
Back home, Tchaikovsky returned to the composition of the ballet The Nutcracker (Щелкунчик), based on E. T. A. Hoffman's fantasy story (but in the adaptation by Alexandre Dumas père). This he finished in late June/early July, whereupon he immediately commenced work on the one-act opera Iolanta, the story of a blind princess, set in medieval Aix-de-Provence. In addition, Tchaikovsky orchestrated a symphonic ballad The Voyevoda (Op. 78), written the previous year to a poem by Pushkin, after the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz (and therefore unconnected with Tchaikovsky's first opera of the same name). On 4/16 November, Tchaikovsky went to Moscow to be present at the first Moscow performance of The Queen of Spades at the Bolshoi Theatre, and to conduct The Voyevoda at a concert organised by the Russian pianist and conductor Alexander Ziloti. While the opera enjoyed tremendous success, Tchaikovsky developed a strong dislike for The Voyevoda after its performance, and actually torn up the score, which was reconstructed only after his death.
The end of 1891 found Tchaikovsky embarking on a new concert tour, this time calling at Kiev and Warsaw before proceeding on to Germany. From Warsaw he went to Hamburg by way of Berlin, in order to be present at a new production of Yevgeny Onegin, conducted by Gustav Mahler. In his later years, Tchaikovsky was often overcome by feelings of homesickness that afflicted him whenever he left Russia, and now he even abandoned a concert for which he had been engaged in Holland — going instead to Paris before heading home. At the end of February/start of March Tchaikovsky travelled to Saint Petersburg where he conducted his overture-fantasia Romeo and Juliet, as well as the first performance of the suite from The Nutcracker, which was received with immense enthusiasm.
On 5/17 April 1892 Tchaikovsky moved into another new home in the same area around Klin. This time he found a bigger house on the outskirts of the town itself, right next to the Petersburg highway but surrounded by fields and the woods. At the end of April/start of May he successfully conducted Gounod's Faust, Anton Rubinstein's The Demon, and his own Yevgeny Onegin in Moscow at Ippolit Pryanishnikov's Private Opera. In May, Tchaikovsky began work on a Symphony in E♭ major, but the sketches he produced to this end—which were in some state of completion by October—did not satisfy him. Almost a year later they were used as the basis for the one-movement Third Piano Concerto, and the Andante & Finale for piano and orchestra, completed by Taneyev after the composer's death. In June 1892 Tchaikovsky went abroad with his nephew Bob Davydov to Vichy (France) for a short cure and to spend some time in Paris. On 7/19 July he was back in the Russian capital, and four days later in Klin, where he dealt with the proofs of The Nutcracker and Iolanta. In early/mid September 1892 Tchaikovsky planned to conduct a concert in Vienna. However, upon arriving he learned that the performance was to be given in a restaurant by a scratch orchestra, and promptly took offence and left. His old friend from the Moscow Conservatory, the Austrian pianist Anton Door, who had not seen him from the late 1860s, not surprisingly found him looking older than his years. From Vienna the composer travelled to be a guest of the German pianist Sophie Menter at Itter Castle, in the Tyrol, and thereupon to Prague in order to attend their first performance of The Queen of Spades. In early/mid November, Tchaikovsky had to return to Saint Petersburg to take part in the rehearsals of Iolanta and The Nutcracker, whose premieres were to make up a double-bill.
On 6/18 December both the opera and the ballet were given splendid productions at the Mariinsky Theatre, in the presence of Alexander III and the imperial court. The opera was conducted by Eduard Nápravník, and the ballet by Riccardo Drigo. The Emperor was cordial with respect to both pieces, but it seems that the music of Iolanta did not appeal to the public. The Nutcracker proved more fortunate, with most critics approving of its music and choreography. Tchaikovsky left the capital on 12/24 December, disappointed by the lukewarm welcome received by his new creations.
This time he travelled to Switzerland, visiting his old childhood governess, Fanny Dürbach. He wrote to his brother Nikolay: "The past rose up so vividly before me that I seemed to breathe the air of Votkinsk and hear our mother’s voice" .
This page was last updated on 16 February 2013