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Love in a Cold Climate

To My Best Friend’: Correspondence between Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck (1876–1878)

translated by Galina von Meck, edited by Edward Garden, by Nigel Gotteri, Introduction by Edward Garden
Oxford University Press, 439 pp., $49.95

Tchaikovsky: The Final Years (1885–1893)

by David Brown
Norton, 527 pp., $40.00


When the correspondence between Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck began, in December 1876, the bachelor of thirty-six was the most promising of Russian composers and the most highly regarded abroad; four months earlier, at Bayreuth for the first Ring of the Nibelung, he had been warmly—he thought obsequiously—received by Liszt. Shortly after returning from Germany, morbidly fearful of public exposure of his homosexuality, he wrote to his homosexual brother Modest: “I should like to marry or enter into an open liaison with some woman so as to shut the mouths of assorted contemptible gossipers.” The woman of his dreams, or nightmares, should not expect the consummation of conjugal rights.

Nadezhda Filaretovna was forty-five, recently widowed, prodigally wealthy—her husband’s rise from engineer to railroad tycoon is generally attributed to her business acumen—and passionately musical. Her household staff included a violinist (“I have a good Stradivarius”) and a cellist, and in the summer months it would soon include the teen-age Claude Debussy, who could read orchestral scores at the piano and play piano duets with her. She had been a polyphiloprogenitive, if not a strictly faithful, wife: her husband’s discovery that the youngest and favorite of her eighteen children was illegitimate had brought on his fatal heart attack; years later, when one of her daughters revealed the secret of the illegitimacy to a son-in-law—as well as, probably, the secret of consanguinity, that the child’s father was also the husband of her eldest daughter—he would use it to black-mail her.

Two brief exchanges are followed by Mme von Meck’s third letter, which runs to nearly 1,500 words and includes three musical quotations from Tchaikovsky’s early opera Oprichnik, which now embarrassed him (“poor stuff, written hastily and in places without inspiration”) but which she would “like to die hearing.” Before dying, however, she wants him to contrive a four-hand funeral march from it. At the instigation of their mutual friend, Nikolai Rubinstein, virtuoso pianist and Tchaikovsky’s superior at the Moscow Conservatory, the financially straitened composer had written her asking for a loan. Rubinstein suggested that she commission pieces from him, thus initiating her role as Tchaikovsky’s benefactress.

Tchaikovsky’s commensurately expanded third letter remarks on her apparent lack of interest in meeting him. She replies that the reasons he supposes for this are mistaken, but whatever the right ones—“the more fascinated I am by you, the more I fear acquaintance”—the condition that they never meet seems to have been understood. They lived near each other at times, saw each other at a distance in the theater—she had first glimpsed him bowing, “hurriedly and reluctantly,” after a performance of one of his works—and twice by accident close up, Tchaikovsky raising his hat as they silently passed by. The Oprichnik march makes her “nerves tingle [and] want to cry, want to die, want another life.”

The principal event in their personal lives during the two years covered by the correspondence is Tchaikovsky’s marriage. He did not know Antonina Ivanovna Miliukova when in May 1877 he received her declaration of love. Ignoring the aberrancy of her behavior, he answered and was soon agreeing to see her, partly because she had threatened suicide if he did not. He took the precaution of interviewing her former piano teacher at the conservatory, but went to the meeting undeterred by this colleague’s uncomplimentary description of her.

Tchaikovsky immediately recognized that he and Antonina Ivanovna had nothing in common (“she’s a very limited person,” he confided to his brother Anatoly), were in fact extreme opposites in every way, and he felt “total repugnance” for her physical presence. That he nevertheless proposed to her on his second and last visit before their nuptials confirms that his rational faculties had suffered a breakdown. Later, to Mme von Meck, he would blame his self-destructive act on “fate,” on family and social pressures—above all his eighty-two-year-old father’s longstanding wish to see him married—and on his unbalanced mental state at the time. She urged him to seek a divorce, promising a huge settlement on his wife, but this did not take place and the marriage would harrow him until 1881, when his publisher learned that Antonina Tchaikovskaya had abandoned an illegitimate child—she had several of them in all—in a foundling home. Four years after Tchaikovsky’s death, she was committed to an insane asylum near St. Petersburg, where she died in 1917.

The wedding, July 18, 1877, was semi-secret and somber, devoid of epithalamia. The unimaginably awful honeymoon began with a visit to his family in St. Petersburg. During the train journey he was rescued from the obligation to converse with his bride by a chance fellow passenger, Prince Meshchersky, an intimate friend from his years at the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence. He was rescued again in a Petersburg hotel by doses of valerian. After returning to Moscow for a similar visit to her “weird family,” as Tchaikovsky described it, she remained in the city to prepare their future residence, while he left for Kiev and the home of his married sister at Kamenka. Back in Moscow at the end of September, he attempted to commit suicide by exposure, wading into the icy Moscow River. On October 6 he fled to St. Petersburg, where a doctor told him he could recover his equilibrium only by a permanent separation from his wife. Later, from Switzerland, he portrayed her to Mme von Meck in a letter that displays a mordant side of his personality. She is twenty-eight, he says, which was old by the current parameters of nubility, as well as

fairly unhandsome in appearance. …Her eyes are…expressionless; her lips are too thin…. She is very affected and there is not a single movement or gesture which is straightforward…. That was the easy part of the description. But, now that I come to describe her character and intellect, I meet an unsurmountable difficulty. Her head and heart are both completely empty…. She has never once expressed a single idea…. Never once did she display the least desire to find out what I was doing…. She had told me that she had been in love with me for four years; and also that she was quite a reasonable musician…[yet] she didn’t know a single note of my compositions and…had never been to concerts…of the Musical Society, while knowing that she could see the object of her four-year love there at any time. She is very garrulous…. Hour by hour she would tell me endless stories about the countless men who had nursed tender feelings for her. Most frequently they were generals, nephews of famous bankers, and even members of the imperial family.

The compensatory, retributive event of Tchaikovsky’s life occurred soon after, when Mme von Meck responded to another of his appeals for money with a generous sum and a pledge that henceforth he would receive a monthly allowance of 1500 francs. The “wellknown-unknown” ideal friend, who posed no threat of personal contact, now became his provider as well. For a time, Tchaikovsky’s sister sheltered and coped with his wife, but he continued to support her from his new stipend. Before long, however, he was lamenting to Mme von Meck that the “unbearable shackle” has “brazenly taken off her mask” and is sending him letters that show her to be “untruthful and vicious.” He can no longer bear the sound of her name or anything that reminds him of her, he says, and, accordingly, from then on both correspondents refer to her as “a certain personage,” or “a certain matter.”

If Mme von Meck’s somewhat distancing letter of congratulations on receiving Tchaikovsky’s news of his engagement betrays a twinge of disappointment, her elation on hearing of the fiasco of the marriage is undisguised. “Pyotr Ilich,” she asks, “have you ever loved? I think not. You love music too much to be able to fall in love with a woman,” which is to forget such lovers of music and women as Liszt and Wagner. She persists: “Have you ever known non-Platonic love?” And he equivocates, “Yes and no,” then formulates her question in a different way: has he ever experienced “full happiness in love”? The answer to this is a vehement “no, no, and again no,” but he tells her to look for the answer to the question in his music. (Chopin was “an awful character,” she wrote later, “one can hear it in his music.”) In dismissing platonic love as semi-love, “not the feeling that goes deep into a person’s flesh and blood,” she remarks parenthetically that this was “not at all the way Plato loved,” unwittingly brushing against the truth. But the last part of this cryptic, venturesome letter is missing, as are all passages in the correspondence that would seem to contain references to his sexual inclinations. Modest was an efficient censor, both for his brother and himself, going so far in his own case as to become the tutor of a nine-year-old deaf-mute who also became his charge and, to judge from an allusion to the relationship by the composer, his catamite.

In fact Mme von Meck seems to have had no inkling of Tchaikovsky’s homosexual inclinations, not only failing to recognize his account of the marriage as a description of sexual panic, but actually concluding that Antonina Ivanovna did not want to have his child. She would soon revise this assumption, telling him that his wife must be made to realize that “one person seeks only certain marital relations and another will not be satisfied with only that one thing” (her emphases), which seems to mean that she thought sexual intercourse was the only marital relationship that Antonina Ivanovna was capable of sharing with him—as may have been the case with her husband in her own marriage. Yet one wonders how this worldly, experienced woman could fail to recognize the sexual temperament behind Tchaikovsky’s avowed wish for her to comfort him “like a child in its mother’s arms,” and his wish to be for his younger brothers “what a mother is for her children,” knowing “the indelible mark that maternal caresses leave on a child’s heart.” Leo Tolstoy was more percipient. After spending two evenings in Moscow with the composer, and weeping during a performance of his first string quartet, the author of the “excruciatingly brilliant” Death of Ivan Ilich, as Tchaikovsky called it, would remember him after his death as “a man about whom there was something not altogether clear.”

By the end of the first year, both correspondents are emotionally dependent on their “chats” with each other. “I can’t sleep and I am sitting down for another chat with you,” Tchaikovsky begins a letter to his mother-confessor. “I am now used to telling you everything,” he says, while assiduously avoiding any reference to the real reason for his marriage and its dissolution. Mme von Meck decides that this is the propitious moment to adopt the intimate form of address, but she has not yet taken the full measure of his intensely private, hypersensitive nature. He declines her proposal protesting that the “thou” form would be awkward for him, the breaking of a convention on which he depends. In an ambivalent afterthought, prompted, perhaps, by a reminder that she is his patroness, he concedes that he might be able to adjust to the change, although the form of address will not affect the feeling.

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