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 and 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
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky; drawing by David Levine


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…

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