We are grateful to Olga Khoroshilova for bringing this photograph to the attention of Tchaikovsky Research, and for her following detailed account of its discovery.
A "Rare" Tchaikovsky Photo portrait from the Nikolay Nolle archive
Not long ago I got an e-mail from an unknown person. He informed me that he had learned about a book on Russian imperial fashion which I was working on. He offered some old photos which, as he put it, "would be of some interest as they were made a century ago". I certainly couldn't refuse such a tempting offer. When we met the guy held out a pack of old photos wrapped in a thick dusty cellophane. "I got them from distant relatives of whom know almost nothing. May be they would be of some use in your research", — he explained.
Photographs in cellophane
I unwrapped the package impatiently and dragged out marvelous old photos of different formats and equally high quality. The accurate inscriptions made by someone on their back proved that these were not ordinary people. At least half of them belonged to an outstanding Russian family — the Kazy. There were photos of prominent shipbuilder Mikhail Kazy, general-major Sergey Kazy, hussar officer Nikolay Kazy as well as their relatives, such as Alexander Anastasiev, a well-known state official of the Imperial Russia. I was amazed that the ex-owner of the photos didn't even had a slightest wish to read these inscriptions on the their back.
Almost half of the portraits bore the signature of Nikolay Nolle and his wife (who was Kazy by origin). They definitely came from their personal archive. When I was going through all these photos I suddenly noticed a very familiar face which one surely won't confuse with any other. It was a photo portrait of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. On its back I saw a small pencil inscription: "Rare!". Just one word. Judging by the spelling it was surely made before the Revolution of 1917 as it had "i" instead of Russian "и". It seemed that Nikolay Nolle, whose biography I still didn't know but who was the ex-owner of this photo, was somehow connected with art world, might have collected photos of famous Russian musicians and composers (as many people then did) and the inscription he made on the back suggested that he understood the importance and value of this photo. Anyway I had to check all the information.
After having studied thick volumes of Весь Санкт Петербург (All Saint Petersburg), a popular address book of Imperial times, as well as music encyclopedias, magazine articles and web-sites, I learned much about Nikolay Nolle. He appeared to be a prominent figure in musical world of Saint Petersburg before the Revolution. He was born in 1862 in Novgorod into the family of wealthy official. According to the information, which his descendants provided me with, Nikolay Nolle finished military school and became an officer of the Sapper battalion. But soon he got disappointed with military service. From his childhood he was dreaming of stage and of artistic career as he had nice voice and a good ear for music. So he retired from the service and in 1887 entered the Saint Petersburg Conservatory the vocal class of famous professor Stanislav Gabel. The professor trained the voice of a young gifted man, taught him some vocal tricks and later, after Nolle had graduated from the Conservatory, patronized him. In 1889 Nikolay Nolle performed successfully on stage of the Kiev Opera. His voice and artistic skills were highly admired by public. Music critics praised his "juicy baritone" and predicted his great success in Saint Petersburg. They were not mistaken.
In the second half of 1889 Nikolay Nolle through the protection of Gabel was invited to participate in a concert dedicated to 50th anniversary of Anton Rubinstein's Moscow debut. Nolle was chosen to sing solo part in the oratorio The Tower of Babel. The conductor of the oratorio was Peter Tchaikovsky himself. It seems quite possible that Nolle met Tchaikovsky in person during the rehearsal as well as with his brother Modest who later became Nolle's friend and often visited him in his homestead in Mertsyno.
After his triumphal performance in the The Tower of Babel, Nolle got first major recognition both in Saint Petersburg and in other Russian cities. Soon he was appointed a vocal professor of Saint Petersburg Conservatory. He made friends with Russian composers Anatoly Lyadov and Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Among his pupils were future star singers — Yelizaveta Azerskaya, Gabriel Darnet, Emiliya Levandovskaya, Boris Mezetsov, etc. Nikolay Nolle died in 1908 in his homestead Mertsyno and was buried there.
Sly Mr. Anaklet
But why "rare"? Why did Nolle make such an inscription on the back of the photo — it wasn't even signed by Tchaikovsky? What is so special and so "rare" about it? These questions were crossing my mind when I was examining the beautiful photo portrait. It was of a big budoir format, about 14 x 22 cm, made by Saint Petersburg's famous atelier very popular among Russian aristocrats and artists. The owner of it was a renowned master Anaklet Pasetti.
Pasetti's attention is concentrated on Tchaikovsky's face — we can see just some details of the costume. It seems that the photographer wanted to peer deeply into composer's eyes and to reveal his inner world. That's why he made this close-up portrait. Suddenly I noticed a big piece of cotton protruding from Tchaikovsky's right ear. Such a strange weird detail in Pasetti's times would have been recognized as childish, inexcusable mistake, a serious defect. At the same time this detail could have been of some importance for Pasetti hence he didn't retouch it. This piece of cotton represented on the portrait could have been connected with some personal story of Tchaikovsky's life which Pasetti must have known.
Anaklet Pasetti (his second Russian name is Peter Alexandrowitch Pasetti) was an artful, delicate and sly master. He could make great splendid photo portraits of Russian state officials and military men in their pompous golden uniforms and sparkling orders. Pasetti flattered them greatly and hid all their defects. He flattered Russian monarchs and theirs family, well-known Russian aristocrats, politicians, opera divas. His photographic atelier, located on the Nevsky prospect, 24, was one of the most fashionable in Saint Petersburg. At the same time Pasetti could be sensitive, sharp-sighted and sly master. He saw the defects of his sitters and was able to reveal them on the photos. He saw and rendered the shyness of the emperor Nicholas II, the nervousness of his wife Alexandra Fyodorovna, selfishness and sarcasm of prince Feliks Yusupov, the soldier- like cruelty of Russian generals. He noticed everything.
First of all it was important to find out when exactly this portrait was made. Sometimes the photo itself can provide the answer to this question. On the back of it there were images of several medals which Pasetti was awarded with on international exhibitions. Among them is a medal which he got in 1889 but there isn't silver medal of 1891 which the photographer got for "the portraits of high artistic quality made on platinum paper ". Now it was quite clear that this portrait of Tchaikovsky was made between 1889 and 1891, at exactly the time when he met Nikolay Nolle in Saint Petersburg. But when did Pasetti make portrait of the composer and were there any other photos made during the shoot? As I was looking through auctions' catalogues I found the photo which seemed quite similar to the portrait from Nolle's archive (Christie's. The Jerome Shochet Collection of Historical Signed Photographs (2007), № 1129). The composer was posing just in the same suit, his head turned three quarters. A beautiful, official and, what's more important, flawless portrait — the protruding piece of cotton seems almost invisible due to the retouching. On the bottom of it one could read the date written by Tchaikovsky: "19th June 1890". It seemed clear that both photos were made during the same session. Between 1889 and June of 1890 the composer visited Saint Petersburg several times. In autumn 1889 he was rehearsing and conducting the The Tower of Babel. Then in December he returned to the city — this time for rehearsals of The Sleeping Beauty. In the beginning of January 1890 he was present on the premiere of this ballet.
During my investigation I learned about a thick and highly informative The Sleeping Beauty.(Indiana University Press, 2002) written by Alexander Poznansky and Brett Langston. It had a made during his lifetime. There I found the same kind of photo was published in Christie's catalogue. But the type of the photo from Nolle's archive wasn't listed there and this indirectly proved it's "rarity" and explained the inscription made on it's back by Nolle. and several other resources confirm that Pasetti made photos of Tchaikovsky in January 1890. And he also made one bigger portrait with the composer together with his brothers, who, by the way, were also present on the premiere of
According to the tradition, when a prominent composer visited the city to attend the premiere of his musical work, he let the photographers make portraits of him, because public eagerly bought the photos hoping to get composer's autographs during the premier or right after it. It seems quite clear that the composer visited Pasetti's atelier several days (or just a day) before the premiere of the The Sleeping Beauty. And probably it was Pasetti who begged Tchaikovsky to pose for him. In the beginning of January Saint Petersburg high society and artistic intelligentsia were waiting for the premiere of The Sleeping Beauty. The interest towards this new ballet was as high as demand for Tchaikovsky's new photos which the composer's followers were buying in dozens hoping to get his autograph and to enrich their collections with these signed rarities. When Pasetti learned about Tchaikovsky's visit, he surely asked him to visit his atelier and to pose for his camera. He was sure Tchaikovsky won't refuse and he was expecting to sell the photos quickly.
Pyotr Ilyich did actually come to Pasetti's studio. During the session the photographer made several portraits in different formats and foreshortening. The best variants are now well-known and often published. The photo portrait of the composer sitting among his brothers must have been printed just in some exemplars thus remaining quite rare. And it seems that the close-up photo of the composer with the piece of cotton in his ear was discarded either by Tchaikovsky himself or by his brother Modest who sometimes controlled the work of the photographers and chose what negatives they can or cannot print. The photo with cotton, printed in some exemplars, didn't go on sale. It was in fact rare and the inscription made on its back seems to be adequate. But its rarity is not the only thing worth noticing. This close-up portrait is a great prove of the story which so far was considered to be a myth.
Pyotr Ilyich was comically absent-minded. This was noticed by many of his contemporaries. A well-known physician Vasily Bertenson, who treated Tchaikovsky, recalled: "Pyotr Ilyich was really absent-minded. And this quality sometimes provoked different incidents". So when he entered the studio of Pasetti, he absent-mindedly forgot to put the piece of cotton out of his ear. And the photographer didn't dare (or rather didn't want) to draw composer's attention to this telling detail. He made him seat in front of the camera and took pictures.
Another Tchaikovsky's personal quality also connected with Pasetti's photo was that the composer was always afraid of catching cold and chilling his ears as this (as he thought) would provoke deafness. He often told Vasily Bertenson about his fears and the wise doctor, wishing to come his nervous patient down, advised him to fill his ears with some cotton before going for a walk on a windy and cold day. And that's what Tchaikovsky actually did. In his memoires Vasily Bertenson recalls a funny story. In the end of 1880s Tchaikovsky visited Saint Petersburg. It was November, the weather was really bad, the strong cold wind was blowing from the Neva river. Composer went out for a walk (as he always did no matter what the weather was). And as he was passing the bridge he suddenly remembered the doctor's advice and realized, he had forgotten his cotton at home.
Vasily Bertenson wrote: "Pyotr Ilyich was standing and thinking where to get the cotton. The Petersburg side (the name of city's district) seemed to be the closest place. But where do they usually sell cotton? In what kind of shops? He decided to enter the first small shop on his way, to buy there some trifle and to ask apropos where he could get cotton. He found the shop, entered it and when being asked by shop assistant "What would you like, sir", Pyotr Ilyich asked for some apples. When the shop boy was wrapping him the best big apples, it seemed to Pyotr Ilyich the right time to ask : "Where could I possibly buy some cotton here?". He was shown to the nearby dry goods shop. With a big pack full of apples Pyotr Ilyich entered the dry goods shop. "How can I help you, sir?" — "I would like some cotton" — "How much cotton would you like, sir?" This question, — continued Bertenson — was a tricky one. How do they measure cotton? By arshines (old Russian measure of length)? By pounds? Pyotr Ilyich got really confused. "Would you like to have a pound of cotton?" — asked shop assistant. "Oh eyes, sure, a pound, please", — answered composer. In a minute a huge cloud of cotton came out of the mystical depth of the shop. Pyotr Ilyich was horrified but it was late to confess that he only needed some pieces for his ears. In the hands of experienced assistant a cloud turned into a package of moderate volume. With apples in one hand and a pound of cotton in the other Pyotr Ilyich went out to the street, turned into a deserted lane as he wanted to use the cotton immediately. He pierced the wrapping with his finger, put out a little cotton, filled his ears with it and went home… This pound of ill-fated cotton served his brother Modest for a long time".
The same story musical critic Leonid Sabaneyev told in his memories — he probably learned it from his friend Nikolay Kashkin who was quite close with Tchaikovsky and surely knew the whole story. And this fact actually proves that quite many people of art world knew about Tchaikovsky's weaknesses and this story in particular. Anaklet Pasetti who was part of artistic milieu and was a friend of some ballet and opera stars, could have known it as well.
A sly photographer took advantage of Tchaikovsky's absent-mindedness — he focused his merciless camera of the composer's face and dashingly pushed the button. He represented Tchaikovsky as he was known among his close friends — modest, shying, absent-minded person with the faults excusable to genius.