Eduard Sack

Tchaikovsky Research

Former music student and friend of the composer (b. 13/25 June 1854; d. 14/26 February 1873), known in Russia as Eduard Eduardovich Zak (Эдуард Эдуардович Зак).

Eduard was born into a family of Russified Germans. In 1867, he enrolled in the Moscow Conservatory at the same time as his cousin Raphael Köber, who went on to become a professional pianist. In the second year of his studies, in 1868, Sack was in Tchaikovsky's composition class, but two years later he decided to leave the conservatory. The young man spent the summer of 1870 in Nizhny Novgorod together with Köber. Two letters from Köber to Tchaikovsky have survived from this period, one with a postscript written by Sack in which he addresses the composer by the familiar "ты" (thou), testifying to the closeness of their relationship. This note is written somewhat clumsily as far as grammar and syntax are concerned, which suggests that the youth did not have a very good command of Russian: "Here in Nizhny Novgorod are many good people...Rufusha [Raphael] and I, we love them terribly. I have been bathing from the rafts [on the Volga River] a long time now and have learnt to swim fairly well... I am very well here and spent all June lazing about, I have been with my mother and father... "[1]. At the end of August, the two young men returned to Moscow, where Tchaikovsky and Köber, as is clear from the second extant letter, intended to help Edya, as Eduard was affectionately known, to enrol in a gymnasium, since, as his cousin explained to Tchaikovsky, he was "capable of passing the [entrance] examination... except perhaps for the Latin paper [2].

From 1871 to 1872, Sack worked for the railways in the small town of Konotop, in the Ukraine, where his boss was Tchaikovsky's elder brother Nikolay. In a letter to his brother of 28 September/10 October 1871, Tchaikovsky wrote:

I am very grateful to you for the news about Sack and for the sympathy which you feel towards him. This moves me greatly and testifies to your kind heart and to your capacity for appreciating good people. I wish to ask the following of you. Since you (to my extreme pleasure) want to save Sack from business trips during the winter, would you not consider it possible and to his benefit to give him in the near future a brief vacation in Moscow? I feel that he needs this, that he might feel refreshed in a milieu somewhat superior to that which surrounds him. I am afraid lest he should grow coarse and his instinct towards intellectual refinement die out. Finally, it is essential for him to see his mother, who is pining away, so much does she miss him. I beg you, my dear, if you consider my opinion justified, to allow and even order him to take a trip to Moscow; in doing this you will also give me great pleasure. I have missed him terribly and fear for his future: I fear lest physical activity should kill in him his loftier strivings. I tell you frankly that if I observe in him any moral or intellectual decline, I shall take measures to find him other work. But be that as it may, it is absolutely essential for me to see him. For God's sake, do arrange this [3].

This letter raises a number of questions. The concluding sentence really does have a ring of despair about it, suggesting Tchaikovsky's great yearning to meet the young man again. One may also surmise from this letter that Sack had been employed by Nikolay on his brother's recommendation, for a job that involved some exhausting labour and travel. At some point a couple of years later, Sack turned up in Moscow, and on 16/28 May 1873, Tchaikovsky sent a note to Karl Albrecht asking him to permit Sack to attend a performance by the students of the conservatory's drama class [4]. Eventually the young man seems to have found his way into Vladimir Shilovsky's circle, so that Tchaikovsky inquired briefly in a letter to Shilovsky from Kamenka of 18/30 June 1873: "And what of Sack? Was it successful or not?" [5]. It is not clear what this inquiry might have referred to. However, later that year, on 2/14 November 1873, for reasons that have not been clarified either, Eduard Sack, at the age of nineteen, took his own life. He killed himself with a gun.

Sack's mother wrote to Tchaikovsky shortly afterwards: "From the newspapers I have found out about the misfortune which happened to Eduard... Since you are the only one who can know about the reason which caused him to take his own life, I most humbly ask you to write to me everything you know about this incident [and] what drove him to this action. I beg and implore you as an unhappy mother to tell me where he is buried, and to place some small cross on his grave" [6].

Raphael Köber, replying to a letter from Tchaikovsky (which has not survived) with the news of Sack's death, wrote to the composer from Jena: "It is terrible to think about him. The last time I saw him,... he told me that his life could end in no other way than in a violent death. These words were uttered with such bitterness that they imprinted themselves deeply in my mind and confirmed what I had suspected long ago. When I opened your letter, the first word I read was Eduard, and that was sufficient for me to guess everything else. How consistently his life had been shaping up so as to lead to this catastrophe! From one year to the next, it was becoming ever more cheerless and empty until he finally realised that the kind of work for which he had been prepared from his birth could not satisfy him. He... became unsettled; his character had developed in far too original a fashion to enable him to put [his abilities] to practical use. He lived in a kind of separate world of his own and was insufficiently prepared for any type of work that would have matched his intellectual needs. From the day he was born, he had carried within himself the preconditions for this sad death, and I was merely the strong instrument which accelerated it. There is a lot I can reproach myself for. I caused him to quarrel with his father and took him away from his home, I was the first to show him a different world and as the result of all this, I caused his ruin earlier [than might otherwise have been the case]. I do not think that you have anything more to repent of than I do. In any case, if we hadn't been around, there would have been other reasons and exactly the same outcome. When one considers a life such as that of our dear Edya, it is enough to turn one into a complete fatalist" [7].

This tragedy is alluded to in Tchaikovsky's letter of 5/17 November 1873 to his Saint Petersburg publisher, Vasily Bessel (that is, a letter written three days after Eduard Sack's death, although his name is not actually mentioned): "I am now under the impression of a tragic catastrophe that has occurred to someone close to me, and my nerves are terribly shaken. I am unable to do anything. Therefore I ask you not to rush me with the piano pieces" [8].

Finally, there are two tortuous diary entries made by Tchaikovsky some fourteen years after the young man's death—a span of years that in its very length testifies to the intensity of Tchaikovsky's feeling. On 4/16 September 1887 he wrote: "Before going to sleep, thought much and long of Eduard. Wept much. Can it be that he is truly no more??? I cannot believe it" [9]. On the following day, he made another entry, even more significant: "Again thought of and recalled Sack. How amazingly clearly I remember him: the sound of his voice, his movements, but especially the extraordinarily wonderful expression on his face at times. I cannot conceive that he should now be no more. His death, that is, complete nonexistence, is beyond my comprehension. It seems to me that I have never loved anyone so strongly as him. My God! no matter what they told me then and how I try to console myself, my guilt before him is terrible! And at the same time I loved him, that is, not loved, but love him still, and his memory is sacred to me!" [10]. This last entry (which, it may be noted in passing, is the lengthiest entry in the entire diary devoted to a single individual) is remarkable in many respects. Taking into consideration the entry's truly striking emotional force ("I have never loved anyone so strongly as him") and the suspicious and no doubt deliberate omission of Sack's name throughout the various memoirs and testimonies (significantly, in Modest's three-volume biography he is not mentioned once), one begins to sense the presence of some complex and intense psychodrama almost entirely hidden from view, one in which Tchaikovsky, probably without actual guilt, felt himself guilty. It is a great pity that there is no way to establish precisely what Tchaikovsky had in mind when speaking of his "terrible guilt" and his futile self-consolation.

The Six Pieces on a Single Theme, Op. 21, mentioned by Tchaikovsky in his letter to Bessel, were completed by the end of November 1873. This cycle for piano, dedicated to Anton Rubinstein, bears the imprint of tragic events. Among the pieces is a Funeral March, and all but the final two are written in a minor key [11]. Two years later, César Cui, arguably the most severe of Tchaikovsky's critics, wrote in his review of the work that the pieces were "highly remarkable and must be numbered among [Tchaikovsky's] finest compositions" [12]. In the view of some Tchaikovsky scholars, it is also significant that the composer started writing his First Piano Concerto, a work in B-flat minor (the same key as Chopin's sonata with the famous funeral march), within less than a year after Sack's death [13].

Eduard Sack and "Romeo and Juliet"

In the autumn of 1869, Tchaikovsky created his overture-fantasia Romeo and Juliet. The idea for this work originated with Mily Balakirev, who not only suggested to Tchaikovsky this particular subject from Shakespeare as the basis of a symphonic work, but also drew up a detailed plan for the composition, which unfortunately has been lost. Tchaikovsky set about tackling this project at the end of September, but his work on the overture progressed very slowly. When Modest found out what his brother was working on, he wrote to him on 18/30 October offering his own detailed programme: "I was extremely surprised to learn that you are writing an overture to Romeo and Juliet", Modest wrote, "in the first place, because I myself, when I recently read this play, sketched out an overture to it, and secondly, because without suspecting it you have fulfilled one of my most cherished wishes... Here is the programme of my overture: at the start, the enmity between the two families, represented by ff [fortissimo] and presto, then little by little out of all the noise and blather (depicting the feud) there emerges a marvellous hymn of love (pp) [pianissimo], with the trumpets and cellos representing the love and character of Romeo, and the violins and flutes—Juliet. Finally, this hymn reaches a terrifying passionateness and acquires an ominous character as it is constantly interrupted by the first theme of the feud, but suddenly and all at once after a terrible ff [fortissimo] there comes a pause, followed by a sombre phrase, which resolves itself into gentle arpeggiated chords. Not bad, eh?!!! Don't you think?" [14].

Oddly enough, Modest's letter helped the composer to clarify his own ideas for the work. Exactly one month later, on 18/30 November, Tchaikovsky wrote to his brother, "the overture you commissioned to "Romeo and Juliet" has been successfully finished, and it will be performed in one of the forthcoming concerts" [15]. Furthermore, in another letter to Modest of 2/14 March 1870, he confessed: "my overture to "Romeo" is being performed, the composition of which I owe so much to you" [16].

Its first performance, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein in Moscow on 4/16 March 1870, unfortunately went unnoticed, but Tchaikovsky was convinced of the outstanding quality of his overture. "I think that this work is the best of everything I have ever written", he emphasized in a letter to Anatoly of 7/19 March 1870 [17]. In contrast to his attitude to a number of other works—his symphonic fantasia Fatum, for instance, as we saw earlier—Tchaikovsky persistently held a very high opinion of his Romeo and Juliet. In this overture-fantasia, the composer deployed three musical themes drawn from Shakespeare's tragedy: the feuding families, the youthful love of the two protagonists, and the intervention of Friar Laurence. These three forces are in constant conflict, leading in the end to the tragic death of the two lovers. There is no doubt that he wrote the overture with extraordinary enthusiasm and inspiration. Here, for the first time, he voiced the main emotional themes of all his subsequent oeuvre—the psychological drama of unfulfilled and frustrated love and of impossible youthful passion consumed by omnipresent death. Caution is always required when relating a musical composition directly to biographical events, for a work of art nearly always transcends the experience that gives impetus to its composition. Still, from the point of view of creative psychology, the two realms must necessarily be connected, however mysteriously or unpredictably. In the case of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet, an intimate link can be seen between this fervent piece of music and a secret drama unfolding in the composer's life at the time of its composition. It cannot be ruled out that in Tchaikovsky's mind the Shakespearean theme merged not only with his unrequited love for Sergey Kireyev, as Modest argues in his "Autobiography" , but also with the tragic story of Eduard Sack, evidently one of the great passions of Tchaikovsky's life, about whom, unfortunately, we know very little. "This was one of the ghosts who troubled [Tchaikovsky's] heart more than others", Nina Berberova perceptively wrote in 1936 [18].

At the time of composition of Romeo and Juliet, in the autumn of 1869, Sack was only fifteen. This was the age that Tchaikovsky always considered to be the peak of male adolescent beauty, and the "tenderness and sweetness of love" [19] revealed in the music of the overture is well in tune with the theme of youthful passion. Could Tchaikovsky have been conscious of the fact that in Shakespeare's times the role of Juliet, like all female roles, was always played by boy-actors? In the love theme of Romeo and Juliet "there is little of the inner love of the soul, and only a fantastic and passionate languor, even with a tiny bit of an Italian hue", was Balakirev's verdict in a letter to Tchaikovsky [20]. Of course, it is difficult to make assumptions and guesses as to the mysterious and unpredictable threads by which the overture might be tied to real-life experiences, but Rimsky-Korsakov, who also commented on this work, was certainly right when he contended that the central love theme "does not yield to elaboration, as is the case, in general, with all genuine long and distinctively exclusive melodies." But, he continued, "how very inspirational it is! What ineffable beauty, what burning passion! It is one of the finest themes in all of Russian music!" [21].

Alexander Poznansky

Notes and References

  1. Note from Eduard Sack in a letter from Raphael Köber to Tchaikovsky, 1/13 July 1870 — Tchaikovsky State Memorial Musical Museum-Reserve at Klin (a4, No. 1434).
  2. Letter from Raphael Köber to Tchaikovsky, 13/25 August 1870 — Tchaikovsky State Memorial Musical Museum-Reserve at Klin (a4, No. 1435).
  3. Letter 240 to Nikolay Tchaikovsky, 28 September/10 October 1871.
  4. Letter 307 to Karl Albrecht, 16/28 May 1873.
  5. Letter 315 to Vladimir Shilovsky, 18/30 May 1873.
  6. Letter from Mrs Sack to Tchaikovsky, December 1873 — Tchaikovsky State Memorial Musical Museum-Reserve at Klin (a4, No. 1214).
  7. Letter from Raphael Köber to Tchaikovsky, 21 November/3 December 1873 — Tchaikovsky State Memorial Musical Museum-Reserve at Klin (a4, № 1436).
  8. Letter 324 to Vasily Bessel, 5/17 November 1873.
  9. Diary entry for 4/16 September 1887. See Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1923), p. 176.
  10. Diary entry for 5/17 September 1887. See Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891), p. 177.
  11. Творческий архив П. И. Чайковского (1988), p. 68.
  12. Saint Petersburg Register (Санкт-Петербургские ведомости), 29 January 1876 [O.S.].
  13. See also Биография художника. Жизнь и произведения. По материалам к биографий П. И. Чайковского (1999), p.178–179.
  14. Letter from Modest Tchaikovsky to the composer, 18/30 October 1869 — Tchaikovsky State Memorial Musical Museum-Reserve at Klin.
  15. Letter 161 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 18/30 November 1869.
  16. Letter 183 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 2/14–3/15 March 1870.
  17. Letter 184 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 7/19 March 1870.
  18. Чайковский (1997), p. 221.
  19. Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 334.
  20. Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 334.
  21. Николай Андреевич Римский-Корсаков: Воспоминания, том 1 (1959), p. 52.