Born into a Jewish family in Odessa, after completing his secondary education there he studied at the Medical Faculty of Kiev University but did not finish his course due to ill health. In the mid-1870s he began carrying out revolutionary agitation among the workers of Odessa. After the arrest and execution of the leader of the Odessa revolutionary cell, Ivan Kovalsky, in early 1878, Ashkinazi emigrated from Russia, living at first in Italy and Switzerland before settling in Paris.
Ashkinazi soon found his feet in the French capital and became a valued contributor to many Parisian newspapers and journals. For his journalistic work he adopted the pseudonym "Michel Delines", though he published some of his early works under his real name — for instance, the revolutionary novel Les victimes du tsar (The Victims of the Tsar; Paris, 1881). No less a figure than Ivan Turgenev encouraged Ashkinazi in his work on this novel. In his reminiscences of Turgenev, which appeared in Paris in 1884 as a book entitled Tourguéneff inconnu (Unknown Turgenev) and under his pseudonym, Ashkinazi would nevertheless emphasize how the late writer had always rejected the readiness to use violence shown by so many of the young Russian revolutionaries, who in this sense had gone much further than Bazarov, the 'nihilist' hero of Fathers and Children (1862) .
Inspired by his acquaintance with Turgenev, Michel Delines, as he now invariably signed himself, would come to play an important role in the propagation of Russian literature in his adopted country. Thus, over the years he translated into French Lev Tolstoy's Childhood and Adolescence, as well as excerpts from War and Peace, and also selections from Ivan Goncharov's The Ravine, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Raw Youth and a number of short stories by Vsevolod Garshin. He published several articles about these and other Russian writers in French, Belgian and English newspapers.
Tchaikovsky and Delines
From the late 1880s, Delines also sought to promote the cause of Russian music in France. In this respect, his personal acquaintance with Tchaikovsky seems to have been decisive. They first met in February 1888, shortly after Tchaikovsky arrived in Paris, the penultimate stop of his first conducting tour of Western Europe. As we learn from the composer's diary, the meeting took place in the music-shop of Tchaikovsky's French publisher, Félix Mackar . It is very likely that already then both Mackar and Delines tried to persuade Tchaikovsky to authorize a translation of the libretto of Yevgeny Onegin into French with a view to staging the opera in Paris. In any case, in March 1888, shortly after Tchaikovsky's departure for London, Delines published an enthusiastic and perceptive article about Onegin in the journal Revue d'art dramatique, in which, among other things, he compared Tchaikovsky's treatment of his literary source to Turgenev's novels with their recurring echoes of Pushkin's juxtaposition of Onegin and Tatyana. At the end of his article, Delines expressed the hope that his readers would soon be able to hear the opera in Paris . Already towards the end of May 1888, some excerpts from the opera in Delines's translation were indeed performed in the salons of two Russian aristocratic ladies living in Paris, and Mackar was so moved by the music that he promised Tchaikovsky to do his best to get the opera staged at the Opéra-Comique .
Unfortunately, this plan came to nothing and Tchaikovsky himself did not live to see the first performance of Yevgeny Onegin in France. However, this was certainly not due to lack of perseverance on the part of Delines, who soon became one of Tchaikovsky's closest friends in Paris . It is not clear when exactly Delines completed his translation of the Onegin libretto, but during Tchaikovsky's visits to Paris in the last years of his life he repeatedly urged the composer to take a more active role in 'pushing' his opera there. Thus, on 1/13 June 1892, the pianist Aleksandr Ziloti, who was also good friends with Delines, wrote to Modest Tchaikovsky from Veulettes in Normandy where he was spending the summer: "In Paris I saw a lot of P[etr] I[l'ich]; he was very out of sorts. Delines forced him to call on Colonne; Delines still has this dream that Colonne will stage an opera by Tchaikovsky! What a crackpot!" After reading some positive reviews of the first British performance of Yevgeny Onegin at the Olympic Theatre in London on 17 October 1892 [N.S.] (with Eugène Oudin in the title role and the young Henry Wood conducting), Ziloti, however, began to change his mind about the feasibility of Delines's "dream", as he confessed to Modest in a letter from Paris on 23 October/4 November 1892: "Delines is still fighting to get Onegin staged here; he is so terribly persistent that I am even beginning to hope that this may come off. May God grant it!" And on 21 April/3 May 1893, Ziloti wrote to Tchaikovsky himself from the French capital: "The Onegin translation is making progress, and Mackar and that blockhead of his, Noël, have decided to publish it. I think that's the only good idea which Bobchinsky and Dobchinsky [two minor characters in Gogol's comedy The Government Inspector (1835)] have ever had. Delines is still doing all he can for Onegin."
Four months after Tchaikovsky's death, Scene 2 from Act I of Yevgeny Onegin in Delines's translation was performed, on 8 March 1894 [N.S.], at a soirée at the Théâtre d'Application organized by Russian artists and musicians living in Paris. The part of Tatyana was sung by Olga Bremzen (d. 1933) and that of the Nurse by Olga Korf (both students of Désirée Artôt-Padilla); they were accompanied on the piano by Ziloti. At this soirée, Spring's Monologue from Aleksandr Ostrovsky's The Snow Maiden with Tchaikovsky's incidental music was also performed (in a translation this time not by Delines himself but by his wife) . Ziloti, though delighted by the quality of the two young singers and of Delines's translation, nevertheless remained pessimistic about the possibility of ever seeing a complete staged performance of the opera in Paris. The main reason for this, in Ziloti's view, was that Tchaikovsky's nephew, Vladimir ("Bob") Davydov, the composer's principal heir, had made the mistake of assigning the performance rights to Onegin in France to Mackar, as he lamented in his letter to Modest from Paris on 24 February/8 March 1894: "[T]he task of representing [Tchaikovsky's] artistic interests should have been entrusted to me or, say, to Delines. Mackar doesn't want to publish Onegin in translation, even though the translation is in fact ready, and the theatre directors here are so unimaginative that they won't even look at an opera with a translated libretto! I find all this very sad" . Still, despite Ziloti's misgivings, later that year the firm of Mackar & Noël did finally bring out the full score and piano-vocal score of Onegin with the libretto in Delines's translation . It served as the basis for the first complete performance of the opera in France which took place the following year, in Nice on 7 March 1895 [N.S.].
Delines also set about translating the libretto of The Queen of Spades into French. Some numbers from the opera were in fact already published by Mackar in 1894 . Ziloti urged his friend to complete the translation as soon as possible because he believed that in the case of staging Tchaikovsky's operas outside Russia, it was advisable to start with The Queen of Spades rather than with Onegin or Iolanta. The complete French edition of The Queen of Spades with Delines's translation, however, did not appear until some years later, namely in 1911.
Tchaikovsky was not the only Russian composer, though, with whom Delines struck up a lasting friendship. When Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov came to the French capital with his wife Nadezhda in the summer of 1889 to conduct the two "Russian concerts" organized there by Mitrofan Belyayev as part of that year's World Exposition which was again being hosted by Paris, they both spent a lot of time with Delines. In his Chronicle of My Musical Life, Rimsky-Korsakov wrote as follows about his stay in Paris on that occasion:
Of the musical acquaintances made in Paris I shall also mention Delibes, Mme Holmès, Bourgault-Ducoudray, Pugno, and Messager. We also made the acquaintance of Michel Delines, subsequently translator of Onyegin and of my Sadko. With the exception of Delines, all these acquaintanceships proved most superficial. Delibes gave one the impression of a merely amiable gentleman, Massenet of a crafty fox; the composer Mme Holmès was a very décolletée person; Pugno proved an excellent pianist and reader of music; Bourgault-Ducoudray a serious musician and bright man; Messager was rather colourless. Saint-Saëns was not in Paris. Delines was a kind man, danced attendance upon us, aided us in many things. All the other transient acquaintances: editors, critics, etc. seemed to me fairly empty babblers .
Delines would in fact translate not just Sadko but also The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronya. He remained in contact with Rimsky-Korsakov right until the composer's death in 1908. Delines was also responsible for the first French versions of the libretti of Musorgsky's 'national musical drama' Boris Godunov, Dargomyzhsky's Rusalka and Sergey Taneyev's unjustly neglected opera Oresteia. All these efforts testify to his genuine selfless striving to secure a new public for Russian music in France.
Correspondence with Tchaikovsky
One letter from Tchaikovsky to Michel Delines has survived, dating from 1892, and is available in English translation on this site:
- Delines, M. [A French tutor] (1896).
- Kleman, M. И. С. Тургенев в воспоминанях революционеров-семидесятников [I. S. Turgenev in the Reminiscences of Revolutionaries from the 1870s] (Moscow ; Leningrad, 1930), p. 191–202.
- Lifar, S. Римский-Корсаков в Париже [Rimsky-Korsakov in Paris], Возрождение [Paris], No. 48 (December 1955).
- О Вагнере и русскои музыке [On Wagner and Russian Music], Советская музыка [Moscow], вып. 9 (1965), p. 218–219 
Notes and References
- For more details on the literary activities of Mikhail Ashkinazi, alias Michel Delines, and his acquaintance with Turgenev, see the chapter "Тургенев и террористы" (Turgenev and the Terrorists) in: M. K. Kleman (ed.), И. С. Тургенев в воспоминаниях революционеров-семидесятников (I. S. Turgenev in the Reminiscences of Revolutionaries from the 1870s) (Moscow / Leningrad, 1930), p. 191–202.
- "At Mackar's. The littérateur, Delines." Diary entry for 13/25 February 1888. Quoted from (1945), p. 235.
- Michel Delines, Gallica, the digital repository of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Reference to article provided by Lucinde Braun. (1888). The article can be viewed online at
- See Mackar's letter to Tchaikovsky of 25 May 1888 [N.S.], published (in Russian translation only) in: (1970), p. 159. Reference provided by Lucinde Braun.
- See Modest Tchaikovsky, (1997), p. 385. Referring to his joint stay with his brother in Paris in the spring of 1891, Modest describes Delines as "a Russian Parisian" and points out that, alongside Sophie Menter, Vasily Sapelnikov and Yuly Konyus, Delines belonged to the close-knit circle of friends there with whom the composer would spend most of his free time. Reference provided by Lucinde Braun.
- Letter from Aleksandr Ziloti to Modest Tchaikovsky, 1/13 June 1892. Published in: (1963), p. 177.
- Letter from Aleksandr Ziloti to Modest Tchaikovsky, 23 October/4 November 1892. Published in: (1963), p. 178.
- Letter from Aleksandr Ziloti to Tchaikovsky, 21 April/3 May 1893. Published in: , p. 145.
- See the information provided in (1963), p. 198.
- Letter from Aleksandr Ziloti to Tchaikovsky, 24 February/8 March 1894. Published in: (1963), p. 179.
- Lucinde Braun has made a detailed description of this rare edition after studying a copy held at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.
- As established by Lucinde Braun.
- See Aleksandr Ziloti's letter to Modest Tchaikovsky from Antwerp on 9/21 April 1895 in: (1963), p. 181.
- Quoted here from: Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, My Musical Life, transl. by Carl Van Vechten, 3rd ed. (New York, 1945), p. 303–304.
- As established by Lucinde Braun who would like to express her gratitude to Polina Vaidman, senior curator at the Tchaikovsky House-Museum in Klin, for the opportunity to work in the archives there.
- Bibliographical reference taken from: Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Zugänge zu Leben und Werk. Monographien – Schriften – Tagebücher – Verzeichnisse, compiled and translated by Ernst Kuhn (Berlin, 2000), p. 365.