Sergey Kireyev

Sergey Kireyev (1844-1888)

Schoolmate of the composer (b. 1/13 October 1844 in Saint Petersburg; d. 1888 in Kaluga, Moscow region), born Sergey Aleksandrovich Kireyev (Сергей Александрович Киреев).

He was the son of the state councillor Aleksandr Kireyev and a nephew of Mikhail Kireyev, inspector of classes at the Pavlovsk Cadet Corps. In 1855 Sergey was enrolled in the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg, and lost his father at an early age. In 1860, Sergey spent the vacations travelling with Fyodor Thibaut, inspector of the school's preparatory class, following the receipt of a special letter of authorization from his mother. Little is known of Kireyev's subsequent life after his graduation on 22 May/3 June 1865, save that he became justice of the peace at Kaluga, near Moscow, and died in 1888 [1].

In the commentary to Tchaikovsky's letters, which appeared in 1940, its editors had already noted frankly that Kireyev and Tchaikovsky "were bound by a 'special friendship' during their years at the School of Jurisprudence" [2]. But until quite recently it had only been possible to make conjectures about the nature of this relationship. Thus, for example, the fact that Tchaikovsky's attachment to this youth was indeed very strong is attested by two photographs of Kireyev that hang on the wall by the composer's writing table at his home in Klin [3]. It may be that Modest was worried by the fact that Kireyev was only twelve years old when he met Tchaikovsky, who was then a senior. Only once does Modest in his biography of the composer inadvertently admit the existence of this relationship. He relates his brother's own recollection from his last school years of how once, while walking at study time through the dormitory of the junior course with one of his friends ("Unfortunately I do not recall his name", Modest interposes hypocritically), the young Tchaikovsky ventured to express his certainty that he would one day become a famous composer. "Having said this, he grew frightened by the madness of his words, but to his surprise his listener did not laugh at him, and not only did he not contradict him, he even supported him in this self-conceit, which touched the unrecognised musician to the depths of his soul" [4]. Modest, however, knew very well that of all Tchaikovsky's school friends, only Sergey Kireyev would at this time have been in the junior course. It is also worth recalling what Vladimir Taneyev said about the strict school regulations: "rarely would a senior student pass through the hall of the junior course" [5], much less visit the juniors' dormitories. It would seem that the young Tchaikovsky had his own special reasons for disregarding these prohibitions.

It is only in recent years that scholars have finally been granted access to the unfinished manuscript of Modest's "Autobiography", which not only shows that Modest was certainly aware of the nature of the feelings binding his brother to Kireyev, but also allows one to get an idea of the emotional tension with which this relationship was fraught, as well as of its duration. Seemingly troubled by his conscience for having concealed the truth earlier, Modest sets forth in this confessional text what he had kept secret in his three-volume life of the composer. We shall now quote at length this highly emotional passage from the "Autobiography":

This was the strongest, most durable, and purest amorous infatuation of his [Tchaikovsky's] life. It possessed all the charms, sufferings, depth, and force of the most sublime and radiant love. It was chivalric service of 'a fair Lady,' without any thought of sensual encroachments. If there is anyone who doubts the beauty and lofty poetry of so high an adoration, I would point them to the finest love passages in Tchaikovsky's works—the middle section of Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, Francesca, Tatyana's letter, which it would be impossible to "invent"; such things must be experienced. There was no stronger, more enduring and agonizing love in all his life. I would ask those who dare to call such a love "dirty" whether among their kind they will find many who, without daring to hope for a kiss, receiving only now and then the reward of a slight brush of the hand of their adored beloved, have managed to cherish such a feeling for more than ten years.

It all started approximately in 1855-56. When, in 1867, we were sitting on the sea-shore in Hapsal, I saw a boat in the distance and, knowing Petya's dislike for sailing, I asked him in jest how much money he would have to be offered for him to agree to embark on a boat for America. "For money I would never do it, but if Kireyev wished me to, I would travel even to Australia".

This [feeling] flared up already at their first meeting. S. K. was a junior student, four years younger than Petya. At that time, when one was sixteen, and the other twelve, this age difference seemed like a gulf separating them. It was magnified even more by the fact that the two were in different courses, that is, in effect belonged to two different institutions in the same building, which only came into contact at church time. It was probably at church that Petya saw Kireyev for the first time. For a student in the junior course, it is a great honour to be acquainted with a senior. During certain recreation hours, when the seniors could enter the hall of the junior course (never the other way round), it was always flattering for a "youngster" to be able to stroll around together with a [senior wearing a] jacket with a gold-braided collar (the juniors had a silver one). I do not know the details of how their acquaintance came about, but I do know that very soon Petya's maidenly pure and sublime feeling was interpreted in a bad sense, and either because Kireyev started to be teased for this friendship, or simply due to antipathy, he very soon and irrevocably started to treat his admirer with contempt and hostility.

And yet the cruel boy—evidently feeling flattered in his heart of hearts by the constancy of this adoration—would sometimes encourage his victim by condescending attention and unexpected tenderness, just as if he were afraid the latter might be unfaithful to him, though afterwards he would plunge his victim into despair by equally unexpected coarse mockery. Thus, he once boasted in front of his classmates "that Tchaikovsky would put up with anything from him", and when the latter walked up to him trustfully, Kireyev swung his arm and slapped his face in front of everybody. And he was right—Tchaikovsky put up with it. Misunderstood and insulted, the poor admirer suffered all the more because he had always been so pampered by the sympathy of everyone around him. But instead of quenching his love, these sufferings just stirred it up further. The fact that the object of his love was beyond all reach eliminated the possibility of disillusionments and served to idealize the former, turning a tender affection into an ardent and enthusiastic adoration, so sublimely pure that it did not even cross his mind to hide it. And this feeling was so sincere and radiant that no one censured him for it. (Besides, who knows, if this relationship had taken a normal course, it would soon have become an affectionate friendship, and, whilst bringing a lot of happiness, it would not have left such a deep mark on Petya's life. For he would have lost that goal which he otherwise had before him, namely to appease his pitiless idol, to demonstrate the depth and beauty of the feeling he was nourishing. The acuteness of this feeling would have been dampened, there would have been less burning agony, but at the same time it would also have forfeited its strength, poetry, and endurance.)

Like a medieval knight, Petya etched the initials SK upon his shield, and everything that he did he would dedicate to this name. I would not be mistaken in saying that in his thirst for glory and dreams of dedicating himself to music one very important motive was his wish to touch the "cruel" boy's heart, to force him to acknowledge the treasures that had been laid down at his feet, to make him repent of the smarting pain which he had caused by his contemptuously cold treatment and mockery.

And Petya succeeded in this, but, just like Finn's conquest of the heart of Nayna [6], he did so when it was too late. In the early 1870s, when Tchaikovsky's fame as a composer had already started to spread, Sergey Aleksandrovich Kireyev arrived in Moscow, though no longer as a cruel tormentor and tyrant, but as a timid admirer seeking to ingratiate himself with a celebrity. However, the poetic youth was no more—he was now a very prosaic man, incapable of instilling anything other than the most sober friendliness in his former admirer.

To continue my comparison with the knights of the Middle Ages, I should like to say that just as they, whilst still worshipping the fair lady of their hearts, would often betray her in carnal love and take wives, so Petya at the same time as his adoration of SK had many amorous infatuations of a different sort, to which he would abandon himself irrepressibly, with all the ardour of his passionate and sensual nature. Women were never the object of these infatuations: they repelled him physically. [7]

Congratulating Modest on his graduation from the School of Jurisprudence in 1870, Tchaikovsky wrote to him on 26 March: "I recall vividly what I myself experienced eleven years ago, and I wish that your joy may not be mixed with the bitterness I felt then due to my love for Kireyev" [8]. It was very likely such memories of the ups and downs of his relationship with Kireyev that to a large extent account for Tchaikovsky's mixed feelings about his alma mater in later years, as was discussed in the previous chapter.

They appear to have continued to see each other for several years following Tchaikovsky's graduation. A letter of 10/22 March 1861 to his sister Aleksandra, with whom Tchaikovsky was particularly cautious in his correspondence, alluded indirectly to these "special relations". "My heart is still in the same state", he wrote. "The holy family [9]] has so captured it that it doesn't allow anyone else within the distance of a cannon-shot. Serezha [10] has been ill for three months already, but is now recovering " [11]. It is suggestive that he wrote first about his friend's health and only then, as if out of necessity, mentioned Sergey's sister Sofya, even though he wanted—consciously or instinctively—Aleksandra to believe that it was in fact with this Sofya Kireyeva that he had fallen in love: "Sophie came for a short while from Saratov, and I had the good fortune of seeing her at the theatre. She has grown terribly pretty" [12]. Without question, the strength of Tchaikovsky's feeling for her brother Sergey is reflected in his choice of words, despite the light-hearted tone: Kireyev's family is for him "holy".

One of Tchaikovsky's earliest songs, My Genius, My Angel, My Friend, composed in the late 1850s, was dedicated to his youthful love. The date of composition coincides with the peak of their relationship, and the thirteen dots indicating the letters of the unspelled dedication match the number of letters in the Russian dative case of Kireyev's first and last names: "С-е-р-г-е-ю К-и-р-е-е-в-у" [13]. It is probably not accidental either that the facsimile of the song in the first volume of Modest's biography was inserted opposite the page relating Tchaikovsky's youthfully ambitious assertion of his hopes of future glory in front of a younger student at the school whose name Modest claimed to have forgotten.

It is difficult to say much about the later development of Tchaikovsky's relationship with Kireyev. In 1867, when he was already in Moscow, the composer met him at the theatre, as he wrote to his brother Anatoly: "The other day I met Kireyev at the opera, and today he visited me; you can guess how pleased I was. How sweet he is, though not so handsome as formerly". In the same letter, he noted that "yesterday I spent the entire day with Kireyev, dined with him, and later went with him to the gypsies [that is, to a restaurant with a gypsy chorus, a favourite diversion of the Russian aristocracy], whom he likes very much" [14]. The detail is interesting: at twenty-two Kireyev, though "sweet", is "not so handsome as formerly"—an evident indication of Kireyev's weakened erotic appeal for Tchaikovsky by this time.

Alexander Poznansky


Notes and References

  1. N. Pashenny, Императорское Училище правоведения в годы мира (1967), p. 135.
  2. See П. И. Чайковский и В. Ф. Одоевский (1940), p. 672.
  3. See Дни и годы П. И. Чайковского. Летопись жизни и творчества (1940), p. 623.
  4. Modest Tchaikovsky, Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1900), p. 128.
  5. Vladimir Taneyev, Детство. Юность. Мысли о будущем (1959), p. 152.
  6. Characters in Pushkin's poem Ruslan and Lyudmila.
  7. Modest Tchaikovsky, «Автобиография» — typescript in the Klin House-Museum Archive (б2, No. 21), p. 95. Partially in Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky through others' eyes (1999), p. 23.
  8. Letter 185 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 26 March/7 April 1870.
  9. The Kireyevs.
  10. "Serezha" was the diminutive form of the name Sergey.
  11. Letter 54 to Aleksandra Davydova, 10/22 March 1861.
  12. Letter 54 to Aleksandra Davydova, 10/22 March 1861.
  13. The manuscript is now preserved in the Klin House-Museum Archive (a1, No. 103). A facsimile of the first page was first published in Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1900), between pages 128-129, but with the right margin cut off; later published in the anniversary issue of the journal Soviet Music as Два неопубликованных романса П. И. Чайковского (1940), Nos. 5/6, p. 133-134. The thirteen dots, marked by Tchaikovsky himself, are also reproduced quite clearly in the album Пётр Ильич Чайковский = Pjotr Iljitsch Tschaikowsky (1978), p. 31.
  14. Letter 108 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, written between 31 October/12 November and 6/18(?) November 1867.