The Last Days of N. G. Rubinstein's Life

Tchaikovsky Research
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The Last Days of N. G. Rubinstein's Life (Последние дни жизни Н. Г. Рубинштейна) [1] (TH 313 ; ČW 579 ; Letter 1710) was an article submitted by Tchaikovsky as a letter to the editor of the newspaper Moscow Register (Московские ведомости), in which it was published on 24 March 1881 [O.S.].

It contains a report on the death of Nikolay Rubinstein in Paris based on conversations with those who looked after him in his last days, as Tchaikovsky only reached the French capital two days after his friend and mentor had died (on 11/23 March 1881).

The death of someone who had been so close to him, in spite of some differences in later years (as with his Piano Concerto No. 1), affected Tchaikovsky deeply and prompted him to write a notable letter to Nadezhda von Meck [2], reflecting on his religious faith. Later that year he would start writing his Piano Trio, dedicated "to the memory of a great artist", in which apart from his sadness at the death of his friend he also paid tribute to Rubinstein's energy, joy of life and love of Russian folksong in the second movement variations.


Completed by 14/26 March 1881, and enclosed with Letter 1710 of that date to the editor of the Moscow Register.

English translation

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A significant majority of your readers are probably waiting impatiently for details about the last days of N. G. Rubinstein, and I hope that you will not refuse to publish in your newspaper the following lines, in which I would like to report, albeit briefly, what I have heard from those who were with this unforgettable artist before his death [3].

As you probably know already, Nikolay Grigoryevich had set off from Moscow on the evening of 28 February O.S. to travel to the south of Europe together with S. M. Tretyakov [4]. News of the terrible event of 1 March O.S. [5] reached the travellers in Vilnius, and S. M. Tretyakov considered it his duty to make his way to Saint Petersburg immediately. Nikolay Grigoryevich was able to get to Berlin, accompanied by Mr Olivier [6], who happened to be travelling in the same train, and by his servant. In this city he was joined by two Russian ladies for the next stage of his journey: S. A. Bernar [7] and A. A. Zadonskaya [8]. Nikolay Grigoryevich stayed in Berlin for less than forty-eight hours, during which there was not a single minute in which he did not suffer the most excruciating pains. These were so acute that his only way of relief was to let out every now and then a cry, which, as one of his fellow-travellers put it, would resound "across the whole hotel". All the same he hastened on to Paris, arriving there on 5 (17) March at the cost of a tremendous physical effort. When these two ladies told me about the agony he had gone through on this journey, I was quite at a loss as to where he had found the strength to endure it. This may partly be accounted for first of all by the fact that he was encouraged all along by the radiant hope of making a complete recovery, as the doctors in Moscow had promised him, and, secondly, by the gentle care which he received from the two ladies, who were devoted friends of his and who, as he put it in a conversation with . S. Turgenev when the latter visited him, had looked after him "as they would a close relative". Waiting in Paris for the patient to arrive was Ye. A. Tretyakova, the wife of the Moscow mayor (the original plan had been for Nikolay Grigoryevich and Sergey Mikhaylovich to join her there and travel on together to Nice, where they intended to spend a few weeks). No sooner had Nikolay Grigoryevich arrived in Paris than he was confined to bed again, struck down by those very same unbearable pains in the bowels which had also been the most characteristic feature of his illness in Moscow, on the train journey, and in Berlin. The most renowned doctors in Paris were immediately sent for one after the other, including Potain [9], a luminary of French medicine. These doctors unanimously diagnosed his illness as tuberculosis of the intestinal tracts. They pronounced it to be absolutely incurable, made very disapproving comments about the competence of those who had advised a patient who was fated to die to undertake such a long journey, and pointed out the symptoms which would indicate the onset of the final phase of this terrible illness. However, even they had not expected that the end would come so soon. After these medical examinations there followed a series of long, excruciating days. The patient suffered day and night and his physical strength was gradually subsiding. But his spirit was still cheerful; his hopes of getting better did not desert him—evidently Nikolay Grigoryevich had no idea that his last hour was approaching. He took great trouble about his personal appearance in view of the constant presence of ladies around him. With them he was light-hearted, even cheerful, insofar as that can be said of someone who was standing with one foot in the grave and who, moreover, had been profoundly shocked by the news of the late Sovereign's agonizing death. All the details of that event frightfully interested him, and every day he would, either by himself or with the help of his kindly sick-nurses, read through most of the Parisian newspapers. In his conversations with these ladies he showed himself to be quite certain that he would get better soon, and he loved to talk about the forthcoming trip to Nice, as well as mentioning all the work that was waiting for him in Moscow in connection with the exhibition [10] and during the next season of symphony concerts. The thought that death was near never crossed his mind. Only once did he utter some misgivings about the future. Looking sadly at his emaciated and weak hands, he said with a bitter smile on his face: "Well, it seems that my artistic career is over for good." In reply to this remark the ladies of course exclaimed that they were completely certain that he would soon fully regain his earlier strength, and the patient said nothing more about that. Evidently he wanted to keep on hoping. He was visited by I. S. Turgenev and many figures from the music world of Paris. That was very comforting for him. For five days there seemed to be no change in Nikolay Grigoryevich's condition, but in fact the mysterious process of his terrible disease was already approaching its fatal outcome, imperceptibly for those who were around him, and very soon the final crisis set in. On Wednesday, 12 (24) [sic] March, at 10 o'clock in the morning, the patient had still been able to ask for and devour some oysters and ice cream, whilst jestingly reproaching Ye. A. Tretyakova for letting him starve… But suddenly he started vomiting, and a complete breakdown set in, with all the symptoms of the terminal phase (a bursting or lesion of the intestinal wall) that the doctors had pointed out earlier. S. A. Bernar rushed off to fetch one of them, and when the doctor arrived soon afterwards he said that that was the end… It seems that he was no longer suffering in these last hours, but he had irrevocably lost consciousness and had no strength left in him. With a weak effort he just managed to grip the hand of Ye. A. Tretyakova as she leant over him.

For a long time he had been immobile. All the life had gone out of him. His hand was gradually growing stiff and cold. At about 3 o'clock he passed away… During these last minutes of Nikolay Grigoryevich, apart from the three aforementioned ladies and his servant Grigory, A. Brandukov was also present—a young cellist and former student of the Moscow Conservatory.

Anton Grigoryevich Rubinstein, who had rushed from Spain to be by his dying brother's side, found him no longer alive. I, too, just got there only to see his lifeless body and his beloved features worn out by a cruel death…

This morning the funeral service for the deceased was conducted at the local Russian church here. The church was full. Apart from the deceased's fellow-countrymen, also present were Madame Viardot, Messrs Massenet, Colonne, Lalo, and most of the leading representatives of French music. Mr Turgenev has offered to take care of the transport of the coffin to Russia.

In two days' time the remains of Nikolay Grigoryevich will be conveyed to Moscow [11].

P. Tchaikovsky
Paris. 26 (14) March 1881.

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Letter to the Editor. The Last Days of the Life of N. G. Rubinštein' in ČW.
  2. Letter 1711 to Nadezhda von Meck, 15/27 March 1881.
  3. Nikolay Rubinstein had fallen seriously ill at the start of 1881, but had nevertheless insisted on conducting at several Russian Musical Society concerts in Saint Petersburg and Moscow. At the last of these, in February, he had had to conduct the orchestra sitting on a chair as he was too weak to stand. On the advice of his doctors in Moscow he decided to travel to Paris, where he was to consult various leading specialists. However, after several days of great agony Nikolay Rubinstein died in the French capital on 23 March 1881 [N.S.]. Tchaikovsky, who was in Nice at the time (he had left Russia on 14/26 February to travel to Vienna and then Italy), received a telegram from Pyotr Jurgenson in Moscow on 11/23 March with the news that Rubinstein was dying in Paris. Tchaikovsky immediately sent telegrams to Paris and found out that his friend had actually died earlier that day. Tchaikovsky arrived in the French capital on 13/25 March just in time to attend the funeral service at the city's Russian Orthodox church the following day — translator's note.
  4. Sergey Mikhaylovich Tretyakov (1834–1892), Russian businessman, collector, patron of the arts, president of the Moscow section of the Russian Musical Society from 1869 to 1889, mayor of Moscow from 1877 to 1881. He helped his elder brother Pavel Tretyakov (1832–1898) to set up the famous Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow in 1893 — translator's note.
  5. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in Saint Petersburg on 1/13 March 1881 — translator's note.
  6. Lucien Olivier (1838–1883), Belgian-born Russian chef; he opened the famous Hermitage Restaurant in Moscow in the early 1860s and created a salad which soon became very popular with the city's gourmets and eventually came to form part of the cuisine of many countries as 'Russian salad' or 'Salade Olivier' — translator's note.
  7. S. A. Bernar was the landlady in charge of the cheap flats for staff and students at the Moscow Conservatory —translator's note.
  8. After Nikolay Rubinstein's death A. A. Zadonskaya donated 70,000 rubles to the Conservatory to set up a memorial fund in his name for the support of hard-up students and young artists —translator's note.
  9. Pierre Charles Édouard Potain (1825–1901), famous French cardiologist — translator's note.
  10. The Arts and Industry Exhibition in Moscow which had been planned for 1881, and for which Nikolay Rubinstein had been appointed head of the music section the year before. Tchaikovsky composed his festival overture The Year 1812 for this exhibition at Rubinstein's request. Because of the Tsar's assassination, however, the opening of the exhibition was postponed until 1882 — translator's note.
  11. Tchaikovsky was part of the group who went to the Gare du Nord on 16/28 March to see to the dispatch of the coffin to Moscow. Nikolay Rubinstein was buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery of his native city — translator's note.