With P. I. Tchaikovsky (TH 323)

Tchaikovsky Research
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With P. I. Tchaikovsky (У П. И. Чайковского) (TH 323 ; ČW 595) [1] was the title of an interview with a certain "S. K." [2] published in the Moscow Daily News (Новости дня), on 13 April 1892 [O.S.].

Tchaikovsky talked about his decision to help out Ippolit Pryanishnikov's private opera company during their trial season in Moscow by conducting some of their performances; some of his impressions of his American tour in 1891; his attitude to the 'Mighty Handful', in particular to Balakirev and Borodin, whose opera Prince Igor he praises; his plans to write a Symphony in E-flat major; the projected Lermontov opera Béla; his thoughts about stepping down from compositional work in order to make way for younger talents; and his optimism about the future of Russian music.

English translation

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Today our renowned composer is appearing as conductor with the Pryanishnikov opera company [3]. This seems to me a fitting occasion on which to report my conversations with Pyotr Ilyich during our last two meetings.

The day before yesterday I met Pyotr Ilyich at a rehearsal in the Shelaputin Theatre. In Mr Pryanishnikov's office everything bears the stamp of particular respect for our celebrated composer: on a prominent spot on the wall there hangs a portrait[-photograph] of P. I. Tchaikovsky, crowned with the laurel wreath which Mr Pryanishnikov was presented with on the opening performance of his company.

"That's whom these laurels correspond to, not to me," is the meaning of this modest gesture by the chief of the opera company.
"And so interviews have caught on here, too", the famous composer said to me when he found out about my intentions. "In America interviewers were besieging me by the dozen. Can you imagine how difficult it is to speak to people who are not very well-versed in music and who have utterly preposterous notions about Russian music in particular, not to mention the fact that it is generally difficult and unpleasant to have to talk about oneself, especially abroad, where people have the most incredible ideas regarding Russia and the Russians!"
"The American reporters, who were waiting for me in large numbers at the pier in New York harbour on the day I arrived", Pyotr Ilyich added laughing, "even married me off! I got into a coach together with the daughter of an acquaintance of mine, and the next day I read in the newspapers that I had arrived in the country with my beautiful young wife." [4]

The following day I was received by the composer of Onegin in his room in the Moscow Grand Hotel. Everyone who takes an interest in Russian music and has been in the foyer of the Bolshoi Theatre will of course be familiar with the portrait of Pyotr Ilyich which hangs there. That releases me from the obligation of describing his outward appearance. Being a European to his fingertips, Tchaikovsky is enchantingly courteous and nice, and he gladly talks about his favourite subject—music. At the given moment the most interesting question in this regard is Tchaikovsky's relationship to the Pryanishnikov opera company.

"Pryanishnikov's co-operative suffered a great wrong in Kiev", my welcoming host explained to me, "when the city took away the theatre from them even though for three years they had been going about their business most conscientiously. They asked me for my advice as to whether they should go to Moscow. I wasn't over-encouraging in what I said to them, but I did promise that I would offer them my assistance if possible. Generally I have great sympathy for co-operative companies. What I like about this particular co-operative is their approach to their work, the absence of intrigues, and indeed the atmosphere in their company is most agreeable. If they carry on like that, not promoting individual stars but rather taking care of the ensemble and the overall level of performance, then they will go a long way."

"So does that mean that you are not even worried by the fact that they opened their season in Moscow by making propaganda for "Prince Igor", a work of the 'Mighty Handful', that is of the camp to which you do not belong?". The famous composer became visibly agitated.

"It always rouses my indignation when people speak about camps in music. I mean, to what party am I supposed to belong? For me, such parties just don't exist. What can I possibly have against the music of the late Borodin, who was my best friend? [5] I do not belong to the 'Mighty Handful' because I do not live in Saint Petersburg, but I am a friend of Balakirev, Rimsky-Korsakov, Cui, and other representatives of this group [6]. Every talented and sympathetic person in the sphere of music is my friend and brother. And if it really were absolutely necessary to assign me to some camp, then I would of course sooner attach myself to this group of honest people than to any other".
"If I do not in practice belong to this circle", Pyotr Ilyich said with renewed vigour, "that is partly due to the one-sidedness of its founder, Balakirev, with whom I am all the same on very friendly terms. Ever since he established this circle thirty years ago Balakirev has been advocating the same views and principles that he staked out back then, and all his followers are at one with him. In contrast, I have always wanted to preserve a certain freedom. As for Borodin, in particular, it must be said that he was not a violent revolutionary. Even in his Prince Igor he keeps to the old traditions, that is he stands firmly on the ground of established compositional devices and avoids musical anarchy. In Prince Igor he made use of new devices only in the part of the two gudok players, as well as in two or three other passages" [7].

From this general question we inevitably moved on to a specific one—namely, what our composer is working on currently and what plans he has for the future.

"I have just finished writing the opera Iolanta and the ballet The Nutcracker", Pyotr Ilyich explained, "and now I am thinking of a new symphony [8]. I will spend the whole of April in Moscow, in order to conduct the operas that I have promised to Pryanishnikov. Then I shall travel to Vichy to take the waters, and, after returning to Russia, I will go to live on the estate of some acquaintances of mine in the province of Moscow where I intend to write my symphony." [9]

"Now tell me", I asked, "what truth is there in the rumour that you are composing an opera based on Lermontov's Béla and that the libretto is being written for you by V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko?".

"Yes, Vasily Ivanovich, whose acquaintance I recently made in Moscow, very much tried to talk me into writing an opera on this subject [...] In view of his exhortations I suggested to Vasily Ivanovich that he should draw up a libretto. Anyway, once I have got back from my trip abroad I shall meet up with him again" [10].

"What about America, where you caused such a sensation—aren't you planning to go back there again?"

"It is very likely that I shall go there, since a certain Wilson is coming to Europe and he has been entrusted with the task of inviting me and other European musicians to the Exposition in Chicago. I have already been informed about this by our ambassador, and if the conditions that I am offered are favourable, then I shall definitely go. They are planning to organize some colossal concerts over there [11]. But generally speaking", Pyotr Ilyich remarked after a certain pause, "I should tell you that I am in fact thinking of giving up composing and travelling".

When he noticed my astonishment at this completely unexpected declaration, the renowned composer added in a thoughtful tone:

"After all, one has to stop at some point. I don't wish to be one of those who have written themselves out. Of course, nobody will tell me that I have written myself out, since people wouldn't want to hurt my self-esteem, but that means that I have to feel it myself. And I assure you: as soon as I have this feeling I will call it a day. Besides, when we are young our operas are treated with little consideration; they are accepted by the theatres only reluctantly. But once we have attained a certain level of fame, it is we in our turn who start blocking the way for young composers. I know that the Theatres' Directorate will always undertake to stage any of my operas, but if it did not take on that opera of mine, then that would open up an opportunity for a young talent."

In my presence someone from the theatre came up to see Pyotr Ilyich, and he gave that person various instructions about how the conductor's platform was to be arranged for tonight's performance.

"I cannot conduct sitting down: were I to do so, I would have this sensation of sinking into the pit", the composer said, turning towards me. "So that's why I'm asking for the back support to be removed: I am going to direct the performance standing up. Incidentally, it isn't just me who does it this way: Colonne, for example, always conducts his concerts standing up."

Pyotr Ilyich talked a lot about music and about subjects for operas, in particular the fact that even Italian composers are now turning to real-life subjects—something that especially manifested itself in Cavalleria rusticana and which contributed to its success. He regretted that this opera had not yet been staged on the Imperial theatres, although he did point out that its success and significance were of a transient kind [12].

"In Russia the Italian Opera is essential from time to time: it does the singers a great deal of good and it also satisfies the needs of the public", Pyotr Ilyich remarked in passing. "But of course this hogging of the Russian stage by the Italians was an abnormal state of affairs. I can still remember those times when the only Russian operas that were staged were A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila, and how all this was frightfully lamentable! [13] Now, though, a golden age for Russian music has set in!..."

Before I left Pyotr Ilyich told me about a curious incident. One day a cab was waiting outside the "Moscow Inn" whose driver was a twenty-year-old lad from the district of Kolomna. The hotel porters had taken him up to see Pyotr Ilyich, who was pleased to discover that this driver had a wonderful velvety baritone voice. The lad had never set foot in a theatre, but from the passengers he had been driving he had picked up various arias, such as "They are sensing the truth" [14] and "In the good old past" [15], and was able to sing these wonderfully. Pyotr Ilyich provided this cabman with a letter of recommendation addressed to the director of the Conservatory, V. I. Safonov, explaining that he was willing to fund a scholarship to pay for his studies.

"In five years' time, perhaps, he will be a singer", Pyotr Ilyich said to me, which goes to show how he is always ready to support singers and composers, and indeed anyone who bears the stamp of talent, who has the right gifts and aptitudes [16].


First published in the Daily News (Новости дня), Moscow, 13 April 1892 [O.S.] [17].

Notes and References

  1. Entitled "Meeting with P.I. Čajkovskij" in ČW.
  2. The interviewer was identified as Semyon Lazarevich Kugulsky (real surname: Kegulikhes; 1862–1954), an Odessa-born journalist, in: Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky through others' eyes (1999), p. 194. Ernst Kuhn, however, has pointed out that the initials "S.K." were regularly used by the music critic and theorist Sergey Pavlovich Kazansky (1857–1901) when signing his articles for various Moscow newspapers. See Tschaikowsky aus der Nähe. Kritische Würdigungen und Erinnerungen von Zeitgenossen (1994), p. 216, note 473.
  3. In fact, Tchaikovsky's first appearance as a conductor for Ippolit Pryanishnikov's private opera company would not take place until a week after this interview was published. He conducted a performance of Gounod's Faust at the Shelaputin Theatre in Moscow on 20 April/2 May 1892. In the preceding week, however, he had been busy rehearsing Faust with the orchestra and singers — translator's note.
  4. On 23 April/5 May 1891 (nine days into his American tour), Tchaikovsky recorded the following in his diary: "A journalist turned up; very kind and friendly. He asked me whether my wife was pleased with her stay in New York. This question has been put to me quite a few times already. Apparently, the day after my arrival some newspapers mentioned that I had arrived with my young and pretty wife. This came about because two reporters saw me get into a coach with Alice Reno at the pier in the steamship harbour". See Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 272–273. Alice Reno was the daughter of the president of the Music Hall Company, Morris Reno, who, together with Walter Damrosch, had been one of the main people responsible for Tchaikovsky's invitation to America for the inauguration of the Music Hall (now Carnegie Hall) in New York. Four letters from Morris Reno to the composer have survived: in two of these (3 March 1891 and 23 March 1891 [N.S.]) details of the forthcoming concerts in New York are discussed, and it seems that Tchaikovsky had written to him from Russia in February that year, but this letter has not come to light. Reno and his wife Marie organized a banquet in Tchaikovsky's honour on 17/29 April and on several other occasions, too, showed him great hospitality. Several letters from Marie Reno to the composer have survived, and in one which is dated 28 June 1891 [N.S.] she thanked Tchaikovsky for his recent letter from Russia and told him that everyone in the family was thinking of him, hoping that he would come to New York again soon. She also explained that she had started learning Russian and had been enthusiastically studying the overture-fantasia Hamlet. At the end of this letter, Marie Reno jestingly called Tchaikovsky her "dear son-in-law", again alluding to that misunderstanding on the part of the New York press! These letters from Morris and Marie Reno are included in Чайковский и зарубежные музыканты (1970), p. 97–100 — translator's note.
  5. Tchaikovsky certainly had a high opinion of Borodin's music—in particular, his two symphonies, the tone-poem In the Steppes of Central Asia, and the opera Prince Igor—and he would even conduct the latter's First Symphony at a concert in Kiev on 23 January/4 February 1893, but it does seem a bit exaggerated that he should describe Borodin as "his best friend", since they had only met a few times. On the other hand, two months after Borodin's death Tchaikovsky wrote the following to Stasov, thanking him for having sent his biography of the late composer: "It is very agreeable for me to now have in my library the book which you dedicated to the memory of Borodin. I have the most pleasant recollections of the deceased. His gentle, refined, and graceful nature was very much to my liking. It's hard for me to believe that he's no longer alive." (Letter 3246 to Vladimir Stasov, 29 April/11 May 1887). Borodin for his part had written a favourable review of the Dances from Tchaikovsky's opera The Voyevoda when they were performed at a concert in Saint Petersburg on 25 January/6 February 1869 — translator's note.
  6. In fact, Tchaikovsky's attitude to César Cui was by no means as amicable as suggested here, and in another interview later that year (see TH 324) he would not hesitate to include some veiled barbs against Cui's endeavours as a composer and critic! By "other representatives of this group", Tchaikovsky is referring to such younger composers as Anatoly Lyadov and Aleksandr Glazunov, who belonged to the Balakirev circle, even if the latter was no longer the 'Mighty Handful' of old — translator's note.
  7. Tchaikovsky has in mind the two cowardly drunkards Skula and Eroshka, who play the gudok (an Old Russian three-stringed viol) at Prince Igor's court in Putivl, and whose tipsy songs may well have reminded Tchaikovsky of similar passages in Musorgsky's Boris Godunov. Novel harmonic and orchestral effects also appear at various other points in Borodin's opera — translator's note.
  8. The unfinished Symphony in E-flat major, which Tchaikovsky would start sketching in May 1892. However, he abandoned this work in November that year, with only part of the first movement orchestrated, and used its musical material for other compositions. The symphony was reconstructed and completed by Semyon Bogatyrev in 1955, and this score was published in 1961. It is sometimes erroneously referred to as the "Seventh Symphony" — note by Brett Langston.
  9. It is not clear why Tchaikovsky describes the house he was himself renting at Klin as belonging to "acquaintances". Perhaps the interviewer made a mistake when reproducing Tchaikovsky's words, just as, for example, the opera Iolanta is consistently spelt Iontala throughout the published article — translator's note.
  10. Vasily Ivanovich Nemirovich-Danchenko (1844–1936) was in his time a well-known author and the elder brother of the theatre director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko (1858–1943), who, in 1898, would found the famous Moscow Art Theatre together with Konstantin Stanislavsky. The projected opera Béla was originally intended as a joint project between Tchaikovsky and Anton Chekhov in 1889–90 (Chekhov was a great admirer of Lermontov's short novel A Hero of Our Time, in which Béla is one of the five constituent stories). Unfortunately, this fascinating idea was never realised and Chekhov seems to have dropped out of the project, perhaps handing it over to Vasily Nemirovich-Danchenko (for more details, see the history of Béla). The ellipsis [...] appears in the text of this interview as reprinted in Два интервью у П. И. Чайковского (1965), and it would be necessary to check the original 13 April 1892 [O.S.] issue of the newspaper Новости дня to ascertain whether anything has been deliberately left out — note by Ernst Kuhn, supplemented by the translator.
  11. On 24 October 1892, the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus was due to be celebrated all across the United States, and one of the main events in these festivities was the World Fair (called the "Columbian Exposition") which was to be held in Chicago. This World Fair was scheduled to open on 1 May 1893, and amongst the various exhibits and activities there were to be a number of concerts. In Чайковский и зарубежные музыканты (1970), p. 88–89, there is a letter to Tchaikovsky from Frederick Grant Gleason (1848–1903), dated "Chicago, 4 January 1891" (that is just a few months before Tchaikovsky arrived in New York for his concert tour of America), in which this American composer and music critic for The Chicago Tribune informed Tchaikovsky about the Columbian Exposition in 1893 and asked him for his views on this projected event. It is not clear whether Tchaikovsky answered this letter or whether he perhaps met Gleason during his only visit to America in April–May 1891. The Wilson mentioned in this interview may have been a reporter from The Chicago Tribune or an agent sent by the organizers of the Exposition — translator's note.
  12. In a later interview that year (see TH 324), Tchaikovsky discusses in greater detail Mascagni's famous opera, which he first heard in Warsaw on 11 January 1892 [N.S.]. His observations there about Cavalleria rusticana are rather more positive, since its significance is not described as "transient" in any way, but rather as corresponding to a genuine need on the part of opera audiences all over Europe — translator's note.
  13. The monopoly wielded over the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow by the impresario Eugenio Merelli (1825–1882) and his Italian Opera Company (which included Russian singers alongside various stars imported from abroad) is one of the most frequent 'injustices' attacked by Tchaikovsky in his music review articles of the 1870s. However, he may also have been looking back at the 1860s, when despite the premieres of new works by Aleksandr Serov, the repertoire was still very much dominated by Italian operas — translator's note.
  14. Susanin's aria in Glinka's opera A Life for the Tsar.
  15. From Verstovsky's opera Askold's Tomb.
  16. Many other instances of Tchaikovsky providing financial assistance to talented young singers and musicians are recorded. For example, during his stay in Odessa in January 1893, he gave the father of a gifted young violinist enough money so that the boy could travel to Saint Petersburg and take part in the auditions for the Conservatory. See Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 420 — translator's note.
  17. This interview, edited by Iosif Kunin, was reprinted as part of Два интервью у П. И. Чайковского in the journal Советская музыка (1960), No.5, p. 30–34. An English translation is included in Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky through others' eyes (1999), p. 199–202. There is also a German translation of the interview in Ernst Kuhn, Tschaikowsky aus der Nähe. Kritische Würdigungen und Erinnerungen von Zeitgenossen (1994), p. 216–220.