Russian pianist and conductor (b. 25 January/6 February 1852 in Itsiursk, near Terel; d. 14/27 February 1918 in Kislovodsk), born Vasily Ilyich Safonov (Василий Ильич Сафонов); also known outside Russia as Wassily Safonoff.
Safonov was the son of a Cossack general who left the Caucasus in 1862 to settle in Saint Petersburg. Here Vasily attended the prestigious Lyceum at nearby Tsarskoye Selo and took piano lessons with Teodor Leszetycki (1830–1915). Like Tchaikovsky, he began his career in the civil service. After seven years, Safonov resigned his post and enrolled at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1879, where he studied music theory under Nikolay Zaremba and piano with Louis Brassin, graduating with a gold medal in 1880.
Tchaikovsky and Safonov
After a spell teaching at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, he became professor of piano at the Moscow Conservatory in 1885 on Tchaikovsky's recommendation. In 1889, he succeeded Sergey Taneyev as the conservatory's director. Although Tchaikovsky initially welcomed this appointment, recognising Safonov's skills as an administrator, he began to believe that the latter's style was too autocratic and disrespectful of the traditions of the institution. In particular, Tchaikovsky was angered by Safonov's decision not to appoint Anatoly Brandukov as the successor of Wilhelm Fitzenhagen upon the latter's untimely death in 1890. Brandukov had been a loyal friend of Nikolay Rubinstein, and Tchaikovsky felt that he deserved the post of cello professor at the Conservatory far more than Safonov's appointee Alfred von Glenn. These differences of view led to Tchaikovsky's resignation as a director of the Russian Musical Society (RMS) in Moscow.
Subsequent relations between the two men improved to an extent, and at the RMS concert in Moscow on 14/26 February 1893 conducted by Tchaikovsky, Safonov played the celesta in the orchestral suite from The Nutcracker ballet (in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy). The unusual sound of this instrument caused a strong impression on the audience, and at the end of this concert Safonov asked the composer if they could patch up their earlier quarrel. Tchaikovsky agreed and later that year he dedicated his piano piece Méditation — No. 5 of the Eighteen Pieces, Op. 72 — to Safonov. The latter was a genuine admirer of Tchaikovsky's music, and after the composer's death Safonov would conduct the first official performance in Moscow of the Pathétique on 4/16 December 1893 .
In 1889, Safonov succeeded Max Erdmannsdörfer as principal conductor of the Russian Musical Society concerts in Moscow, where in his later years he was one of the first conductors to dispense with a baton. After being invited to New York as guest conductor of the Philharmonic Society Orchestra in 1904, he returned to become its sole conductor from 1906 to 1909, while concurrently serving as director of the National Conservatory of Music in the city.
After returning to Russia in 1909, he resumed his conducting position with the RMS in Moscow (where he remained until 1912), and also performed in chamber ensembles. In 1916 his guide to piano technique, entitled A New Formula (Новая формула), was published in Russian and English.
In 1893, Tchaikovsky dedicated his piano piece Méditation — No. 5 of the Eighteen Pieces, Op. 72 — to Vasily Safonov.
Correspondence with Tchaikovsky
20 letters from Tchaikovsky to Vasily Safonov have survived, dating from 1885 to 1893, of which those highlighted in bold have been translated into English on this website:
- Letter 2735 – 10/22 July 1885, from Maydanovo
- Letter 2742 – 26 July/7 August 1885, from Maydanovo
- Letter 2748 – 15/27 August 1885, from Maydanovo
- Letter 2756 – 30 August/11 September 1885, from Maydanovo
- Letter 2893 – 19 February/3 March 1886, from Maydanovo
- Letter 3763a – 9/21 January 1889, from Frolovskoye
- Letter 3891 – 30 June/12 July 1889, from Frolovskoye
- Letter 3963 – between 20 October/1 November and 27 October/8 November 1889, from Moscow
- Letter 3982 – 10/22 December 1889, from Saint Petersburg
- Letter 4523a – 24 October/5 November 1891, from Moscow
- Letter 4825 – 11/23 December 1892, from Saint Petersburg
- Letter 4847 – 15/27 January 1893, from Odessa
- Letter 4861 – 8/20 February 1893, from Klin
- Letter 4863 – 10/22 February 1893, from Klin
- Letter 4960 – 23 June/5 July 1893, from Grankino
- Letter 4966 – 3/15 July 1893, from Grankino
- Letter 4990 – 26 July/7 August 1893, from Klin
- Letter 5007 – 12/24 August 1893, from Klin
- Letter 5022 – 31 August/12 September 1893, from Saint Petersburg
- Letter 5055 – 2/14 October 1893, from Klin
33 letters from Safonov to the composer, dating from 1885 to 1893, are preserved in the Klin House-Museum Archive.
Notes and References
- From the memoirs of Konstantin Saradzhev (1877–1954), who was a student at the Moscow Conservatory at the time, it seems that on 8/20 October or 9/21 October 1893, when Tchaikovsky visited the institution, Safonov conducted a private performance of the Symphony No. 6 with Conservatory students playing from copies of the manuscript score. Tchaikovsky was very satisfied with this performance and thanked Safonov for this opportunity to hear his work before the official premiere in Saint Petersburg a few days later. However, he also made some observations which Safonov noted down in his copy of the full score, which appear to have been lost. Konstantin Saradzhev's memoirs are included in (1980), p. 316-317, but no other contemporary account (even by Tchaikovsky himself) has been found to corroborate that this performance took place.