Nadezhda von Meck

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Nadezhda von Meck (1831-1894)

Patroness and close friend of Tchaikovsky (b. 29 January/10 February 1831 at Znamenskoye, near Smolensk; d. 13 January 1894 [N.S.] in Nice, France), born Nadezhda Filaretovna Fralovskaya (Надежда Филаретовна Фрaловская); known after her marriage as Nadezhda Filaretovna fon Mekk (Надежда Филаретовна фон Мекк).


There is no doubt that Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck was an exceptional woman [1]. As far as was possible within the straitened conditions of Russian "Victorianism," she developed into an accomplished personality with a rich inner life despite her considerable eccentricity. She was the eldest child of a wealthy landowner, Filaret Vasilyevich Fralovsky and his wife Anastasiya Dmitriyevna (b. Potemkina). She inherited from her father, an amateur violinist, a passionate love for music, and played the piano rather well.

Karl von Meck (1821-1876)

On 14/26 January 1848 she married Karl von Meck (1821-1876), a Baltic-German engineer of then very meagre means, at the age of 16; by her own admission, her younger years were spent in poverty, which perhaps made her responsive to the plights of others. The dizzying financial success of her husband, who became a railway tycoon, made them multimillionaires. The couple had 18 children, of whom 11 survived: Yelizaveta (1848–1907); Aleksandra (1850–1920); Vladimir (1852–1892); Yuliya (1853–1915); Lidiya (1855–1903); Nikolay (1863–1929); Aleksandr (1864–1912); Sofya (1867–1936); Maksimillian (1869–ca.1950); Mikhail (1871–1883); and Lyudmila (1872–1946).

After Karl von Meck's death in 1876, his widow, according to her husband's will, took over the management of his financial empire. All this might seem sufficient to fill the life of even a very energetic woman. But it did not satisfy the spiritual and cultural needs of Nadezhda von Meck.

With access to her husband's considerable fortune, Nadezhda gave financial support to the Russian Musical Society and to young musicians, particularly Russians. After the death of her husband in 1876 she tended towards a life of solitude, and her visits to the concerts and the theatre became less and less frequent. Her musical passions were satisfied by a domestic chamber ensemble, comprising a select group of young musicians. These included three of Tchaikovsky's students — Iosif Kotek (violin), Pyotr Danilchenko (cello) and Władysław Pachulski (piano), as well as Claude Debussy (who went on to become a famous French composer), Nikolay Rubinstein and Henryk Wienawski.

Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck

Nadezhda von Meck took a great interest in the life of the Moscow Conservatory and the Russian Musical Society, in the course of which she became acquainted with Tchaikovsky's compositions. Their first contact came via Iosif Kotek, who in 1876 asked Tchaikovsky to supply arrangements for his employer's domestic ensemble, in return for a modest fee.

The ensuing correspondence lasted almost fourteen years and comprises several hundred letters. The relationship provided Tchaikovsky with moral support and sincere interest in his artistic career and daily life, as well as a regular financial allowance which freed him to dedicate himself wholly to composition. Besides her fanatical love of music, which she had studied quite thoroughly, her letters to Tchaikovsky reveal her vast knowledge of literature, history, and philosophy, her mastery of foreign languages, and her capacity for appreciating visual arts. The overall impression from their correspondence suggests ethical, spiritual, and mental comparability of both correspondents. Their dialogue in letters was conducted on remarkably equal terms. On Tchaikovsky's part, one finds not the slightest trace of condescension: when he argues with his "best friend" (as he called her), he does so with seriousness and passion; her letters, for their part, do not betray any hint of the social snobbery one might expect from a wealthy patroness. All this makes clear that their communication was one between kindred minds. In spite of the significant erotic component in her attitude, she was quite content with their implicit mutual agreement never to meet under any circumstances. She thought of eros in a sentimental rather than physical sense, and thus her platonic relationship with the great composer must have satisfied her important inner needs.

As a result, this long friendship, despite each of their numerous personal shortcomings (also reflected in their letters), despite the neurasthenia common to them both (and which they both called "misanthropy"), even despite their eventual — and mystifying — estrangement, represents perhaps the most attractive chapter in Tchaikovsky's biography. By her generous financial support, Nadezhda von Meck provided the composer with more than 13 years of comfortable existence (he was able to resign from his professorship at the Moscow Conservatory, hitherto the main source of his income) and made possible his full immersion in creative work. In turn, Tchaikovsky bestowed on her not only his Fourth Symphony, dedicating it to his "best friend," and his confidence, replete with tenderness and gratitude, which filled her with much consolation and pleasure ("a fate against which I am powerless"), but also a sort of immortality: no study or re-creation of his life leaves her unappreciated.

Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck chose never to meet, even when in 1884 Nadezhda's son Nikolay married Tchaikovsky's niece Anna Davydova.

In 1890, Nadezhda informed Tchaikovsky that she was no longer in a financial position to continue paying his allowance, and that consequently she could not also carry on with their correspondence. This news came as a heavy blow to the composer, even though he was no longer financially dependent on her. It appears that his subsequent letters were returned unanswered, and the reasons for the abrupt end to their correspondence remained a mystery to him. However, a letter written ten years after the composer's death by Nadezhda's son Nikolay explained the circumstances to Nikolay Kashkin:

Recently I saw my sister Yu[liya] K[arlovna] Pachulski and together we relived all the circumstances touching on the cessation of relations between my mother and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The sole reason for the termination of the subsidy was that for a long period of time my mother's affairs appeared to be in a very bad state, and it then became necessary to significantly reduce her expenditure, including her subsidy to Pyotr Ilyich. By the time it eventually transpired that my mother's affairs had not been ruined, to resume the subsidy would certainly have been impossible.

Turning to the question of the cessation of the relationship between my mother and P. I. Tchaikovsky. The reasons for breaking off this wonderful relationship were twofold. The first was that it had become physically impossible for my mother to continue her correspondence with Pyotr Ilyich owing to a sharp decline in her faculties, following a bout of pneumonia in the winter of 1889-1890; such a serious decline that my mother completely ceased to write to any of her children. This decline may be simply explained by the fact that when my mother was 20 years old [...] she suffered from a sort of pulmonary tuberculosis, and we cannot but wonder whether she had been left with an inflammation of the lungs.

The second reason was purely on moral grounds. Following on from my mother's illness, my older brother then became mortally ill. My mother was so shaken by this illness that to her everything and everyone else became secondary, and she devoted herself to taking care of my brother during his last days. At the same time my mother saw my brother's illness as a divine punishment for her having indulged in correspondence and friendly relations with Pyotr Ilyich, instead of devoting herself wholly to the care and attention of her children. This feeling was not especially strong at first, but it gradually took possession of her; when my wife, at Pyotr Ilyich's request, conveyed to her through me that Pyotr Ilyich had taken the cessation of their friendship very hard, my mother asked me to convey to Pyotr Ilyich that her feelings towards him had not changed at all, but that she did not consider herself entitled to continue any form of relationship, since fate had cruelly punished her because of it, and she considered that to renew the relationship would be an offence to her children. This reply, unfortunately, I received [...] only after Pyotr Ilyich's death.

I consider it necessary to mention that my mother passed from pulmonary tuberculosis, and not from nervous illness, as M. I. Tchaikovsky wrote in his biography [2].

M. I. Tchaikovsky in writing about the cessation of relations between my mother and Pyotr Ilyich did not approach any of those close to my mother to enquire about the circumstances of this unhappy misunderstanding, which is why I beg leave to inform you of the above account [3].

Nadezhda von Meck was reported to have been deeply upset by Tchaikovsky's death, and outlived him by only a few months. She died on 14/26 January 1894 in Nice, France, and was buried in the Novo-Alekseyevsky Cemetery in Moscow.


Tchaikovsky dedicated three of his works to Nadezhda von Meck, although the private nature of their relationship meant that this had to be done secretly. His Symphony No. 4 (1877) was dedicated 'to my best friend'; the set of pieces for violin and piano entitled Souvenir d'un lieu cher (1878) was dedicated to "B" (i.e. his benefactress's estate at Brailov); and the Suite No. 1 (1878–79) was inscribed simply to "* * *".

Correspondence with Tchaikovsky

See: Correspondence with Nadezhda von Meck


External Links

Notes and References

  1. We are most grateful to Alexander Poznansky for permission to include here extracts from his 2004 essay 'The Invisible Muse: Tchaikovsky and Mrs von Meck'.
  2. Modest Tchaikovsky's biography of his brother, Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 3 (1902).
  3. Letter from Nikolay von Meck to Nikolay Kashkin, 3/16 February 1903. Translated from Семья предпринимателей и меценатов Фон Мекк и П. И. Чайковский (2004), p. 14-15; the ellipses are those of the editor, where words in the original letter remain indecipherable. We are most grateful to the editors of the website for bringing this letter to our attention.