Aleksey Tolstoy

Tchaikovsky Research
Aleksey Tolstoy (1817-1875), in an 1836 portrait by Karl Bryullov

Russian poet and playwright (b. 24 August/5 September 1817 in Saint Petersburg; d. 28 September/10 October 1875 at Krasny Rog, in Chernigov province), born Count Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy (Алексей Константинович Толстой).


Descended from illustrious aristocratic families on both sides, Aleksey was a distant cousin of the novelist Lev Tolstoy. Shortly after his birth, however, his parents separated and he was taken by his mother to Chernigov province in the Ukraine where he grew up under the wing of his uncle, Aleksey Perovsky (1787–1836), who wrote novels and stories under the pseudonym "Anton Pogorelsky". With his mother and uncle, Aleksey travelled to Europe in 1827, touring Italy and visiting Goethe in Weimar. Goethe would always remain one of Tolstoy's favourite poets, and in 1867 he made notable translations of Der Gott und die Bajadere and Die Braut von Korinth. In 1834, Aleksey was enrolled at the Moscow Archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where his tasks included the cataloguing of historical documents. Three years later he was posted to the Russian Embassy at the Diet of the German Confederation in Frankfurt am Main. In 1840, he returned to Russia and worked for some years at the Imperial Chancery in Saint Petersburg.

During the 1840s Tolstoy wrote several lyric poems, but they were not published until many years later, and he contented himself with reading them to his friends and acquaintances from the world of Saint Petersburg high society. At a masked ball in the winter season of 1850/51 he saw for the first time Sofya Andreyevna Miller (1825–1895), with whom he fell in love, dedicating to her the fine poem Amid the Din of the Ball (Средь шумного бала), which Tchaikovsky would later immortalize in one of his most moving songs (No. 3 of the Six Romances, Op. 38). Sofya's husband, a cavalry colonel, refused for many years to grant her a divorce, and she was not able to marry Tolstoy until 1863.

In the early 1850s, together with his cousins Aleksey and Vladimir Zhemchuzhnikov, Tolstoy created the humorous figure of "Kozma Prutkov", a clerk in the Ministry of Finance with a penchant for writing high-flown and banal verses: under this name the three friends published various satirical poems and sketches. Tolstoy also became friends with Ivan Turgenev, and thanks to his connections at the Imperial court (he was a childhood friend of the heir to the throne, Grand Duke Alexander Nikolayevich), he was able to secure the release of Turgenev from internal exile in 1853. When the Crimean War broke out Tolstoy immediately enlisted in an infantry regiment, but he was taken ill with typhus near Odessa and did not see active service. In 1856, he was made an aide-de-camp by the newly-crowned Alexander II, although he resigned this post five years later and decided to live mainly in the countryside: on an estate near Saint Petersburg and at Krasny Rog in the province of Chernigov where he had grown up as a boy. Nevertheless, thanks to his friendship with the Tsar he was able to intercede for several writers who got into trouble with the government: the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861), the Slavophile publicist Ivan Aksakov (1823–1886), and Turgenev again in 1863 when he was accused of contacts with the political émigrés in London (Alexander Herzen and Nikolay Ogaryov). Although Tolstoy did not like the radical intelligentsia and their ideas, in 1864 he did try to persuade the Tsar not to have Nikolay Chernyshevsky (1828–1889) deported to Siberia, but his petition was rejected.

The second half of the 1850s was Tolstoy's most productive period as a lyric poet, whilst in later years he wrote mainly ballads and adaptations of Old Russian byliny (on Sadko and Ilya Muromets for example). His most enduring contribution to Russian literature was, however, not as a poet but as a playwright, for his masterpiece is the dramatic trilogy about Russian history at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, just before the Time of Troubles. This trilogy (or 'historical triptych', as it is also known) consists of: The Death of Ivan the Terrible (Смерть Иоанна Грозного, 1864), Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich (Царь Фёдор Иоаннович, 1868), and Tsar Boris (Царь Борис, 1869). Drawing on Nikolay Karamzin's famous History of the Russian State for much of his primary material, but also inspired by Shakespeare's historical plays and Schiller's Wallenstein, Tolstoy produced a remarkably compelling panorama of these critical twenty years in the Muscovite period of Russian history.

With his Romantic and noble temperament, Tolstoy hated the oriental despotism which had taken root in Russia after the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, and which culminated in the bloody reign of Ivan the Terrible. The poet's sympathies were all for earlier periods of Russian history — that is, the heyday of the Kievan Rus' and Novgorod — when Russia had a flourishing native culture and was in close contact with the rest of Europe. Tolstoy always emphasized the chivalric honour and sense of individual dignity which had prevailed in the Kievan Rus', and some of the most positive figures in his trilogy (Prince Ivan Petrovich Shuysky and Tsar Boris's son Fyodor) yearn for a return to these values. Boris Godunov, too, who thanks to his great intelligence eventually rises from a lowly boyar to become Tsar of all Russia, also wants to open up his country to Europe and put an end to the backwardness and misfortunes which oriental despotism had heaped on Russia. Pursuing power not for himself but for the sake of his country, he is at first confident that the murder of the infant Tsarevich Dmitry at Uglich (carried out at his behest) is a necessary sacrifice for the greater good. However, as some commentators have pointed out, just as in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Tsar Boris discovers too late that such a 'utilitarian' scheme of founding the welfare of many on the elimination of just one human life is essentially flawed. One of Tolstoy's most memorable creations in this trilogy is the figure of the weak-willed Tsar Fyodor, who succeeds his father Ivan the Terrible on the throne but is like wax in the hands of his crafty councillor Boris Godunov. In his disarming innocence and goodness, which are ultimately of little use in this world, he is rather like Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky's great novel The Idiot (1869). Since this second tragedy in the triptych showed an anointed tsar being easily manipulated by his adviser, it is not surprising that the censorship forbade its being produced on the stage until 1889, but thereafter Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich became one of the most popular Russian historical plays.

Although Aleksey Tolstoy as a lyric poet was often criticized for the carelessness of his rhymes and the simplicity of his diction, his finest poems are suffused by a heartfelt warmth which made them attractive to such composers as Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Musorgsky, Mily Balakirev, César Cui, Anton Rubinstein, Sergey Taneyev, and Sergei Rachmaninoff — and Tchaikovsky, of course, as will be seen below. In the 1840s Tolstoy also worked on a historical novel: Prince Serebriany (Князь Серебряный), which was not published until 1863, though. Written in the style of Sir Walter Scott and, like his dramatic trilogy, set in the times of Ivan the Terrible, this novel became very popular with young readers, and Turgenev recommended that it should be published in France.

Tchaikovsky and Aleksey Tolstoy

In one of his memoirs of the composer, Herman Laroche noted how difficult it was to pin down Tchaikovsky's music by a single label: in some respects his style might be described as eclectic, but on the other hand his music was always instantly recognizable. Laroche resorted to the following analogy: "In Tchaikovsky, just as in Aleksey Tolstoy, with whom overall I find he had a lot in common, there was a very intricate combination of cosmopolitan openness and impressionability with a strong national Russian kernel" [1]. Certainly, it is true that Aleksey Tolstoy was attracted to Russian subjects in his poetry and plays, whilst at the same time showing little sympathy with the Slavophiles for their insistence on the exclusivity of Russia with regard to the rest of Europe, and this is an attitude which Tchaikovsky shared to a certain degree, as can be seen in various letters of his to Taneyev, for example, or in some of his pronouncements on the "Mighty Handful".

What is beyond doubt, though, is that Aleksey Tolstoy was one of the poets Tchaikovsky most liked to turn to when choosing texts to set to music. Thus, on 16/28 February 1878, he wrote to Nadezhda von Meck from Florence (Letter 762), asking her to select some poems by Afanasy Fet, Aleksey Tolstoy, Lev Mey, and Fyodor Tyutchev, which might be suitable for musical treatment. His benefactress duly sent him anthologies of these poets' verses, including the 1876 edition of A. K. Tolstoy's complete poetry, and Tchaikovsky replied to her from Clarens as follows: "I do not know how to thank you, my dear, for the collections of poems which you have sent. I am particularly gladdened by Tolstoy, whom I like very much, and, quite apart from my intention to use some of his texts as the basis of songs, I will be delighted to re-read many of his longer pieces. In particular I am interested in Don Juan, which I read a very long time ago. I was enchanted by the section you indicated in Don Juan, and certainly I shall set it to music" [2]. Tchaikovsky kept his word, for No. 1 of the Six Romances, Op. 38, completed shortly afterwards, is a setting of an excerpt from Aleksey Tolstoy's dramatic poem Don Juan (in which, following Pushkin and E. T. A. Hoffmann, in particular, Don Juan is portrayed not so much as a libertine, but as a Romantic visionary pursuing an elusive ideal of beauty). However, of the four settings of Tolstoy in the Six Romances, Op. 38, the ones which became most popular were No. 2 (It Was in the Early Spring) and No. 3 (Amid the Din of the Ball). The latter moved Turgenev greatly when he heard it at a soirée in Saint Petersburg in 1880.

In the summer of 1880, while at Kamenka, Tchaikovsky proceeded to compose two further vocal cycles, and he reported on this in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck which reveals his great admiration for Aleksey Tolstoy's poetry: "Yesterday I set about composing some small vocal pieces and started with a duet to words by A. Tolstoy: Passion Spent [No. 5 of the Six Duets, Op. 46] A. Tolstoy is an inexhaustible source of texts for music; he is one of the poets whom I find most congenial" [3]. No fewer than four of the Seven Romances, Op. 47, and two of the Six Duets, Op. 46, composed that summer, are settings of poems by Aleksey Tolstoy. One of the former romances — Softly the Spirit Flew up to Heaven — with its religious theme was, by Tchaikovsky's own admission, influenced by a melody from Jules Massenet's oratorio Marie-Magdeleine. As we shall see below, this was by no means the only time that Tchaikovsky was drawn to poems by Aleksey Tolstoy which expressed Christian sentiments. When his benefactress congratulated him on these new song albums, Tchaikovsky replied saying that he was delighted that she liked them, and told her what his own favourites were: I Bless You, Forests (No. 5 of the Seven Romances, Op. 47), a setting of some verses from Tolstoy's narrative poem John of Damascus, and Edward: A Scottish Folk-Ballad (No. 2 of the Six Duets, Op. 46), again to a text by the same author: "The Scottish Ballad is also among my favourite offspring, but I am quite certain, alas, that it will never be performed as I imagined. It must not be sung, but declaimed quickly and with great passion" [4].

An interesting diary entry at Maydanovo on 28 February/12 March 1886 reads: "While having tea I decided to read Aleksey Tolstoy, and his Damascene and The Sinner unexpectedly made me shed many tears. In this soothing state of mind, which always sets in after a strong artistic delight, there suddenly came a telegram from Sitovsky, saying that the G[rand] D[uke] will be there. That means all my plans have gone to the devil! Despair, uncertainty, and again fear and disgust with regard to this trip" [5]. These latter outbursts refer to the imminent premiere of the Manfred symphony, which was due to take place in Moscow on 11/23 March, and about which Tchaikovsky had mixed feelings. The "strong artistic delight" from which the news about the forthcoming concert had torn him was produced by two of Aleksey Tolstoy's longer poems: The Sinner (Грешница, 1857), which describes how a beautiful courtesan, who defies St John the Evangelist to convert her, is suddenly filled with compunction and repents of her ways; and John of Damascus, or St John Damascene (Иоанн Дамаскин, 1859), which is based on the Life of the seventh- or eighth-century theologian and composer of hymns still used in the liturgy of the Russian Orthodox church today. Tchaikovsky had already used an extract from Tolstoy's poem for No. 5 of the Seven Romances, Op. 47 (1880): I Bless You, Forests — highly emotional verses in which John praises the beauties of Nature shortly before entering a monastery. Tchaikovsky's reading of these two poems with religious themes at Maydanovo in 1886 is characteristic of that year, in which, as several diary entries show, he was reflecting intensively on the New Testament and the figure of Christ (see the articles on Lev Tolstoy, Beethoven, and Mozart for some of these entries).

From a diary entry made on the train from Leipzig to Geneva early in 1889, we also know that Tchaikovsky was reading Aleksey Tolstoy's popular historical novel Prince Serebriany (Князь Серебряный), but he did not record his impressions of the work [6].

Tchaikovsky's Settings of Works by Aleksey Tolstoy

  • Amid the Din of the Ball (1851) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as Amid the Din of the Ball (Средь шумного бала), No. 3 of the Six Romances, Op. 38 (1878).
  • Do Not Believe Ме, Friend (1856) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as Do Not Believe, My Friend (Не верь, мой друг), No. 1 of the Six Romances, Op. 6 (1869).
  • Sleep, Poor Friend (1856) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as Sleep, Poor Friend (Усни, печальный друг), No. 4 of the Seven Romances, Op. 47 (1880).
  • Passion Spent (1858) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as Passion Spent (Минула страсть), No. 5 of the [[Six Duets, Op. 46 (1880).
  • A Tear Trembles (1858) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as A Tear Trembles (Слеза дрожит), No. 4 of the Six Romances, Op. 6 (1869).
  • Softly the Spirit Flew up to Heaven (1858) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as Softly the Spirit Flew up to Heaven (Горними тихо летела душа небесами), No. 2 of the Seven Romances, Op. 47 (1880).
  • If Only I Had Known (1858) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as If Only I Had Known (Кабы знала я), No. 1 of the Seven Romances, Op. 47 (1880).
  • Excerpt from the poem John of Damascus (1858) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as I Bless You, Forests (Благословляю вас, леса), No. 5 of the Seven Romances, Op. 47 (1880).
  • O, If Only You Could (1859) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as O, If Only You Could (О, если б ты могла), No. 4 of the Six Romances, Op. 38 (1878).
  • On the Golden Cornfields (1862) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as On the Golden Cornfields (На нивы жёлтые), No. 2 of the Six Romances, Op. 57 (1884).
  • Excerpt from the dramatic poem Don Juan (1862) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as Don Juan's Serenade (Серенада Дон-Жуана), No. 1 of the Six Romances, Op. 38 (1878).
  • It Was in the Early Spring (1871) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as It Was in the Early Spring (То было раннею весной), No. 2 of the Six Romances, Op. 38 (1878).
  • Edward: A Scottish Folk-Ballad (1871) — set to music by Tchaikovsky as Scottish Ballad: Edward (Шотландская баллада: Эдвард), No. 2 of the Six Duets, Op. 46 (1880).


  • Tarkhov, A. Introductory article in А. К. Толстой: Драматическая трилогия — Стихотворения (Moscow, 1982)

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Notes and References

  1. Herman Laroche, Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 44–45.
  2. Letter 780 to Nadezhda von Meck, 7/19 March 1878.
  3. Letter 1509 to Nadezhda von Meck, 5/17 June 1880.
  4. Letter 1804 to Nadezhda von Meck, 3/15 July–4/16 July 1881. It is worth noting that this Scottish ballad about the young parricide Edward also inspired one of Johannes Brahms's most impressive solo piano pieces: No. 1 of the Four Ballades, Op. 10 (1854). Tchaikovsky, though, was probably not aware of this setting of the Edward ballad by his German antagonist.
  5. Diary entry for 28 February/12 March 1886, in Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 41. Translated by Luis Sundkvist.
  6. Diary entry for 20 February/4 March 1889, in Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 226.