Letter 4050

Date 25 February/9 March 1890
Addressed to Désirée Artôt-Padilla
Where written Florence
Language French
Autograph Location Moscow (Russia): Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (ф. 905)
Publication П. И. Чайковский. С. И. Танеев. Письма (1951), p. 374–375
П. И. Чайковский. Полное собрание сочинений, том XV-Б (1977), p. 73–75.

Text and Translation

French text
(original)
English translation
By Luis Sundkvist
25 Février/9 Mars [18]90
Florence

Chère et bonne Madame et amie!

D'abord laissez moi Vous remercier de ce que Vous avez pensé à moi dès qu'il fut question d'un bel opéra à faire. Voici maintenant les raisons pour lesquelles j'ai decliné l'honneur de collaborer avec Capoul. Je suis venu à Florence cherchant l'isolement et la tranquillité nécessaires pour écrire un opéra qui doit être representé à la saison prochaine à Pétersbourg. Tel a été le désir de l'Empereur et celui de la Direction des Théâtres Impériaux qui tient a monter d'une manière splendide un opéra dont le sujet a été approuvé par l'Empereur. J'exécute en ce moment un tour de force inouï: il y a 6 semaines je suis arrivé ici un poème d'opéra en poche, et dans 2 mois il faut qu'à peu près tout soit fini. Je travaille avec acharnement et avec une jouissance infinie car le sujet me plait, je me sens bien disposé à travailler (ayant trop longtemps voyagé et négligé depuis deux ans la composition) et je suis tellement préoccupé de ma tâche, que tout ce qui est en dehors n'a pour moi aucun intérêt. En outre comme cela m'est arrivé souvent dans des cas semblables, je me trouve dans un accès de mysanthropie furieuse; je ne vois et ne puis voir personne; depuis 6 semaines je n'ai pas proferé une seule parole si ce n'est avec les domestiques. Si M[onseiu]r Capoul venait je serais tout à fait malheureux car si j'évite toute société à plus forte raison celle d'un auteur de livret m'est en ce moment odieuse. Cela n'empêche pas que Capoul me soit très sympathique et que dans un autre moment je serai très content de faire sa connaissance.

Maintenant, chère Madame, Vous me demanderez ce que je veux faire après mon opéra? Si le bon Dieu me prête vie et bonne santé ce sera un opéra sur un texte français fait par J. Detroyat et Gallet qui me plaît beaucoup et que je dois faire, l'ayant promis à ces messieurs. Et puis il faut absolument que je fasse un opéra russe dont je possède le poème depuis 2 ans et que j'ai donné ma parole d'honneur de faire. Et puis on veut que je fasse encore un ballet (celui de cette saison ayant eu un grand succès) et puis plusieurs concerts de piano, de violons etc. promis à des amis dont quelques uns Parisiens (Diemer, Taffanel) et puis des symphonies, des poèmes symphoniques, des Lieder, des morceaux de piano etc. etc. Pensez que d'années encore il faut vivre et travailler avant que le tour de Capoul arrive. Et puis faut-il dire toute la vérité? Un livret d'opéra français fait sur un sujet russe m'inspire une défiance profonde malgré tout le bien que Vous en dites. Je sais comment les Français se soucient peu du caractère local, des mœurs, des usages du pays, dès que cela ne se passe pas en France. J'ai eu entre les mains un livret d'opéra français par ce même Jules Detroyat. La scène se passait à Tiflis!!! Mon Dieu, ce que c'était!!! Mais une fois que Vous me recommandez le poème de Capoul, il est plus que probable que je me trompe et que même sur ce rapport il me conviendrait parfaitement. Seulement veuillez bien comprendre qu'il m'est impossible en ce moment même de le prier de m'envoyer pour le lire. Car je n'en ai ni l'envi ni même le temps.

Capoul fera bien mieux d'offrir son sujet à un compositeur français en ce moment à la recherche d'un livret. Et puis un compositeur français n'aura jamais les scrupules qui m'envahissent, j'en suis presque sûr, dès que je trouverai un trait, un détail même quelconque qui ne fut pas vrai! M[onsieur]r Joncière a bien écrit son «Dimitri»; un compositeur russe ne pourrait jamais mettre en musique une chose aussi invraisemblable, aussi fausse et même inepte, quoique les effets de scènes y abondent.

Chère, bonne Madame! Vous ne m'en voudrez pas, n'est ce pas, ni de mon refus ni de mon barbouillage affreux. Je me hâte: il faut recommencer à travailler. Pensez! On peint déjà les décors de mon opéra et il n'est pas prêt!!!

Je conclu en Vous confessant un mensonge. Je ne pars pas ce soir en Russie; j'ai commis ce mensonge pour que M[onsieur]r Capoul fut tout à fait sûr de ne pas me trouver: je craignais que, encouragé par Votre amitié pour moi (que j'apprécie énormément) il ne vint me trouver ici tout de même. D'ailleurs si je ne pars pas ce soir, je pars bientôt.

Merci, merci mille fois pour avoir chanté mes Lieder. Je me mets à Vos pieds et be baise Vos chères mains. Milles choses à l'ami Mariano.

P. Tschaikovsky

Je ne sais pas quand je viendrai à Paris. Je sais seulement que si j'y viens, je serai énormément content de Vous revoir.

Grâce, grâce pour le griffonage!

25 February/9 March 1890
Florence

Dear and good Madame and friend!

First of all, let me thank you for having thought about me as soon as the idea of writing a fine opera was raised. I shall now give you the reasons why I have turned down the honour of collaborating with Capoul [1]. I came to Florence in search of the seclusion and quiet that I need in order to write an opera [2] which is to be staged in Petersburg during the coming season . Such was the wish of the Emperor and of the Directorate of Imperial Theatres, which wants to put on in a splendid fashion an opera whose subject was approved by the Emperor. At this very moment I am carrying out a quite unprecedented tour de force: I arrived here six months ago, with an operatic libretto in my pocket, and within two months everything has to be pretty much complete. I am working furiously and with infinite pleasure, because I like the subject, I feel favourably disposed to work (since I have been travelling for far too long and have neglected my composing for two years), and I am engrossed in the task on my hands to such an extent that everything lying outside it has no interest whatsoever for me. Moreover, as has often happened to me in similar situations, I am currently under the influence of a bout of furious misanthropy; I do not and cannot see anyone; for six weeks now I have not uttered a single word, except to the servants. If Mr Capoul were to come, I would be utterly unhappy, because if I am avoiding all company as such, that of the author of a libretto must understandably be loathsome to me right now. This does not stop me from feeling great sympathy towards Capoul, and at another moment I shall be very happy to make his acquaintance [3].

Now, dear Madame, you will surely be asking what I intend to do after my opera? If the good Lord grants me more years of life and good health, it shall be an opera to a French text by J. Détroyat and Gallet [4] which appeals to me very much, and which I must write, since I have promised it to these gentlemen. And then I must definitely write a Russian opera, based on a poem which has been in my possession for two years already, and which I have given my word of honour to write [5]. And then people want me to write a further ballet (since this season's one [6] had a great success) and also various concertos for piano, violin etc. which I have promised to friends—some of them Parisians (Diémer, Taffanel) [7]—and then some symphonies, symphonic poems, lieder, piano pieces etc. etc. Just think of how many more years I shall have to live and work until Capoul's turn comes. And then, may I be quite frank? A French operatic libretto on a Russian subject awakens deep misgivings in me, in spite of all the good things you say about it. I know how little the French pay heed to the local character, ways and customs of a country as soon as the action does not take place in France. I once had in my hands a French operatic libretto by that same Jules Détroyat. The plot was set in Tiflis!!! Good God, what a lark that was!!![8] However, given that it is you who are recommending to me Capoul's libretto, it is very likely that I am mistaken, and that even in that respect it would suit me perfectly. Only you must please understand that right now it is impossible for me even just to ask him to send it to me for my perusal. For I have neither the inclination nor even the time to read it.

Capoul would be better advised to offer his subject to a French composer who is currently looking for a libretto. And, besides, a French composer would never have the scruples which would beset me—I am almost certain of it—as soon as I came across some feature, or even just some minor detail which wasn't true! Certainly, Monsieur Joncière has written his Dimitri [9]; a Russian composer, in contrast, would never be able to set to music such an implausible, such a false and even clumsy story, even though it is full of effective scenes.

Dear, good Madame! You won't be angry with me, will you? Neither on account of my refusal nor of my atrocious scrawling? I am in a rush: I have to resume my work. Just imagine! The sets for my opera are already being painted, and it isn't even ready yet!!!

I close my letter by confessing to an act of deceit. I am not leaving for Russia tonight; I committed that deceit so that Monsieur Capoul would be quite certain that he would not find me here: I was afraid lest, encouraged by your friendship towards me (which I appreciate enormously), he should come to see me here all the same [10]. Besides, even though I am not leaving tonight, I shall be soon.

A thousand thanks for having performed my lieder [11]. I throw myself at your feet and kiss your dear hands. A thousand greetings for my friend Mariano [12].

P. Tchaikovsky

I don't know when I shall be coming to Paris. All I know is that if I do go, I shall be tremendously glad to see you again [13].

Forgive me, do forgive me for my scribbling!

Notes and References

  1. In her letter to Tchaikovsky from Paris on 24 February/8 March 1890, Désirée Artôt-Padilla had explained that the previous evening, during a reception at her house, the famous tenor Joseph Victor Amedée Capoul (1839–1924) had read out a libretto in four acts entitled Le Prince noir which he had just written. "Because the subject was Russian," Artôt added, "we all cried out that you alone should write the music for it. This idea caused Capoul to leap for joy, and so I want to ask you if you would like to hear his libretto, which I found superb, moving, and passionate". Artôt's letter has been published in Чайковский и зарубежные музыканты (1970), p. 196.
  2. The Queen of Spades.
  3. During the 1870s Tchaikovsky had heard Capoul sing with the Italian Opera Company at the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre a number of times (see, for example, his 1875 review of a performance of Les Huguenots, TH 310), but his admiration for the tenor was not without certain reservations.
  4. The unrealised opera Sadia. In this letter Tchaikovsky mistakenly refers to Léonce Détroyat's as "Jules".
  5. This evidently refers to Iolanta. Tchaikovsky had read the play King René's Daughter by the Danish writer Henrik Hertz (1798–1870) in a Russian translation as early as 1883–1884, and he seems to have been inspired to write an opera on the subject by a young actress, Yelena Leshkovskaya, whose début as Iolante in a production of the play in Moscow in April–May 1888 greatly moved him. It was not until January 1891, however, that Tchaikovsky began urging his brother Modest to turn the play into a libretto.
  6. The Sleeping Beauty.
  7. As early as 1888 Tchaikovsky had promised the French virtuoso flautist Claude Paul Taffanel that he would write a concerto for his instrument (one that Tchaikovsky himself had played during his Conservatory years), but before his death he had only managed to make a few short sketches for this projected Flute Concerto. It is not clear whether Tchaikovsky formally promised his friend Louis Diémer that he would write a piano concerto for him, but the unfinished Piano Concerto No. 3 (1893) bore a dedication to the French pianist.
  8. See Letter 3563b to Détroyat of 10/22 May 1888, in which Tchaikovsky tactfully but firmly rejects the latter's scenario for an opera entitled La Géorgienne which was based on a short story entitled Les amours du Cosaque et de la Géorgienne (by an unidentified author) that had appeared in the Revue Britannique in 1828. (Tchaikovsky mistakenly believed that it was a novel by Chateaubriand until Détroyat explained to him the origins of his scenario).
  9. Dimitri was an opera in 5 acts by Victorin de Joncières (1839–1903), with a libretto by Armand Silvestre (1837–1901) and Henri de Bomier, which was first staged in Paris on 1 May 1876 [N.S.]. It dealt with Ivan the Terrible's son Dimitry—note by Vladimir Zhdanov in П. И. Чайковский. С. И. Танеев. Письма (1951), p. 376.
  10. In her letter to the composer of 24 February/8 March 1890, after noting how impressed she was by Capouls libretto Le Prince noir and how everyone agreed that only Tchaikovsky could set it to music, Artôt had written: "Capoul is prepared to come to see you in order to hand over the libretto to you personally, and he says that if it should not suit you, it will still have secured for him the joy of shaking your hand and of making your acquaintance! So please drop me a word or two, and if you want to be even nicer, send me a telegram which says: Am awaiting Capoul—just that—within two hours he will then be on his way". To get out of this awkward situation, Tchaikovsky had resorted to a ruse, as he explained in Letter 4051 to his brother Modest on the same day as the above letter: "Today was an awfully hectic day for me. I received a letter from Artôt saying that Capoul has written a marvellous libretto which is set in Russia (!!!), that he wishes the music to be written by no one but me, and that for this purpose he is coming here!!!??? I immediately dashed off a huge telegram explaining that I couldn't write such an opera, and that I would be leaving for Russia tonight. Then I had to write her a long letter".
  11. In her letter Artôt had written about the Six French Songs, Op. 65: "I keep falling more and more in love with your six last lieder which are becoming popular, just as I had anticipated".
  12. The Spanish baritone Mariano Padilla y Ramos (1842–1906).
  13. Tchaikovsky would visit Paris several times in 1891, 1892, and 1893, but on each occasion he stayed there for just a few days, and it is not clear whether he ever met Désirée Artôt again after his visit to her house in Berlin in February 1889.