Modest Tchaikovsky

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Modest Tchaikovsky (1850-1916)

Writer, dramatist, translator, and younger brother of the composer (b. 1/13 May 1850 in Alapayevsk; d. 2/15 January 1916 in Moscow), born Modest Ilyich Chaykovsky (Модест Ильич Чайковский); known affectionately by the composer as "Modya" (Модя).


Modest was the sixth child of Ilya Tchaikovsky (1795–1880) and his wife Aleksandra (b. Assier, 1812–1854), and twin brother to Anatoly Tchaikovsky (1850–1915). He was a graduate of the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg, working initially for the civil service, before becoming tutor (1876–82) and then guardian (1882–92) to Nikolay Konradi.

Modest also wrote several plays, and prepared the libretti for his brother's operas The Queen of Spades (1890) and Iolanta (1891), and for operas by Eduard Nápravník, Arseny Koreshchenko, Anton Arensky and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Proficient in various foreign languages, Modest rendered works by Corneille and Shakespeare into Russian, including a fine translation of Shakespeare's Sonnets (published in 1915). He also translated a number of works of Russian literature into other European languages, including Anton Chekhov's story Ward No. 6, which he translated into Italian.

After the composer's death, Modest Tchaikovsky helped to found the Tchaikovsky House-Museum at Klin (1895), where he became the director. His lasting legacy is the three-volume biography of his brother — The Life of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky [1], which has subsequently been translated into many languages.

Modest Tchaikovsky died on 2/15 January 1916 in Moscow, and is buried in the Demyanovo Cemetery, near Klin.

Tchaikovsky and His Brother Modest

The Composer's Shadow

The crucial events in the early relationship of Pyotr and Modest Tchaikovsky were the death of their mother at a relatively young age in 1854, and the departure of their sister Aleksandra, who had taken care of the younger children for a period of time, after her marriage to Lev Davydov in 1861. Since their father proved clearly unable to devote to the ten-year-old Modest and his twin Anatoly the amount of time and attention they needed, Pyotr soon found himself in the role of their "brother, mother, friend, mentor, and everything else in the world", as Modest described it ecstatically in his reminiscences. Given the cult of emotionalism that was characteristic of the Tchaikovsky family, this could not but lead to passionate attachments so strong that they continued to affect Modest's recollections decades later: "His influence on us was unbounded, his word was law [...] He was drawn to us by feeling alone, which told him all he needed so that he could wield total power over our hearts [...] In turn, we became for him a source of tender concern and gave meaning to his life" [2].

Tchaikovsky echoed similar sentiments in one of his letters to Nadezhda von Meck from 1877: "My relationship with them [the twins] took a shape that made me love them more than myself and be ready for any kind of sacrifice, and made them be devoted to me beyond any limit" [3]. This means that the powerful emotions of prepubescent age that so often bind a boy to his mother, were directed in Modest's case at a brother in his early twenties, almost a full adult, and it seems likely that already at that early period of his life he had unconsciously chosen the elder brother as a role model. It is not uncommon that a younger sibling strongly aspires to identify with an elder. It depends on the psychological complexity, strength of will, and inborn gifts of the individuals involved, how their relationship will develop and what form it will eventually acquire. By no means ungifted or unsophisticated, Modest suffered from malleability of character (of which he was fully aware, often complaining about it in his diary), and this often resulted in "unconditional surrender" to the elder brother's tender mercies that became both the blessing and the curse of his life.

It led to Modest's persistent efforts to imitate Tchaikovsky in minute details of taste and behaviour and must have annoyed the latter considerably—a phenomenon not unlike what Jungian psychology defines as "Shadow". One passage to that effect from their early correspondence, almost brutal in tone, is worth quoting: "I am mad at the fact", wrote Tchaikovsky to Modest on 12/24 March 1875, "that you are not free from any of my faults, and this is true. I would like to find absent in you at least one of my own bad traits, and I cannot. You resemble me too much, and when I am angry with you, I am in fact angry at myself, since you always act as a mirror in which I see the reflection of all my weaknesses. Consequently, you may conclude that if I feel antipathy for you, it means that I feel it for myself. Ergo, you are a fool, which nobody ever doubted" [4]. But nothing would help: even in later life the two brothers struck observers as a of pair Doppelgänger, one memoirist even going so far as to remark: "I am convinced that they were thinking, experiencing and perceiving life exactly alike" [5].

In terms of sibling rivalry, the adolescent Modest's predicament was aggravated by the existence of his twin, Anatoly, who soon emerged as Pyotr's favourite, perhaps for the very reason that this other one made no attempt to imitate him. It is in this sense that the young Modest was forced early on into the role of frustrated lover: the object of his adoration clearly preferred someone else. In his memoir, writing of the time when Pyotr began to share most intimate confidences with him, Modest still could not refrain from a bitter comment: "And it was still Anatoly whom he loved" [6]. Tchaikovsky must have been aware of Modest's adolescent anguish, but was not very helpful, rather to the contrary: as his letters of that period demonstrate, he was capable of taunting and hurting his younger brother, when commenting not without malice on his looks, his character, and even his intimate habits.

The turning point in their relationship came in 1864, with the fourteen-year-old Modest's realization that he and his idol shared unorthodox sexual preferences. This moment is dramatically described in Modest's unfinished confidential autobiography, still awaiting publication. Of Pyotr's peculiarity he learned from the terrified Anatoly, who considered it, in accordance with common opinion, a disgrace. Modest's response to the news, however, seems remarkable: "I forgot every trouble and was filled with inexpressible joy. A heavy weight fell from my shoulders. I am not a freak, I am not alone in my strange desires. I may find sympathy not merely with the pariahs among my comrades, but with Pyotr I may fall in love and feel no shame since Pyotr understands me!" [7].

His immediate confession to Anatoly led to the latter's increased horror, and, characteristically, to the charge of "blind imitation". How much of this charge is true remains an open question. Modest's famous biography of Tchaikovsky offers numerous proofs of his skill in distorting personal and family history. Although he insists that he was aware of his tastes from the start, one cannot rule out that the disclosure about Pyotr's proved crucial in his own final choice of sexual identity. "With this discovery", he wrote, "everything became different. Mankind split into 'ours' and 'theirs' [...] the earlier self-contempt changed into self-satisfaction, and pride in belonging to the 'chosen'" [8].

According to Modest, the revelation bore fruit three years later when Pyotr discussed the matter for the first time openly with the twins, and came to realize that Modest, not surprisingly, responded to his erotic concerns with reciprocity, which Anatoly, who grew up decidedly heterosexual, failed to do. It is worth mentioning that from 1865 to 1867 Tchaikovsky's correspondence with the twins is uncommonly candid as regards sexual problems, including hints at and allusions to Modest's affairs with his classmates. In any case, the recognition of what Modest calls their "moral resemblance" resulted in exceptional intimacy, and this relationship lasted for the rest of their lives: "I became a confidant in all his [Pyotr's] amorous escapades" [9]. Thus the frustrated lover triumphed by exploiting what may have been an accident, the first instance when his urge to identify with the elder brother served as an advantage: the rival twin, Anatoly, against whom he would have otherwise stood no chance, began for all practical purposes gradually to lose out.

It appears that despite a series of involvements in the course of Modest's life, Pyotr remained the chief object of his passionate love, in which the sensual element, if any, was reduced to a minimum and replaced with affectionate, although unequal, partnership, which was not lacking in a sense of responsibility or moral ground. Rescuing his brother by personal example from what he considered at that stage an embarrassment played a major role in Tchaikovsky's disastrous decision to marry Antonina Milyukova. In turn, Modest seems to have totally succumbed to Tchaikovsky's influence and guidance, as follows from his unpublished letter of 22 October/3 November 1877 in which he emphatically recognized his moral debt to him: "If I have become any good for anything, it is thanks to you, do you understand this [...], it is not a 'façon de parler', but the very truth. The fact that I am not a lazybones, not a crook, not a queen, is due only to you, since I felt I was all these things; but I knew your displeasure, which is for me the worst torment" [10].

One could almost predict that the strong urge to identify with the elder brother would lead Modest, at least so far as his abilities allowed, to try to imitate Tchaikovsky's early career. It is true that his enrolment, in Pyotr's footsteps, in the School of Jurisprudence, must have been his father's choice, but Modest's somewhat wanton activities as a "young man about town", and his conspicuous failure as a civil servant, bear the clear mark of such imitation. Pyotr's sudden decision, however, to enter the Petersburg Conservatory made no further imitation possible: although he learned to play the piano and had a fine ear for music (which Tchaikovsky valued), Modest possessed no apparent gift for performance or composition that would have warranted his doing the same. Deprived of the means of identifying more closely with Pyotr, Modest chose to follow suit in a more general way by taking up two major aspects of the elder brother's new image—that of a pedagogue and that of a creative artist/intellectual. It is only in this creative context, and not in any other, that he comes into view as Tchaikovsky's frustrated rival—a statement requiring further qualifications.

The Educator

Remarkably, in his capacity as a pedagogue Modest even seems to have surpassed Pyotr. The composer, for the most part, felt annoyance at his educational duties, and at the earliest opportunity, supplied by the beneficent Nadezhda von Meck, he resigned his professorship at the Moscow Conservatory; moreover, his relationship with individual pupils was often stormy and dramatic. Modest, on the other hand, eminently succeeded in the rare and difficult enterprise of surdo-pedagogics, the education of a deaf mute pupil, Nikolay ("Kolya") Konradi, whom he taught several languages and a vast amount of knowledge, and with whom he developed a steady companionship that lasted for seventeen years. This not only brought about the eagerly desired admiration of his elder brother, but must have impressed the authorities in the field, for in 1885 Modest was offered the directorship of a special school for the deaf and mute which he declined. None of this, however, sufficed to make Modest feel satisfied: in an unpublished letter of 27 August/8 September 1882 he lamented his failure as a pedagogue [11].

The Playwright

In the realm of artistic creativity, Modest was to encounter Tchaikovsky's mistrust and initial scepticism. Thus, his early penchant towards a career on the stage was dismissed immediately: in November 1874 Tchaikovsky pronounced unequivocally: "The dream of becoming an actor is just nonsense" [12]. More painful to Modest must have been Pyotr's dissertation, in a letter written a few years earlier, in February 1869, regarding his brother's lack of artistic potential: "You had the misfortune to be born with the soul of an artist and you will always be drawn into that world of the highest spiritual joy, but since, in addition to this artistic sensitivity, you are endowed with no talent, for God's sake be on guard lest you yield to this temptation" [13]. Later on, in the course of a rapprochement, the composer's attitude gradually changed: starting with some recognition of Modest's abilities ("I am serious, you possess a literary vein, and I would be very pleased if it could vibrate so mightily that you would turn into an author") [14], and ending with full-scale encouragement. Tchaikovsky's interest in his brother's work was always genuine, sharp both in approval and in criticism, which Modest never failed to appreciate. Characteristically, he started his writing career as a contributor of pieces on music and theatre, and he continued to regard this journalistic criticism as one of his chief intellectual interests. Modest's articles and reviews were never collected: what is available suggests that his taste, although discriminating, was not much at variance with that of the period's cultural establishment [15]. One notes, however, his tendency to prefer interpretation of the work done by others (acting, criticism, and in later years translation) to original creative endeavour, a sign of insecurity and, possibly, of an inferiority complex. Although Tchaikovsky saw Modest's strength in the field of prose fiction, most of Modest's efforts in that genre remained either incomplete or unpublished [16]. Again, one discerns a familiar pattern: since he could not write symphonies or concertos, Modest opted for second best: he would become a dramatist and work for the theatre, as the elder brother did, only writing not operas but plays. And, in the course of several decades, he built up a not inconsiderable reputation as a popular playwright.

This is not the place to discuss in any detail Modest's literary output. Most of his plays, influenced by contemporary French melodrama, concentrate on the family and financial problems of the middle classes, and look bleak when compared with the work of Aleksandr Ostrovsky and Anton Chekhov, lacking the former's wit and verbal flamboyance and the latter's subtle psychological insights. At the same time, they met the standards of the period's mainstream literary production, much of it now forgotten, and dealt with issues that were once topical but which later became irrelevant. Consequently, today's reader finds the milieu portrayed by Modest alien and dull, although some of his plots are skilfully constructed and some of his characters imaginatively conceived.

It is in one of his best plays—The Symphony—that Modest came closest to relating his own artistic inspiration to that of his brother [17]. The play (which was, incidentally, praised by Chekhov) concerns the creative torment and public fortunes of a brilliant young composer whose character bears a few touches of Tchaikovsky's personality. The play can be read as an exercise in vengeance upon the corrupt and incompetent music critics in whose hands Tchaikovsky often suffered early in his career. That was the milieu which the Tchaikovsky brothers knew well, and although there is hardly a single character in the play that was modelled on a real person, several of them, among both friends and foes of the protagonist, are allowed to exhibit an occasional recognizable trait of an acquaintance, such as Désirée Artôt, Iosif Kotek, Nadezhda von Meck or César Cui.

One quality of his famous brother that Modest, despite repeated efforts, never succeeded in emulating was his tenacious ability to follow, under any circumstances, a regular work routine. This, in particular, seems to have bothered the composer, as is clear from his letter to his sister-in-law of 10/22 November 1886: "Modest, as always, leads a very hollow and fashionable life, and feels it very much a burden, but owing to the weakness of his character he is unable to sit down and, at least for a span of time, do his work without visiting or receiving anyone" [18]. This partially accounts for Modest's failure as a writer to achieve true professionalism and full mastery over his chosen medium: whatever he wrote carries the clear mark of a dilettante. One suspects, however, that there existed a yet deeper cause of all this, that is, Modest's half-conscious rivalry with his brother in a futile attempt to come to terms with the latter's genius, which was bound to cripple his own creativity. Be that as it may, one is left with no doubt about the intensity of Modest's emotional investment in his playwriting — to the extent that it could even impinge upon his passionate devotion to Pyotr, as it did during the composer's last illness.

On the fateful day when Tchaikovsky fell ill with cholera, Modest, too preoccupied with the rehearsals of his newest play Prejudices, did not pay sufficient attention to the alarming symptoms and left his brother for a few crucial hours without medical assistance, which delayed the urgently needed diagnosis and thus indirectly contributed to the tragic outcome. Modest's sense of guilt is responsible for subtle distortions and omissions that vitiate his lengthy account of Tchaikovsky's last days and make it factually unreliable. Still, there remains a psychological puzzle, viewed by his contemporaries as a sign of insensitivity, in the fact that Modest did not bother to cancel the premiere of his play at the Aleksandrinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, which took place on the very day of Tchaikovsky's funeral [19].

It is noteworthy that what may be considered Modest's finest literary achievement, the tragedy in verse St. Catherine of Siena, was written almost fifteen years after the composer's death, and with it he may have finally reached beyond his brother's shadow [20]. Strikingly different in subject and style from the rest of his output, this is perhaps his only play that merits einen Versuch zur Rettung. Set in the early Renaissance, it is rich in dramatic effects and imbued with an authentic spirit of mysticism. One cannot help observing affinities with early modernist aesthetics in Pyotr Tchaikovsky's mature work, and it has even been suggested that if he had lived he would have felt comfortable with the artistic movements of the Russian 'Silver Age' [21]. This is even more evident in the case of Modest: a mystery play like St. Catherine of Siena could easily have been written by a younger Symbolist contemporary, such as Dmitry Merezhkovsky.

The Collaborator

Given the style of the brothers' relationship, it is hardly surprising that Modest's chief ambition was to collaborate with Pyotr on a major artistic project. In fact, it took him years of frustration before this passionate wish began to bear fruit. It appears that he started to fantasize about this matter already in his late teens. As early as October 1869 he wrote to Tchaikovsky: "I was quite amazed to find out that you are writing an overture to Romeo and Juliet. First, because having read this work just recently, I have myself composed an overture to it; and second, because you are fulfilling, without even suspecting it, one of my innermost desires. And this is not the first time that our interests have clashed: do you remember Virgilia—I already had composed an opera on this theme, when you were only on the point of making that choice" [22]. Nothing further is known about Virgilia, but Modest was apparently encouraged by his brother's gradual recognition of his writing abilities. Five years later, in his October 1874 letter, Tchaikovsky went so far as to suggest of Modest's literary vocation: "Perhaps, it will eventually result in a decent libretto; as things are, one continues to look for such and one finds nothing decent" [23]. This, and similar sentiments on his brother's part, may well have prompted the young Modest to come up a year later with the script for an opera set in the Middle Ages and entitled Constance, which has not survived, and a year later, with a whole crop of ideas for his brother's musical compositions: "The only dream I entertain during my strolls every day is to hit upon some theme for a symphonic tableau. Why could you not wish to compose Hamlet? [...] After Hamlet I thought of Francesca, and I begin positively to like it... Then, if you feel a difficulty with Iago, why couldn't you just do Othello's narrative? Indeed, it is worthy of a symphonic tableau [...] If you only knew how much I yearn for you to write music on my theme!" [24].

Modest's next and more elaborate effort ended, however, in disaster. In the spring of 1877, on his own initiative, he produced a detailed opera scenario Ines de las Sierras, based on the novella by the French romanticist Charles Nodier, which offered a remarkable hodge-podge of nonsense: an ancient curse, a twice-murdered maiden, and the silliest possible quid pro quo [25]. Tchaikovsky's response was not devoid of sarcasm: "This is what I want to tell you regarding Ines. It did not rouse even a shadow of interest in me. Nor did it give me the slightest desire to start working—a sure sign that this scenario possesses no potential for a good opera. I find that the sufferings of Ines are melodramatically romantic and resemble certain cheap novels. And there are no true characters at all [...] No, my friend Modya, you are not fit to be a librettist, but merci for your good intentions" (18/30 May 1877) [26]. Although the composer was often sensitive to his brother's opinions, he proved intransigent in cases where their disagreement centred on what he believed to be a major creative issue—as occurred, for instance, with his choice of Pushkin's Yevgeny Onegin as the subject of an opera, a choice that Modest, strongly but in vain, tried to discourage [27].

Whether it was due to his fiasco with Ines de las Sierras, or to the futility of his opposition regarding Yevgeny Onegin, or to any other reason, it appears that he gave up for the entire subsequent decade (which may have caused him considerable disappointment) any further efforts to talk his brother into co-authoring an opera. In 1886 and 1887 they entertained for a time the idea of working together on the ballet Undina, but soon dropped it [28]. In fact, it is suggestive that their eventual, and most successful, collaboration on The Queen of Spades transpired in a very roundabout way, the initiative having been neither Tchaikovsky's nor Modest's, but rather that of Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the Director of the Imperial Theatres, who was interested in a brilliant musical production that would combine eighteenth-century, singing, and dancing. Moreover, it was not at all Tchaikovsky to whom Vsevolozhsky initially suggested in 1885 producing an opera based on Pushkin's tale, but the minor composer Nikolay Klenovsky, now altogether forgotten. In his turn, Klenovsky dismissed two other librettists before turning, on Vsevolozhsky's advice, to Modest. It seems that Modest somehow managed to create in others a belief in his competence in libretto writing, although this must have been the first official commission of this sort he was ever offered. He started to work on the libretto, but almost immediately various persons involved with the theatre began to exert pressure to transfer the commission of the opera from Klenovsky to his own brother. What followed, although it took about two years, remains obscure: the extant documentation indicates that Modest came close to completing his part of the agreement; the same cannot be said about his collaborator: although Klenovsky's letters are full of assurances that the work was well on the way, apparently no product materialized and no manuscripts have been found.

In any case, in November 1889 Tchaikovsky received a formal offer to write music for The Queen of Spades, and he accepted. "The libretto", Tchaikovsky wrote in a letter early in 1890, "has been previously prepared by no other than my brother Modest for a certain Mr Klenovsky (who, however, wrote nothing). I read it and liked it, and one fine day I decided to abandon everything [...] and to leave for some place abroad so that I could work there without impediment" [29]. As it is, libretto writing constitutes a special kind of literary activity that seems to have better suited Modest's temperament: it concerns re-interpretation rather than inspiration, and tends towards the simplistic and melodramatic. Of numerous changes that Pushkin's storyline underwent at the hands of the librettist, Modest is personally responsible for only few, such as Herman's spectacular suicide at the end. Others resulted from pressures exerted on him: thus, on grounds of staging, Vsevolozhsky insisted that the dramatic period be transferred from the reign of Aleksandr I to that of Catherine the Great, and the crucial episode of Liza's drowning in the Winter Canal was inserted, despite Modest's feeble protests, on Tchaikovsky's own decision. There is hardly any doubt that the composer held the whole story, and, in particular, the character of Herman, close to his heart.

This involvement accounts for a series of interventions he made with the text written by his brother, cutting what he thought verbose and introducing parts of his own, of which the most significant are the effective finale of the third scene of the second act and Liza's arioso in the sixth scene of the third act. While work on an opera usually involves a relationship of some complexity between the librettist and the composer, in this case it provided Modest with an excellent opportunity to quell his frustration as a collaborator by accommodating his ideas to the wishes of his adored brother. Still, this was not without its costs: Tchaikovsky, always sensitive to psychological discomfort, responded with a remarkable measure of tact to what he suspected was Modest's annoyance at his interventions in his work: "It seems to me, Modin'ka, you find it somewhat disagreeable that in some places I spoiled some of the verses in your libretto, and I well understand that feeling. If one writes something, one should write it all. But, first, we are separated from each other by thousands of kilometres, which makes it impossible to communicate and confer regarding every detail. And, second, I have changed and added so little!" (3/15 March 1890) [30].

The cost was, however, slight in the face of their mutual success. "I am firmly convinced", Tchaikovsky wrote in this connection, "that The Queen of Spades is a very fine and, most importantly, a very original work, and I say this not only in respect to its music but in general" [31]. The critical response to Modest's libretto varied from strong censure to the proclamation that it was, "in its own way, a chef d'oeuvre" [32]. It is true that when read in retrospect, some portions of it appear awkward, and even (like Herman's repeated effusions on the subject of his love for Liza) inadvertently humorous. But it remains no less clear that Tchaikovsky's music worked a marvel and transformed the whole into a superior and sublime artistic experience.

The success of The Queen of Spades prompted the brothers to collaborate again in 1891, this time at the composer's own initiative, on the one-act opera Iolanta based on the play King René's Daughter by Henrik Hertz. Although the surviving documents do not allow any particular insight into Tchaikovsky's treatment of Modest's scenario, there is an impression that, despite a series of personal misfortunes, they worked in relative harmony. Like all of Tchaikovsky's operas, Iolanta was greeted by a mixed reception, and its libretto was disapproved by the critics, but this was hardly the reason why, in April 1893, the composer declined Modest's last two offers of cooperation in that genre: on a libretto Nal and Damaianti (the story derived from the Mahabharata), which years later was used by Anton Arensky; and another, on the subject of the long-suffering Undina, which he was preparing at the time for Sergei Rachmaninoff. By then, Tchaikovsky felt full confidence in his brother's abilities and justified his refusal on the grounds of mere personal taste. It appears paradoxical, but also instructive, that only long after his brother's death did Modest achieve what may be considered, from a certain viewpoint, a fulfilment of his promise as a librettist: although he did collaborate in those years with several minor composers (among them with Eduard Nápravník on his opera Dubrovsky), it was his aforementioned mystery play, St. Catherine of Siena which, in my view, exhibits remarkable operatic qualities as regards both conception and execution, and one may only regret that it never aroused any interest in the world of music.

The Biographer

It is noteworthy that after Tchaikovsky's death Modest continued to imitate his brother's social behaviour in one conspicuous respect—by patronizing talented young men and assisting their creative careers: one such was, for instance, the gifted poet and novelist of peasant extraction, Sergey Klychkov. But Modest's major effort was directed at the creation of the Tchaikovsky Museum and Archives at Klin that would consist of all available documents, including memoirs and correspondence, and at his own composition of Tchaikovsky's biography. It took him almost a decade to fulfil that monumental task which played a singular role in Tchaikovsky studies, since it established contours of the composer's personality, to be followed, with little attempt to verify them, by virtually all subsequent biographers almost for a century.

It may appear that the prospect of writing that biography provided Modest with an opportunity he must have longed for: to appropriate his beloved brother by recreating fully his life and thus finally to identify with him. It was probably not by chance that the original idea that the work should be written by a team of four—Modest himself, Sergey Taneyev, Nikolay Kashkin and Herman Laroche—came to nothing: whatever their objective disagreements may have been, this project surely ran up against Modest's deep-seated, even if probably subconscious, urge to proceed on his own. When this was settled, he had to deliberate on the shape the future work would take and on the part he would play in his own narrative. I submit that this question made him confront a plethora of contradictory impulses which, in the last analysis, are responsible for a series of idiosyncrasies in the eventual product. First, there was the matter of genre: it is tempting to speculate that Modest's innermost desire was to write it in the form of a memoir. That would allow him to preserve an intimate link with his subject, but would naturally incur the charge of subjectivity. Although he decided in the end on a different mode, much personal spontaneity, typical of the memoiristic style, remained, especially in the first volume. It endowed the text with a recognizable flair of the great man's life penned by a family member, with all the virtues and faults of that kind of endeavour, such as affectionate insight, on the one hand, and wilful omissions on the other.

Close to Modest's own time, the worst example would be Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche's biography of her brother, and one of the best would be the life of Nikolay Leskov written by his son. The alternative would be an impartial narrative based exclusively on the documents, and that is what Modest ostensibly set out to achieve. In an interview printed in the periodical Family (Семья), he mentioned as the model he intended to emulate Thomas Moore's biography of Lord Byron [33]. Not was only Moore Byron's closest friend and passionate admirer, but it was well known that before embarking upon his task he destroyed Byron's own private papers. By referring to Moore, therefore, Modest betrayed unwittingly his own intentions and procedures: not only selectivity regarding the documents he was prepared to make public, but also interference with them if he thought it imperative. This basic conflict between two tendencies—memoiristic and documentary—must have caused Modest frustration that he never resolved. He had to accept that the documents, carefully selected and arranged, would possess a much greater persuasive force in fulfilling his agenda, that is, in impressing upon the reader the image of the composer he wished, than would his own personal ruminations.

This, however, led to the apparent withdrawal of his own presence from the narrative, with the consequence that the last two volumes comprise mostly excerpts from Tchaikovsky's voluminous correspondence, accompanied by short interpolations by the author to clarify the details. In the process, the biographer's perspective, although it is never wholly absent, became obfuscated, even confused, and at times it is contradicted by the very evidence purporting to uphold it, which undercuts both the consistency and the credibility of the discourse. What resulted is, of course, not a biography in any modem sense, but what Nikolay Kashkin correctly called "the materials for a biography" [34] which, incidentally, constitute within the Russian tradition of life-writing a respectable sub-genre: one is reminded, for instance, of similar "material" on Pushkin, collected by Pavel Annenkov and Pyotr Bartenev.

It remains uncertain as to what extent Modest was aware of his own motivation. One's impression is that much of his bias in regard to a number of individuals is emotional and perhaps unreflective, owing either to personal dislike or to the belief that they had caused some kind of harm to his beloved brother. The memoirists, starting with Nikolay Kashkin and Herman Laroche, took measures to connect Modest's versions of Tchaikovsky's relationship with, for instance, the Rubinstein brothers and Nadezhda von Meck, and later scholars have revised many of his pronouncements about the composer's attitude toward his musical contemporaries, including the "Mighty Five" [35].

There is, however, no doubt that it was Modest's purpose, clearly and consistently carried out, to idealize and romanticize the figure of Tchaikovsky and to present all his actions in the best possible light, which he managed to accomplish not without grace and style. But this naturally accounts for his omission of everything that might have yielded even a remote hint of the composer's homosexuality, to the point of expurgating his quoted correspondence and, very likely, tampering with the original letters.

All this occasioned biographical gaps and puzzles, to the bewilderment of later students. It led him, for instance, to obscure the affair of Tchaikovsky's marriage to Antonina Milyukova and to explain his violent response to it by referring simply, with no further motive, to a psychological breakdown—which is in part responsible for the popular image of the composer as a hysterical subject. Moreover, in this process of romanticization, and under the influence both of public attitudes and his own private wish to identify with his brother, Modest projected upon him several of his own characteristics, such as a penchant for melodrama (evident in his playwriting), excessive Weltschmerz (typical of his diaries rather than Tchaikovsky's), and a touch of mysticism, to be amended by consulting epistolary and other sources.

All things considered, it is imperative to protest against the view, which is now gaining some influence, that Modest was secretly jealous of his brother and may even have wished him ill, and that this is what makes his biography unreliable [36]. There exists not a scrap of evidence to support such an allegation. Furthermore, it is both logically and psychologically implausible. If Modest were to have entertained, even in the slightest, anything of the sort, it would have surfaced in his narrative in the insidious manner of which he was quite capable, as is testified by his artful treatment of various persons whom he did not like, on the surface entirely respectful, but resonant with double entendre. Of course, nothing of the sort is discoverable in Modest's texts regarding Tchaikovsky: on the contrary, he made a remarkable effort to rectify, justify and glorify everything that his brother ever did.

Towards the end of his life, as though anticipating the reproaches which posterity would level at him for all the things he had passed over in silence or left blurred in his biography of Tchaikovsky—a strategy that he had consciously adopted, in deference to the times he lived in—Modest set about writing, but did not manage to complete, his "Autobiography," in which he devoted a great deal of space to intimate details of his brother's life. At the very start of this document there is a note to the reader: "If some day people glance at this manuscript, as I am counting on, though I almost have no hope that they will—may they be rewarded for the interest they take in my obscure existence by what I have to say about my brother Pyotr."

Finally, a few words on Modest's self-portrayal. The very logic of the biographical method deriving from documents and aiming at the appearance of objectivity increasingly forced him into self-effacement. Still, one discerns a few signs of Modest's desire to impress upon the reader that he enjoyed a greater role in his brother's creative labours than he actually did: for example, in his insistence that it was he who invented the title "Pathétique" for Tchaikovsky's last symphony, while its occurrence in a letter from Pyotr Jurgenson to the composer two months earlier speaks forcefully against that [37]. While this and similar concessions to vanity are minor and relatively innocuous, Modest's maladroit attempts to disguise his neglect of his brother on the first fateful day of his illness created a series of implausibilities in his account of Tchaikovsky's last days which are still exploited by partisan scholars who promote the myth of his suicide.

On the other hand, for the most part, the necessarily impersonal character of his narrative made Modest feel newly frustrated, along with the need to conceal in his biographical magnum opus the whole sexual dimension of Tchaikovsky and thus offer to the reader only a truncated image of the composer. This recognition may well have prompted him later on to start a parallel project, namely his own autobiography, with the intention of telling the truth about both his own and his brother's personal life. Although he never completed it, the extant text is remarkable in its candid confession of homosexuality, most rare and unusual in that period, and in that respect comparable, perhaps, only to the autobiography of John Addington Symonds.

Alexander Poznansky


In 1878, Tchaikovsky dedicated his Twelve Pieces, Op. 40 for piano to Modest.

Correspondence with Tchaikovsky

See: Correspondence with Modest Tchaikovsky


For Modest's own writings about his brother, see also Bibliography Index (T)

External Links

Notes and References

  1. Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 [3 vols.] (1900-02).
  2. See Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 1 (1997), p. 137-138.
  3. Letter 659 to Nadezhda von Meck, 23 November/5 December 1877.
  4. Letter 395 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 12/24 March 1875.
  5. Yuryev, Yu. Записки ; vol. 1 (Moscow; Leningrad, 1963), p. 412.
  6. Modest's autobiography («Автобиография») — typescript in the Tchaikovsky State Memorial Musical Museum-Reserve at Klin2, No. 21), p. 95.
  7. Modest's autobiography — typescript in the Tchaikovsky State Memorial Musical Museum-Reserve at Klin2, No. 21), p. 71.
  8. Modest's autobiography — typescript in the Tchaikovsky State Memorial Musical Museum-Reserve at Klin2, No. 21), p. 71.
  9. Modest's autobiography — typescript in the Tchaikovsky State Memorial Musical Museum-Reserve at Klin2, No. 21), p. 71.
  10. Letter from Modest Tchaikovsky to the composer, 22 October/3 November 1877 — Tchaikovsky State Memorial Musical Museum-Reserve at Klin (a4, No. 5097). For more about the relationship between the brothers see Tchaikovsky. The quest for the inner man (1993).
  11. Letter from Modest Tchaikovsky to the composer, 27 August/8 September 1882 — Tchaikovsky State Memorial Musical Museum-Reserve at Klin (a4, No. 5232.
  12. Letter 373 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 26 November/8 December 1874.
  13. Letter 130 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 1/13 February 1869.
  14. Letter 368 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 29 October/10 November 1874.
  15. See for example Modest's articles in the Saint Petersburg daily newspaper The Voice (Голос).
  16. Modest published only one long story: Vanya. Notes of a fortunate fellow (Ваня. Из записок счастливого человека) in the monthly Russian Herald (Русский вестник) (1887), No. 6.
  17. Tchaikovsky, M. I. Симфония. Пьеса в пяти действиях [Symphony. A play in five acts] (Moscow, 1889); also in vol. 1 of his Драматические сочинения [Dramatic Works] (Moscow, 1900).
  18. Letter 3092 to Praskovya Tchaikovskaya, 10/22 November 1886; see also Letter 1994 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 22 March/3 April 1882.
  19. See the Saint Petersburg Register (Санкт-Ретербургские ведомости), 30 October 1893.
  20. Tchaikovsky, M. I. Катерина Сиенская. Мистерия в восьми картинах [Catherine of Siena. A mystery in eight scenes] (Moscow, 1907).
  21. Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Il'ych (1992), p. 668.
  22. Letter from Modest Tchaikovsky to the composer, 18/30 October 1869 — Tchaikovsky State Memorial Musical Museum-Reserve at Klin (a4, No. 5047).
  23. Letter 368 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 29 October/10 November 1874.
  24. Tchaikovsky State Memorial Musical Museum-Reserve at Klin.
  25. Tchaikovsky State Memorial Musical Museum-Reserve at Klin (a4, No. 5094): partially published in Музыкальное наследие Чайковского. Из историй его произведений (1958), p. 126-127.
  26. |Letter 565 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 18/30 May 1877.
  27. Modest's letter criticizing Tchaikovsky's choice of Yevgeny Onegin has not survived. See the composer's reply in Letter 570, 9/21 June 1877.
  28. See Музыкальное наследие Чайковского. Из историй его произведений (1958), p. 186-187.
  29. Letter 4014 to Yuliya Shpazhinskaya, 26 January/7 February 1890.
  30. Letter 4058 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 3/15 March 1890.
  31. Letter 4058 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 3/15 March 1890.
  32. Пётр Ильич Чайковский (1905).
  33. В доме П. И. Чайковского (1897), p. 3}.
  34. П. И. Чайковский и его жизнеописание (1903).
  35. For Kashkin's reviews of Modest's biography see П. И. Чайковский и его жизнеописание (1902-03). For the review by Herman Laroche, see Книга о Чайковском (1900).
  36. See Tchaikovsky. A biographical and critical study, vol. 4 (1991), p. 292.
  37. Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 3 (1902), p. 644-645; Pyotr Jurgenson's letter from the composer, 20 September/2 October 1893, was quoted in P. I. Čajkovskij. New edition of the complete works, vol. 39c (2003).