Tschaikowsky on Music in America

Tschaikowsky on Music in America (TH 322) [1], was an account of an interview between Tchaikovsky and an unidentified reporter in New York on 14 May 1891 [N.S.], in which Tchaikovsky expressed his views on American audiences and musical life, as well as the sacred music of the Russian Orthodox Church. The composer also raised the possibility of a future visit to the United States.

In his diary entry for 2/14 May 1891, the nineteenth day of his American tour (which lasted 25 days in all), Tchaikovsky wrote about the events of that day which he spent in New York (he had no concert engagements or rehearsals that day and in fact left for Baltimore that very night, the next stop of his conducting tour). Amongst various other visitors he recorded: "There was a reporter from the Herald—a very agreeable fellow". Three days later, now in Washington, where he spent two days after his concert in Baltimore, he recorded in his diary: "I read in the New York Herald an article about me by the agreeable reporter who was with me on the day of my departure, and once again, of course, with a portrait" [2].

English text

M. Tschaikowsky seems to be as fond of American audiences as they are of him.

"They are so warm—so sympathetic," he said to me the other day, "so like the Russian public, so quick to catch a point and so eager to show their appreciation of the good things offered them" [3].

We were sitting in his little parlor at the Normandie [4], and between his nervous puffs at his cigarette the Russian conductor waxed eloquent over the great American public.

"When I say they are enthusiastic,"—he added, "I do not mean they applaud anything and everything. Far from it. They are delicately discriminating and slight the weak musical points quite as decidedly as they applaud the strong. Their perceptions are fine and their appreciation honestly and frankly expressed." Another cigarette.

A Compliment for New York

"Of course I can only speak of the New York audiences, as I know no others. But after my return from Baltimore and the South I can tell better about the public gatherings of your other cities [5]. Not even in the music centres of Europe have I found such Musical sympathy as in New York."

"London audiences, you know, are proverbially cold, and people will tell you to seek for all that is responsive in listeners found in France, Germany and Italy. But St. Petersburg and New York are good enough for me."

Not so bad a compliment!

Our Orchestras Made of Good Stuff

"And then your musicians," he continued. "They are thoroughly capable and conscientious performers and would quite put to blush some of our players across the water in the matter of sight reading."

"Here again I can only speak of one body—your New York Symphony Society—but I sincerely trust that I may find equally good players in your other bands."

"And you were satisfied with the people to whose bands your orchestral works were intrusted at the festival?" I inquired, as still another cigarette was lighted. "Quite," came the answer between the puffs. "Quite. I must confess to a genuine surprise to find at my first rehearsal that the men had so little trouble with some of my music."

Surprised at Their Reading

"Now, my scherzo [6] was by no means easy and I expected a good deal of hard work at its first trial. Judge of my astonishment then to hear it played as correctly as at the public concert" [7].

"'Gentlemen,' I said, 'you have rehearsed this with Mr. Damrosch.' But they all denied having seen the music before".

"As for the composition of the band, I admire the flutes and strings particularly. The flutes are beautiful and sweet and your string orchestra is sonorous and rich in quality."

"M. Tschaikowsky," I asked, suddenly changing the subject, "how much truth is there in the rumor that you are to return in the fall with a choir of Greek Church singers?" for I knew that he was an enthusiast upon this branch of music, and had shown his partiality to sacred choral writing by the selection made of his own works sung by the Oratorio Society last week [8].

May Bring Back a Russian Choir

"There is a possibility that such an engagement may be made," he answered, "and the idea was first started in this way:—"

"When Mr. Carnegie was in Moscow he was particularly pleased with the harmonies produced by the singers in the Cathedral, and wished his friends in New York might hear them [9]. Now that I am coming back in the autumn, it may be that such a company may be brought back with me [10]. I shall certainly bring the best if I bring any, and have them sing some of their own folk songs as well as their church music."

"But our church music! How beautiful it is! And did you know that until recently no one in Russia was permitted to write anything new for the Church, and that nothing but the olden time music was allowed to be sung?" [11].

I did not know it but I kept my ignorance to myself and allowed my host to continue.

The Old and the New

"Dimitri Bortnyansky [12], the Russian Palestrina, was the last of the old school, and long after his death, in 1825, his influence remained—a stumbling block to progress in the music of the Greek Church, and it was a long fight that finally opened the doors to the new school of music, and to Davidoff [13], Degteroff [14], Beresovsky [15], Tour-Tchonihoff [16] and Wedel [17] belongs much of the credit of the work."

"To-day these writers do nothing but compose for the Church."

"I had a little experience myself that will illustrate the high feeling about the admittance of anything new within the sacred precincts of the church."

Tschaikowsky's Mass Burned

"I had written a mass [18] and given it to my publisher, who was almost immediately served with an order from court that the work must be destroyed, and, this order was speedily followed by the actual seizure of the manuscript and its destruction by fire before my publisher's very eyes."

"The music of the Greek Church of to-day, however, is beautiful beyond expression, and I trust you may have pleasure of hearing it in all of its grandeur and beauty in my home (Russia) some day," smiled my host."

His last cigarette was reduced to ashes.

"Some day," I answered, as I picked up my hat and bowed myself out.


First published in the New York Herald, New York, 17 May 1891 {{NS}, under the headline "Tschaikowsky on music in America. The Russian conductor vastly pleased with our audiences and musicians. How his scherzo was played. Fond of the Greek church music, and may bring a choir back with him in the fall" [19].

Notes and References

The notes here were prepared by Luis Sundkvist, unless indicated otherwise.

  1. Not included in ČW.
  2. See diary entries for 2/14 May and 5/17 May 1891 in Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 284 and 288.
  3. As the diary entry for 25 April/7 May 1891 shows, Tchaikovsky had been terribly nervous before the concert which he conducted at the Carnegie Hall on the afternoon of that day (which also happened to be his 51st birthday), and at which he was due to present his Suite No. 3 to the American public. In this diary entry Tchaikovsky records briefly that he had been "received splendidly again" and that his concert had caused "a sensation". Two days later, however, after his final concert in the newly inaugurated Music Hall (now Carnegie Hall) at which he directed a performance of the Piano Concerto No. 1 (soloist Adele aus der Ohe), he recorded the audience's enthusiastic response in much greater detail in his diary. Here is the relevant excerpt from this entry for 27 April/9 May: "My concerto, in an excellent interpretation by Adele aus der Ohe went splendidly. The enthusiasm was such as I have never managed to arouse even in Russia. They called me out endlessly, shouting 'upwards' [sic] and waving their handkerchiefs—in short, it was clear that I had truly pleased the Americans. But especially dear to me was the enthusiasm of the orchestra." Quoted from Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky. The quest for the inner man (1993), p. 534. See also Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 277.
  4. During the first (and longest) part of his stay in New York—from 14/26 April to 2/14 May 1891 (with a brief visit to the Niagara Falls on 30 April/12 May)—Tchaikovsky stayed at the Normandie Hotel at Broadway and 38th Street. See Tchaikovsky. The quest for the inner man (1993), p. 532.
  5. On the night of the day that he gave this interview (2/14 May) Tchaikovsky was due to take the train to Baltimore, where he was scheduled to conduct a concert on 3/15 May 1891, featuring the Serenade for String Orchestra and the Piano Concerto No. 1 (soloist Adele aus der Ohe). The following day he set off for Washington, where he spent just under two days but had no conducting engagements. The composer departed for Philadelphia in the morning of 6/18 May 1891, conducting his Piano Concerto No. 1 there on the afternoon of that very day (again with Aus der Ohe as the soloist) before finally returning to New York on 7/19 May. Thus, the most southern American city which he visited was Washington.
  6. By "scherzo" the American reporter is referring to the third movement of the Suite No. 3, which Tchaikovsky conducted (in full) at the second of his four concerts in New York, on 25 April/7 May 1891.
  7. After the rehearsal on 24 April/6 May for the concert the following day at which Tchaikovsky was due to present his Suite No. 3 to the American public, the composer noted in his diary: "The rehearsal went very well. At the end of the suite the musicians shouted something like 'hoch'". (Tchaikovsky uses the German exclamation of approval 'hoch!', equivalent in English to "hurrah!" or "three cheers for..."). See Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 274. This did not, however, prevent Tchaikovsky from feeling very nervous just before the concert on 25 April/6 May 1891, although, as he observed in his diary later that day, he had successfully conducted the Suite No. 3 on many occasions. The composer's fears turned out to be groundless, since the concert was a resounding success.
  8. At Tchaikovsky's third concert in the Carnegie Hall, on 26 April/8 May 1891, he had conducted the chorus members of the Oratorio Society in performances of Our Father (Отче наш)—No.6 of the Nine Church Pieces (TH 78)—and a choral arrangement of his (secular) song LegendNo. 5 of the Sixteen Songs for Children, Op. 54. In this interview the Russian Orthodox Church and its sacred music are, somewhat misleadingly, referred to as "Greek" because Russia had indeed received Christianity from Byzantium, that is the Eastern Roman Empire whose principal language had by then become Greek. The Russian Orthodox Church, however, eventually became autocephalous and ceased to fall under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople.
  9. As several of his diary entries during his stay in New York indicate, Tchaikovsky was very favourably impressed by the modest and kind character of Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), the Scottish-born American millionaire who had funded the Music Hall which was later to bear his name, and for whose inauguration Tchaikovsky had been invited to America by the conductor Walter Damrosch. Already on the second day of his stay in America Tchaikovsky was introduced to Carnegie, and his diary entry for that day (15/27 April 1891) includes the following: "[Mr Carnegie], a wealthy old man who has a fortune of 30 million dollars and looks like Ostrovsky, I liked very much, above all because he adores Moscow, which he visited two years ago." See Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 264. In the summer of 1890 Carnegie had visited Russia together with his wife Louise, and although he did indeed attend some choral concerts there, the main purpose of his trip was to market his steel armour plates to the Imperial Russian Navy! See David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie (2007), p. 381–382. The Moscow cathedral referred to by Tchaikovsky in the interview was very likely the Cathedral of the Dormition (Успенский собор) where the choir of the Synod School directed by Tchaikovsky's friend Stepan Smolensky regularly sang. This choir was considered to be one of the best in the world.
  10. Tchaikovsky had indeed received several offers for a second American tour later that year or in 1892. For example, in his diary on 26 April/8 May 1891 he recorded another meeting with Carnegie: "This little arch-millionaire is awfully well-disposed towards me and keeps going on about inviting me for next year." See Дневники П. И. Чайковского (1873-1891) (1993), p. 275–276. On 4 July 1891 [N.S.] Walter Damrosch sent the composer a letter from Bayreuth in which he said that everyone was keen to have him back in America for the coming winter season, and if possible together with a Russian church choir with which he could perform not just his own works but those of other Russian composers, too. This letter is included in Чайковский и зарубежные музыканты (1970), p.90, and (in the original German) p.208. These plans, however, did not come to fruition, and Tchaikovsky visited America only once.
  11. Tchaikovsky describes his affection for the Orthodox church and its liturgical music in Letter 659 to Nadezhda von Meck, 23 November/5 December 1877: "My attitude towards the church is quite different from yours. For me it has retained much of its poetic appeal. I frequently attend mass; the liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom is, in my opinion, one of the greatest of artistic creations. If one follows the service closely, considering the meaning of each of its rituals, then one cannot help but be moved by the spirit embodied by our Orthodox worship. I am also very fond of the All-Night Vigil. Setting out on a Saturday to some ancient little church, standing in the shadows filled with the smoke of incense, meditating into onesself and searching for the answers to the eternal questions: what, when, where, why, and awakening from this reverie when the choir sings "Since my youth many passions have made war against me", and to be give oneself up to the enchanting poetry of this psalm, to revel in tranquil bliss when the Royal Doors opens and one hears: "Praise the Lord from the Heavens!"—oh, I am so awfully fond of all this, it is one of my greatest delights!". Just a few months later Tchaikovsky would compose his own setting of the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom.
  12. Dmitry (Dmytro) Bortnyansky (1751–1825), Ukrainian composer, now most famous for his sacred choral works. In 1881, following a commission from his publisher Pyotr Jurgenson, Tchaikovsky edited and arranged for piano Bortnyansky's Complete Church Music, although he eventually grew tired of this task, as he did not think very highly of Bortnyansky's talent.
  13. Stepan Ivanovich Davydov (1777–1825), Russian composer of sacred and secular music.
  14. Stepan Anikyevich Degtyarev (1766–1813), Russian composer, he wrote the first Russian oratorio Minin and Pozharsky, or The Liberation of Moscow in 1811, as well as several sacred choral works for unaccompanied voices.
  15. Maksym Sozontovich Berezovsky (c.1745–1777), Ukrainian composer, author of several sacred choral works.
  16. Pyotr Ivanovich Turchaninov (1779–1856), Russian priest and composer of sacred music, who was responsible for the first harmonizations of the ancient chants of the Russian Orthodox Church.
  17. Artemy Lukyanovich Vedel (1767–1808), Ukrainian composer.
  18. See the work history for the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, for more details on the confiscation of the plates of this work, which Tchaikovsky's publisher Pyotr Jurgenson had produced early in 1879, and how the latter eventually won his lawsuit against the director of the Imperial Chapel, which ever since the days of Bortnyansky had claimed exclusive rights over all religious music that was to be authorized for performance in Russian churches. In his biography of the composer, Modest Tchaikovsky also devotes some pages to this issue. See Жизнь Петра Ильича Чайковского, том 2 (1997), p. 243–244.
  19. This interview is reprinted in Elkhonon Yoffe, Tchaikovsky in America. The composer's visit in 1891 (1986), p. 139–142. It is also included in: Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky through others' eyes (1999), p. 197–199.