With the Author of "Iolanta"

Tchaikovsky Research

With the Author of "Iolanta" (У автора «Иоланты») (TH 325 ; ČW 598) [1], was the title of an interview between Tchaikovsky and the journalist Viktor Protopopov [2], published in the Petersburg Gazette (Петербургская газета) on 6 December 1892 [O.S.], which was the day of the premieres of the opera Iolanta and the ballet The Nutcracker at the Mariinsky Theatre in the Russian capital.

Tchaikovsky talked about his travelling and conducting itinerary for the rest of the 1892/93 winter; his intention to take up permanent residence in Saint Petersburg in 1893; his working habits and the question of inspiration in the creative process; his hopes of being able to carry on working for five or so more years, after which he would make way for younger composers like Glazunov, Arensky, and Rachmaninoff; and his current and future projects, including the unfinished Symphony in E-flat major

English translation

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In the corridor in front of the door leading into room number. 67 of the Grand-Hôtel there is a coat-rack which flaunts several laurel wreaths with ribbons of many colours... This is where P. I. Tchaikovsky is staying. —May I come in? In the room it is quiet and dark... When I walk in, Pyotr Ilyich gets up from the divan on which he had evidently just been resting, and replies kindly:

"By all means, please do come in—let me just light the lamp... "

He carries out this operation himself after which we both sit down at his writing-table... —I'm afraid I may have disturbed your rest?...

"Well, 'disturbed' is putting it a bit too strongly, but... I must confess that you see in front of you someone who is extremely tired... These daily rehearsals are incredibly exhausting... Though, to be sure, I can now consign these rehearsals to the past [3] and within one and a half weeks or so I will be able to leave Saint Petersburg..."

—Does that mean you're planning to go away?...

"Absolutely... First of all I shall be heading abroad for Hamburg, Schwerin, and Brussels, where my Iolanta is going to be staged, then I have to go to Odessa to conduct two concerts, and from there I shall be returning, via Moscow, to Petersburg towards the 23rd of January [4]... After this trip I intend to settle down for good in Petersburg, since I cannot stay in the countryside any longer... At present I am having such problems with my eyesight that I have had to give up altogether my usual evening pastime in the countryside—namely, reading... In the past I would work by day and relax with a book in the evenings. Now, though, once I have settled down in Petersburg, I will continue to work as before, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 5 to 8 p.m., whilst after that I shall spend the rest of the evening hours with friends and acquaintances... "

—That means you work six hours a day!...

"Without fail, every day..."

—But what if you aren't in the mood for working or don't feel up to it?...

"Well, then I force myself to feel up to it... Young people nowadays wait for inspiration to come to them, but I consider that to be utterly wrong [5]. I mean, would Mozart, who died so young, have managed to write so many wondrous works if he had constantly been waiting for inspiration?... "

A pause. Pyotr Ilyich looks thoughtfully at the flame of the lamp and suddenly bursts out:

"The only thing I'm afraid of is failing to sense that moment when I start drying up... Because, you see, I would like to carry on with my daily grind for five or so years more, and then stop... I'm now fifty-two years old—I can still go on working till I'm fifty-seven..."

—But surely, I would have thought that you really needn't be afraid of that just yet?

"Who knows... No one's going to tell me that straight to my face... I mean, would anyone dare to tell Anton Grigoryevich that it's time for him to stop composing? Of course not—nobody has the guts to do that, and so he just carries on composing and composing [6]... No, it's necessary to make way for the young... "

—Who do you have in mind there?...

"In Russia today we have very many talented young composers... Here in Saint Petersburg there's Glazunov, whilst over in Moscow we have Arensky, Davydov (a nephew of our famous cellist, and Rachmaninoff, who has written a wonderful opera based on Pushkin's poem The Gypsies..." [7]

—And when shall we hear something about your next new work?...

"If it's an opera you are referring to, then that won't be until some two years hence... During this time I do not want to write anything else for the stage, since I have been utterly neglecting all the other things I used to work on before. Symphonies, quartets, songs... Currently I have a sketched-out symphony on my hands..." [8]

A faint knock is heard at the door, and immediately afterwards Mr Dalsky [9], an actor with the state theatre company, walks into the room... I take my leave of Pyotr Ilyich, and on my way out, when I'm already back in the hotel corridor, I hear the following words which he had evidently just addressed to his new visitor...

"There's just no way I can give you a box for tomorrow; indeed, I don't have the faintest hope of getting hold of tickets for one... You see, I was given just three boxes in the dress circle, and some forty or so people have already turned up asking for seats..."


First published in the Petersburg Gazette (Петербургская газета), 6 December 1892 [O.S.] [10].

Notes and References

  1. Entitled 'Meeting With the Author of "Iolanthe"' in ČW.
  2. Viktor Protopopov (1866–1916) was a journalist and playwright who contributed several articles for the Petersburg Gazette.
  3. This interview was published on the very day of the premieres of Iolanta and The Nutcracker (neither of which was conducted by Tchaikovsky himself, but he had still attended all of the rehearsals which had started at the Mariinsky Theatre in November 1892) — note by Iosif Kunin, supplemented by the translator.
  4. Tchaikovsky's itinerary that winter actually worked out differently. Instead of heading for Hamburg, where the first performance of Iolanta outside Russia took place on 3 January 1893 [N.S.], conducted by Gustav Mahler but in the absence of Tchaikovsky, he travelled to Berlin, Basel, Montbéliard (where he had a moving reunion with his old governess Fanny Dürbach), Paris, and Brussels, where on 2/14 January 1893 he conducted a concert featuring his own works. Shortly afterwards he made his way (by train) to Odessa, where during the fortnight that his stay lasted he conducted not two, but five concerts, as well as attending the first performance there of The Queen of Spades. (No performances of Iolanta took place in Schwerin or Brussels) — note by Iosif Kunin, supplemented by the translator.
  5. The painter and art historian Igor Grabar (1871–1960) recalled how shortly after coming to Saint Petersburg in the autumn of 1889 he had met Tchaikovsky. The eighteen-year-old Grabar had said to Tchaikovsky during their conversation that geniuses created only when they were inspired, and the composer had replied angrily: "Ah, young man, don't talk such nonsense! It's impossible to wait for inspiration, and, besides, that isn't sufficient on its own: above everything else it's work, work, and work that's necessary. Remember that even someone endowed with the stamp of genius won't be able to produce anything great or even just fairish unless he works devilishly hard. And the more a person has been given, the more he must work. I consider myself to be the most ordinary, average person [...] No, no, don't argue with me: I know what I'm talking about. I advise you, young man, to remember this all your life: 'inspiration' arises only from work and during work. Every morning I sit down at my table and write. If one day nothing comes out of this work, then the next day I will apply myself to that task again. Thus I may spend one, two, or ten days writing something, without falling into despair if it still refuses to turn out properly, for on the eleventh day, lo and behold!, something decent does come out of it. By persistent work, by a superhuman exertion of your will-power, you will always be able to get what you are striving for, and indeed you will succeed far more and far better than loafers of genius..." Igor Grabar's memoirs are included in Воспоминания о П. И. Чайковском (1980), p. 289. The relevant extract also appears in David Brown, Vladimir Gerard (1993), p.83–85 — translator's note.
  6. Iosif Kunin, in his introductory comments to Два интервью у П. И. Чайковского (1965), points out that Tchaikovsky could only have expressed such an opinion about Anton Rubinstein off the record, as it were, and that these comments were published by the interviewer without his knowledge and consent. A few days later the same newspaper apparently published an article defending Rubinstein against Tchaikovsky's criticisms. In private Tchaikovsky did sometimes express his reservations about his former teacher's prolificness as a composer, as for example in letter 1585 to Nadezhda von Meck, 9/21–12/24 September 1880: "I am terribly afraid of becoming such a scribbler as, say, Anton Rubinstein, who seems to consider it his obligation to regale the public daily with new works. As a result he has turned his huge creative talent into small change, so that the majority of his latest compositions are like five-kopek pieces and not that pure gold which he would be able to produce if he were to compose with greater moderation" — translator's note.
  7. Iosif Kunin notes that Rachmaninoff's name was spelt incorrectly as "Rakhmanov" in the original text of the article. The opera in question is Aleko, and Tchaikovsky must have been familiar with its score, since he was a member of the examiners' board at the Moscow Conservatory which awarded the 19-year-old Rachmaninoff the Great Gold Medal for this graduation piece in May 1892. (On 27 April/9 May 1893, Tchaikovsky would attend the premiere of Aleko at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow). Rachmaninoff actually read this interview with Tchaikovsky, since in a letter of 14/26 December 1892 to his friend Mikhail Slonov he wrote: "A Saint Petersburg critic asked Tchaikovsky for an interview (after a performance of Iolanta). And Tchaikovsky told this critic that he would have to stop composing and make way for younger people. When the critic asked him if there really were any such young talents, Tchaikovsky said yes and mentioned Glazunov for Saint Petersburg and me and Arensky for Moscow. That made me so glad! My hearty thanks to the old man for not having forgotten about me!" (The original Russian text of this letter can be found on the "Senar" website) — note by Ernst Kuhn, supplemented by the translator.
  8. Tchaikovsky is referring to the abortive Symphony in E-flat major, the rough sketches for which had been completed by November 1892. By the time of this interview Tchaikovsky had orchestrated only part of the first movement, but just ten days later he would write to his nephew Vladimir Davydov from Berlin that he was going to abandon the projected symphony (Letter 4829 to Vladimir Davydov, 16/28 December 1892). Its musical material was, however, used for other compositions in 1893. For more details, see the work history for the Symphony in E-flat major — note by Brett Langston.
  9. Mamont Viktorovich Dalsky (real surname: Neyelov; 1865–1918), famous Russian actor, engaged at the Aleksandrinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg from 1890 to 1900 — note by Ernst Kuhn.
  10. This interview, edited by Iosif Kunin, was reprinted as part of Два интервью у П. И. Чайковского in the journal Советская музыка (1960), No.5, p. 30–34. An English translation is included in Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky through others' eyes (1999), p. 208–210. There is also a German translation of the interview in Ernst Kuhn, Tschaikowsky aus der Nähe. Kritische Würdigungen und Erinnerungen von Zeitgenossen (1994), p. 229–231.