Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Tchaikovsky in America

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1890
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) in 1890

We mark the arrival in New York City on April 26, 1891 – 130 years ago today – of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. He had come to America to conduct his own music and to help inaugurate Carnegie Hall (on May 5, 1891) by conducting his own Coronation Festival Overture

Tchaikovsky at Fifty

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 in the Russian town Votkinsk, roughly 630 miles east of Moscow. He might have started his life in the sticks, but he didn’t stay there, and by the age of fifty – in 1890 – he was one of the most beloved composers in the world and a Russian national hero. Photographs taken at the time depict a balding, grey haired and bearded man seemingly well advanced of fifty years, though in this, appearances can be deceiving. At the age of fifty Tchaikovsky was at the very top of his musical game and at the apogee of his fame. A single anecdote will suffice for his stature among contemporary Russian artists.

Anton Chekhov circa 1885
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) circa 1885

During the winter of 1889, Tchaikovsky met a young medical-student-turned-writer at his brother Modest’s house named Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). At the time of their meeting Tchaikovsky expressed admiration for Chekhov’s work. Chekhov was dazzled by the compliment, and responded with the following letter:

“This month I am going to be publishing a small collection of my stories. They are as tedious and boring as the autumn, and their tone is monotonous. But none of this inhibits me from being audacious enough to approach you with a very humble request: permit me to dedicate this little collection to you. I very much hope to receive a favorable reply – first, because this dedication would give me enormous pleasure, and secondly because it will to some small extent express the deep respect which moves me to think of you every day.” 

Tchaikovsky was delighted to receive the dedication. Chekhov sent Tchaikovsky a copy of his book, entitled Gloomy People, with the following inscription:

“To Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, from his future librettist, A[nton] Chekhov, October 26, 1889.” 

(Sadly, that particular working relationship never came to pass!)

Chekhov was speaking, perhaps, for all of Russia when he wrote Modest Tchaikovsky of his admiration for his brother Pyotr:

“I revere him so much that I would personally stand guard night and day at the porch of his house. To me, he occupies in Russian art the second place after Tolstoy, who has long monopolized the first (I award myself the 98th).” 

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