The event: on April 26, 1891 – 126 years ago this coming Wednesday – the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) arrived in New York City, there to begin his one-and-only stay in the United States. The trip was intended as business, not pleasure: Tchaikovsky had ventured forth to America to conduct concerts of his own works.
I would suggest that the two most important musical skills a composer should have – aside from competence at composing – are being able to play the piano and being able to conduct. Being able to at least “get around” a piano keyboard allows a composer to actually hear her music as she writes; being a good pianist allows a composer to actually play her music to others. Being able to conduct allows a composer to perform her works written for larger ensembles.
Tchaikovsky was a competent pianist, but no more. He was a better conductor, or at least he turned himself into a better conductor over time.
By his own admission, Tchaikovsky hated to conduct. And given that he was as jittery as a super model without her drugs, he was not a particularly good conductor as a young man. Early on, he became obsessed with the fear that his head was going to fall off while he conducted.
Yes: this is a serious neurosis about which I kid you not. In 1868, the 28 year-old Tchaikovsky conducted his own Dances of the Hay Maidens. According to Tchaikovsky’s friend and eyewitness Nikolay Kashkin, Tchaikovsky, as usual, was obliged to hold his head in place with his left hand while he conducted with his right:
“I could see from the moment Pyotr Ilyich appeared he was a nervous wreck … He walked on between the orchestra’s desks hunched up, as if he didn’t want anyone to see him. When he finally made it to the podium, he looked like a man who would rather be anywhere else. He forgot every note of his own piece, was blind to the notes in his own score, and failed to give the players their cues at all the most crucial moments. Luckily, the orchestra knew the piece so well that they took no notice of their inept conductor and all his incorrect instructions. They performed the piece perfectly well, occasionally looking up at the composer with big grins on their faces.”
Tchaikovsky soon swore of conducting forever. But in 1886 – at the age of 46 – he picked up his baton and began conducting again. His change of conductorial heart was a function economics. Almost all the major composers of the middle and late nineteenth century conducted their own works. As conductors, such composers as Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn, Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner, Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler – to name but a few – could perform and proselytize for their own music. These “composer-conductors” also made good money (after all, they were paid as both composers and performers). These composer-conductors were considered as being much more “glamorous” than mere composers; they were Alpha-musicians of the concert world.
Tchaikovsky wanted a piece of this action, so in In January of 1887 he swallowed his fear and conducted the premiere of his opera Cherevichki (“The Enchantress”).
His head fell off.
Not only did his head not fall off, but both the piece and its performance were triumphs. And while the opera did not survive in the repertoire, Tchaikovsky had begun a new and most profitable career as conductor of his own music. Quickly, the word spread across Europe and North America that Tchaikovsky was available to conduct his own works; within a year of his conductorial debut with The Enchantress, Tchaikovsky – the conductor – was in demand everywhere. The same Nikolay Kashkin, who described Tchaikovsky’s disastrous conducting in 1868, now observed Tchaikovsky’s new-found abilities as a conductor:
“He has all the essential attributes for conducting an orchestra: total self-control, extreme clarity and definition in his beat … His direction of the orchestra is distinctive for its utter simplicity … If he has few of the conductor’s virtuoso gestures, he has instead a quality which cannot be learned: that inner fire, that animation which communicate themselves to the players, and which irresistibly impress the audience with the integrity and inspiration of the performance.”
What a difference twenty years makes.
On April 17, 1891 Tchaikovsky boarded the steamship Le Bretagne at Le Havre and set off for New York and a long-anticipated American conducting tour. If we are to believe Tchaikovsky’s diary entries, the crossing was miserable. Tchaikovsky suffered from a serious bout of homesickness, which brought on a depressive episode. A passenger committed suicide by jumping overboard. Tchaikovsky’s wallet was stolen from his cabin along with 400 francs in gold. And the weather was terrible. Tchaikovsky, who believed himself to be immune from seasickness discovered that he was not immune after all. That experience, Tchaikovsky wrote, was like:
“Hell itself … nastier and more upsetting than anything I have ever known.”
Upon arriving in New York, Tchaikovsky was escorted, amid great fanfare, to his room at the Hotel Normandie on Broadway between 37th and 38th streets. According to Tchaikovsky’s diary, the moment he was left alone:
“I made myself at home. I wept rather long.”
After taking a bath he strolled along Broadway, where he was awestruck by the scale of the buildings:
“A strange street! One and two-story houses alternate with nine story structures. Highly original!!!”
Tchaikovsky then returned to his room, where he:
“Took to whimpering again several times.”
What a stud.
Despite this inauspicious beginning, Tchaikovsky’s American tour was a smash for everyone involved. He was received and reviewed like a visiting God. He wrote home to his nephew Vladimir Davidov:
“I am petted, honored, and entertained here in every way possible. It turns out that in America I am ten times more renowned than in Europe. At first when people told me this I thought it was an exaggeration. But now I see that it is the truth. Here I am a ‘big shot’! Isn’t that curious?!!”
Tchaikovsky paid his American hosts the ultimate compliment by comparing American hospitality to Russian hospitality.
“Amazing people, these Americans! Compared with Paris, where at every approach, in every stranger’s kindness, one feels an attempt at exploitation, the frankness, sincerity and generosity of this city, its hospitality without hidden motives, and its eagerness to oblige and win approval, are simply astonishing and, at the same time, touching.”
During his stay, Tchaikovsky also visited Baltimore, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Niagara Falls, and participated in the ceremonies surrounding the dedication and opening of New York’s Carnegie Hall. On May 21, 1891 Tchaikovsky left New York on the steamship Prince Bismarck. He wrote his nephew, telling him that he was tired but satisfied, that “If I were younger, I would probably derive great pleasure from staying in this interesting, youthful country. I will always remember America with love.”
Back at you, maestro.