Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (often anglicized as Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky), needs little introduction. He was the first Russian composer whose music made a lasting impression internationally, bolstered by his appearances as a guest conductor in Europe and the United States. Born in Votkinsk, he studied in Saint Petersburg and lived both in the then-capital of Russia and abroad, until in 1885 wrote to a friend, “These days I dream of settling in a village not far from Moscow. I can’t wander any longer, and I’m anxious to come and stay at a place where I can feel at home“. He was referring to the town of Klin, 85 kilometers northwest of Moscow where he eventually lived from May 1892 until his death in 1893 and which houses the Tchaikovsky House-Museum in the composer’s former country home.
Of all the places Tchaikovsky lived in, he felt a particular debt of gratitude toward Moscow. “There is no doubt – he wrote – that if fate had not forced me to come to Moscow, where I lived for more than 12 years, I would have never done what I have done”.
A large part of this statement has to do with the composer’s 13 year relationship with Nadezhda von Meck. As their relationship developed, she subsequently provided him with an allowance of 6,000 rubles a year, large enough that he could leave his professorship at the Moscow Conservatory to focus on creative work full-time. This was a substantial income and, coincidentally, double the amount of the yearly pension that Tsar Alexander III awarded Tchaikovsky when made him the premier court composer, in practice if not in actual title. A minor government official in those days had to support his family on 300–400 rubles a year.
Tchaikovsky, as a sign of appreciation, dedicated his Symphony No. 4 to her. This was important because, due to the nature of artistic patronage in Russian society, patron and artist were considered equals. Dedications of works to patrons were expressions of artistic partnership. By dedicating the Fourth Symphony to Nadezhda von Meck, he was affirming her as an equal partner in its creation.
From 1877 to 1890, the two friends exchanged more than 1,200 letters. They are generally known as the von Meck/Tchaikovsky love letters (hence the title of this post), because the two, Tchaikovsky especially, increasingly let down their guards and shared many intimate secrets with each other. The details they shared were extraordinary for two people who never met. Their very bond depended on never meeting, a condition they had agreed upon, in writing, and always respected (except for two or three accidental instances during which they came face to face – but never exchange a single word in speaking!). Von Meck died believing these letters had all been destroyed. However, when Tchaikovsky received her request to do so, he assured her that he had destroyed them, but then filed that letter with all the rest for posterity to find.
Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck was a rather unique figure in Russian history, first of all for having been a business woman in the XIV century.
She began life as Nadezhda Filaretovna Frolovskaya, in a family which owned great landed estates. Her father, Filaret Frolovsky, embraced his love of music from an early age, while from her mother, Anastasia Dimitryevna Potemkina, she learned energy, determination, and business acumen. At seventeen, Nadezhda Filaretovna was married to Karl Otto Georg von Meck, a 27-year-old engineer. Together they had thirteen children, of whom eleven survived to adulthood.
As a government official, Karl von Meck’s life was uneventful, and his work was poorly paid. With several children quickly added to his responsibilities, however, he was reluctant to make a break with a steady post. Nadezhda von Meck saw things very differently and unceasingly urged him to make a break. Russia, desperately short of railways, was expanding its communications network rapidly, and Nadezhda was far-sighted enough to see that a future for her husband lay there. She continually exerted pressure on him to find a partner with capital and to join the boom in Russian railway construction. Meck finally gave in to his wife’s urgings and resigned from the civil service, at which point they had an income of only twenty kopecks a day on which to live. Nadezhda was right, though, to trust her husband’s talent as an engineer. In 1860, there were only 100 miles of railroad track laid in Russia. Twenty years later, there were over 15,000 miles of lines. Much of this explosion was due to Karl von Meck, and his investments made him a multi-millionaire.
In 1876, Karl von Meck died suddenly, leaving a will which gave Nadezhda control of his vast financial holdings. This included two railway networks, large landed estates, and several million rubles in investments. With seven of their eleven children still at home, Nadezhda von Meck concentrated on her business affairs and on the education of the children still dependent on her. She sold one of Meck’s railway companies and ran the other one with the help of her brother and her eldest son, Vladimir.
Hear wealth and love for music allowed her to both support the artists she deemed worthwhile and afford to “employ” the best of the best. For instance she hired the French composer Claude Debussy as a music tutor for her daughters.
After the death of her husband, she took no part in social life, withdrawing into almost complete seclusion. By all accounts, Nadezhda von Meck was imperious by nature, presiding over her household despotically. She expected to have her own way, so surrounded herself only with people who would give it to her, and she ruled her children’s lives in every detail. As they grew into adulthood, she arranged their marriages, but at the same time she even refused to meet the relatives of those whom her children were going to marry, and she never attended any of their weddings. When she wanted to see her married children, she summoned rather than invited them. The aforementioned Debussy, for instance, wanted to marry one of her daughters, but Nadezhda would not give her permission, preferring her daughters to marry men of her own choosing, which they did, but their marriages all ended in divorce.
The sole exception to her general reclusiveness was the series of Russian Musical Society concerts given in Moscow, which she attended incognito, sitting alone in the balcony. Meck was probably well aware that she was hard to tolerate. She wrote to Tchaikovsky, “I am very unsympathetic in my personal relations because I do not possess any femininity whatever; second, I do not know how to be tender, and this characteristic has passed on to my entire family. All of us are afraid to be affected or sentimental, and therefore the general nature of our family relationships is comradely, or masculine, so to speak“. Another aspect of her decision to never meet the composer was that she desired to think of Tchaikovsky as her ideal of a composer-cum-philosopher, much like the Übermensch or Superman about whom Friedrich Nietzsche would write. Tchaikovsky understood this, writing to Meck, “You are quite right, Nadezhda Filaretovna, to suppose that I am of a disposition sympathetic to your own unusual spiritual feelings, which I understand completely“.
The two did meet each other on one occasion, purely by chance, in August 1879, while Tchaikovsky was staying at the Meck estate at Simaki. He had gone for his daily walk in the forest somewhat earlier than usual, unaware that she was late for her daily drive through that same area with the rest of her family. As a result, they came face to face for a few moments; he tipped his hat politely, she was nonplussed, but no words were spoken. He wrote to her the same evening to apologise for the inadvertent breach of their arrangement. She responded, saying there was nothing to apologise for, and she even invited him to visit her home to see her new paintings, but at a time when she would be away.
The previous year, while staying at her villa in Florence, Tchaikovsky had seen her and her entourage pass by every morning; and they also glimpsed each other once at the opera, but only from a distance. Alexander Poznansky says of this last encounter: “It is not clear whether their both being at the theater was wholly accidental or arranged by Mrs. von Meck in order to see him, as seems not unlikely“.
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