The Tchaikovsky Papers; edited by Marina Kostalevsky; Yale University Press

Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★) Family letters from the Tchaikovsky archive, never published in English before and revealing illuminating intimate details about the composer’s life

This volume, The Tchaikovsky Papers – unlocking the family archive from Yale University Press (edited by Marina Kostalevsky and translated by Stephen Pearl) contains a selection of letters which are published complete for the first time in English and which only appeared in Russian in 2009. It is strange to think that such a cache of letters could be sat in the archives at the Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky State House-Museum in Klin without being well known. But since Tchaikovsky’s death, biographers have often taken a somewhat selective view of the composer, both Modest Tchaikovsky and Soviet biographers, in their different ways, were keen to promote their own image of the composer.  So, as Marina Kostalevsky explains in her introduction, various topics touched on in the letters have made biographers uncomfortable, such matters as Tchaikovsky’s monarchism, his adherence to the Russian Orthodox tradition and most notably his homosexuality have caused the letters either to be ignored or to be published in distorted form. This new volume enables us to glimpse different aspects of the composer’s intimate life.

There are three groups of letters published in the volume, correspondence between Tchaikovsky’s parents from 1833 to 1851 (16 letters in all), letters from Tchaikovsky’s former governess Fanny Durbach written after the two had got back into contact in 1892 (12 letters in all) and Tchaikovsky’s letters mainly to his brothers Modest and Anatoly from 1869 to 1892, plus a single letter from 1851 (58 letters in all). There a selection of Tchaikovsky’s musical jokes and souvenirs, plus key documents from Tchaikovsky’s official record, from his birth certificate to his will and documents relating to his death. There is a wide variety of information in the letters, but what makes the volume the most intriguing is the freedom with which Tchaikovsky refers to his homosexuality, and his amorous adventures.

‘I’ve always wanted to fart higher than my arse. I wanted to be the number one composer not only in Russia, but in the whole world’

The letters between Tchaikovsky’s parents start from before their marriage with the majority covering periods when they were apart, notably when his father, Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky, was working in the Urals (he was a mining engineer) and setting things up for his wife to join him, and there are others from a period when she had to go back to Moscow. These are consciously literary letters, a delight to read and often cast in diary form. They provided fascinating illumination into the social mores of the time, as well as the trials and tribulations of illness. Perhaps they shed little new light, but what the letters do is provide a remarkable amount of social history for Tchaikovsky’s background and Ilya Petrovich has a very engaging style of writing which makes the letters rather a delight to read.

 

The Tchaikovsky family in 1848. Left to right: Pyotr,Alexandra Andreyevna (mother), Alexandra (sister),Zinaida, Nikolai, Ippolit, Ilya Petrovich (father)

Fanny Durbach’s letters are perhaps the least interesting the three groups, they are rather too much the reminiscences of an old lady and there are only occasional nuggets of information.

But it is in Tchaikovsky’s own letters that the greatest interest lies. Some are to his publisher Jurgenson but the majority are to his brothers Modest and Anatoly (twins who were some 10 years younger than Tchaikovsky). These are intimate personal letters, covering all sorts of family details as well as chunks written in diary form. Tchaikovsky is as concerned with his younger brothers’ well being and lives as he is with conveying his own concerns. Whilst the references to his homosexuality and his adventures are perhaps the most interesting, what the letters do is provide a glimpse into Tchaikovsky’s daily concerns.

Music is sometimes mentioned in passing, mainly with concern about getting something finished, joy at having finished it, or troubles relating to locating a manuscript needed to finish off a work. He sometimes comments on other people’s music (he does not think much of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman in Berlin), but sometimes his comment is restricted to the fact that he left early.

The overall impression is of someone who is restless and not always content or relaxed, but then these letters are written often when he is travelling so we only get a glimpse of the real Tchaikovsky. What is fascinating is the language, often bawdy and downright rude, this hardly corresponds with the image of the composer. But as Marina Kostalevsky explains in her introduction, the composer’s image was manipulated from the very start with Modest taking care to omit anything which did not suit his image of his brother.

‘I spent two absolutely wonderful hours in the most romantic circumstances; I was scared, I was thrilled, I was afraid of the slightest sound’

 

Tchaikovsky and his wife Antoninaon their honeymoon, 1877

Any gay man of a certain age, those who can remember when homosexual acts in public were still aggressively prosecuted and when being gay was not completely accepted, will recognise elements of Tchaikovsky’s homosexual life as revealed in these letters. There is the slang and the private language (Tchaikovsky changes the gender of his partners, so that one young man becomes a girl called Louise), the discreet ogling of attractive young men (‘Petshenka used to drop by with the criminal intention of observing the Cadet Corps, which is right opposite our windows’), the circle of friends in the know, many homosexual themselves, the casual contacts made by ‘accident’, the anxiety and the rich enjoyment of the moment (‘I spent two absolutely wonderful hours in the most romantic circumstances; I was scared, I was thrilled, I was afraid of the slightest sound’), and the worrisome concern for consequences afterwards (‘Some ruffiani … guessed what I was looking for, and wouldn’t leave me alone’), the camp language (‘they were squealing and shrieking, running around, and sometimes joining hands to sing and dance in their high-pitched voices. You could hear them exclaiming “Que cheres tu donc, Suzanne?”‘) and more. The letters also cover the period of Tchaikovsky’s marriage, and his mistaken beliefs that this could be made to work.

There is also his own ambitions (‘I am a celebrity and should be happy and contented. The fact is that simply doesn’t count for me and I’ve always wanted to fart higher than my arse. I wanted to be the number one composer not only in Russia, but in the whole world’), lack of faith in his abilities and his dissatisfaction with his lot (‘What secret torment I endured before I could face the fact that I was totally incapable of being a conductor!’).

The Tchaikovsky that comes across from these letters is not always likeable but he is very believable and human, and many of the details are a delight to read (he was clearly intent on being amusing as well as keeping his brothers informed). The musical examples are a delightful mixture of the salon and whimsy, which again provide a more human face for the composer.

There is an extensive sequence of notes, many of which are highly necessary because of Tchaikovsky’s use of diminutives, so you do rather get the Tolya and Kolya’s mixed up. That said, having a list of the key dramatis personae would have been useful.

This isn’t a definitive book about Tchaikovsky, instead, it sheds extra light on the portrait painted of him in existing biographies. Yet the intimate and personal details which come out in these letters, help to create an image of the composer.