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THE INVISIBLE MUSE: TCHAIKOVSKY AND MRS. VON MECK
By Alexander Poznansky

For Tchaikovsky, 1877 proved fateful: it was during this year that he entered into his most destructive as well as his most beneficial involvements with women. The growing wish to "be like everyone else" (that is, conquer his desire for young men) and keep his relatives happy had confronted him with the problem of what to do. Destructive and very nearly ruinous for him was his marriage, contracted that year, to a former conservatory student, Antonina Milyukova. Beneficial and even salutary proved his extraordinary, indeed unique, "epistolary friendship," which began almost at the same time with Nadezhda von Meck.

There is no doubt that Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck was an exceptional woman. As far as was possible within the straitened conditions of Russian "Victorianism," she developed into an accomplished personality with a rich inner life despite her considerable eccentricity. The daughter of landowner and music lover Filaret Frolovsky, she married Karl von Meck, a Baltic-German engineer of then very meager means, at the age of 16; by her own admission, her younger years were spent in poverty, which perhaps made her responsive to the plights of others. The dizzying financial success of her husband, who became a railroad tycoon, made them multimillionaires. The couple had 18 children, of whom 11 survived. After Karl von Meck's death in 1876, his widow, according to her husband's will, took over the management of his financial empire. All this might seem sufficient to fill the life of even a very energetic woman. But it did not satisfy the spiritual and cultural needs of Nadezhda von Meck.

A major philanthropist, she was crucially involved with Russia's cultural life. Her celebrated friendship with Tchaikovsky was only the most prominent example of the unswerving support she offered talented artists, including Nikolay Rubinstein and Claude Debussy, among others. Nine years older than Tchaikovsky, she was a person of great learning. Besides her fanatical love of music, which she had studied quite thoroughly, her letters to Tchaikovsky reveal her vast knowledge of literature, history, and philosophy, her mastery of foreign languages, and her capacity for appreciating visual arts. The overall impression from their correspondence suggests ethical, spiritual, and mental comparability of both correspondents. Their dialogue in letters was conducted on remarkably equal terms. On Tchaikovsky's part, one finds not the slightest trace of condescension: when he argues with his "best friend" (as he called her), he does so with seriousness and passion; her letters, for their part, do not betray any hint of the social snobbery one might expect from a wealthy patroness. All this makes clear that their communication was one between kindred minds. In spite of the significant erotic component in her attitude, she was quite content with their implicit mutual agreement never to meet under any circumstances. She thought of eros in a sentimental rather than physical sense, and thus her platonic relationship with the great composer must have satisfied her important inner needs. Conversely, it may be argued, that experience of emotional engagement with Nadezhda von Meck prefigured, on a lofty and significant plan, Tchaikovsky's later attachment to his nephew Bob Davydov.



Top banner photos: Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik; conductor Michael Tilson Thomas; composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Cellists

The San Francisco Symphony was established in 1911 and gave its first concert in December of that year.

Flutists

TCHAIKOVSKY NO. 4 IN PERFORMANCE marks the orchestra's second appearance on the series under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.

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The DVD, which contains both programs, is available at Shop Thirteen.
 
 
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