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   Chapter 3 TSCHAIKOVSKI, THE WOMAN-DREADER

The Love Affairs of Great Musicians, Volume 2 By Rupert Hughes Characters: 17590

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:03


Had his relations with music been as completely original as his relations with women, there would be less dispute as to the genius of this man whom the Germans call a Russian; the Russians, a German. He was the son of a well-to-do mining and military engineer, who believed in marriage and made three wives happy-in succession. The young Tschaikovski was late, like Wagner, in deciding on music, and was twenty-three before he took up instrumentation.

He was of a passionate nature, but his temper usually struck inward, and his friend Kashkin said that he "never began a quarrel or defended himself when attacked." That is not, I believe, a type to fascinate women for long, and Tschaikovski's moroseness, which bordered on morbidness and always hovered on the brink of insanity, made it perhaps fortunate for at least two women that his negotiations with them ended as they did. And so he drifted-not such a bachelor as Beethoven, yet quite as wifeless. Unlike Beethoven, who turned from one disappointing woman to another, Tschaikovski turned to men. Among his friends was Nikolai Rubinstein, the brother of the more famous pianist, Anton.

Now, Nikolai, like Anton, had tried marriage, and, after two years of quarrels with his wife's relatives and doubtless with her, had forsworn the other sex. Incidentally he had taught all day and gambled all night; so the husband was not the only gainer by the separation. Nikolai and Tschaikovski set up a ménage together for a time. Tschaikovski, however, had not learned that womankind was not his kind; so he flirted a little with the beautiful niece of one Tarnovski, for instance, and with an unknown at a masked ball. But he was chiefly music-mad and undermined his health by his overwork.

Then in 1868, his father got after him to marry. As long before as 1859, when he was nineteen, he had suffered from an unrequited love. Now at the age of twenty-eight he cared nothing for petticoats. He had written his sister a year ago that he was tired of life, and marriage did not tempt him; he was, said he, "too lazy to woo, too lazy to support a family, too lazy to endure the responsibility of a wife and children." But upon this ennui fell an electric spark-from the old storage-batteries, woman's eyes.

There had come to the Moscow opera a Belgian singer, Désirée Art?t, who was then thirty-three years old, a woman whose pictures make her nearly beautiful, and who is recorded as a queen of grace and a queen of dramatic and lyric song. She was witty and magnetic, and Peter Iljitsch, five years her junior, like another Chopin and another Mary's lamb, followed her about.

One day he wrote: "She is a charmer; we are friends." Then tempo accelerate; he copied music for her benefit performance; later he apologised for not writing his brother-he was all monopolised by the singer. So he went swirling into the current. He tried to keep away; they met by accident; she reproached him; he promised to call; then his inveterate timidity palsied him, till Anton Rubinstein had to drag him to her rooms by force.

Eventually they became engaged. Just as in Weber's case, the composer demanded that the singer give up her career for his, and she and her mother objected. She did not want to be merely the wife of her husband; nor he, merely the husband of his wife. He appealed to his father, who wrote a nobly generous letter, pleading the woman's right to her own career: a very gospel of artistic equality.

"You love her: she loves you: and that should settle it, if-Oh, this wretched if! The beloved Désirée must be altogether noble, since my son Peter has loved her. He has taste and talent, and would choose a wife of his own nature. The few years difference in age are of no moment. If your love is real and substantial, all else is nonsense. She would not want you to play the servant, and you could compose even if you travelled with her.

"I lived with your mother for twenty-one years and all that time loved with the passion of youth, and respected and adored her as a saint. If your desired one has the character of your mother, whom you so resemble, there should be no talk of future coolness and doubt. You know well that artists have no home; they belong to the whole world. Why worry whether you live at Moscow or St. Petersburg? She should not leave the stage, nor should you abandon your career. True, our future is known only to God, but why should you foresee that you will be robbed of your career? Be her servant, but an independent servant. Do you truly love her and for all time? I know your character, my dear son, but alas, I do not know you, dear sweetheart; I know your beautiful soul and good heart through him. It might be well for you both to test your love; not by jealousy-God forbid!--but by time. Wait and ask each other, 'Do I really love him? Do I truly love her? Will he (or she) share with me the joys and sorrows of life unto the grave?'"

Good father, good sage, gallant old man! But neither of the troubled lovers proved worthy of such golden philosophy. Désirée's travels took her away. Their parting must have been cold, for in January, 1869, Tschaikovski wrote his brother a letter, excitedly referring to the acceptance of his opera, and coldly hinting that his love affair would probably come to nothing. We remember how calmly Mozart once wrote of his operatic triumph and how passionately of his love.

The same month a telegram informed Tschaikovski that his fiancée had very suddenly become engaged to a singer in her own troupe, the Spanish baritone, Padilla y Ramos, who was two years younger even than Tschaikovski. The singers were married at Sèvres, September 15, 1869.

Tschaikovski, on receiving the first news, seemed "more surprised than pained." He was still flirting desperately with grand opera. A year later he heard that Désirée was returning to sing at Moscow. He wrote pluckily:

"She is coming here and I cannot avoid meeting her. The woman has cost me many a bitter hour, and yet I feel myself drawn toward her with such inexplicable sympathy, that I wait her coming with feverish impatience."

At her performance he sat in the pit with his friend Kashkin, who says he was terribly excited, and kept his opera-glasses fastened on her always, though he must have been almost blinded by the tears that streamed down his cheeks. The two did not meet, however, for seven years, and then unexpectedly. He called at Nikolai Rubinstein's office in the Conservatory; he was told to wait in the anteroom. After a time, a lady came out. "Tschaikovski leaped to his feet and turned white. The woman gave a little cry of alarm, and confusedly fumbled for the door. Finding it at last, she fled without speaking."

In 1888 Tschaikovski went to Berlin. There Désirée was the idol of the court and public. They met now as friends. He and Edvard Grieg called at her house, and he wrote in his diary:

"This evening is counted among the most agreeable recollections of my sojourn in Berlin. The personality and the art of this singer are as irresistibly bewitching as ever."

Requiescat in pace! She had taught him the pangs of disprised love, but she had escaped misery, and she seems to have lived happily ever afterward with a husband who won eminence equal to hers as a singer. As for Tschaikovski, he had already revenged himself in kind-in worse kind-upon the sex, which had really attracted him only once.

In the year 1875 Tschaikovski's nerves had gone to pieces from overwork and his mode of life. For months he was not allowed to write down a note. And now, I think some one must have prescribed marriage as a cure for his ills. There followed that strange affair which was a riddle as late as the time Miss Newmarch's biography appeared in 1900; a solution was then hoped from a sealed document left by Kashkin, and not to be opened till the year 1927. Tschaikovski himself had looked over his own diary, and had been so terrified at what he read that he destroyed a great portion of it before his death in 1893. In 1902, however, his brother Modeste began the publication of a very elaborate and complete biography, which partially clears the riddle. This is what we learn from that:

In 1875 Tschaikovski was a wreck. In 1876 he suddenly wrote his brother: "I have resolved to marry-the resolve is beyond recall;" and again: "The result of my thought is the firm resolve to marry with whomsoever it may be." His photograph at this time has a worn, hunted look, and he has become addicted to cold baths, of which his new plan was the coldest of all.

In May, 1877, his friend Kashkin suspected him of being engaged. In July, Kashkin was amazed to find him married. Just once Kashkin saw the couple together. Then Tschaikovski grew very dist

ant to his friends and eccentric in his manner; a little later he fled to Moscow, and in a few days came word that he was dangerously ill. Later there were threats of suicide, but it was all a mystery.

We know now that late in June, 1877, Tschaikovski announced definitely to his brother Anatol, that he was engaged to, and would soon marry, Antonina Ivanovna Miljukova. He said little of the girl, except that she was not very young and was very poor; she was free from scandal, however, and she loved him deeply. He hoped the marriage would be happy; and he asked the father's blessing. The father's letter showed an enthusiasm the son's lacked.

Before Anatol could reach Moscow, Tschaikovski was Benedick-July 6, 1877, he being then within three years of forty. The curious details of the courtship are told by the composer himself in a letter to Frau von Meek, a wealthy idolatress of his genius, with whom he had one of those affairs called Platonic, and of whom more later. To her he wrote:

"One day I received a letter from a girl I had known for some time. I learned from it that she loved me. The letter was couched in such warm, frank terms that I concluded to answer it-something I have always avoided doing in previous cases of this sort. Without rehearsing the details of this correspondence I must mention that the result of the letters was that I followed the wish of my future wife and called to see her. Why did I do this? Now it seems to me that some invisible power forced me to it. At our meeting I assured her that in return for her love I could give her nothing but sympathy and gratitude. But later I reproached myself for the carelessness of my action. If I did not love her and did not wish to incite her further love for me, why did I call on her and how could all this end? By the following letter I saw that I had gone too far; that if I now turned from her suddenly it would make her unhappy and possibly drive her to a tragic fate.

"So the weighty alternative posed itself: Either I got my liberty at the cost of a life, or I married. The latter was my only possible choice. So one evening I went to see her, declared openly that I could not love her, but that I would always be her grateful friend; I described minutely my character, the irritability, the unevenness of my temperament, my diffidence-finally my financial condition. Then I asked her if she wished to be my wife. Naturally her answer was 'yes.' The fearful agonies which I have experienced since that night are not to be expressed in words. This is only natural. To live for thirty-seven years in congenital antipathy to marriage, and then suddenly to be made a bridegroom through the sheer force of circumstances, without being in the least charmed by the bride-that is something horrible! In order to get back my senses and accustom myself to the thought of the future, I decided to go to the country for a month. This I did. I console myself with the thought that no one can escape his fate, and my meeting with that girl was fatality. My conscience is clear. If I marry without loving, it is because circumstances have forced this upon me. I cannot do otherwise. Carelessly I surrendered at her first confession of love. I should not have answered her at all."

Under such auspices, the marriage took place. It is hard to say whom we should pity the more, husband or wife; and which we should count the more insane. That which is technically called a honeymoon lasted a week in this case. In ten days the husband is writing his fellow-Platonist, Frau von Meck, that he is uncertain about his happiness, but positive that he cannot compose. He and his wife pay a little visit to her mother; then they return "home," only to part. The unwilling bridegroom must be alone to recuperate. He writes Frau von Meck:

"I leave in an hour. A few days more of this, and I swear I should have gone mad."

In ten days he is strong enough to think of his wife again; in his solitude he begins work on what he mentions to Frau von Meck as "our symphony."

He goes hunting in the woods, while the lonely bride hunts furniture for their home. By the middle of September, Tschaikovski is brave enough to return; he is pleased to find a home of his own, with all clean and neat. For a few days, even a robbery by servants, and the necessity his wife is under to go to the police-court, do not disturb him, or, at least, so he writes. But hardly more than a week can he stand his wife's society. He determines to kill himself, and stands up to his chin in the ice-cold river, afraid to drown himself, and yet hoping to catch a fatal pneumonia.

His old frenzy seized him; insanity beckoned to him again. Alleging that a telegram had called him to St. Petersburg, he fled from his home, September 24, 1877.

His brother met him at the St. Petersburg station, and hardly knew him. Taken to the nearest hotel, he went into hysterics, and was unconscious for forty-eight hours. The doctor said travel was necessary. The wife was provided for, and, leaving her forever, Tschaikovski fled to foreign countries barely in time to save his sanity. To the last he absolved the poor wretched woman of any slightest blame for his behaviour. His brother, in a biography, completely frank up to this point, now grows reticent, except to release the wife of all blame. So you must satisfy your curiosity by imagining some abnormal state of mind, which you will regard cynically or pityingly, as your manner of mind impels.

The last touch to this tragedy was the sordid tinge of poverty. The wretched man alone in Switzerland was without means. Now Frau von Meck, with great secrecy, offered him an annual income of 6,000 rubles-about $4,500-purely in payment, she said, of the delight his music had given her. He accepted a gift so graciously and gracefully made. Tschaikovski was thenceforth an institution fully endowed.

Modeste says that without this relief from anxiety Tschaikovski would have died. He wrote to the benefactress: "Let every note from my pen henceforth be dedicated to you."

This was not the first time she had aided him. A strange, notable woman, she; a true phenomenon-or a phenomena, as one would be tempted to say who had even less Greek than I or Shakespeare, if such an one exist.

Nadeschda Filaretovna, being poor, had married a poor railway engineer; they lived carefully, and raised eleven children. A railroad investment brought them a sudden wealth, soaring into the millions. In 1876 she lost her husband, but all of the children and the riches remained to keep her busy. She lived in almost complete seclusion.

Tschaikovski's strenuous music penetrated her solitude and her heart. The stories of his small income touched her. She planned schemes to fill his purse, ordering arrangements of music and paying for them munificently. Yet she would not receive the composer personally, and when they met in public they did not speak or exchange a glance.

In Du Maurier's perfect romance, Peter Ibbetson and the Duchess of Towers lived their hearts out in a dream-world. So Frau von Meck and Peter Iljitsch lived theirs in a letter-world.

In 1877, before his marriage, learning of his financial troubles, she had offered to pay him well for a composition. He had said he could not conscientiously degrade his art for a price. So she paid his debts to the extent of three thousand roubles. This he could accept. These theories of art!

It was to her that he unburdened in his letters the wild scheme of his marriage. It was to her that he poured out his soul in endless letters not yet publishable entire. Their life apart seems to have been continued to the end. During his last years, after a period of travel, he lived almost a hermit, dying in 1893, only three years over fifty. Whatever posterity may do with his music, he has left a life-story of strange perplexities, in which apparent frenzies of effeminacy and hysteria, of passionate terror and helplessness at self-control fall in strange contrast with the temper of his music, which at its gentlest is masculinely gentle and at its fiercest is virile to the point of the barbaric.

I am haunted by the vision of that poor Antonina Ivanovna, helpless to keep silence in her love, and winning her bridegroom only to find, like Elsa, that her Lohengrin could not give her his Heart. And almost more harrowing is the vision of the composer, with womanish generosity, giving himself to the one that asked, and finding that love cannot follow the mere placing of a wedding-ring. So he stands in the icy river, and its gloom and cold are no more bitter than the despair in his own mad heart. It is Abélard and Héloise without the love of Abélard or the joy Héloise knew for a while at least.

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