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Tchaikovsky's Italian Rendezvous

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

“This country is a gift of God!” – Tchaikovsky writes in one of his letters to a passionate admirer of his talent and his patron, countess Nadezhda von Meck. Their rather intimate epistolary friendship, and his fascination with Italy, were to last for almost a decade. To her, Tchaikovsky will confess all his dreams and hopes. To her he will also dedicate his Fourth Symphony. As for the countess, she will be giving him a huge yearly allowance, so that he could spend his time composing. There is one condition however: they shall never see oneaother.

The most famous Russian composer outside Russia, Pyotr Iliych Tchaikovsky is also known as the unhappiest one, because of his dismal personal life. Soon after having celebrated his marriage with a student of music at Moscow Conservatory, Antonina Milyukova (at lower left), Tchaikovsky realizes that even a mere co-existence with her in the same house is impossible. Unable to get a divorce from the woman, who is essentially a stranger to him, Tchaikovsky decides to hide amid the Italian hillsides like a veil of mist, and to dissolve along Italian shores like a morning tide. He will avoid seeing his wife forever.

As for his choice of Italy, this nation appeared to the composer like a wonderful mirage in a desert, seducing his heart and mind with its deadly beauty. For him, the country oozed a promise of long-awaited peace and happiness. Weary of noisy Paris and the boring, pompous Vienna, Tchaikovsky accepts the advice of his beloved brother Modest Tchaikovsky and sets off to Italy. “Modest and Kolya are absolutely taken by Rome. To them it would be tragically painful to move elsewhere now”.

Upon his arrival Tchaikovsky stays at the fashionable and expensive Hotel de Russie, but soon after the two brothers and their friend find a better accommodation at Hotel Costanzi. This hotel boasts a magnificent view of the city and its other famous guests – Giuseppe Mazzini and Giuseppe Garibaldi.

Here, surrounded by ancient Roman walls, Tchaikovsky finds his refuge. “Just imagine, after all the horrors of Parisian winter, I am now under a clear blue sky where sun is shining in all its magnificence. There’s no question about rain or snow and I go out wearing nothing but a suit. From my windows I engulf the evergreen Pincio Hill and I have an impression that a magical shift is finally happening to me”. Tchaikovsky standing in front of his home at Frolovskoye. Photographed by Władysław Pachulski (?), 14/26 July 1890. The Tchaikovsky brothers roam all over the eternal city, guided by their instinctive search of beauty. The neighborhood of Hotel Costanzi seems to be studded with Roman ruins. Infected with the electrifying energy of the city where past keeps present, Tchaikovsky finally yields to its fascination.

Keeping his thoughts away from Russia, Tchaikovsky finds recovery in resorting to the magical ingredient – the splendid Roman scenery. “Today for the first time I have been to Villa Borghese. It is a magnificent place for strolling, and what’s more important – completely deserted. The mix of nature and works of art will never cease to amaze me”.

Insatiable for discovery, Tchaikovsky craves more than he can embrace. Outstanding monuments and collections of the Vatican Museums tickle his receptors and awaken an insatiable appetite for beauty. All the while, a need to compose in the city where every little street is filled with music is becoming vital.

Here he works on his Second Symphony and starts composing the “Italian Capriccio”. His Capriccio, as he writes to his rich patroness, Countess von Meck, is purely a musical rendering of the magical sounds and noises he heard on the streets of Rome.

Having so much to offer to the Russian composer, Italy begs to be discovered. Celebrating Italian Renaissance, Tchaikovsky explores Florence. Here, at Hotel Washington, he composes “The Queen of Spades”, baptised as “Florentine opera” by the Italians. Unable to return to his home in Saint-Petersburg, he, a wandering vagabond, finds his second home in a villa that is thoughtfully prepared for his arrival by Countess von Meck, in via Leonardo 64. Tchaikovsky is beyond fascinated with the city, for its literature and inspirational atmosphere, but mostly because it is home of his rather mysterious patroness, Nadezhda von Meck.

Valuing her personal space above everything else, countess von Meck avoids noisy companies and home gatherings. This rule applies to all of her personal relationships, including her eleven children. Tchaikovsky is no exception. Just like he avoids the topic of returning to Russia, so does the countess avoid seeing him at all costs, even when both of them are in Florence.

The only form of communication available and convenient to both is via correspondence. Letters filled with the most intimate confessions fly from all over Italy. Not even a week passes without Tchaikovsky and von Meck brushing against each other in the most intimate whirl of words.

It is to her that he confesses his growing love to Venice. Hoping to make a sense of it as his place in the world, the composer gives it a chance. Upon his first visit to Venice, the city fills him with mixed feelings about its suffocatingly narrow streets and the ever present odour travelling above the canals.

Three years later his perception will change. Flirtatious and enigmatic, like a beautiful woman the city unveils its true face little by little, though always keeping a mystery. Its vibrant energy undulates together with the waves of the Adriatic.

Tchaikovsky settles in the famous Hotel Beau Rivage, now Hotel Londra Palace, which still keeps the authentic furnishings in the so-called "Tchaikovsky suit" (room 106) and the memory of its famous client carefully exposed on a tablet outside the hotel. Engulfed by the enigmatic beauty dancing on water, Tchaikovsky composes his Fourth Symphony along with very intimate and detailed letters to Countess von Meck.

To her he writes about his religious views and admits his deep dissatisfaction with Venetian newspaper sellers. "They rejoice in Turkish victory. Every night I hear them yell: "Il Tempo!" Signori! La gazzetta di Venezia! Victory of the Turks! This "Victory of the Turks" repeats itself every night! Why don't they yell about our real victories instead? Can it be that a peaceful and peace-loving Venice, that has already lost its might in war with the Turks, breathes the same air of hatred toward Russia?"

Just like Dostoevsky's Florence, so is Tchaikovsky's Venice poisoned with the notion of the prevalence of strong anti-Russian moods. To a sensitive composer it seems especially unjust, due to his inability to return home. Italy deceives him. His love is un-reciprocated.

In all his endeavors and doubts countess von Meck offers her assistance and reassurance, never asking for anything in return. Reaching out to the depths of his heart, von Meck becomes Tchaikovsky's one and only soul confidant. Their ephemeral Italian rendezvous will never have any material expression or form. Tchaikovsky will remain faithful to the only woman he ever loved - the goddess of music and von Meck will enjoy the whispers of love in Tchaikovsky's compositions. Nothing will prevent both of them from feeling a deep connection with each other. Not even her abrupt decision to stop giving Tchaikovsky financial assistance.

So she will remain an unsolved mystery to him, a woman who just like Italy itself, gave him a glimpse of herself but never saw him.

Photo credits: Many thanks to Tchaikovsky Research