When Tchaikovsky Met Tolstoy

Pyotr Tchaikovsky in 1874.

  • Feb 18, 2020
  • Tiffany Zhu

One December evening in 1876, Pyotr Tchaikovsky had a chance encounter that most people could only dream of. He was lecturing at the Moscow Conservatory when his colleague, Nikolai Rubinstein, sprinted up and told him that a certain author of War and Peace was there to see him.

At the time, Count Leo Tolstoy was already earning a reputation as one of Russia’s most influential writers. He was in the process of serializing Anna Karenina and, in addition to War and Peace, had published his autobiographical trilogy. Tchaikovsky was a huge fan and was starstruck when Rubinstein delivered the news. “I, of course, made a feeble attempt to hide from him,” he later explained to his patroness Nadezhda von Meck. “But it didn't work out. He turned up at the Conservatory and told Rubinstein that he wouldn’t leave until I had come down and spoken to him.”

Tchaikovsky gathered the courage to meet the great writer. They chatted about music and art. At first, their conversation went well, but soon they realized they had a serious artistic disagreement: Tchaikovsky loved Beethoven, while Tolstoy did not. “I mean, this writer of genius, this great student of human nature started off by saying, in a tone of complete certainty, something quite stupid and offensive for any musician,” he wrote to von Meck. Of course, because Tolstoy was his idol, he bit his lip and pushed back halfheartedly.

Otherwise, the evening went smoothly. Tchaikovsky gifted Tolstoy copies of some of his songs. Rubinstein even organized a private concert for Tolstoy. There, a string ensemble performed Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet, whose second movement brought Tolstoy to tears. The two parted amicably. All’s well that ends well...

But the story was not over yet...

A few days later, Tolstoy sent Tchaikovsky a series of folk songs that he had transcribed himself and included a letter:

I am sending you, dear Pyotr Ilyich, these songs. I have just looked through them myself. This amazing treasure is now in your hands. But for God’s sake elaborate and use them in the manner of Mozart and Haydn, and not in that of Beethoven, Schumann, and Berlioz, with all their artificiality and craving for the unexpected.

Tolstoy at the Piano
Tolstoy at the piano with his daughter Alexandra

Tolstoy was no professional musician, and these poor transcriptions showed it. How did Tchaikovsky break the news to Tolstoy? Not very gently, it turns out. Tchaikovsky delivered this zinger:

Count Lev Nikolayevich! I am sincerely grateful to you for sending these songs. I must tell you frankly that they have been recorded in a very clumsy manner, and they display no more than a few traces of their primitive beauty. […] However, your songs can serve as material for symphonic treatment — and very good material, too — and I definitely intend to make use of them in some way or other.

(Spoiler: He did not.)

The two artistic legends never met again.

Tchaikovsky went on to have a love-hate relationship with Tolstoy’s work. On the one hand, he continued to avidly follow Tolstoy’s publishing and read The Death of Ivan Ilyich as soon as it came out. It impressed him so much that he wrote in his diary: “The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a work of excruciating genius.” However, as Tolstoy became increasingly spiritual, Tchaikovsky came to resent what he considered to be his didacticism. Writing to a friend in 1887 about Tolstoy’s new play The Power of Darkness, he complained that most of it was “false and bizarre,” and that its only redeeming quality was its beautiful language.

Even so, as he wrote to another friend, “The more I dislike him as a thinker and preacher, the more and more I bow before his mighty genius as a writer.” Tchaikovsky, a consummate composer, could understand the sheer effort that came with producing nuanced yet universally understandable works of art. Though there was much he disagreed with Tolstoy on, the two had their passion for art in common. I consider him to be the greatest of all writers who have ever existed in this world and of those who are now living,” Tchaikovsky wrote of Tolstoy in 1889. Fitting praise from one of the finest composers in Russia.


All translations from Tchaikovsky Research.

 

What They’re Saying

"They played with such captivating beauty that the audience let out an involuntary sigh of pleasure at the end."

Evening Standard, London