Turgenev and Tchaikovsky

In this brief article, scholar, editor, and translator Luis Sundkvist explores the life of noted Russian author Ivan Turgenev and considers ways in which his life and work intersected with the Russian composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.


One of the leading Russian writers of the nineteenth century, Turgenev for some thirty years was the most well-known representative of Russian literature in Western Europe and America until he was somewhat thrown into the shade by his close contemporaries Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Lev Tolstoy. Turgenev was born into a gentry family with estates in the central Russian province of Oryol. He lost his charming but irresponsible father at the age of 16 and grew up mainly under the stern hand of his mother Varvara Petrovna (b. Lutovinova; 1788–1850). In 1834, he started studying philosophy at Saint Petersburg University, graduating three years later. At that time Turgenev was still considering a career as a professor of philosophy, but during his studies he had also made his first literary attempts: a drama in the style of Byron and translations of Shakespeare and Goethe. During summer vacations on his mother’s estate he was appalled at her cruel treatment of the family’s serfs, and this made him into an implacable enemy of the institution of serfdom. In Saint Petersburg, in January 1837, he caught a glimpse of Pushkin a few days before his death: the great poet would always remain his “idol and teacher”. Turgenev set sail for Germany in May 1838, in order to enrol at the University of Berlin, where he intended to deepen his knowledge of philosophy. Among his companions abroad were the poet and philosopher Nikolay Stankevich (1813–1840) and the future revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin (1814–1876). Together with Bakunin, he frequently attended concerts and opera performances in Berlin.

In the spring of 1841 Turgenev returned to Russia, and on his family estate Spasskoye fell in love with one of his mother’s seamstresses, a serf called Avdotya (d. 1875). She bore him a daughter Pelageya the following year, but Turgenev, who had left for Saint Petersburg, was unaware of her existence until 1850. That year, though, he acknowledged her as his daughter and sent her to Paris, to be brought up with the children of Pauline Viardot. Pelageya was given the more French-sounding name of Paulinette and eventually even forgot her native language, but she was not happy in France. She died in 1919. Turgenev never married and had no other children [1].

Turgenev obtained his Master’s degree in philosophy at Saint Petersburg University in 1842, but realised that in the reactionary climate of Tsar Nicholas I’s reign a teaching post in that subject was impossible, and in 1843 he joined the staff of the Ministry of Interior, where he had some hopes of contributing to agrarian reform. Turgenev’s civil service career only lasted until 1845, and already in those years he had been devoting most of his energies to literature anyway, publishing various short stories, poems, and review articles. He was encouraged in these endeavours by his friend and mentor, the great critic Vissarion Belinsky (1811–1848). Another fateful meeting during those years was that with the mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardotin 1843, when she arrived in Saint Petersburg for her first tour with the Italian Opera Company. Turgenev was infatuated with her, but his feelings were not requited. For many years he followed her around Europe, eventually resigning himself to the role of a family friend in the Viardot household, since he also got on very well with Pauline‘s husband, the art historian Louis Viardot (1800–1883).

In January 1847, the first of Turgenev’s Notes of a Hunter was published: by 1852 twenty-two of these sketches had appeared in which Turgenev, with a unique gift for observation (especially for the beauties of nature) and great poetic feeling, described what he had seen on his frequent hunting tours in the Russian countryside. Turgenev’s sensitive portrayals of the various peasants he had come across, as well as his subtly ironic vignettes of their masters, and of the land-owning gentry in general, were one of the most powerful indictments of the system of serfdom. Reading Notes of a Hunter strengthened Tsar Alexander II in his resolve to abolish serfdom, and so Turgenev’s work indirectly helped pave the way for the Emancipation Act of 1861. Tolstoy would later argue that these sketches were Turgenev’s most enduring contribution to Russian literature.

From February 1847 to June 1850 Turgenev was based abroad, living mainly in France and spending long periods at Courtavenel, the château of Pauline Viardot and her husband near Paris. Together with his friend, the political exile Aleksandr Herzen (1812–1870), Turgenev was an eyewitness of the revolutionary events in Paris in 1848. During these years Turgenev wrote several comedies, and his efforts in this genre would culminate in A Month in the Country (1855), which in some respects anticipated the plays of Anton Chekhov forty years later. Shortly after his return to Russia in the summer of 1850 his mother died, and the inheritance he received gave Turgenev considerable financial independence. However, for almost two years (1852–53) he was confined to his country estate in Spasskoye by order of Tsar Nicholas I, who had been angered by the tone of Turgenev’s obituary of Gogol.

The following ten years saw a surge in Turgenev’s creative powers, resulting in a series of splendid novels — Rudin (1856), A Nest of the Gentry(1859), On the Eve (1860), and Fathers and Children (1862) — in which he sought to chronicle both the past and present of the educated classes in Russia, as well as pointing to future developments, in particular the rise of a non-gentry intelligentsia, epitomized by his most famous character, the ‘nihilist’ Bazarov in Fathers and Children. He also wrote several short stories — a genre to which he was well suited thanks to his fine poetic touch. In 1855, Turgenev had taken the young Lev Tolstoy under his wing, and although they were to quarrel in 1861 (almost leading to a duel!), they became friends again in later years. When Pauline Viardot retired from the stage in 1864 and settled with her family in Baden-Baden, Turgenev moved there himself. Thereafter he would come to Russia only for a few months each year, usually in the summer to write in the seclusion of Spasskoye, or in the winter, to catch up with the latest artistic developments in Saint Petersburg and Moscow, as well as to oversee the publication of his works. His next novel, Smoke, appeared in May 1867, and when Dostoyevsky called on him in Baden-Baden that summer Turgenev found himself accused of having lost touch with Russia. The quarrel between the two writers would not really be patched up until the Pushkin festivities in Moscow in June 1880. Turgenev’s pessimistic reflections about Russian music in Smoke also provoked the indignation of Vladimir Stasov and the members of the “Mighty Handful”.

As a result of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71) and the collapse of the regime of Napoleon III, the Viardots decided to return to France, and Turgenev moved into the top floor of their house in Paris. During the 1870s Turgenev, who was by now famous across all Europe and beyond, became the life and soul of many Parisian literary gatherings, befriending such notable writers as Flaubert and Zola. In 1875, Henry James went to Paris expressly to make his acquaintance. Frequently invited to major cultural events (such as the Sir Walter Scott centenary festival in Edinburgh in 1871 or the Paris Literary Congress of 1878), Turgenev was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Civil Law by the University of Oxford in 1879 for his contribution to the liberation of the serfs in Russia. In between all this travelling and his generous efforts on behalf of various young Russians (artists and political exiles) who sought out his help in Paris, Turgenev found the time to complete his last novel, Virgin Soil (1877), about the idealistic members of the intelligentsia who tried to spread revolutionary ideas amongst the peasantry

Whenever he visited Moscow and Saint Petersburg in these last years of his life he was always given enthusiastic welcomes by the cities’ students and the Russian public in general, although at the Pushkin festivities in June 1880 he was eclipsed by his old ‘enemy’ Dostoyevsky. Turgenev’s last stay in Russia was in the summer of 1881, and amongst those who came to see him at Spasskoye were the poet Yakov Polonsky (who had been a loyal friend for many years) and Tolstoy. It was also during this stay that Turgenev wrote one of his most mysterious stories: The Song of Triumphant Love, which Tchaikovsky would later consider setting to music (see TH 227). In early 1882, the onset of a severe illness left him bedridden in Paris for most of the time, but in spite of the great pains which he suffered, Turgenev managed to complete one more story: Klara Milich (1883), inspired by the tragic fate of Yevlaliya Kadmina. He also dictated some shorter pieces in French to Pauline Viardot, who was always at his side during the final phase of his illness. On 3 September 1883 [N.S.] Turgenev died in his country house in Bougival, near Paris. His remains were taken to Russia and buried in the Volkov Cemetery, Saint Petersburg, next to the grave of his mentor Belinsky. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets of the city to pay their last respects to one of Russia’s most beloved writers.

Tchaikovsky and Turgenev

In his memoirs of Tchaikovsky Aleksandr Glazunov made the following observation: “If I had to come up with a way of characterizing the music of our great Russian composers, I would compare Borodin with a knight-prince from pre-Muscovite times, Musorgsky with a thoughtful peasant, Rimsky-Korsakov with a sorcerer from our byliny [epic poems], but Tchaikovsky I would liken to a Russian gentleman (барин) of a Turgenevan cast of mind. Tchaikovsky adored the countryside, he liked and, from his point of view, understood the people. He knew how to strike up a rapport with them, and wherever he went they all liked him” [2]. This was by no means the first time that a parallel was drawn between Tchaikovsky and Turgenev — in this case invoking the love of the countryside which they both shared, as well as the sympathy for the Russian peasant which guided the author of Notes of a Hunter, and which, though less obviously in Tchaikovsky’s music, certainly manifested itself in the composer’s kindness towards the peasants of Maydanovo and Frolovskoye.

Tchaikovsky’s foreign contemporaries, in particular, were liable to make such a comparison, since for many years Turgenev had been the most prominent ambassador of Russian literature in the West, just as Tchaikovsky’s works were at last putting Russian music on the map, in spite of the resistance which they encountered in certain quarters. Thus, it was not so wide off the mark when one of the few Austrian critics who gave a favourable review of the Violin Concerto after its world premiere in Vienna on 4 December 1881 [N.S.], with Adolph Brodsky as the soloist, said that the first movement’s “mysterious, gentle middle section” reminded him of the female heroines of Turgenev [3]. For western readers had long since been marvelling at the unusual, and indeed often “mysterious”, combination of tenderness and spiritual fortitude which they encountered in such unforgettable creations of Turgenev’s as Liza in A Nest of the Gentry or Yelena in On the Eve, and that Austrian critic was evidently struck in a similar way by the unexpected contrast between the Violin Concerto‘s lyrical themes and its more exuberant passages and overall development. The Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who was largely responsible for the University of Cambridge‘s decision to award an honorary doctorate to his Russian colleague in June 1893, also made an interesting comparison between Tchaikovsky and Turgenev (it is quoted in the entry on Stanford), though this time in terms of the European ‘polish’ which he thought distinguished these two men from their more ‘roughly-hewn’ compatriots! However, both Turgenev and Tchaikovsky saw themselves very much as Russian artists and protested against those who, for various reasons, tried to dismiss their works as ‘cosmopolitan’ (as César Cui, for example, did with some of Tchaikovsky’s earlier works).

Thus, Turgenev always emphasized that the most important quality in a Russian artist was truthfulness in the portrayal of life, and that such sincerity was by far more valuable than subjectivity or even the quest for beauty, although, as he saw it, realism by no means excluded beauty, but was rather a prerequisite of the latter. “Russian art seeks, through the truth, to attain beauty”, Turgenev was fond of saying [4]. Tchaikovsky, too, even if in some letters to Nadezhda von Meck and diary entries he was wont to admit that opera was based on a certain suspension of belief [5], considered himself part of the great tradition of Russian realism that reached such heights in the nineteenth century. As he put it in a letter of 1891 to Vladimir Pogozhev:

I think that I really am endowed with the ability to express truthfully, honestly, and straightforwardly through music those feelings, moods, and images which the text [of a poem or opera libretto] awakens in me. In this sense I am a realist and a deeply Russian person” [6].

Given this affinity in their artistic outlook, it is not surprising that Turgenev was one of Tchaikovsky’s favourite authors ever since his youth. In 1867, for instance, he preferred to stay at home and read the novel Smoke than to attend the festivities in honour of the visit to Moscow by the heir to the throne, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich, freshly married to Princess Dagmar of Denmark (see Tchaikovsky’s letter to his brother Anatoly, quoted in the section below, where a compilation of letter and diary excerpts referring to Turgenev is presented). And although in later years Tchaikovsky made it clear that for him Tolstoy was “the greatest of all writers and artists who have ever existed anywhere” [7], and that while comparing his works to those of Turgenev in the autumn of 1884, his enthusiasm for the latter had started to wane a little (see the letter to Nadezhda von Meck below), this does not mean that he ceased to cherish Turgenev. Thus, Herman Laroche, who in his obituary of the composer discussed Tchaikovsky’s literary interests (noting, in particular, his discovery of George Eliot in later years), recalled how at Maydanovo in the hours after dinner which were not appointed for work, Tchaikovsky would often ask his guests “to read aloud works by his beloved authors: Gogol, Lev Tolstoy, Turgenev, Ostrovsky, and Flaubert” [8]. It is also significant that in 1887 Tchaikovsky was considering using a story by Turgenev as the basis for a vocal work, perhaps even an opera: Song of Triumphant Love (TH 227) — something that never seems to have crossed his mind with regard to any of Tolstoy‘s works (perhaps because he knew of the latter’s aversion to the operatic genre!).

Turgenev for his part was, of all the major Russian writers, the one who showed the greatest enthusiasm for Tchaikovsky’s music — for, although Tolstoy was indeed moved to tears by the Andante cantabile in String Quartet No. 1 when he heard it at a specially arranged private concert in 1876, in later years he showed very little interest in his younger contemporary’s works and, unlike Turgenev, chose not to attend the premiere of Yevgeny Onegin in 1879, even though his estate was not that far from Moscow — certainly much closer than Paris, where Turgenev had his main place of residence!

Turgenev’s interest in Tchaikovsky also started remarkably early on, several years in fact before such eminent musicians as Hans von Bülow started championing the Russian’s music in Western Europe. Thus, Turgenev, during his two-month stay in Russia in early 1871, attended the concert in the Moscow Hall of the Nobility on 16/28 March 1871 whose programme was drawn up exclusively from chamber music works and vocal pieces by Tchaikovsky, featuring, in particular, the premiere of String Quartet No. 1 and a performance by Yelizaveta Lavrovskaya of the song None But the Lonely Heart (No. 6 of the Six Romances, Op. 6). Although Turgenev arrived late and missed the quartet, his appearance at this concert (which Nikolay Rubinstein had urged Tchaikovsky to organize in order to generate more interest in his music, as well as to earn some much-needed money) was quite significant in many respects. Nikolay Kashkin would later describe the occasion as follows:

This concert was attended, amongst other people, by I. S. Turgenev, who was then in Moscow and had become interested in the young composer ever since hearing about him while living abroad. This attention on the part of the renowned writer was noticed and interpreted in a favourable sense for the composer, all the more so given that Turgenev expressed himself in the most sympathetic manner about his works, although he missed the most important of them — the quartet — because he arrived after the concert had already started” [9]

The only way that Turgenev could then have heard about Tchaikovsky while he was living abroad (that is mainly in Germany before 1871) was from reviews in the Russian newspapers to which he subscribed (or which he had access to in reading-rooms), and it is quite possible that Laroche‘s articles for the Contemporary Chronicle (Современная летопись) on the premieres of the opera The Voyevoda and the symphonic fantasia Fatum in 1869 had caught his attention, especially since the opera was based on a play by Aleksandr Ostrovsky, a dramatist whom Turgenev thought very highly of. Certainly, no foreign critic of note seems to have written about Tchaikovsky yet, even though by the start of the 1870s some of his songs and piano pieces were being published in Germany (in pirate editions), and it was in fact not until Hans von Bülow‘s words of praise for Tchaikovsky in an 1874 article about the premiere of Glinka‘s A Life for the Tsar in Italy that the western press started to take notice of the young Russian composer

The fact that Turgenev was able to form such a positive opinion of Tchaikovsky’s talent on the basis of the few songs, chamber music and piano pieces which he heard at that concert on 16/28 March 1871 certainly does great credit to his musical judgement. The song None But the Lonely Heart, in particular, became one of his life-long favourites, and it would re-appear in his last published story: Klara Milich (1883). Although Tchaikovsky was also present at this concert featuring his works, he does not seem to have been introduced to Turgenev, not even fleetingly — it is very likely that Tchaikovsky implored his colleagues not to force him to speak to the famous writer. This would certainly be in keeping with what we know of his later, well-documented efforts to avoid making Turgenev’s personal acquaintance. (In fact he would probably have preferred not to have met Tolstoy face to face either in 1876, but the latter was a more tenacious man than Turgenev, and he threatened the staff at the Moscow Conservatory that he would not leave the building until Tchaikovsky had received him!) All the same, Turgenev was so impressed by None But the Lonely Heart that he ordered a copy of the song album in which it appeared to be sent to London, where he was temporarily living with the Viardots. In a letter from there on 15/27 April 1871 he thanked a Russian friend for having sent this album and informed her that Pauline Viardot had also liked the setting of Mignon’s song very much and that she intended to perform it at one of her private concerts. In this letter Turgenev also explained that Madame Viardot had asked him to thank Tchaikovsky in her name (implying that the copy of the Six Romances, Op. 6 had perhaps been personally inscribed by the composer), and that he was going to send Tchaikovsky copies of all three of Pauline Viardot‘s song-albums which had been published in Saint Petersburg so far [10]. All this indicates that some letters must have been exchanged between Turgenev and Tchaikovsky in 1871, but unfortunately they have not come to light yet [11].

Turgenev himself referred to such a correspondence in his reply to a letter from his good friend, the poet Yakov Polonsky, who in February 1872 had written to him enthusiastically about the Romeo and Juliet overture. This is what Turgenev said in his reply: “Tchaikovsky I saw in Moscow [in March 1871]: I’ve also heard his music and have corresponded with him, but I did not make his personal acquaintance. He seems to me a very likeable person, and his talent is indisputable — at any rate, it is a far more significant talent than that of all these Messrs Cui, Balakirev, and other nonentities, whom (just like the late Dargomyzhsky, too) certain people are trying to make out to be geniuses” [12]. This comparison of Tchaikovsky with the members of the “Mighty Handful”, always to the detriment of the latter (with the exception of Rimsky-Korsakov), is one that Turgenev would frequently make in his letters to Vladimir Stasov in the 1870s, provoking the latter’s fury and indignation. And even though Turgenev was later greatly impressed by what he heard of Musorgsky‘s Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina at a private concert organized for him in Saint Petersburg on 22 May/3 June 1874 (with Musorgsky himself performing excerpts from his operas at the piano) [13], during his last visit to Russia in the summer of 1881 he stressed in conversations with Polonsky that of the Russian composers who came after Glinka he considered Tchaikovsky to be the most talented [14].

To return to that letter of 1872 to Polonsky, though, Turgenev explained to his friend that he had not yet had a chance to hear the Romeo and Julietoverture. Two years later he ordered a copy of a piano duet arrangement of the overture from Russia, but after Pauline Viardot played it through they were not as impressed by the work as they had been expecting [15]. It does not seem to have been until the all-Tchaikovsky concert in Saint Petersburg on 25 March/6 April 1880 that Turgenev was finally able to hear a proper performance of the overture.

In November 1876, Sergey Taneyev, who had graduated with flying colours from the Moscow Conservatory the previous year, set off for Paris, where he intended to spend a few months getting to know the French music world. As he had done for many other young Russian artists (mostly painters) who came to Paris in the 1870s, Turgenev helped Taneyev to find affordable accommodation, and in a letter he sent to his mother Taneyev said of him: “I have never liked anyone so much as I like Turgenev: he is intelligent, kind, simple, frank, and speaks so well that one could go on listening to him forever” [16]. Knowing that his former student was regularly attending the musical soirées organized by Pauline Viardot, Tchaikovsky, who had some vague plans for arranging a concert featuring his works in Paris in March 1877, wrote to Taneyev in January asking if he thought that it might be possible to persuade Madame Viardot to perform some of his songs at such a concert and enclosed a letter to that effect which Taneyev was to pass on to Turgenev (Tchaikovsky’s letter to Taneyev is quoted below). Unfortunately, due to lack of funds Tchaikovsky had to abandon the idea of organizing a concert in Paris that year, and it is not clear whether Taneyev passed on his message for Turgenev [17].

Turgenev continued to keep track of Tchaikovsky’s development as a composer, and at the World Fair which was held in Paris in the summer of 1878 he had the opportunity to hear some of his more recent works: the Sérénade mélancolique and the Valse-Scherzo, which was in fact given its world premiere in Paris that summer — on 8/20 September 1878, with the Polish virtuoso Stanisław Barcewicz as the soloist and Nikolay Rubinsteinconducting. In a letter of 2/14 November 1878 to his agent in Russia Turgenev asked him to try to obtain copies of the scores of these concertante pieces for violin. It seems very likely that Turgenev was hoping that Madame Viardot‘s son Paul, a gifted violinist, would study these works and add them to his repertoire. In this letter to his agent Turgenev also asked him to send to Paris a copy of the vocal-piano reduction of Yevgeny Onegin, which had recently been published in Moscow by Jurgenson (in October 1878) [18]. It is interesting that Turgenev seems to have been made aware of the existence of Tchaikovsky’s new opera by a letter which Tolstoy sent him on 27 October/8 November 1878, asking: “What’s Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin like? I haven’t heard it, but I’m very interested” [19]. Evidently rumours had reached Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana that preparations were underway at the Moscow Conservatory for a production of the opera, and the fact that he thought Turgenev (with whom he had only recently been reconciled after their quarrel of 1861) might be able to tell him something about it, confirms that Turgenev’s keen interest in Tchaikovsky’s music was widely known.

As it turned out, though, Turgenev had not in fact been aware of Yevgeny Onegin until Tolstoy mentioned it to him in that letter, and he duly hastened to order a copy of the vocal-piano reduction of the opera. About a month later he replied to Tolstoy:

Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin has arrived here in the form of a piano score. Madame Viardot has started to go through this work in the evenings. The music is undoubtedly remarkable; the lyrical, melodious passages are particularly good. But what a libretto! Can you imagine: Pushkin‘s verses describing the characters are put into the mouths of the characters themselves. […Turgenev gives an example from the libretto referring to Lensky…]

Tchaikovsky’s name has risen greatly in general estimation here after the Russian Concerts in the Trocadéro [in the summer of 1878]; in Germany, on the other hand, his name has, for a long time already, been the object if not of esteem, then at least of attention. In Cambridgeone Englishman, a professor of music, even told me in dead earnest that Tchaikovsky is the most remarkable musical personality of our times. I listened to him open-mouthed!” [20].

Now Turgenev had travelled to England in October 1878 to do some hunting with his English friends, but he had also found the time to visit the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. In his excellent book Turgenev and England (1981) Patrick Waddington suggests that the academic whom Turgenev met in Cambridge and who spoke so admiringly about Tchaikovsky was George Macfarren (1813–1887), the University’s Professor of Music at the time, but in his notes Professor Waddington admits that it might also have been Charles Villiers Stanford, who was then serving as organist at Trinity College and also teaching music there [21]. In view of the latter’s subsequent role in the award of an honorary doctorate to Tchaikovsky in 1893, it may well have been Stanford, rather than Macfarren, who so astonished Turgenev by this early manifestation of the esteem in which the Russian composer was held in England.

In early 1879, when rehearsals for the premiere of Yevgeny Onegin by students of the Moscow Conservatory were in full swing, the paths of Tchaikovsky and Turgenev crossed in some very interesting ways. On 6/18 February 1879, the composer had arrived in Paris from Clarens, where he had been working on The Maid of Orleans. Nadezhda von Meck was herself also in Paris at the time, and on 19 February/3 March she wrote to Tchaikovsky, asking him why he did not visit Turgenev and “his wife” Pauline Viardot. With some irritation, as a letter to his brother Anatoly the following day indicates (see the list below), Tchaikovsky hastened to explain to his benefactress why he was averse to paying any social visits, even to someone who, as he knew, had shown so much interest in his music as Turgenev (the relevant excerpts from this letter of 19 February/3 March–20 February/4 March 1879 are likewise given below). In this very interesting letter Tchaikovsky also pointed out her misunderstanding as to Turgenev ever having been married to Madame Viardot, and reflected on how this “strange, but touching” spiritual friendship between the two had caused the great writer to live in Paris for so many years — something that he himself would never have been able to contemplate, since he detested the French capital!

However, even if Tchaikovsky had overcome his dislike of social formalities and decided to call on Turgenev and the Viardots, he would have been disappointed — because Turgenev had in fact left Paris at the end of February and set off for Russia!

During this stay in Russia (8/20 February–21 March/2 April 1879) Turgenev was enthusiastically fêted by the general public and, in particular, by the university students of Moscow and Saint Petersburg. One of the reasons for this was the triumphant success of the first performance in Saint Petersburg, at the Aleksandrynsky Theatre on 17/29 January 1879, of Turgenev’s famous 1855 comedy A Month in the Country (which in its time had been forbidden by the censorship for its subversive portrayal of the gentry class). Now, when this play could at last be staged, with the great actress Mariya Savina (1854–1915) in the role of Verochka, audiences were delighted at its freshness of style, its sympathetic portrayal of ordinary people, with all their emotions, foibles and frustrations. Aleksandra Sholp has rightly argued that this revival of A Month in the Country and the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin just two months later were highly significant landmarks for the development of ‘lyrical drama’ in Russia: just as Tchaikovsky had originally entitled his opera “lyrical scenes” to emphasize its intimacy and simplicity of design, so Turgenev’s play in many ways heralded the genre of ‘lyrical comedy’ which Anton Chekhov was to develop so richly [22].

It is therefore all the more significant that Turgenev, who was to some extent familiar with the music of Yevgeny Onegin thanks to the vocal-piano reduction which Pauline Viardot had been playing through in Paris, as well as with the libretto, which he had studied with some bemusement (as that letter to Tolstoy indicates), actually attended a rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s opera at the Moscow Conservatory on 17 February/1 March 1879. This is what he wrote about it in a letter to Madame Viardot‘s daughter Claudie the following day:

Yesterday evening I was at the Conservatory, where Nikolay Rubinstein conducted a dress rehearsal of Tchaikovsky’s opera Yevgeny Onegin. I found the music enchanting: it is ardent, passionate, youthful, very colourful and highly poetic. The orchestral accompaniment, especially, is distinguished by a remarkable freshness and verve. But the roles were all sung by students, from which you can picture to yourself what the quality of the singing must have been like! […Turgenev then makes some ironic remarks about the student singing the part of Lensky…] On the other hand, Mlle Klimenko [sic], who sang the heroine Tatyana, really does have a beautiful, albeit still quite uncouth, voice and a genuinely dramatic temperament — in able hands she may eventually become a notable artist. In short, I enjoyed myself” [23].

Again, this appraisal of Tchaikovsky’s latest work testifies to Turgenev’s admirable musical sensitivity. A few days later, on 1/13 March 1879, he attended a soirée in Vladimir Kashperov‘s flat at which Tchaikovsky’s loyal publisher Pyotr Jurgenson was also present. The following day, Jurgensonreported what had happened in a letter to the composer (who was still in Paris):

It turns out that Turgenev is an ardent admirer of yours: he knows, and owns copies of, all your works, practically all of them! He asked me about those that hadn’t been published yet; whether the sonata was ready; and, lastly, whether, in view of his gout, I could send someone to his hotel with copies of the Liturgy, your last songs, and your pieces for violin. He talked a lot about Onegin, praised the music enthusiastically, and laughed good-naturedly about the libretto, which he referred to as a Chimborazo…” [24].

By comparing the opera’s libretto, which had been drawn up by Tchaikovsky himself and Konstantin Shilovsky, to the Chimborazo mountain in Ecuador, Turgenev probably wanted to say that it was ‘the height of absurdity’. As that letter to Tolstoy quoted above suggests, Turgenev was clearly bemused at the way some of Pushkin‘s verses describing the characters of his novel had been adapted by the librettists so as to have them sung by the characters on the stage! Moreover, he may also have been baffled by the ‘liberties’ which Tchaikovsky had taken in the opera’s final scene, dramatizing Onegin’s interview with Tatyana, which was presented in such sober terms in Pushkin‘s novel (for more details, see the entry on Dostoyevsky), although it is worth emphasizing that this did not in any way diminish his appreciation for what Tchaikovsky had achieved in Yevgeny Onegin. On the contrary, as Jurgenson also noted in his letter to the composer, when Kashperov, who was somewhat resentful of Tchaikovsky’s success, argued at this soirée that some parts of Onegin resembled Bellini‘s Norma, Turgenev had “very nicely managed to change the subject” [25].

Tchaikovsky himself left Paris on 28 February/12 March, and after stopping at Berlin for a few days reached Saint Petersburg on 9/21 March. He made his way to Moscow on 16/28 March, just in time to attend the last dress rehearsal of his opera. Turgenev, however, had already travelled over to Saint Petersburg, where a further series of banquets and galas in his honour awaited him: thus, he was unfortunately not present at the premiere of Yevgeny Onegin at the Maly Theatre in Moscow on 17/29 March 1879. Now, the composer’s brother Modest, discussing the audience’s lukewarm reception of the opera — though not of Tchaikovsky himself, whom everyone was glad to see back in Moscow, and who was enthusiastically applauded at the end of the performance — put this down to three factors: (1) the fact that the singers were still all students; (2) the proximity of the period in which the opera was set to the present time and place; and (3) the liberties which the librettists had taken with Pushkin‘s verses, to which in some cases they had even dared to add their own, and “all of this taken together seemed to the overwhelming majority of the public — which was represented by I. S. Turgenev in one of his letters — even before they had actually heard the music, to be an act of impudence, thus predisposing people against the composition from the very start, and the word ‘sacrilege’ was uttered all over the auditorium” [26]. However, as Aleksandra Sholp has pointed out, Modest Tchaikovsky was mistaken in ‘blaming’ Turgenev for the fact that so many spectators were supposedly prejudiced against Yevgeny Onegin at its premiere in 1879. For that letter of his to Tolstoy in which he had criticized the opera’s libretto was not actually made public until 1884 (a year after Turgenev’s death, when a first edition of his correspondence was published), and, as we have seen, on such occasions as the soirée in Kashperov‘s flat two weeks before the premiere, Turgenev had spoken enthusiastically about Tchaikovsky’s music and defended it against such detractors as Kashperov! [27]

During Turgenev’s next stay in Russia, in the first half of 1880, he had several opportunities to hear Tchaikovsky’s music, including some works which were new to him. The first such opportunity was at a soirée in Saint Petersburg on 20 March/1 April 1880 at which Anna Frideburg had performed “a song by Tchaikovsky (which I was not familiar with) — it is beautiful, heart-felt, and superb. I will send it to you” [28]. The song in question was Amid the Din of the Ball (No. 3 of the Six Romances, Op. 38). A few days later Turgenev attended the all-Tchaikovsky concert which took place in Saint Petersburg on 25 March/6 April 1880 and featured the Suite No. 1, the Letter Scene from Yevgeny Onegin (sung by Aleksandra Panayeva), the Romeo and Juliet overture-fantasia, various songs, and an arrangement for violin with orchestra of the Andante cantabile from String Quartet No. 1. Modest Tchaikovsky noted Turgenev’s presence at this concert in his biography of the composer [29], and it seems that, just as had happened at that concert in Moscow in 1871, his brother avoided being introduced to one of the most prominent admirers of his music! Turgenev was unfortunately unable to attend a private performance of excerpts from The Maid of Orleans at the home of Yuliya Abaza on 30 March/11 April 1880 [30].

The following anecdote recounted by Alina Bryullova in her memoirs as an example of one of Tchaikovsky’s ‘social phobias’ — having to talk to fellow passengers in railway carriages — probably did not take place during Turgenev’s stay in Russia in 1880, since Tchaikovsky seems to have travelled from Saint Petersburg to Moscow at an earlier date than Turgenev (namely on 1/13 April) [31], but it is still worth quoting here to recapitulate why the composer went to such lengths to avoid meeting Turgenev face to face, even though he so admired him:

On another such occasion Tchaikovsky met [Aleksandr] Verzhbilovich [a cellist] on the train corridor. ‘Oh, Pyotr Ilyich, how timely! You know what, Turgenev is travelling in the same carriage as me. He is very keen to make your acquaintance. I’ll just go and fetch him!’ Verzhbilovich rushed off, but Pyotr Ilyich, as stealthily as a thief in the night, made his way into the third class carriage and hid there until the train had pulled into Moscow and the very last passenger had got off. ‘Why did you do that?’ I asked him when he told me about this just like a school-boy who has tricked his teacher; ‘Don’t you like Turgenev?’ — ‘I love him terribly, I worship him, but what would I have said to him? It would have been very awkward for me, and that’s why I ran away'” [32].

The last time that we can say for sure that Tchaikovsky saw Turgenev (even if again he did not exchange any words with him) was the sad occasion of the funeral service for Nikolay Rubinstein at the Russian Orthodox church in Paris on 14/26 March 1881. Shortly afterwards Tchaikovsky wrote a letter-article entitled The Last Days of N. G. Rubinstein’s Life (TH 315) in which he noted how Turgenev, amongst others, had visited the great pianist and conductor in the final phase of his illness, and how these visits had been a great source of encouragement for Rubinstein, who right up to the very end had hoped that his health would improve.

Tchaikovsky did stay in Paris again in January–May 1883, but by then Turgenev was himself gravely ill and had only a few months left to live. Tchaikovsky, who had his own worries on his mind during this stay in the French capital (he was looking after his niece Tatyana Davydova), evidently saw no reason to call on Turgenev now given that he had chosen not to do so on earlier visits to Paris.

In 1884, a year after Turgenev’s death, a first edition of his correspondence was published in Saint Petersburg, and from an entry in Modest Tchaikovsky‘s diary we find out that on 8/20 December 1884 the composer had “become engrossed in reading Turgenev’s letters” [33]. In April 1885, a provincial teacher called Pavel Pereletsky wrote to Tchaikovsky, insisting that he should not write operas on subjects like The Maid of Orleans or The Enchantress, but rather return to the style of Yevgeny Onegin, and recommended him to use a scenario based on Turgenev’s novel On the Eve! Tchaikovsky’s reply is quoted in the entry for Pereletsky and contains some valuable reflections on this novel, as well as his views on what constituted a viable subject for opera and what didn’t.

From a diary entry of 15/27 May 1886, when we was on his way from Marseilles to Paris, we find out that Tchaikovsky was reading one of Paul Bourget’s Essais de psychologie contemporaine which dealt with Turgenev [34]. Two weeks later, on 31 May/12 June 1886 Tchaikovsky at last paid his long overdue first visit to Pauline Viardot at her house in Paris, and apart from being shown the autograph score of Mozart‘s Don Giovanni, we know that he spoke with her a lot about Turgenev, and that she told him about the composition of the enigmatic story The Song of Triumphant Love (see Tchaikovsky’s letter of 28 June/10 July 1886 to Nadezhda von Meck, quoted below). It is almost certain that this memorable meeting with Madame Viardot prompted Tchaikovsky, while staying at Maydanovo in February 1887, to read The Song of Triumphant Love, amongst other stories by Turgenev. But this particular story, which describes the spell-binding power of music and also reveals something of Turgenev’s frustrations in life, caught Tchaikovsky’s imagination, as recorded in a diary entry for 1/13 February 1887 (see below), which also refers to a “strange dream” about Madame Viardot. Indeed, the composer was so much absorbed in the mysterious atmosphere of Turgenev’s story that soon afterwards he made some sketches for a vocal work to be entitled Song of Triumphant Love (TH 227). This project was unfortunately never realised.

Further diary entries show that in February 1887 Tchaikovsky also read Turgenev’s last published story Klara Milich (1883), also known by the title After Death (После смерти), in which the great writer, who was celebrated for his portraits of young women attaining spiritual maturity through the often bitter experience of first love, responded to the tragic fate of Yevlaliya Kadmina — a singer and actress for whom Tchaikovsky had felt the greatest admiration ever since she appeared in student performances at the Moscow Conservatory.

Correspondence with Tchaikovsky

No correspondence between Tchaikovsky and Turgenev has come to light yet, but there is clear evidence that they did exchange letters:

  • In a letter from Turgenev to Mariya Miliutina, 15/27 April 1871 (sent from London, where he and the Viardots were living during the Franco-Prussian War), the writer thanks her for sending a copy of the Six Romances, Op. 6 and says that Pauline Viardot had asked him to write to Tchaikovsky on her behalf and send him a copy of her own song albums.
  • In a letter from Turgenev to Yakov Polonsky, 2/14 March 1872 (sent from Paris), quoted in more detail above, the writer says that he had “corresponded with Tchaikovsky” shortly after seeing him at that concert in Moscow on 16/28 March 1871.
  • In Letter 535 to Sergey Taneyev, 12/24 January 1877 (quoted below), Tchaikovsky says that he had enclosed a letter for Turgenev in which he asked if Pauline Viardot would be willing to take part in the concert which he wanted to organize in Paris in March 1877 (but which never worked out because of lack of funds).

References to Ivan Turgenev and his Works

In Tchaikovsky’s Letters

There’s no point telling you about the celebrations which took place here [to mark a visit by Grand Duke Aleksandr Aleksandrovich and his wife Mariya Fyodorovna], since you’ll have read about them in the newspapers. I didn’t go to the festivities in the Sokolniki Park because I preferred instead to read Smoke (Дым) to the end. I spent the whole evening on it and don’t regret it” [35].

  • Letter 535 to Sergey Taneyev, 12/24 January 1877, in which Tchaikovsky discusses with his former student (who was then staying in Paris and had met Turgenev) the possibility of organizing a concert in the French capital featuring his works (Édouard Colonne had in principle agreed to conduct at such a concert):

Now this is what I wanted to discuss. Would it be seen as madness on my part if I were to ask Viardot, through Turgenev, to take part in my concert? After all, she has performed my songs, hasn’t she? If it’s a crazy idea, then just throw away the enclosed letter. But if you think it’s all right, then please go to Turgenev and hand him this letter” [36].

[I am angry] with Nadezhda Filaretovna! Yes, with her! For it really is true, as the saying goes, that women have long hair but short intellect. I mean, she is supposed to be an intelligent and sensitive woman, and I’ve described myself to her quite sufficiently, but even so — just imagine this — in her last letter she asked me: ‘Why don’t you call on Turgenev and Madame Viardot?’. This infuriated me greatly because it means that in my reply I will again have to describe to her my unsociable character, my hatred of having to make acquaintances”.

  • Letter 1115 to Nadezhda von Meck, 19 February/3 March–20 February/4 March 1879, from Paris, in which Tchaikovsky explains why he did not wish to call on Turgenev during his stay in the city:

You asked me, dear friend, why I do not visit Turgenev. This question forces me to give a very extensive and detailed reply […]

All my life I have been tormented by all obligatory social relations with people. By nature I am an unsociable person. Every new acquaintance, every new meeting with someone whom I do not know has always been a source of the most agonizing moral anguish for me […] Not once in my life have I ever taken any step to make the acquaintance of this or that interesting personality. And whenever such an acquaintance did take place because it could not be avoided, I invariably just felt disillusioned, saddened, and worn out afterwards […Tchaikovsky then describes his meetings with Tolstoy in December 1876, and how awkward he had felt …] : I shall generalize what I’m trying to say. In my view it is only possible to enjoy somebody’s company when, as a result of many years of contact and shared interests (especially family interests), one can actually be oneself in that person’s presence. If that isn’t the case, then having to associate with others is a burden, and my moral constitution is such that I am incapable of putting up with this burden. : That is why, dear friend, I do not call on Turgenev or on anyone else. […] : Now I have calmed down. I have become wholly convinced that it is pointless to continue any attempts to re-educate myself at my age. If, let us say, three years ago I had had the occasion to spend some time in Paris, I would probably have ended up by not calling on anyone, just like now, but back then that would have tormented me; I would have reproached myself. Turgenev has expressed much sympathy for my music several times, Viardot has performed my songs. It would seem that I ought to have visited them, wouldn’t it? — and that would indeed probably even have been of benefit to me. Now, though, I have reconciled myself to the idea that my successes are paralyzed by my unsociability and have calmed down completely. […] : Allow me to correct one delusion which you are under (as, by the way, many other people are, too). Turgenev is not married, and never has been, to Viardot. She is married to Louis Viardot, who is still alive and healthy. This M. Viardot is a very respected writer and, amongst other things, a translator of Pushkin. Turgenev and Viardot are united by a very touching and utterly pure friendship, which has long since become such a habit that they cannot live without one another. This is a wholly unquestionable fact. […] : Everything that you say about French customs and their civility, which at bottom masks a frightful coarseness, is quite right. You know, Turgenev is a mystery for me in the way he has made Paris into his second homeland! Spending all one’s life amongst this swarm of insolent fellows and complacent slaves of routine who profoundly despise everything that isn’t Paris or France — to me that it is incomprehensible! Such is the strength of his friendship with Viardot. It is strange, but touching!”

I don’t know why, but it seems to me that in Pachulski there are traits which bring to mind a Turgenevan hero, that is someone who is very capable, who is endowed with a wholly sincere and ardent yearning to realise the most grandly conceived plans, and yet…” [37].

At your house I have been reading a huge number of books — in particular, lots of Russian classics, whereby I’ve noticed that as much as my inclination for Lev Tolstoy has become stronger, so my feelings about Turgenev have grown markedly cooler. I wonder why that is so? — I really can’t explain it to myself. I’ve also read here Goethe‘s Wilhelm Meister, which I didn’t know before” [38].

How nice it is to be able to verify with one’s own eyes the success of our country’s literature in France. All the shop-windows here flaunt translations of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Pisemsky, and Goncharov. In the newspapers one constantly comes across enthusiastic articles about one or the other of these writers. Maybe such a time will also come for Russian music!”

With regard to your question as to whether Viardot still remembers Turgenev, I can assure you that not only does she remember him, but we spent almost all the time talking about him, and she told me in detail how together they wrote The Song of Triumphant Love. […Then Tchaikovsky tells his benefactress how Madame Viardot had shown him the autograph score of Mozart‘s Don Giovanni and what this had meant for him — see the entry on Pauline Viardot] [39].

I read [Paul Bourget’s novel] Crime d’amour onboard a boat on the Mediterranean Sea, and I also liked it very much. To me it seems that it was written under the influence of Turgenev and even Tolstoy. Bourget is far close to them than to Zola. As for [Goncharov’s novel] Oblomov, I read it again not so long ago in Pleshcheyevo…” [40].

What I would like to point out is that I wish we could more often see such deviations from the standard poetic devices as you have pleased to indicate in Fet‘s poetry. After all, the Russian language, as Turgenev rightly observed in one of his poems in prose, is something infinitely rich, strong, and great, and I am not at all convinced that only the tonic system of verse is intrinsic to it…” [41].

In Tchaikovsky’s Diaries

  • Entries for 31 July/12 August and 1/13 August 1886, Maydanovo:

July 31. […] While reading the article by Voguë (Le roman Russe) about Turgenev, I cried. Went for a walk […] After dinner I read Bourget (about Turgenev, Amiel and the Goncourt brothers etc) […] August 1. […] Read Voguë on Dostoyevsky and cried again” [42].

… Then tea, work, dinner, and reading of Turgenev (The Song of Triumphant Love). This made a strong impression on me. Strange dreams at night: Madame Viardot and Laroche[43].

…Worked all evening on the same [changes to Act IV of The Enchantress]. Very difficult. After dinner I read Klara Milich[44].

… Set off for Moscow at 7 o’clock. On the way I read Turgenev’s short stories and was delighted” [45].


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