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Tchaikovsky A-Z: Letter L

Letter L
Letters

Most of what we know about Tchaikovsky's personal life is gleaned from his letters - unsurprisingly, since around 5000 of them have survived. He was a dutiful, passionate and extremely self-conscious letter-writer. At one point, he seems to be addressing us, his future readers, and advises us to treat what he writes with due caution:

Tchaikovsky

'It seems to me that letters are never entirely sincere. I judge at least by my own example. To whomever and for whatever purpose I write, I am always concerned with what impression my letter may make, and not on the recipient only, but on any chance reader as well. Consequently, I pose. Sometimes, I try to make the tone of the letter simple and sincere, that is I try to make it seem so. But apart from letters written in moments of passion, I am never myself in a letter. But then this last sort of letter is always a source of repentance and regret, sometimes quite agonizingly so.' [transl. A. Poznansky]
With this in mind, finding the 'real' Tchaikovsky in his letters is not the straightforward task that we might have expected. His letters often overflow with emotion, affection, declarations of love - apparently. How much of this should we take at face value? To complicate matters further, the letters are strewn with 'dearest', 'kisses' and many other sentimental and affectionate terms that merely reflect the conventions of letter-writing followed by the Russian upper classes at the time. Readers dependent on translations, and generally unaware of this conventions will jump to the wrong conclusions even before the question of Tchaikovsky's sincerity is raised. While it is difficult to arrive at confident conclusions on many details, we can at least say that whatever Tchaikovsky's intentions his letter-writing habits certainly do not place him at the hard-nosed end of the spectrum. Even allowing for the conventions, the persona of Tchaikovsky the correspondent, if not the man himself, displays great sensitivity and a thirst for all kinds of love, parental, friendly, or erotic.

In his vast list of correspondents, one name in particular stands out: Mme von Meck, Tchaikovsky's patron. She cultivated a remarkable epistolary romance with the composer over the course of fourteen years of intense correspondence. Astonishingly, in all this time, they remained true to a pact that they would never meet face to face. But the pleasures of confiding in a soulmate like von Meck or debating issues of music or religion with her still had an undercurrent of business. For among many other things, the letters were like reports on the performance of a trust fund: they affirmed for von Meck that she was receiving a good return on her investment, and that her judgement was sound in continuing to back such a talented, intelligent and passionate individual as Tchaikovsky. The sugar content of Tchaikovsky's outpourings often soared when he was in trouble: behind the endearments was the implicit message 'I've run out of money'.

As if this interpretative labyrinth was not already severe enough, Tchaikovsky's brother Modest censored many of the letters shortly after the composer's death, removing the more obvious references to homosexuality. In Soviet times, a very useful fifteen-volume edition of the letters appeared, but in spite of the scale of this undertaking, there were abundant cuts, again in the interests of the conservative moral code that returned to Russia under Stalin, and the full text of many letters remains inaccessible up to the present day, even for scholars. With a little ingenuity, and sufficient background knowledge, commentators can arrive at reconstructions that are plausible if speculative. Sometimes, and particularly in the letters that have suffered censorship, Tchaikovsky decided to throw his future readers off the track: instead of referring to a person directly by name, he took a more cryptic approach, leaving us guessing and all the more curious. But even given possible insincerity, epistolary convention, censorship and puzzles, Tchaikovsky's letters are a great read for anyone remotely interested in the composer, and we come away reflecting not only on the music, but also on the human condition.

© Dr Marina Frolova-Walker/BBC

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    Tchaikovsky Experience

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    Biographical A to Z

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