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Tchaikovsky A-Z: Letter N

Letter N
Nadezhda von Meck (1831-1894)

While the modern Maecenae who support the arts and culture with their personal fortunes often make their money from financial dealings or new technologies, in the 19th and early 20th centuries some of the biggest fortunes were made from the engineering opportunities created by the industrial revolution. The Princesse de Polignac supported a host of French composers and instrumentalists who attended her Paris salon; but her maiden name was Winnaretta Singer: she was an heiress of the Singer sewing machine family. For Andrew Carnegie, a super-Maecenas who gave away almost his entire fortune of $350m on philanthropic projects, the money was made in Pittsburgh steel and related industries.

von MeckAnd earlier still, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was to become the indirect beneficiary of the expansion of the railways across Russia: it was in this industry that Karl von Meck made his fortune - his wife Nadezhda Filaretovna found herself in charge of it when Karl passed away when she was only 41.

Family were of great importance to Nadezhda: she and her husband produced 18 children, of whom 11 survived into adulthood. Their son Nikolai Karlovich married Anna Davidova, whose mother was Tchaikovsky's sister; so, Nadezhda was the mother-in-law of Tchaikovsky's niece.

With a quantity of marriageable daughters and a penchant for music (Nadezhda's father Filaret Frolovsky was keen on it), there is some evidence that Nadezhda thought of composers as suitable marriage-partners for her offspring: as such an outlook was directly contrary to the orthodox view of composers, it may have been fuelled by the notion that Nadezhda would at least be able to see to it personally that there were no impediments to the financial well-being of the said daughters. Debussy had spent time as a music teacher to her family - she gave him financial support and tried to press a daughter on him. Tchaikovsky may also have been lined up in Nadezhda's sights, for just this purpose.

Be that as it may, Nikolai Rubinstein and Tchaikovsky were also to receive support from Nadezhda, and in the latter case the sums were substantial. Their (platonic) relationship started in 1877; it could hardly be other than platonic because Nadezhda insisted that they should not meet (although two accidental meetings did not even prompt a conversation); and another reason - Tchaikovsky's homosexuality - might not have been fully appreciated by the wealthy widow. It is thought that this discovery may have accounted for the abrupt termination of their correspondence in 1890.

But by then, Nadezhda had provided Tchaikovsky with an annual allowance of 6000 roubles (clerking at the Ministry of Justice might have netted him 300-400 a year); this was more than sufficient to enable him to leave his professorship at the Moscow Conservatory and concentrate on his compositions.

Nadezhda's support extended further than the merely financial: she was profoundly stirred by Tchaikovsky's music, and took a close interest in it, supporting him through critical attacks, notably in the case of the Fifth Symphony. The Fourth is dedicated to her.
© Graeme Kay/BBC

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