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Tchaikovsky A-Z: Letter V

Letter v

Tchaikovsky chose to open his Second Symphony (the 'Little Russian') with the dignified folktune 'Down by Mother Volga', paying tribute to Russia's principal river, the longest in Europe. Rising midway between St Petersburg and Moscow it flows through Western Russia via Nizhny Novgorod and Astrakhan to the Caspian Sea, irrigating the steppes as it goes. Shortly before Tchaikovsky's birth it was linked westwards via St Petersburg to the Baltic Sea by an amazing feat of engineering, a man-made canal system (the Volga-Baltic Waterway), hundreds of miles long.

Volga River in the city of Volgograd In adulthood Tchaikovsky recalled his happiest childhood memory was arriving at a relative's house in the spa town of Sergiyevska after travelling all night down the Volga with his mother. He was five. Coming from a large family he valued the visit as the only prolonged spell he ever had alone with the parent he so idolized, before being sent away to boarding school and then losing her prematurely to cholera.

Thirty years later, having conjured up 15th-century Nizhny Novgorod in his opera The Enchantress, he finally got to take a steamer from the city right down the Volga to Tiflis (now Tblisi) in the Caucasus when visiting his brother Anatol in 1888. Travelling second-class on a crowded boat didn't provide the comfort to which he was accustomed, but he reported 'I'm completely in love with this divine, wonderful river, and would be capable of floating up and down it all summer' adding 'but only . . . in my own steamer, by myself'.

© Madeleine Ladell/BBC

David Brown: Tchaikovsky: a Biographical and Critical Study (London: Norton, 1991), vol. iv, pp.110-111

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