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Stravinsky A-Z: Letter W

Letter w
War, Franco-Prussian

Tchaikovsky happened to be on holiday in Prussia when war broke out. His opera Undine had just been rejected for performance in St Petersburg, he was fed up with teaching music theory at the Moscow Conservatory, had little money and was getting (by his own standards) 'inordinately fat'. So the offer of a freebie holiday in the restorative spa town of Bad Soden with his wealthy consumptive chum Vladimir Shilovsky was most attractive.

Curt Jurgens as Bismarck At the same time, however, Otto von Bismarck was completing his master plan to unite Prussia with the loosely linked German Confederation of principalities, to create a huge European superpower controlled, of course, by Prussia. Four years earlier he had engineered a seven-week war with Austria, dividing allegiances among the smaller Germanic states. Austria was defeated, eliminating them from the battle for supremacy, and Prussia joined forces with over twenty states to form the North German Confederation. In 1870 he used the pretext of a squabble over the vacant Spanish throne as an excuse for war with France, rightly predicting that the remaining German states would pull together with this new Confederation against France.

As soon as war was declared Tchaikovsky and Shilovsky beat a hasty retreat, nipping smartly across the borders to the safety of Interlaken in Switzerland (which Tchaikovsky complained was full of Englishmen!) before returning to Russia.

Hostilities took their course: Emperor Napoleon III was captured and deposed, Paris besieged for several months (republican politician Léon Gambetta escaped by balloon and tried to set up a provisional government in Tours) and France eventually forced to surrender, losing Alsace and the German-speaking parts of Lorraine. In January 1871 the King of Prussia, Wilhelm I, was declared head of the new German Empire with Bismarck as Chancellor in a ceremony arranged (to humiliate France) in Versailles. It may have seemed like a closure, but French resentment and a desire for revenge smouldered on, sowing the seeds of World War I, forty years later.
© Madeleine Ladell/BBC

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