An update on Tchaikovsky’s 1891 visit to Philadelphia

It was 125 years ago today

125 years ago, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky made his only visit to the United States. He was invited to be the guest of honor and to conduct his music at the grand opening inaugural festival concerts of Carnegie Hall in New York. The reception to his visit, his conducting, and his music was rapturous. Tchaikovsky discovered — much to his astonishment and as he wrote to his brother — “It turns out that in America I am far better known than in Europe. Here I’m an important bird!”

Adele aus der Ohe. (Photo courtesy of the Muller Collection in The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts)

Much has been written about his historic appearance at Carnegie Hall, but less about the remainder of his tour, which included his final performance in the United States — in Philadelphia. After his triumph in New York, he side-tripped to Niagara Falls, then traveled to Baltimore (again, an ecstatic reception), visited the Russian Embassy in Washington, DC, and then moved on to Philadelphia.

At 3 p.m. on this date, May 18th, 1891, a partly cloudy spring day, Tchaikovsky arrived in Philadelphia. He was taken from the train to the Hotel Lafayette at Broad and Sansom Streets. There he reconnected with the piano virtuoso Adele aus der Ohe (his soloist for the Piano Concerto No. 1 during his tour), dined, and took a walk. The performance was to take place at 8 p.m. at the Academy of Music.

In a letter to his beloved nephew, Vladimir Davydov,Tchaikovsky promised he would be “keeping a detailed diary from day to day, and when I come back I’ll give it to all of you to read.” His entries for all the cities are detailed and fascinating — with the exception of Philadelphia. This was probably due to the brevity of his stop (arriving and leaving on the same day), as well being the end of a long and exhausting tour.

Critical praise

Fortunately, none of Tchaikovsky’s fatigue was reported by the newspapers. Two noted his appearance in a similar manner: The Daily Evening Telegraph said, “He looks like a broker and clubman rather than an artist…. He is of middle height, slim, erect, with silvery gray hair and beard, florid complection [sic], and small but piercing and expressive blue eyes: a self-contained and dignified personage, not without grace.” The North American said he looked “more like a prosperous merchant or a United States Senator.”

All praised his conducting style, the Philadelphia Inquirer calling it “dignified, and at the same time thoroughly alert in watching every portion of the orchestra throughout the score.”

The two works performed were his Serenade for Strings, Op. 48, and the now even more famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op. 23. About the concerto, its first-ever performance in Philadelphia, the Inquirer said: “The piano part was played by Miss Adele aus der Ohe, one of the best pianists in the country, who has made a marked impression wherever she has appeared…she seemed inspired by the presence of the composer. The long and difficult composition was played without notes, and at its conclusion she was congratulated by Tschaikowski [sic], whose face was one wreath of smiles…. It is spirited throughout, having in portions a martial character…. It is poetic, and Miss aus der Ohe played it with great purity and delicacy…. The composer and Miss aus der Ohe received genuine ovation. “

The Philadelphia Press reported, “The Academy of Music last evening contained a very large audience of music-lovers, who had congregated to do homage to one of the greatest living composers, Illitsch Tschaikowsky [sic]. The term concert is too modest to express the occasion; it was a musical festival.” When Tchaikovsky escorted aus der Ohe onto the stage, “a storm of applause burst from all parts of the house, which the composer acknowledged gracefully, although with the modesty of a schoolboy.”

The country that loves you back

The concert was a hit. “From that moment, audience, orchestra, and soloist seemed to recognize that they were in the presence of genius, and Miss aus der Ohe rendered the composer’s concerto with such artistic merit that her numerous admirers had ample cause to think that she excelled any of her previous efforts before an American audience. Her great technique and wonderful endurance stood her in good play in this extremely difficult composition, and her masterly rendering brought forth applause from even the composer.”

Philadelphia's Public Ledger reviews Tchaikovsky
Philadelphia's Public Ledger reviews Tchaikovsky

The Philadelphia Public Ledger was no less enthusiastic: “Tschaikowsky [sic] lent more than his name and personal exhibition to the concert given last night at the Academy of Music…he made the occasion remarkable by conducting two of his own compositions. He is an energetic and authoritative conductor, and under his direction the men evidently felt the spirit of his music as they could not have felt it under another leader…. With Miss Adele aus der Ohe at the piano, almost uniformly at her best in her execution, the concerto had unsurpassable interpretation, with the composer to emphasize its character and bring out its inmost beauties…. Miss aus der Ohe and Tschaikowsky were called before the house three times and almost overwhelmed with applause, and each deserved it all the more because each endeavored to put the other most prominently forward as the deserving recipient of the honors.”

Remarkably, this may well have been one of the last times in the United States that the Piano concerto was performed as Tchaikovsky intended. (Adele aus der Ohe performed the concerto in Saint Petersburg, Russia, the final time Tchaikovsky conducted it — nine days before his death in 1893 and at the same concert featuring the premier performance of his last symphony, The Pathétique.)

After the concert, he was received at the Philadelphia musicians’ Utopian Club (1417 Locust St.). From there took the train to New York to make his way home.

During this tiring, exhilarating journey, Tchaikovsky wrote his nephew, “If I were younger, I would probably derive great pleasure from staying in this interesting, youthful country…I foresee that I will recall America with love. They have truly given me a fine welcome here.” It seems America returned that love.

To read David M. Perkins' earlier account of Tchaikovsky's visit to Philadelphia, click here.

Our readers respond

David M. Perkins

of Denver, CO on May 18, 2016

As the author of this article, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the Herculean help I was given by Barbara Parquette and the amazing, amazing people at the Philadelphia Free Library — they are the best. Thanks also to Jeff Robel at NOAA/NCEI for the weather report as of May 18, 1891.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.