Tchaikovsky’s charm

When Tchaikovsky came to Philadelphia

5 minute read
The Academy of Music in 1870.
The Academy of Music in 1870.

On May 18, 1891, a lovely spring day, at 3 o’clock, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky arrived in Philadelphia without fanfare. There was to be a concert of his music that evening, the last he would conduct in the United States.

The dervish tour had begun on April 26 in New York City, where he had been invited by Walter Damrosch, director of the New York Symphony, for the grand opening of what was then called “Music Hall” (later to be formally designated as Carnegie Hall). That invitation was supported by no less a luminary than Andrew Carnegie himself.

In New York, Tchaikovsky was fêted and fed enormous amounts of food and alcohol by Carnegie and the city’s musical haut monde. On May 8, the day after his 51st birthday, he wrote in his diary of a meal with Carnegie, “The supper was hearty, but the cuisine is American, i.e. unusually repugnant. Much champagne was drunk.” In the same entry he noted:

"Mr. Romeike sends me daily piles of newspaper clippings about myself. All of them without exception are laudatory in the highest degree. The Third Suite is praised to the sky, but hardly more than my conducting. Is it possible that I really conduct so well? Or do the Americans exaggerate?!!"

An important bird

Notoriously shy and uncertain about both his works and his conducting skills, Tchaikovsky was nevertheless described by the newspapers as ranking “among the foremost composers of our age,” introducing the concertgoer to music that was, according to the critics, “fresh,” “modern,” “gorgeous,” “strange," “startling,” “sensuous,” “bold,” “splendid,” “melodic,” “inspiring,” “original, unique, full of color,” “magnificent,” and “marvelous,” among other superlatives (there were a lot of newspapers back then). Tchaikovsky discovered, much to his surprise that, 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!”

Following his extraordinary success in New York, Tchaikovsky took a relaxing side trip to see Niagara Falls and then traveled to Baltimore (May 15-16), where he also conducted his own music. The Baltimore Sun praised his conducting and his music, “full of fire and dash of the Russian, the finish and scholarly workmanship of the master, and the intelligence and refinement of the artist musician.” The Baltimore American called him “a czar among musicians and directors,” the concerts “among the best ever heard here.”

From Baltimore, Tchaikovsky traveled to Washington, DC, to be entertained with music, including some of his own, at the Russian Embassy. He was relieved to converse in his native Russian, although upon greeting the embassy secretary with a vigorous Russian kiss, he was mortified to discover that he had dislodged a loose tooth. He became self-conscious lest people notice the resulting sibilant “ch, sh, shch, hiss and whistle” that the lost tooth gave his speech.

On to Philadelphia

Tchaikovsky was a prodigious letter-writer who also wrote conscientiously in his diaries. His diary entries for all the cities are detailed and fascinating — with the exception of Philadelphia. This was probably due to the brevity of his stop here (he arrived and left on the same day), as well the fact that it was the tail end of a long and exhausting tour.

Fortunately, none of Tchaikovsky’s fatigue was noted by the newspapers. The North American wrote that he looked “more like a prosperous merchant or a United States Senator” and the Daily Evening Telegraph agreed: “He looks like a broker and clubman rather than an artist.” The Telegraph went on to say, “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.” All the papers 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 Tchaikovsky works performed were the Serenade for Strings, Op. 48, and the now even more famous Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, Op.23. About the concerto, 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 closing movement was full of color and spirit. The composer and Miss Aus der Ohe received genuine ovation."

Remarkably, this may well have been one of the very last times in the U.S. that the Piano Concerto was performed as Tchaikovsky intended.

During this tiring but exhilarating journey, Tchaikovsky wrote to his beloved nephew, Vladimir Davydov, “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 as though America has returned that love.

Author’s note: Special thanks to Barbara Tarquett at the Philadelphia Free Library and Jeff Robel at NOAA/NCEI for their assistance in this project.

Above right: Photo of Tchaikovsky by Napoleon Sarony, taken in New York immediately before the composer’s trip to Philadelphia.

Above left: Adele Aus der Ohe

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