Music is not a delusion but a revelation. And its triumphant force lies precisely in the fact that it opens up to us elements of beauty which would be inaccessible to us in any other sphere, and the contemplation of which reconciles us with life not temporarily but forever.
After an extremely busy week and a Saturday morning spent listening to Brahms, I was making some marzipan and remembered, when thinking about the Danse des mirlitons, that it also was Tchaikovsky’s birthday. How could I have forgotten? So off I went to bake some things to honor his day.
I made some snowflake-shaped marzipan, along with some coconut, plum and mixed nut cupcakes with raspberries. All made for a splendid afternoon listening to his Violin Concerto, Six Pieces and his second and third String Quartets, as well as reading the correspondence between him and Tolstoy after a meeting in December 1876. Tolstoy attended a chamber music concert specially organized for him by Nikolai Rubinstein, in which Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No.1 was performed. They had also met that month at Tchaikovsky’s house on various occasions, in which Tolstoy had apparently expressed his dislike for Beethoven, whom Tchaikovsky revered, but he preferred not to argue, since he had the highest regard for Tolstoy and didn’t refute his position (although was left disappointed, according to his brother, Modest). The remaining correspondence was as follows:
I am sending you, dear Pyotr Ilyich, these songs. I have just looked through them myself. This amazing treasure is now in your hands. But for God’s sake elaborate and use them in the manner of Mozart and Haydn, and not in that of Beethoven, Schumann, and Berlioz, with all their artificiality and craving for the unexpected. How much there is that I didn’t finish telling you about! In fact I didn’t say anything of what I had intended to. There just wasn’t any time. I was so enjoying myself. This last stay of mine in Moscow will forever remain one of my most cherished memories.
Never have I received so valuable a reward for my literary efforts as that wonderful soirée. And how nice Rubinstein (Nikolai) is! Please thank him again on my behalf. I liked him very much. Indeed, all these priests of the highest in the world of art who were sitting there around the pie (at the banquet after the concert) left me with such a pure and serious impression. And as for what took place for my benefit in the round hall (of the Conservatory, where the concert was held), I cannot remember that without a shudder of emotion. Tell me whom I should send my works to, i.e. who doesn’t have copies and who will actually read them?
I still haven’t looked at your things (the Symphony No. 1, The Tempest, and Six Pieces, Op. 19), but when I do get round to this I shall — whether it’s of any use to you or not — write to you with my observations and, moreover, do so quite boldly, since I have come to like your talent. Farewell, here’s a friendly handshake from me.
Your L. Tolstoy (December 1876)
Count Lev Nikolayevich! I am sincerely grateful to you for sending these songs. I must tell you frankly that they have been recorded in a very clumsy manner, and they display no more than a few traces of their primitive beauty. The principal defect is that they have been artificially and violently forced into a regular and measured rhythm. Only Russian dance songs have a rhythm with a regular and uniformly accented beat, but byliny (Russian epic songs) after all cannot have anything in common with dance songs. Furthermore, the majority of these songs — and, again, in a forced manner, so it seems — have been written down in the triumphant key of D major, which is also not in keeping with the structure of Russian folksong, whose tonality is almost always indefinite — the latter is in fact closest of all to the modalities of our ancient church music.with a pleasant recollection!
On the whole, the songs which you have sent cannot be subjected to a proper and systematic treatment, i.e. it is impossible to use them as the basis for an anthology, since for that it would be essential to have each song transcribed as closely as possible to the manner in which it is performed by the people. This is an exceedingly difficult task and requires the most exquisite musical feeling and great erudition in the field of music history. Apart from Balakirev, as well as Prokunin to some extent, I cannot think of anyone who would be up to this task. However, your songs can serve as material for symphonic treatment — and very good material, too — and I definitely intend to make use of them in some way or other.
How I am glad that the soirée at the Conservatory left you with a pleasant recollection! Our quartet musicians played that evening as they had never done before. From this you can easily draw the conclusion that a pair of ears of such a great artist as you are is capable of inspiring an artist a hundred times more than the tens of thousands of ears in an audience.
You are one of those writers who make one love not only their works but themselves, too. It was evident that in playing so amazingly well the musicians were giving their all for someone who was very dear to them. As for me, I cannot describe to you how happy and proud I was to see that my music could move and captivate you.
I will pass on your thanks to Rubinstein as soon as he gets back from Saint Petersburg. Apart from Fitzenhagen, who doesn’t read Russian, all the other members of the quartet have read your works. I think that they will be very obliged to you if you send each one of them some or other of your works.
As far as I am concerned, I would kindly ask you to present me with a copy of The Cossacks — if not now, then on some other occasion, when you again happen to be in Moscow — an occasion which I shall await with the greatest impatience.
If you intend to send Rubinstein your portrait (photograph), please do not forget to send one to me, too.
Tchaikovsky’s reply on December 24, 1876.