Imagine having a talent and being paid by a rich admirer to forfeit a regular day job and exercise that talent to the best of your ability. You are paid an enormous, regular annuity by this admirer to create your art in secure comfort. It sounds ideal, not to mention incredibly lucky, but there is a bizarre catch: you can never meet your admirer face-to-face, never thank them personally for their patronage of you. What makes it even odder is that your patron is the one who insists on this rule. That was the relationship the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), the brilliant mind behind the music for the revered ballets Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker, had with Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck (1831-1894).
Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck, or just Madame von Meck, was the widow of the affluent railway tycoon Karl Otto Georg von Meck. By the time she first entered Tchaikovsky’s life in 1876, she was already a formidable upper-class matron with an impressive list of accomplishments and cultivated tastes. Married at the age of sixteen, she went on to assist her husband—then only a railway engineer on a small salary—in amassing a staggering fortune and building an empire, all the while birthing numerous children, running a large household, and developing her own reputation as an amateur musician.
It never occurred to her to strike out on her own and make music a career. As the Russian culture scholar Philip Ross Bullock states in his “Women and Music,” from Women in Nineteenth-Century Russia, this would have been a direct violation of Imperial Russia’s rigid societal-gender rules:
…a professional career in music long remained closed to Russian women of the nobility or gentry, and public performance long remained the domain of foreigners, or of serfs and townspeople (meshchane), whose presence on the stage was less likely to upset Russia’s feudal code or to transgress social propriety.
Madame von Meck’s cultured sensibilities, however, were not satisfied just with giving private concerts for family and friends. She preferred to be directly involved in the music industry, just as she had with her husband’s railways. She certainly had the funds and strong will to influence any industry she wanted.
Her husband’s death in 1876 had left her legally in charge of astounding wealth. While making out his will, Karl von Meck had understood that his wife would manage the money and wield her power with a degree of competence, though he couldn’t possibly have foreseen that she would become arguably Russia’s most indispensable patron of the arts, supplanting even Empress Catherine the Great, who adored and promoted Russian opera passionately. Madame von Meck would excel at being a patron, however extraordinary her personal life and preferences.
Tchaikovsky and Madame von Meck’s friendship started with an appreciative fan letter from the recently widowed grande dame, sent on December 18, 1876. She had heard some of Tchaikovsky’s music at concerts—she particularly exalted The Tempest—and what ensued can only be described as the outpourings of a smitten soul. She was also grieving her husband and as the Russia enthusiast and Countess Olga Bennigsen has implied, was perhaps seeking someone new to latch onto. As her sorrows grew and her world shrank, music became her crutch.
Bennigsen acknowledges that the circumstances were ideal for these two kindred spirits. Both were lonely, troubled, and temperamental, as well as desperately in need of a friend who understood. As Bennigsen writes in “A Bizarre Friendship:”
In 1876, still in his prime, Meck died suddenly of heart-failure, bequeathing all his wealth to his widow. Madame von Meck was then barely forty-five, but prematurely aged, a physical and nervous wreck. In a different way, she was no less a “problem-case” than Tchaikovsky. Whether owing to the shock of her husband’s death or to other causes, she had become practically a recluse, seeing no one but her family. She was as restless and as unhappy as Tchaikovsky.
Madame von Meck began to commission compositions from Tchaikovsky, which gave his income a much-needed, though irregular, boost. What would become more regular were the letters exchanged between them. More than 1,200 of them survive. The matchmaker who could take credit for bringing them together in the first place was the young violinist Iosif Kotek, a former pupil of Tchaikovsky’s who suggested to Madame von Meck, at the time his own patron and employer, that she reach out to the composer in the first place.
She desired a seasoned songwriter to invent new pieces for the piano and violin that she could perform. Tchaikovsky was grateful for this arranged new friendship, and the extra cash, though he was hardly careful with his money. Funds slipped easily through the hands that produced timeless works of art. Shamelessly, he would also begin to ask Madame von Meck for loans. Just as shamelessly, Madame von Meck would pay out whatever amount he asked for.
“You are the only person in the world from whom I am not ashamed to ask for money. In the first place, you are very kind and generous; secondly, you are wealthy,” Tchaikovsky wrote to her.
“Why do you hurt and insult me by worrying over material questions? Am I not your friend? You know how I love you. Allow me to provide for you!” Madame von Meck wrote back.
And provide for him she did. The allowance she eventually arranged for him, out of her own purse, was 6,000 Russian rubles a year. At the time, this was a lavish salary, and Tchaikovsky graciously accepted the offer. He was able to quit his despised position at the Moscow Conservatory, where he taught music theory for ten years, and devote himself to writing music full time.
His and Madame von Meck’s subsequent letter-writing lasted between the years 1877 and 1890, a period during which Tchaikovsky enjoyed incredible financial security and productivity. It was a traditional custom for an artist to dedicate a masterpiece to their esteemed patron, and Tchaikovsky certainly followed through. He dedicated his Symphony No. 4—first performed in Moscow on February 22, 1878—to Madame von Meck, who through letters was directly involved in planning both the composition and the program that accompanied it. She was also his confidante while he was producing the opera Eugene Onegin, also first premiered in Moscow, in 1879. Other musical triumphs were the fruit of von Meck’s monetary backing, including—but not limited to—1812 Overture (1882), Symphony No. 5 (1888), Hamlet (1888) and Sleeping Beauty (1889).
And yet, astoundingly, the two never got together in-person to celebrate their joint successes. This was at Madame von Meck’s urging; she did not want Tchaikovsky and herself to ever meet. He had no obligations to her other than replying to her impassioned letters and producing beautiful music. This was unconventional: at the time, it was more common for patrons to be possessive of their protégés and keep them around as amusing companions, to be shown off and bragged about at parties and public events.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), for instance, spent his last years as a guest and artistic-architectural collaborator of King Francis I of France. Francis provided the Italian genius with a comfortable retirement in exchange for having him close by at all times, a valuable asset who added prestige and sophistication to the French court. Madame von Meck, centuries later in Russia, never extended such an invitation to Tchaikovsky. They never lived together, never traveled together, and only accidentally ran into each other once or twice: the first close encounter occurred when they stayed nearby in Florence around the same time in 1878 (some biographers say they never met, though they both knew they were close by); and another time near her family estate of Simaki in 1879. Both encounters were completely accidental, and Tchaikovsky felt obligated to formally apologize after the second time—by letter, of course.
Madame von Meck and Tchaikovsky were, in other words, pen pals. They strictly conducted what is known as “an epistolary friendship.” At the time, it was not a new practice, nor would it be the last of its kind. The aforementioned Catherine the Great and the French writer Voltaire never met in person but carried on a long intellectual conversation through letters that reshaped politics and philosophy in eighteenth-century Europe. The 1970 book 84, Charing Cross Road, along with its 1987 film adaptation (starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins) is about the amiable solidarity formed between the American writer Helene Hanff and the British bookseller Frank Doel, who exchanged books and food parcels as well as letters. Separated by continents and the business of life, they never got to meet each other either. What sets Tchaikovsky and Madame von Meck’s friendship apart from the others was their obsessive determination to maintain a distance between them. At no point was their relationship ever going to evolve beyond the written word, and that had been made that clear from the very beginning.
Tchaikovsky’s biographer Anthony Holden explores Tchaikovsky and Madame von Meck’s relationship in his 1995 biography Tchaikovsky. The author neatly summarizes Madame von Meck’s psychological reasoning behind maintaining such an unorthodox dynamic:
Her bond with the composer was dependant upon not meeting him in the face of the mightiest temptations. There was much more to this than merely her own trembling unease that she would fail to live up to his expectations. She wished to preserve the composer-philosopher as her Platonic ideal of a man—almost, in her world view, the Nietzschean Superman even then in the making—at whatever cost to her own fragile psyche.
Madame von Meck seemed to have lived in a reality of her own making. She liked and kept Tchaikovsky as an almost ghostly figure in her life. She wanted him as a reliable but unseen confidant, not as a demanding flesh-and-blood presence that would sap her dwindling store of emotional energy.
Tchaikovsky was more than happy to oblige. His affection for her was sincere, and it seemed to have caused him genuine pain when she abruptly, and with vague explanations, broke off the relationship (along with the allowance) in 1890. Bennigsen, in her “More Tchaikovsky-von Meck Correspondence,” claims the loss of Madame von Meck’s emotional and financial support made a misery of Tchaikovsky’s three final years of life:
In the late autumn of 1893 a violent attack of cholera carried him away. Modeste [his brother] caught the last word he murmured. In his death-agony he was heard to say “accursed,” and it is believed that the malediction was addressed to Nadezhda Filaretovna, the “priceless friend” of bygone days.
The lesson we can take away from this unique story, especially in the years of a global pandemic where virtual friendships are widespread, is that all relationships matter. You don’t need to meet someone for them to have a firm hold on your heart and a powerful effect on your creative spirit. Perhaps the true great connector of human beings, regardless of time, location, and circumstances, is art.