There’s an adage saying, “behind every great man lies a great woman.” Surprisingly, no one came up with a similar statement for composers – “behind every great composer lies a great patron.” Or, in the case of Tchaikovsky, a great patroness. A woman of exceptional wealth by mysterious nature, Countess Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck was the woman who backed the Russian composer to stardom. In an era of private patronages, this one was truly unique.
Nadezhda was born in 1831 to a wealthy landowner. Her art-loving father, Filaret, cultivated her passion for music. She grew to appreciate the visual arts and studied the piano in her youth. From her mother, Anastasiya, she developed a keen business sense. It’s unclear how much of her mother’s influence aided her in her marriage. In 1848, the sixteen-year-old Nadezhda married Karl von Meck. Ten years her senior, Karl was born of little means. His fortunes changed when he gained financial success as a railway tycoon. As their wealth blossomed, so too did their family: the couple had eighteen children, of which eleven survived.
When Karl died in 1876, he willed his financial empire to his wife. Despite secluding herself from society (she never attended the wedding of any of her kids), her heart for the arts remained strong. She gave substantial endowments to the Russian Musical Society and Moscow Conservatory shortly after her husband’s death. Her generosity also coincided with the beginning of a long relationship with patroness and composer.
Historically, composers were treated by their patrons as nothing more than household staff. Mozart was infuriated when the Archbishop of Salzburg restricting his opportunities to travel elsewhere. Haydn, too, was placed under similar conditions by Prince Esterhazy. But Meck and Tchaikovsky were of a different liking. Meck provided him with an annual stipend that freed him from loathing about at the Moscow Conservatory. And neither met in person. On one account, Pyotr was invited to stay at her summer retreat in Florence. And yet neither set sight upon the other. Instead, they exchanged letters in the hundreds – over 500 remain in existence, though possibly more exchanged. A bit odd? Perhaps. But she provided as much financial support as she could emotional.
In 1877, Tchaikovsky married his former pupil, Antonina Milyukova. The marriage bed remained cold, and the pair only lived together for no more than three months. Struggling with his sexuality, Pyotr was in the midst of his marital & personal turmoil when he composed his Fourth Symphony. A breakaway from Western form and structure, one can hear Tchaikovsky’s emotional and psychological pain in this symphony. His creative impulses were matched by his personal – if not physical – expressiveness in this period of his life.
“I hated her because she did not make you happy, but I would have hated her 100 times more if she had.” Despite not being on hand for emotional support, Nadezhda consoled the composer from a distance. Their letters convey a profoundly intellectual relationship. Her companionship, though distant, helped Tchaikovsky during this grueling period in his life. For this, and much more, he dedicated the Fourth Symphony to the countess. In paternalistic Imperial Russia, this was a unique gesture to dedicate works to a woman. Undoubtedly, the gesture reflects the bonds of friendship between patroness and composer.
They continued to correspond until an abrupt and mysterious end in 1890. Some attribute the end to her financial woes and inability to support the artist. Others believe she fell upon the influence of her family, particularly her eldest son Vladimir. Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky died on November 6, 1893, aged 53. Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck died a few months later on January 13, 1894, aged 62.
Though initially deemed unfavorable by the press, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony remains regarded as one of his best compositions. Countess von Meck, meanwhile, is credited as supporting Tchaikovsky from relative obscurity to stardom. Through the good times and bad, she was there with him at every step of the way. She was more than just doling out money. To Tchaikovsky, in his dedication of Symphony No. 4, he regards her as “My Best Friend.”
A fitting tribute to an extraordinary woman.
October 17 & 19
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre
Tickets can be purchased here, by phone at 454-2100, or at our new Patron Services Center at 255 East Avenue at the back of the building. Free parking in the adjacent garage off of Union Street, between East Ave & Broad Street.