La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Yours truly, P. Tchaikovsky

'Pikovaya Dama' in the words of the composer

Thomas Van Deursen
Reading time
9 min.

Tchaikovsky, the master of melody. Tchaikovsky, the wavering neurotic. Tchaikovsky, the homosexual. Tchaikovsky, the Russian icon. Tchaikovsky, the European. None of these labels are sufficient to describe the complex composer behind some of the most popular works in musical history. That’s why, in this article, we let him do the talking. Immerse yourself in Tchaikovsky's correspondence and discover the story behind Pikovaya Dama (The Queen of Spades), an opera that was not actually intended for him...

Moscow, May 1885. Pavel Pchelnikov, intendant of the municipal theatre, received a letter from Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the Director of the Russian Imperial Theatre. In it, a request to present a new opera project to the composer and conductor Nikolai Klenovsky: an adaptation of Pushkin’s novella Queen of Spades “… which, depending on the circumstances, had a good chance of success. A casino, a ball, organised by a Princess, a nocturnal scene in her palace, a ghostly appearance… It certainly fires the imagination.”

Tchaikovsky's correspondence

Today, more than 5,000 of Tchaikovsky’s letters remain, written to around 400 people. These precious documents not only give us a better understanding of this artist’s rich personality, they also allow us to peek over his shoulder as he creates his compositions. Each letter has two dates. In Tchaikovsky’s time, the calendar referred to in the Russian Empire was twelve days behind the calendar used in the West. This difference emerged following the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in Europe at the end of the sixteenth century. This Gregorian calendar then became the general standard, except in the Russian and Ottoman Empire. They stuck with the former Julian calendar. It was not until 1918 that the Soviet Union switched over, and Turkey only did so in 1926. During his travels Tchaikovsky often used both dating systems in his correspondence, although inconsistently and sometimes incorrectly.

Tchaikovsky in June 1890, together with husband and wife Medea and Nikolai Figner, for whom he wrote the role of Hermann.
Tchaikovsky in June 1890, together with husband and wife Medea and Nikolai Figner, for whom he wrote the role of Hermann.

The tree of revenge bears no fruit

The first attempt at a libretto was entrusted to Vasily Kandaurov, who suggested a play with musical accompaniment. However, there was no support for his idea. After a two-year silence, on 12/24 September 1887, Klenovsky wrote a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky:

“Last week, M. Vsevolozhsky, the Director of the Imperial Theatre, paid a visit to Moscow. He enquired about the opera that I was planning to compose, based on Pushkin’s Queen of Spades. When I told him that I had yet to begin writing due to the lack of libretto, he advised me to contact you, due to your expertise in the matter. This explains my humble request. Please let me know if you accept to write the libretto for the above opera, and if so, please state your terms.”

Based on the remaining correspondence between Modest and Klenovsky we can deduce that the two men worked together for several months. A first synopsis was prepared for Klenovsky to write a musical accompaniment. However, as Modest worked hard on adapting the novella, a new idea developed in his mind, namely to convince his brother to write his own opera based on the same material. But Tchaikovsky was still bitter about the fate of Charodeyka (The Enchantress) one year earlier. So he refused to consider it, as we learn in his letter written 28 March/9 April 1888:

Tbilisi, 28 March [18]88
(...) I’m delighted that you wish to write a drama, but a comedy, tailored to our artists would have been even better. It’s a shame you have wasted so much time with the libretto for Klenovsky. Apologies, Modya, but I’m not sorry at all that I won’t be composing for Queen of Spades. Following the fiasco of Charodeyka I was keen for revenge and I was prepared to do anything. Then I became jealous that I wasn’t doing any composing myself. Meanwhile, this is all in the past, and in the summer I will certainly write a symphony. I shall only embark on an opera if I find a topic that truly inspires me. A subject such as Queen of Spades does not stir me, so composing it would demand considerable effort.

Alone at the river arno

The project took a back seat for a number of reasons. Until November 1889, when Ivan Vsevolozhsky - during a visit to St. Petersburg - personally approached Tchaikovsky to take over and write the opera based on his brother’s libretto. The composer agreed and retired to Florence, one of his favourite havens in which to work in isolation. Tchaikovsky loved to travel and did so in Europe throughout his career, developing strong relations with many musicians of his day. Artistically too, his orientation was more western than, for example, composers in The Five, who advocated a form of “authentic" Russian music. Tchaikovsky wandered half-way, on a path that was not always appreciated, according to comments made by his contemporaries, accusing him either of Slavic indulgence or excessive German or French influences.

Postcard from 1908 featuring Hotel Washington on the banks of the Arno, where Tchaikovsky stayed in Florence.
Postcard from 1908 featuring Hotel Washington on the banks of the Arno, where Tchaikovsky stayed in Florence.

Upon his arrival in Tuscany he wrote in his diary: “Began work, not bad.” From his hotel on the bank of the river Arno, basking in Mediterranean tranquillity, he shared more details with his girlfriend, the pianist Yulia Shpazhinskaya:

Florence, Hotel Washington, 26 January/7 February 1890
(...) On the other hand, I felt the urgent need to relax and restart composing, as my true profession. And then, as if on purpose, I. A. Vsevolozhsky appeared and insisted that I should work on the composition of an opera based on the Queen of Spades. The libretto had already been written by none other than my very own brother Modest for a certain G. Klenovsky, who had actually done no composition at all. I read it through and liked what I saw, and one day I decided to drop everything, by which I mean St. Petersburg and Moscow and the many cities in Germany, Belgium, and France to which I had been invited for concerts. And I decided to go abroad, somewhere where I could work undisturbed.
So I decided to leave, and did so at the earliest opportunity. I’m now staying in Florence. I have a wonderfully comfortable haven that protects me from any invasion by my compatriots and where I began my work eight days ago. I’m very excited about it, yet also realise that I have yet to put anything that’s in my mind down on paper and that the opera will fall into place provided God grants me a few extra months. (...)
Life is unpredictable and can be cruel, yet let us live in hope. I shall write to you more often now.
Yours truly, P. Tchaikovsky

This stay turned out to be highly productive. In addition to Queen of Spades, he also began writing the famous strings sextet that was later named Souvenir de Florence.

Tchaikovsky spent his days impatiently working and waiting for new scenes from Modest. Despite struggling with his isolation, the speed at which he worked gives an insight into his growing adoration of his future opera. This deep and physical passion appears to have characterised the composition of all his greatest works. He told his cousin Anna Merkling of his state of mind:

Florence, 19/7 February 1890
(...) Oh, Anya! What makes life appealing is not, as you say, spending the entire year travelling abroad, but having someone at home who you love, who you care about, with whom you share suffering and happiness. In short, I despair of my loneliness, I’m fed up with my constant wandering, the lack of familiar ground beneath my feet is somehow making my life fake, fragile, empty!
(...) My work is progressing slowly but surely; today I wrote the scene in which Hermann visits the old lady... It was so horrific that the fear continues to run through me.

A triumphant epilogue

Tchaikovsky fell in love with the characters to such an extent that he adapted the libretto himself, as well as making some additions. He completed the score in 44 days. In a letter to his brother he wrote:

3 March [18]90
Modyenka, I realise that you do not appreciate the fact that I have scrapped a verse here and there in your libretto, and I know the feeling. Had the composer been anyone else, I would understand it too. But firstly: we live one thousand kilometres apart and it was impossible to communicate on every detail. Secondly: I have changed very little and hardly added a thing! Thirdly: please feel free to change my poems as much as you like.
I composed the end of the opera yesterday, before lunch. Upon reaching the moment of Hermann’s death and the final chorus, I felt compassion for Hermann and suddenly began to weep. My sobbing was very persistent, ending up in a short but particularly pleasant attack of hysteria: by which I mean that I truly enjoyed my tears. Then I realised why – having never known such sobbing due to the demise of my hero, I tried to comprehend why I should feel so overcome with grief. I realised that Hermann was not only the reason to write music, to me he was actually a real, living person all that time, and one who I also truly admired.

On 8 June in the same year, Tchaikovsky completed the orchestration and submitted the score to Pyotr Jurgenson, as the official publisher. The première of Queen of Spades was performed on 7/19 December 1890 in Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. The opera received a triumphant applause from both the audience and the critics. The piece soon found its way to Kiev and the Bolshoi in Moscow. A few years later it was included in the European repertoire and performed in Hamburg, Prague and London. Tchaikovsky expressed his delight about the success of his work in a letter to the Grand Duke of Russia, Konstantin Konstantinovich, who had nothing but praise for the composer:

5 August 1890, Frolovsky village
Your Imperial Highness!
I received your warm, friendly and charming letter a few hours before my departure, on a journey far away. Therefore, I beg you, please forgive me if my response is shorter than it should otherwise be. Even so, there is so much I wish to say about your remarks on Queen of Spades ! (…) I am delighted that you liked the opera in general, and I hope that, when you listen to it, you will grow even more fond of it. I felt an unprecedented fervour and passion when writing it. I personally experienced and sensed everything that takes place intensely, even to such an extent that at one moment I was afraid that the ghost of the Queen of Spades would appear. And I hope that all my spirit, enthusiasm and excitement will echo in the hearts of benevolent listeners.

The dream expressed by Tchaikovsky came true with performances in opera houses across the globe, right up to the present day. So for the Queen of Spades, an opera that was actually intended for another composer, the future is safe.