From left to right: Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Konradi and Modest Tchaikovsky. Photographed in San Remo, 31 January/12 February 1878.
From Pyotr Tchaikovsky by Philip Ross Bullock (London: Reaktion Books, 2016). Footnotes omitted.
If Francesca da Rimini was a product of Tchaikovsky’s visit to Bayreuth, then its feverish atmosphere and dramatic storyline may be linked to developments in its composer’s personal life too. At the time he was working on the symphonic fantasia, he penned a number of frank letters to his brother Modest, which set in motion a series of events that were to alter the course of his life. The first was written on 10 September 1876:
I have given a great deal of thought . . . both to me, to you and to our future. The result of all this contemplation is that from this day on I seriously intend to enter a state of lawful matrimony with anybody at all. I find that our inclinations are for us the greatest and most unsurmountable impediment to happiness, and we must fight our nature with all our strength.
Tchaikovsky’s decision seems to have stemmed from the intense feelings he experienced for Nikolay (Kolya) Konradi, an eight-year-old deaf-mute boy to whom Modest had been engaged as tutor earlier that year. Worried as much for Modest as for himself, Tchaikovsky saw marriage as the only way to repress such troubling emotions:
I love you very much, and I love Kolya too, and truly wish that, for the good of you both, you may never be separated, but the condition sine qua non of the durability of your relations must be that you are no longer that which you have been up until now. This is necessary not for the sake of qu’en dira-t-on [the opinion of other people], but for you yourself and for your peace of mind. A man who, after parting with his own child (he can be called your own), finds himself in the embraces of the first rogue he comes across cannot be the teacher that you want to and should become.
Tchaikovsky’s resolve was not as strong as he had hoped. A few weeks later, he confessed to Modest that ‘the realization of my plans is nothing like as imminent as you think. I am so fixed in my habits and tastes that it is impossible to cast them aside all at once like an old glove’, before going on to give an account of a recent trip to a friend’s estate, which he described as ‘nothing but a pederastic bordello’ and where he ‘fell in love like a cat with his coachman!!!’
The Suite No. 3 is also one of those rare works from which there exist a relatively comprehensive compositional history, as Tchaikovsky’s diary for the summer of 1884 is one of the few such documents to have survived. Alongside satirical vignettes of the residents at Kamenka and an account of the composer’s reading, card-playing, English lessons and long country walks, it traces the evolution of the suite in considerable detail. More tantalizingly, it also chronicles the composer’s feelings for his twelve-year-old nephew, Vladimir (known affectionately within the family as Bob). Tchaikovsky had previously dedicated the Children’s Album to his young nephew in 1878. Now, however, he was struck by a far more intense set of feelings. The first mention of Bob’s charms comes some two weeks into Tchaikovsky’s stay at Kamenka, on 24 April: ‘All day, Bob captivated my glances; how incomparably sweet he is in his little white suit.’ Nearly a month later, on 22 May, Bob’s hold over Tchaikovsky had become total: ‘As soon as I stop working or go out for a stroll (and that is also work for me), I begin to long for Bob and grow melancholy without him.’
Dmitry Davydov (1870–1929), left, and his brother Vladimir ("Bob") (1871–1906), pictured in 1882.