4:54 pm Jan. 31, 2012
In May of 1891, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was on his way to Niagara Falls when, changing trains in Utica, he composed a letter to his brother, Modest, that read in part: “ginger bread and toy soldiers have started dancing in my head.”
These images were to become the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” part of The Nutcracker, one of the most familiar works by the Russian composer, who was going to see Niagara Falls—then considered one of the Wonders of the World—at the end of a 20-day stay in the United States.
For Gino Francesconi, those 20 days are a door between the past and present of American culture, and the relationship between European and American culture. To him, it began with Carnegie Hall, where he is the gatekeeper of history.
Francesconi is Carnegie Hall’s archivist and director of its museum. He currently works from a temporary office in a building on Broadway and West 50th Street; he can move back to that Hall after renovations are finished, but for now he occupies an office in the back of a large room of ordinary cubicles that is obscured by a lobby with enormous glass doors painted with an enormous C, and thick, deep red carpeting. His office has neutral, spare carpeting, and is lined with shelves of bound leather books and the sort of boxes that hold archival material. What he has around him are some of the more valuable items from the archive, a very small sample; according to Francesconi, truckloads of material are in storage in Long Island City.
Francesconi has a professorial bearing. He speaks very straightforwardly as though his enormous depth of knowledge—he blithely rattles off names of composers and works and dates and performances—were regular gossip; on the day I visited, he was wearing a ribbed blue sweater over a blue-checked shirt.
When he discusses decisions made by Carnegie Hall directors and employees that are long dead, he refers to to them as “we,” in the way that alumni of prestigious universities tend to refer to current and past students.
TCHAIKOVSKY, HE EXPLAINED, HAD COME TO HELP OPEN Carnegie Hall, the big new music hall financed by mogul-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (though back then it was just called Music Hall). It’s future was already uncertain for a variety of reasons, so it had open with "a bang.” At the time, New York’s “Midtown” was Union Square; Carnegie Hall was on 57th Street, meaning it was a lonely outpost for high culture. The streetcar lines stopped one-and-a-half blocks short of the hall on one side and two blocks away on the other. The subway wouldn’t even open until 1904, another 13 years from then, and would take yet another 13 years to reach Carnegie Hall.
At the same time, the United States was the world’s largest producer of pianos. Between New York and Chicago there were about 300 companies, and most of them had their own halls, with their own musicians; Steinway musicians played Steinway Hall, Weber musicians played Weber Hall, and along with the Music Academy, the large majority were located in what is now considered “downtown.” Competition for the Music Hall was already more than established.
At the time Tchaikovsky was one of the better-known and most revered living composers, and his arrival from Russia incited actual frenzy.
When he was invited, Tchaikovsky did not immediately accept.
“He was manic-depressive. He had visions of an early death,” said Francesconi, “and he wanted to get his works in order.”
“But we sort of made him an offer he couldn’t refuse; We paid him $2,500 for 20 days.” (The average annual income in the United States at the time was $684.)
Tchaikovsky did ultimately agree to come to New York, but on his way to where he would board the boat in France, he was offered a commission by the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg—they wanted the unusual arrangement of an opera and a ballet that would debut on the same night—and he spent a bit of time in Paris and then in Rouen thinking about the works that would become Iolanta and The Nutcracker.
While in Paris he met a man who had engineered a new instrument he called the Celesta. Francesconi was acutely excited.
“He writes to his publisher in Berlin,” Francesconi said, “and he said, ‘I’ve just met a man who’s invented a new instrument. It’s perfect for the ballet that I have to think about in America, but don’t tell [friend and rival Nikolai] Rimsky-Korsakov, because he’ll use it before me.”
Rimsky-Korsakov did not get to it first, and the Celesta debuted in the Nutcracker, then became a popular instrument for opera, and years later, comprised part of the song “Pure Imagination” sung by Gene Wilder in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the scores for Harry Potter films, and the theme song to “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood”: “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
After a few weeks in France, Tchaikovsky boarded the boat for New York. The New World was unfamiliar to the Russian, and on the boat Tchaikovsky wrote in his journal a few questions he felt he needed to ask once he arrived in America: “Is it safe to drink the water? What kind of hats do men wear? Where can I do my laundry?” He had circled an item that read: “Check the acoustics of the new music hall.”
In New York, Tchaikovsky’s arrival was highly anticipated by both the public and the media. “There were articles in the newspapers that, Tchaikovsky’s coming,” Francesconi said, “and tickets sold out; in fact there were complaints in the paper saying, ‘Hey, how come I didn’t get a chance to get my tickets?’”
The opening night performance was well received, as was the new music hall that nobody had yet seen, one that provided a different experience of the music for its audience than downtown halls had.
WHEN HE DESCRIBES WHAT CHANGED, FRANCESCONI SOUNDS almost as if he were there.
“For me, anyway,” Francesconi said, “it made the audiences focus on the music like it hadn’t before. For one, there are no barriers in the boxes; they're all open; the tiers are slightly tapered. And this means that, almost from any seat in the house, you an see half or three-quarters of other audience members. And so what does this mean?
“It means that people up in the balcony could see if Mrs. Vanderbilt was actually listening to the music, or having a ham sandwich, or talking. Whereas before you could do that, in your own little private box, it was like your own little world. You close the door, you close the curtains, and have your ham sandwich.
“This was all open. And the architectural detailing is very simple; there’s no curtain, there are no frescoes, there’s no chandelier; the stage kind of comes out to you a little bit, so there’s this wonderful interaction and it really made you focus on the music more than in other places.”
Tchaikovsky loved New York, and he loved the attention. He read everything that was written about him, (and was displeased when one newspaper described him as 60ish, though he was celebrating his 50th birthday); he gave lengthy interviews to the most prominent critics of the time, he wrote every day (on one of his sketches from this time he notes that it was written while walking up Broadway). He went sightseeing every day; he favored Delmonico’s. He went up the Hudson River and out to Long Island to what is now the area around Jones Beach.
He received masses of invitations: To the Men’s Club, the Downtown Club, the Century Club, the Manhattan Club. He went to dinner at Carnegie’s home, and at the home of the prominent music publisher Gustav Schirmer at the Dakota; this Francesconi told me as if being entertained by Schirnmer was more impressive, even today, than dinner with Andrew Carnegie.
And there were the wonders of the city.
“He couldn’t believe there were people that lived 10 floors off the ground,” Francesconi said. “That was one of the excitements of his time here, taking the elevator.”
He found his widespread celebrity remarkable.
“He felt that, ‘You know they know my music here as well as they do at home, if not better,’” Francesconi said. “They followed him around, he had piles of letters on his table.”
“They would cut his face out of the newspapers and magazines and then send then to him and sign them,” he said.
Like most celebrities, “Sometimes he’d sign them, sometimes he wouldn’t.”
“It’s hard to imagine him in our city when we’re so overwhelmed with stuff, and being bombarded all the time with sound bites from everybody, and Facebook and Twitter and all of this. Stars like him arriving in this country were far and few between.”
Tchaikovsky played four times at what would come to be called Carnegie Hall: the 5th, 7th, 8th, and 9th of May, 1891; on the 9th he conducted his Piano Concerto No. 1.
From New York he went to Philadelphia and then Baltimore to perform, and then to Washington, D.C. to meet the Russian ambassador, before leaving for Niagara Falls.
But his visit also left an impression on Europe, changing something about the way Europeans perceived America.
“This is an interesting time period in America’s culture,” Francesconi said, “where there were a dozen or so industrialists who had more money than some European countries combined. And yet as a culture we were very insecure. It had to come from over there or it wasn’t any good—or it had to sound like it came from over there.”
Not long after, it reversed.
“When we started with our own culture,” he said, “it came to be so that if you sounded like you came from there, you now had to sound as if you came from here.”
He gave two examples to demonstrate what he called “this ping-pong game.”
Olga Samaroff debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1905, and later became the head of the piano division at Juilliard.
“You can see the steppes of Russia with that name, Olga Samaroff,” Francesconi said. “In fact her real name was Lucy Mary Agnes Hickenlooper and she was from Galveston. But with a name like that, she wasn’t going to get any recognition whatsoever. So she become Olga Samaroff. The talent was the same.”
By 1941, a man who enlisted in the U.S. Army, and whose given name was Issur Danielovitch, had legally changed it Kirk Douglas.
“[Tchaikovsky] started this wave,” Francesconi said. “After he came, there were others: Saint-Saëns came and then Prokofiev, and it was just one after the other after the other. A lot of it was based on what Tchaikovsky said when he went home. Mahler came and actually lived here for awhile.”
“Carnegie Hall becomes an anchor of our culture,” Francesconi said. “So that in less than a generation it became as important to perform here as over there. And so, then you have one of the greatest living composers coming, and people thought, ‘Wow,’ this was really pretty cool.” Tchaikovsky never returned to America, though not for lack of invitation.
ABOUT A YEAR AFTER TCHAIKOVSKY LEFT NEW YORK, he was at Oxford to receive an honorary degree, along with a number of prominent composers (Walter Damrosch and Edvard Hagerup Grieg, though not Brahms, who was invited, but did not like to travel on the ocean).
During this remarkable gathering of the world’s greatest living composers, “Damrosch goes, and he’s sitting next to Tchaikovsky and he says, ‘So what are you doing?’ and [Tchaikovsky] said, ‘I’m working on a new piece.’ And he says, ‘it has a program, but I’m not going to tell anyone what it is.’”
“And Damrosch says,” Francesconi continued, “‘Well can I do the premiere of it in America?’ Tchaikovsky says, ‘Sure, sure, sure, sure.’”
In the meantime, Andrew Carnegie, having become an avid admirer, asked Tchaikovsky if he would come to the Chicago World’s Fair.
The composer died before Damrosch could debut the new work in America, and while he was still negotiating with Carnegie over appearing at the World’s Fair.
Tchaikovsky’s death, Francesconi said, is “a very touchy subject,” about which more than one book and more than one doctoral thesis has been written, and about which there has been enormous speculation.
He died during an outbreak of cholera in St. Petersburg, most likely of cholera (there are a few scholars who have theorized he was poisoned), but what was at least carelessness and at most passive suicide, he drank the water with full knowledge that it may have been diseased.
“There are people today who will fight you to the death,” Francesconi said, “who will say, ‘No, it was an accident.’” But, he added, that the composer did have a mental illness, and that he had recently been accused of having an affair with another man.
“The fact is,” Franesconi said. “He drank that water; the fact is he died. He contracted cholera and died. He was condemned to death.”
The last piece Tchaikovsky composed, the one Damrosch wanted to bring to America, was the Sixth Symphony—subtitled Pathetique; Tchaikovsky conducted its debut in St. Petersburg, and died nine days later, on Nov. 6, 1893, at the age of 53.
Damrosch, whom Tchaikovsky had said could debut the Sixth Symphony in New York, received the score a month or two after the composer’s death, and he said that it was like a voice from the dead. He conducted it at Carnegie Hall in March of 1894.
“If you think of it in terms of Tchaikovsky’s life,” Francesconi said, “and [him] knowing that he was going to die, it [the Sixth Symphony] could be very autobiographical.”
Francesconi is not alone in this belief; Sir Donald Francis Tovey described the finale as embodying the “complete simplicity of despair.”
Francesconi went to Russia first in 1989 (and twice again in years following), when the government was falling apart, to try to find material he could borrow for the opening of the museum.
“It was a little tense,” he said, “You didn’t know who was in charge from one day to the next. And the museums were scared to death, and I was more scared than they were.”
(It was not the first time the Russians had been concerned about the Tchaikovsky collection--during World War Two, they sent everything they had to the Ural mountains to be stored in caves.)
It was sometimes frustrating, Francesconi said. “They would show us wonderful things and then would say, ‘no you can’t have them.’”
There was one thing in particular Francesconi wanted to see.
“At one point , Francesconi said, “I said, ‘Do you have his Bible?’ And she said, ‘Bible?’ and I said, Yes, the one he took to Niagara Falls.”
Francesconi knew the Bible was there, and knew why it was something to see, because in the diary Tchaikovsky took to Niagara falls, he had written, “Everywhere there are signs that say, ‘Do not pick the flowers,’ but I take some and I put them in my Bible, no one will see them.’”
“And she went in,” Francesconi said, a bit of suspense in his tone, “and got the box and opened up the Bible and there were the dried flowers from Niagara Falls. I say, that’s when we bonded.”
He meant the woman from the museum, and the Russian guardians of the composer’s material, but it could as easily have been Tchaikovsky, and the Hall he had made famous.
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