As one who has done much research on the position of Jews in Russia,
both during Tsarist times and during the Soviet era, I was wondering if
Tchaikovsky in his many letters ever expressed his opinion about the
Jewish people and Jews in Russia.
Apologies for the technical problem which prevented the above message
being displayed for a few hours today (Tuesday).
I suggest for your consideration an article written by P. Tchaikovsky
On the homepage click: Works > Articles > TH270 > Third and Fourth
Symphony Concerts of the Russian Musical Society. The Italian Opera,
or click on the link below
In this article Tchaikovsky expressed his views on the contribution
made by Felix Mendelssohn to the world musical culture.
I appreciate however that this suggestion may not relate directly to
the actual subject of your research.
There are several remarks that Tchaikovsky made about Jews.
I mention one of them (David Brown, part II of his biography, p. 272):
“A mass of dirty Y**s with that poisonous atmosphere which accompanies
them everywhere”, he writes about the railway station he passes on his way
from Clarens to Kamenka (1878).
In Alexander Poznansky's recently published Russian
Петр Чайковский: Биография (Saint Petersburg, 2009), Tchaikovsky's
letter of 8/20 April 1878, in which the remark cited by Mr Schraagen in
his posting above occurs, is also quoted. I think that Poznansky's
comments are very appropriate to this discussion:
"The anti-Semitic remark in this passage produces an unpleasant
impression. Unfortunately, this shameful prejudice was in those times
shared not just by Tchaikovsky and, as we shall see, Mrs. von Meck, too, but also
by many Russian artists and intellectuals, from Dostoevsky to Aleksandr
Blok. This attitude cannot really be excused by the fact that in most
cases their anti-Semitism was not ideologically coloured but, rather, an
everyday habit, due partly to inertia and partly to the weight of
deep-rooted traditions in the surrounding milieu. As a rule, it did not
prevent these writers and artists from establishing good relations and
even friendships with those Jews whom they came to know personally. The
same is true of Tchaikovsky. Despite the sharpness of some of his
remarks, such as the one cited above, which are clearly marked by simple
xenophobia—that is, by revulsion at the appearance or mode of behaviour
of people who did not conform to the criteria he was accustomed to—he
felt a genuine sympathy, albeit with some ups and downs, for both Anton and Nikolay Rubinstein [who
came from a family of converted Jews], and, as we know, Tchaikovsky was
bound to Nikolay by a
close friendship of many years' standing. There is no reason to doubt
that Tchaikovsky got on splendidly with his Jewish colleagues in the
world of music, such as Leopold
Auer or Adolph Brodsky.
Moreover, we have already mentioned his generous patronage of the young
violinist Samuil Litvinov, for whom he even provided a scholarship out
of his own pocket, and we will return to this again later on. It should
also be noted that in Tchaikovsky's writings anti-Semitic invectives of
the kind cited above occur extremely rarely." (vol. 1, p. 584-585)
In a valuable collection of essays entitled Чайковский. Старое и новое (1990), Boris Nikitin also raises
this topic, citing an exchange of letters between Tchaikovsky and Mrs von Meck in May 1881, in
which they discussed the pogroms that had recently taken place near her
estate at Brailov (Such pogroms would
recur frequently during the reigns of Alexander III and Nicholas II). Mrs von Meck wrote to
Tchaikovsky on 4/16 May 1881: "You probably know from the newspapers, my
friend, about the outrages against Jews that are taking place in our area.
Here in Zhemrinka these disturbances occurred on a very wide scale. Fifty
persons were rounded up and all the Jewish houses were plundered (in some
houses pianos were thrown out of the first-floor windows onto the street).
Our poor Brailov Jews are very
worried and scared, especially since the authorities are not taking any
preventive measures. What horrible and difficult times. Happy is he who
can withdraw as far away as possible from all these disgraceful events."
Tchaikovsky shared her indignation (p. 130-31).
Nikitin, moreover, observes how Tchaikovsky, in his music review
articles, consistently defended
Mendelssohn against the anti-Semitic attacks of Wagner and his followers (see
Mr Geidelberg's posting above).
It is also worth noting that Tchaikovsky felt great affection for his
Georges-Léon, whose father, a pianist from Kiev called Stanislav Blumenfeld, was
Jewish. Tchaikovsky helped to find a French family to look after the boy
shortly after his birth in Paris in
1883, and three years later he brought Georges-Léon with him to
Russia, where he was adopted by his brother Nikolai. (For more
details of Tchaikovsky's assistance to Tat'iana and her child, see
Tchaikovsky. The Quest for the Inner Man and his most recent
biography). Again, this suggests that ties of family, as well as of
personal or collegial friendship, were more important to Tchaikovsky than
the prejudices of his times.
In his post, Luis Sundkvist (citing Boris Nikitin’s book) mentions an
exchange of letters between Tchaikovsky and Mrs. Von Meck in which they
discuss pogroms that had recently occurred in Brailov. The relevant
passage from von Meck’s letter, dated 4/16 May 1881, is quoted. The post
goes on to state that Tchaikovsky shared her indignation, though his
response is not quoted.
Mrs. Von Meck’s letter can be seen here:
on a website that
contains the years-long correspondence between the two. Clicking on the
arrow at the bottom brings the reader to the subsequent letters of the
correspondence, listed chronologically. The letters are numbered. The
letters on the website can be translated (very awkwardly) by utilizing
I have been unable to find any comment from Tchaikovsky concerning the
pogroms. Instead of an exchange of letters on the subject, I have so far
only been able to find von Meck’s comment. If anyone can provide the
specific quote and the date of the letter in which Tchaikovsky shares von
Meck’s indignation, I would be grateful.
I do not speak Russian, and I do not have access to Nikitin’s book.
After recently looking at Boris Nikitin's book again in conjunction
with the Soviet edition of the Tchaikovsky–von Meck correspondence, it
does seem that Mr Wacksmann is correct in pointing out that Nikitin's
observation that Tchaikovsky "shared" Mrs. von Meck's indignation over the
pogroms in the Brailov area is not explicitly corroborated by
Tchaikovsky's subsequent letters to her: he does not mention the issue. It
might, however, be a good idea to check other letters from that period.