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Tchaikovsky on Jews and Judaism

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.

Thank you,

Richard T

Apologies for the technical problem which prevented the above message being displayed for a few hours today (Tuesday).

Brett Langston

Hello Richard.

I suggest for your consideration an article written by P. Tchaikovsky in 1872.

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.

A. Geidelberg

Hello Richard,

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).

Rien Schraagen

In Alexander Poznansky's recently published Russian biography, 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 niece Tat'iana's illegitimate son, 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 Poznansky's 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.

Luis Sundkvist

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 Google.

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.

Thank you,

Marty Wacksman
13/12/2011 18:17

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.

Luis Sundkvist
20/06/2012 22:45

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