Russian poet (b. 15/27 November 1840 at Bolkhov, in Oryol province; d. 17/29 August 1893 in Saint Petersburg), born Aleksey Nikolayevich Apukhtin (Алексей Николаевич Апухтин).
Born into a gentry family of modest means, Aleksey spent his childhood in the countryside, at Pavlodar in Kaluga province. He showed poetic gifts at a very early age and was also endowed with an exceptional memory: in later years he was known for being able to quote all of Pushkin by heart. In 1852, he commenced his studies at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg, where soon many of his classmates and teachers saw in him a future Pushkin. Tchaikovsky's close friendship with Apukhtin (known to the composer as "Lyolya" [Лёля]) dates from the autumn of 1853 and was based on a shared love of literature and poetry. The young Tchaikovsky looked up to his new friend as by far the more talented and knowledgeable in literature, and he contributed various items for the The School Herald, a magazine edited by Apukhtin, including, in 1854, an essay entitled A History of Literature in our Class (История литературы нашего класса) (TH 367) which has unfortunately not survived . However, although Apukhtin's poetic flair was generally admired, he was far less popular than the modest Tchaikovsky, since he tended to look down arrogantly on most of his fellow students.
In these years at the School of Jurisprudence no one could really see in the young Tchaikovsky the makings of the future composer, since, quite apart from his insufficient musical training, it was only in front of a few close friends that he would sit down at the piano in the Schools music room and improvise. Apukhtin, however, did recognize his friend's artistic aspirations, and from a poem he dedicated to Tchaikovsky in 1877—"You remember how, hiding in the music room" (Ты помнишь, как, забившись в «музыкальной»), quoted in full below—it seems that the two youths "dreamt of an ideal glory" and of dedicating their lives to art .
In 1854, at the height of the Crimean War, Apukhtin's literary fame spread beyond the walls of his alma mater when two of his patriotic poems were published with the assistance of the Schools director. By 1858 his talent had been taken notice of by two leading Russian writers of their generation, the lyric poet Afanasy Fet and the novelist Ivan Turgenev. The latter, in particular, is reported as predicting that Apukhtin would one day become as famous as Pushkin and Lermontov!  Turgenev made the acquaintance of the young poet in the summer of 1858, since his manor-house at Spasskoye was close by to the Apukhtin family estate in Pavlodar, where Aleksey was spending the vacations before his last year at the School. Later that summer Apukhtin sent a letter to Turgenev, which has not survived but which was evidently filled with pessimistic thoughts and doubts about his purpose in life, since the novelist wrote a lengthy and sympathetic reply to the young man, urging him not to abandon himself to melancholy, especially in view of the imminent reforms which were to take place in Russia and when all hands would be needed on deck:
In April 1859, Apukhtin graduated from the School of Jurisprudence with a gold medal, but his success was clouded by the death of his mother shortly afterwards—a bitter blow for him that would leave its mark in some of his later poems in which an ideal mother figure is invoked as a symbol of infinite goodness and love. On Turgenev's recommendation, some of Apukhtin's lyric poems and the cycle Country Sketches (Деревенские очерки) were published in the September 1859 issue of The Contemporary, which at the time was Russia's foremost literary journal. Overnight the young poet became quite famous and during the next few years he would acquire many devoted admirers—unfortunately more and more in the high society circles of Saint Petersburg rather than amongst the wider reading public.
For Apukhtin had no intention of earning his living as a writer, and in May 1859 he started working at the Ministry of Justice, where Tchaikovsky would soon join him. In 1862, however, following a public scandal , Apukhtin resigned his post and returned to his native province of Oryol, where he worked for a while as the local governor's official for special assignments. In the summer of 1863, Tchaikovsky, whose father had gone to Kamenka with the twins Anatoly and Modest, accepted Apukhtin's invitation to stay at his family estate in Pavlodar, and it seems that during his friend's visit Apukhtin wrote a poem entitled Fate: On Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (Судьба: К 5–ой симфонии Бетховена) and dedicated to Tchaikovsky, who had himself just resigned from the Ministry of Justice to concentrate on studying music in earnest . (This poem would later be set to music by Sergei Rachmaninoff.) Although Apukhtin would remain a lifelong friend of the composer this friendship became increasingly strained due to their rapidly diverging attitude towards life and work.
In the spring of 1865, Apukhtin moved back to Saint Petersburg, where he would spend the rest of his life, apart from occasional trips within Russia (including a pilgrimage to Pushkin's grave near Pskov in 1870) and his only visit to Western Europe in 1874. By the second half of the 1860s he had effectively ceased publishing verses in the literary journals and began wasting his time on society pleasures, including appearances in amateur theatricals. It so happened that in the autumn of 1865 Tchaikovsky, who had just returned to Saint Petersburg after spending the summer in Kamenka, was forced to change lodgings several times due to economic problems until in November Apukhtin let him stay in his flat . A few weeks later, on 5/17 January 1866, Tchaikovsky set off for Moscow, where he was to embark on a new phase of his life as a teacher of music theory for the local branch of the Russian Musical Society. As Nikolay Kashkin later recalled, Tchaikovsky arrived in Moscow, wearing a shabby suit of clothes, with no more protection against the harsh winter frosts than "an incredibly old raccoon fur coat which A. N. Apukhtin had given to him" .
That very year the difference in the two former school-friends' outlook on life would manifest itself very clearly. On 1/13 May 1866, Tchaikovsky's Overture in F major was featured at a charity concert in the Mikhaylovsky Palace in Saint Petersburg. Apukhtin attended this concert and shortly afterwards he wrote to Tchaikovsky in Moscow, saying that he had liked the overture, but first he commented at length on something that Tchaikovsky had evidently said in an earlier letter to the poet. (No letters from Tchaikovsky to Apukhtin have come to light as yet, but several letters from Apukhtin to the composer are stored in the Klin House-Museum Archive). It seems that Tchaikovsky had exhorted his friend to devote himself seriously to literature, for Apukhtin, in the sarcastic tone that he often liked to adopt, ridiculed Tchaikovsky's admonishments: "You at the same time continue to believe, like a naïve schoolgirl, in labour and struggle… Strange that you've not mentioned progress as well! Why should we labour?" , then adding that Tchaikovsky had no right to boast about his decision to take up music professionally, since he was merely following his natural inclination. Apukhtin also rejected the suggestion that he should become a professional writer: "I like your advice about my devoting myself to literature! In those times when 'en Russie quelques gentilshommes s'occupaient de littérature' I might well have been a writer, but now no power on earth will force me to step out into an arena which is clogged up with base rubbish, denunciations and… seminarists! There is only one sacred name for me in contemporary Russian literature: Lev Tolstoy…" 
Much as Tchaikovsky would have sympathized with Apukhtin's veneration of Tolstoy , he could clearly not subscribe to his friend's dismissal of the value of work. As Alexander Poznansky points out, "Tchaikovsky never surrendered to moral relativism or general cynicism, and to a great extent, he preserved until the end of his life the youthful idealism (equally characteristic of his father) that made his personality so attractive" . In this new phase of his life, when he had just started writing his First Symphony (probably begun in March 1866) and was due to take up a teaching post at the Moscow Conservatory in the autumn, Tchaikovsky distanced himself from his friend's seemingly devil-may-care attitude to everything. In a letter written around the same time to Anatoly, who was then studying at the School of Jurisprudence, Tchaikovsky urged his younger brother to work hard and not imagine that he was a genius superior to everyone else . He was probably thinking of the negative example of Apukhtin, who unfortunately had not heeded Turgenev's advice in that letter of 1858.
Nevertheless, despite these fundamental disagreements Tchaikovsky did join Apukhtin on an excursion to the island of Valaam on Lake Ladoga that summer (June–July 1866). This visit to the famous ancient monastery of Valaam, with its beautiful surrounding landscape, made a strong impression on the composer, and it would later be evoked by Apukhtin in one of the poems he most cherished: A Year in a Monastery (Год в монастыре) (1883) .
Although in the 1860s Apukhtin had opted to withdraw from the 'literary arena' altogether—except for a brief episode in March 1865, when he had given a lecture series in Oryol entitled On the Life and Works of Pushkin in which he defended his beloved poet from the attacks of the radical critic Dmitry Pisarev (1840–1868), who had notoriously argued that "a pair of boots is worth more than Pushkin"!—by the end of the 1860s he had started writing poetry again. But since he knew all too well that the themes which he was drawn to (frequently the sufferings of unrequited love, or disgust at how high art was being profaned in the modern age) were quite unfashionable, he did not make any effort to have them published. Instead, his poems would be circulated around the high society circles of Saint Petersburg in handwritten copies. Some of them, written in the style of gypsy songs, eventually became popular romances. However, during the 1870s Apukhtin's friends Aleksandr Zhedrinsky and Georgy Kartsov began collecting these poems systematically and eventually, in 1886, they managed to persuade him to publish them in his first volume of poetry.
In the 1870s, when Tchaikovsky frequently spent the summer months at Nizy, as a guest of his friend Nikolay Kondratyev, Apukhtin would also sometimes visit Kondratyev's estate and the latter's daughter Nadezhda (b.1865) included, in her memoirs of the composer, some anecdotes about Apukhtin . Rather cruelly, she poked fun at Apukhtin's obesity, which was in fact a medical condition that had afflicted the poet from about 1870 onwards. However, she also noted the brilliance and wit of Apukhtin's conversation, and these were qualities which Tchaikovsky appreciated in him, too, even though he was very much aware of his character faults. Thus, in February 1873, after meeting the poet in Moscow, Tchaikovsky wrote a letter to his brother Modest which parodied Apukhtin's notions of the artist being superior to the rest of mankind: he said that he despised the multitude and that it was with the profoundest disgust that he accepted the money which was going to be paid out to him for the Second Symphony (premièred in Moscow a few weeks earlier)! At the end of this letter Tchaikovsky added: "The delightfully witty tone of my letter is inspired by my frequent meetings with Apukhtin, who is currently in town and in a more cheerful state of mind than ever before, despite the fact that he has lost at cards everything that he had previously won" .
In the aftermath of Tchaikovsky's failed marriage to Antonina Milyukova Apukhtin tried to give moral support to his friend, sending him a letter in November 1877 in which he urged the composer to ignore all the rumours that would inevitably arise, since one day all Russia would be proud of him. Apukhtin observed that artists were often unhappy in their personal lives, whilst giving happiness to so many others. He also commended Tchaikovsky on his choice of Pushkin's Yevgeny Onegin for the subject of his soon-to-be-completed opera and, as he often did, included a poem which he hoped Tchaikovsky might decide to set to music . The composer did not take up this latter suggestion, but he was grateful for his friend's support and visibly touched when a few weeks later he received the following poem in another letter from Apukhtin:
Tchaikovsky's response to this message of encouragement and faith in his vocation in spite of everything is contained in a letter to his brother Anatoly from San Remo: "I received a letter today from Lyolya with a wonderful poem that made me shed many tears" .
However, these verses clearly also reflect something of Apukhtin's own bitterness at his lack of recognition as a poet at the time, even though he was appreciated by his friends and acquaintances. Thus, when Tchaikovsky towards the end of 1878, while staying in Florence, wrote a fine poem entitled Lilies of the Valley (Ландыши) (TH 384), his brother Modest suggested that it ought to be published in one of the Russian journals. The composer, though, rejected this idea on the following grounds: "My poem is outstanding with respect to myself, that is, someone who is not an expert. But what is it in comparison, for example, with the verses of Apukhtin?" .
Throughout the 1880s, whenever Tchaikovsky happened to be in Saint Petersburg, he would often meet up with Apukhtin, and it was in fact at a soirée in the house of Vera Butakova on 19/31 March 1880 attended by both artists that the composer was introduced to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, who was a fervent admirer of Tchaikovsky's music and also thought highly of Apukhtin as a poet. After the all-Tchaikovsky concert which took place in Saint Petersburg on 25 March/6 April 1880 Apukhtin sent the composer a copy of his poem Does the Day Reign? (День ли царит...?). Tchaikovsky would set it to music as No. 6 of the Seven Romances, Op. 47, which he composed later that year. This particular song became very popular in Russia. Apukhtin's own fortunes as a poet took a turn for the better in the 1880s when financial difficulties forced him to do what he had shunned for so many years—namely, to offer his verses to the editors of literary journals. In 1884 and 1885 several poems of his appeared in the leading journals, and in 1886, as mentioned earlier, his first collection of poetry was published. Although this belated acclaim was but relative (the print run of this edition was just 3,000 copies), it must have afforded Apukhtin some solace after the humiliation he had suffered in 1880, when, despite having generously contributed 500 rubles for the monument to Pushkin that was to be unveiled in Moscow, he was not invited to the festivities.
In July 1885, in anticipation of the celebrations that were to be held in December that year at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence in Saint Petersburg to mark its 50th anniversary, Apukhtin wrote a poem "Friends, our feast of light and sadness" (И светел, и грустен наш праздник, друзья) which he hoped Tchaikovsky would use as the text for the chorus that he had been commissioned to write . Ultimately, Tchaikovsky decided to write his own text for this chorus, the Jurists' Song, which was performed at the School on 5/17 December 1885, together with the Jurisprudence March. Apukhtin's poem was, however, also recited at the festivities by a former classmate .
Towards the end of the 1880s Apukhtin tried his hand at writing prose and commenced work on a novel which was suppose to cover the years of transition from the reign of Nicholas I to that of Alexander II. This novel remained unfinished, but he wrote three short stories, although they were not published in his lifetime. It was also from about 1890 that the friendship between Tchaikovsky and Apukhtin became somewhat strained, perhaps because of some sarcastic remarks which the latter had made about the libretto for The Queen of Spades . At any rate Tchaikovsky, whenever he happened to be in Saint Petersburg, no longer called on Apukhtin, who was by now gravely ill with dropsy and had great difficulty moving.
Nevertheless, just before Tchaikovsky set off for England at the end of May 1893, to collect his honorary doctorate from the University of Cambridge, Apukhtin wrote another poem dedicated to the composer: "For a musician-friend's departure" (К отъезду музыканта-друга), which abounds in ingenuous musical images but is again full of bitterness at the way his own life had turned out .
Despite the tensions referred to earlier, Tchaikovsky was clearly affected by Apukhtin's death on 17/29 August 1893, as we may see from a letter to his nephew Vladimir Davydov: "Even as I write this, they are reading the burial service for Lyolya Apukhtin!!! Although his death was not unexpected, still it is awful and painful. He was once my closest friend" . A few weeks later Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich suggested to Tchaikovsky that he should set Apukhtin's poem Requiem (Реквием)—written towards the end of the 1860s)—to music in memory of the poet. Tchaikovsky replied to the Grand Duke on 21 September/3 October, saying that he had to read the poem again first before he could decide whether it was suitable, but that from what he remembered of his late friend's verses and in view of the fact that he had just completed his Sixth Symphony he had the following misgivings:
Although it is true that several contemporaries, albeit retrospectively, perceived the Pathétique as Tchaikovsky's 'requiem', and the cellist Yulian Poplavsky later even quoted Tchaikovsky as saying, presumably during his last days at Klin on 6/18–7/19 October 1893, that the symphony was "his requiem" , an objective investigation of the composer's state of mind during the last months of his life such as has been carried out by Alexander Poznansky, who also discusses the artistic aims of the Sixth Symphony, suggests that Tchaikovsky was by no means in a mood of despondency, let alone yearning for death . This seems to be confirmed by his letter to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich five days later, once he had carefully re-read Apukhtin's poem. In this remarkable letter Tchaikovsky, despite praising the beauty of his late friend's verses, criticized Apukhtin's "pessimistic attitude to life" and explained why such a subject as Requiem could not inspire him:
Apukhtin's poem Requiem does not in fact end on such a dismal note as it might seem from the above, since the last verses evoke the "eternal peace" that God in His Mercy will give to all those who have suffered, but Tchaikovsky's state of mind in these last months of his life was clearly much more active and optimistic than that .Apukhtin's first biographer was Modest Tchaikovsky, who wrote an essay on the poet for the 1900 edition of his collected verses.
Musical settings of texts by Aleksey Apukhtin:
Tchaikovsky's correspondence with Aleksey Apukhtin:
Several letters from Apukhtin to Tchaikovsky (dating from 1865 to at least 1885) have been quoted above, and the original manuscripts of these letters are to be found in the Klin House-Museum Archive, but no letters from Tchaikovsky to Apukhtin have yet come to light.
This page was last updated on 16 February 2013