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Coming to America: Tchaikovsky’s Many Surprises in Gilded-Age New York and Philadelphia

  • October 24, 2020

This post first appeared on Russia Insider


When the great Russian classical music composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky visited the United States in late April/early May in 1891 he was shocked and bewildered beyond belief.

The trip did not start off well. Despite his name – Tchaikovsky in Russian means “like a sea gull” – the composer was definitely not in his element, experiencing debilitating sea sickness while crossing the Atlantic. Not to mention a hurricane!

When he arrived at his New York hotel he was taken aback by one stunning surprise after another. Despite having stayed at the finest hotels in major European cities like Vienna, Paris, Rome and London he had never been in a hotel with electric lights! Moreover, the hotel had private bathrooms in every room with hot and cold running water and a tubular device with which to communicate directly with the front desk ! The next surprise came on his first night in New York City when he was absolutely flabbergasted by the many “negroes” among the pedestrians.

Tchaikovsky was not a tourist, however, he was invited to conduct one of his compositions and feted as an internationally famous composer of the highest order. He was specifically invited to participate in the inaugural concert at Carnegie Hall’s grand opening (initially just called “The Music Hall”) and treated like a superstar.

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Tchaikovsky spent time with the philanthropist who provided the money to build the concert hall and was shocked to find a man who – despite being one of the wealthiest men in America – did not put on airs or act at all in a superior manner. Pyotr Ilyich was also amazed by the uncanny resemblance of Carnegie to the great Russian playwright Ostrovksy and that the philanthropist was a big admirer of Moscow! The composer and the Capitalist extraordinaire got along extremely well laughing and joking for hours on end.

This pleasant surprise was offset, however, by an unpleasant one. The day after his concert the newspapers spent as much time describing his physical appearance as they did his music. Pyotr Ilyich was not only disturbed by this, he found it odd and remarkably superficial. After a concert in Philadelphia, a newspaper columnist wrote about his disappointment in seeing a man who “did not look like a composer”. Tchaikovsky had no idea what this journalist could possibly mean. Moreover, the journalist expressed further disappointment that Tchaikovsky did not have your typical classic “Slavic features” like Anton Rubenstein (!)

Anton “Slavic Features” Rubenstein

Another surprise occurred when Tchaikovsky met with the Russian ambassador in Philadelphia. A gifted musician in his own right, the ambassador and Pyotr Ilyich wound up playing piano duets together at a party.

Among his other discoveries were that the overwhelming majority of people were mono-lingual and that men who were close friends or relatives shook hands vigorously instead of kissing each other.

Undoubtedly the greatest shock, however, was the fact that Tchaikovsky was – as he said – “ten times more popular in America than in Europe”. 

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Article source: https://russia-insider.com/en/coming-america-tchaikovskys-many-surprises-gilded-age-new-york-and-philadelphia/ri26907

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