|Tchaikovsky at Niagara Falls
copyright © 2005
in The Guardian
10 December 2005
One hardly associates Tchaikovsky with America,
but he left a vivid 38-page diary of his trip to New York in
1891, at the time of the opening of what is now known as Carnegie
Hall. Tchaikovsky is often rather miserable in his diaries,
and on this occasion he was still suffering from the news of
his sister Sasha's death.
Checking in at the Hotel Normandie, he finds
his soul in despair, and he wishes to flee from his new companions.
But he has been given a comfortable apartment, with toilet and
bath. So, first he weeps for a while. Then he has a bath and
a meal, before strolling on Broadway, and registering surprise
at the number of Negro faces. "Returning home," he
says, in what I suspect to be a slightly uncertain translation,
"took to whimpering again several times. Slept excellently."
(Surely no one ever describes himself as whimpering.)
Before long Tchaikovsky is trying cocktails
("Preceding dinner some kind of mixture of whisky,
bitters and lemon was served - extraordinarily
delicious"), absinthe, terrapins and mint juleps: "We
ate oysters, a sauce of small turtles (!!!), and cheese. Champagne
and some kind of peppermint drink with ice supported my sinking
He seems to have smoked rather a lot, and is
sorry to find that on Sundays all the cafes are closed, "inasmuch
as they are the only places where 1) one may buy cigarettes,
and 2) satisfy Nature's little need, and I being in extreme
want of the one and the other, one can then imagine how great
were my sufferings until I at last reached home. These remnants
of English Puritanism, shown by such absurd trifles as, for
example, the impossibility of obtaining a drink of whiskey
or a glass of beer on Sundays except by deceit, make me very
He had been invited by Walter Damrosch to conduct
at the opening of the Music Hall, as the Carnegie Hall was at
that stage known. He is warmly received, as one might imagine,
but he suffers from stage fright and from awkwardness in public,
which is noticed by one review: "He seems a trifle embarrassed,
and responds to the applause by a succession of brusque and
jerky bows. But as soon as he grasps the baton his self-confidence
returns," says the Herald. Tchaikovsky cannot bear
this embarrassment being noticed.
The programmes at the Carnegie Hall were generous.
For instance, on his final appearance there, during the afternoon,
Damrosch began by conducting Beethoven's Fifth, and two of Tchaikovsky's
songs, sung by Mrs Carl Alves. Tchaikovsky then conducted his
own First Piano Concerto, with Adele Aus der Ohe (a pupil of
Liszt who had made a fortune touring the States) as soloist.
Now Damrosch returned to the podium for the Prelude and Flower
Maiden Scene from Parsifal, but Tchaikovsky was by then
in such a sweat he had to go back to his hotel for a bath. That
evening he returned to the Hall for a performance of Handel's
Israel in Egypt, again conducted by Damrosch.
Tchaikovsky thinks many of the downtown buildings
are excessively tall, and he cannot imagine living on a thirteenth
floor. But he is often impressed. On the train to Buffalo he
notes that "the cars are much more luxurious than ours,
despite the absence of classes. The luxuries are entirely
superfluous even, as, for example, the frescoes, the crystal
ornamentations, etc. There are numerous dressing rooms, i.e.
compartments, in which are the washstands with hot and cold
water, towels (regarding towels, there is an amazing supply
here, in general), cakes of soap, brushes, etc. You can roam
about the train and wash as much as you like. There is a bath
and a barber shop."
It sounds improbable, this classless, frescoed
train with its chandeliers, its baths and its barbershop, and
its polite, obliging Negro attendants. Niagara itself exceeds
the powers of his pen. He longs to pick himself a bunch of dandelions,
but there are notices everywhere telling him that even the wild
flowers are not to be picked. He dines and walks to the waterfalls,
but he cannot conquer "a certain unusual tiredness, probably
nervous, which hindered me from enjoying the walk and the beauty
of the surroundings as I should have. It was just as though
something was shattered within me and the machine wasn't operating
Well, he had just turned 51. He was homesick
and couldn't wait for his month in America to be over. And this
is the last of his eleven surviving diaries. He had two more
years to live.