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In My Good Books

Tchaikovsky at Niagara Falls

James Fenton
copyright © 2005

Originally published 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 spirits."

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 indignant."

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 quite easily."

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.

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The Diaries of Tchaikovsky
, translated from the Russian with notes by Wladimir Lakond, were published in New York by Norton in 1945.


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