Great Musical Patrons 5 – Railways & Music

What do railways and music have in common? How did railways and composition become intertwined? Let’s have a look at the connections.

As usual, the answer is money. And money is made by successful businessmen and some of it trickles down eventually to a few lucky composers.

Which composers do we have in mind? Think of Johann Strauss II, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Claude Debussy.

To start our story we need to go back to the invention of the steam locomotive which in turn leads to the early miners in Cornwall and the Northern parts of England.

It’s generally accepted that a Cornishman Richard Trevithick invented the first practical steam engine in about 1784 which led others, but mainly George Stephenson [1781 – 1848] to design and build a number of working steam locomotives from about 1804 until the successful use of his “Locomotion” in 1825 and the trials of his famous “Rocket” steam engine in 1829. All of these early steam engines were used to haul coal and iron for busy factories and mines in England’s industrial North and later Midlands. Passenger transport soon followed but heavy goods haulage was always the main money earner.

Replica of Stephenson’s Rocket in Nuremburg Transport Museum

Success breeds copies and steam locomotion rapidly spread across Europe and the rest of the world.

In Russia, the first locomotive was built by Yefim Cherepanov and his son, Miron. They were serfs to the Demidov family of factory-owners and both father and son visited England to see the latest in steam engines. They built the first steam locomotive in Russia in 1834 and in 1835 sent an improved version to St Petersburg, then the capital.

Replica of the Cherepanov Locomotive

The first railway line [outside of a factory or mine] was built in Russia in 1836/7 between Saint-Petersburg and Tsarskoye Selo [The Tsar’s Village]. It was 27 km long and linked the Imperial Palaces at Tsarskoye Selo and Pavlovsk. Until the construction of the St Petersburg to Moscow line in 1851, it was the only passenger railway in Russia. The railway station in Tsarskoye Selo was an elaborate affair built with much glasswork and fitted inside with ferns and a restaurant in which an orchestra played as the fashionable rich trundled back and forth on the railway.

Tsarskoye Selo Railway Station

In London, the Vauxhall Gardens were a pleasure centre for rich and poor alike for some 200 years and the buildings there had much impressed visiting Russians. So much so that In Russia, “vokzal” has become synonymous with railway stations (and sometimes other transportation hubs) due to the preponderance of such “entertainment establishments” in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Johann Strauss II

In 1855, Johann Strauss II accepted a commission from the management of the Tsarskoye-Selo Railway Company to play in Russia for the Vauxhall Pavilion at Pavlovsk in 1856. He would return with his orchestra to perform in Russia every year until 1865. One young Russian noblewoman, Olgar Smirnitskaya was infatuated with him [and he with her].

They wrote notes to each other on candy wrappers and delivered them through mutual friends. Later, they would play hide and seek in a particular tree trunk in the park at Pavlovsk. The nearly one hundred letters written between them that exist today are wonderfully romantic. Strauss sought marriage but was rejected by her parents and Olga refused to elope with him back to Vienna. She married a wealthy aristocratic lawyer Alexander Lozinski just 6 months later!

Olga Smirnitskaya

Strauss’ compositions “Viennese Bonbons” and the remorseful “Parting with St. Petersburg” were inspired by Smirnitskaya and the love they shared.

Strauss married the singer Henrietta Treffz in 1862, and they remained together until her death in 1878. Six weeks after her death, Strauss married the actress Angelika Dittrich. Dittrich was not a fervent supporter of his music, and their differences in status and opinion, and especially her indiscretions and other lovers led him to seek a divorce. However, Strauss was not granted a decree of nullity by the Roman Catholic Church, and therefore changed religion and nationality and became a citizen of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in January 1887.

Strauss sought solace in his third wife Adele Deutsch, whom he married in August 1887. She encouraged his creative talent to flow once more in his later years, resulting in many famous compositions, such as the operettas Der Zigeunerbaron and Waldmeister, and the waltzes “Kaiser-Walzer” Op. 437, “Kaiser Jubiläum” Op. 434, and “Klug Gretelein” Op. 462.

Strauss was diagnosed with pneumonia, and on 3 June 1899 he died in Vienna, at the age of 73 with no children.

The spread of railways in a vast country like Russia persisted as it did all over the world.

Baron Karl von Meck [22 June 1821 – 26 January 1876] came from an old Baltic-German noble family originally from Silesia. His father was Major Otto Adam von Meck, a customs officer in Riga. Karl Otto Georg von Meck, his son, was a 19th century Baltic German businessman, and one of the founders of the Russian Empire’s railways.

Karl von Meck

In 1844, Karl von Meck graduated from the St. Petersburg Institute of Communications and joined the Moscow-Warsaw railroad upgrade project as a service road engineer. In 1860 von Meck left the public service and entered business. After the military defeat in Crimea many people became aware of the importance of rail transportation. Von Meck entered the Saratov Railway Association, a company with the aim of constructing a private rail line between Moscow and Saratov with independent finance. The first phase of construction was the line between Moscow and Kolomna. This exhausted the company’s funds and another company was founded to take over the work. Karl von Meck was appointed as the main contractor for the rest of the line which was built over a year and a half, and made an enormous profit. Karl von Meck participated in several other railway ventures but none with such financial success.

In 1848 at 27, Karl von Meck had married 17 year old Nadezhda Filaretovna Frolovskaya. Together they had thirteen children, of whom eleven survived to adulthood.

Nadezhka von Meck

Nadezhda von Meck began life in a family which owned great landed estates. Her father, Filaret Frolovsky embraced his love of music from an early age, while from her mother, Anastasia Dimitryevna Potemkina, she learned energy, determination, and business acumen.

Karl was working for the Government at the time of the marriage and several children later, he succumbed to his wife’s urgings to get into the railway construction boom. He resigned from the civil service, at which point they had an income of only twenty kopecks a day on which to live. Nadezhda was right, though, to trust her husband’s talent as an engineer. In 1860, there were only 100 miles of railroad track laid in Russia. Twenty years later, there were over 15,000 miles of lines. Much of this explosion was due to Karl von Meck, and his investments made him a multi-millionaire. The railway lines for which he was responsible included that from Kursk to Kiev and the highly profitable Moscow to Ryazan line, with its effective monopoly of grain transportation from the Black Earth Region of Central Russia [today the Ukraine]. In 1876, Karl von Meck died suddenly, leaving a will which gave Nadezhda control of his vast financial holdings. This included two railway networks, large landed estates, and several million roubles in investments. With seven of their eleven children still at home, Nadezhda von Meck concentrated on her business affairs and on the education of the children still dependent on her. She sold one of Meck’s railway companies and ran the other one with the help of her brother and her eldest son, Vladimir.

With her great wealth and her passion for music, Nadezhda von Meck became a major mover in the Russian performing arts. The sole exception to her general reclusiveness was the series of Russian Musical Society concerts given in Moscow, which she attended incognito, sitting alone in the balcony. Through these concerts she made the acquaintance of Nikolai Rubinstein, with whom she maintained a complex relationship. While she respected Rubinstein’s talents and energy, that did not stop her from disagreeing strongly with him at times.

While her husband was still alive, Nadezhda von Meck had began actively supporting and promoting young musicians, several of whom she continually employed, living in her household and playing her favourite works. She hired Claude Debussy as a music tutor for her daughters, and he wanted to marry one of them. She would not give her permission, preferring her daughters to marry men of her own choosing, which they did, but their marriages all ended in divorce. She was a disastrous matchmaker.

In 1877, one of the musicians supported by Nadezhda von Meck was the violinist Iosif Kotek, with whom she played chamber music. Kotek was a former student and friend of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, recommended to Meck by Nikolai Rubinstein. She had already been impressed with Tchaikovsky’s music such as his symphonic poem The Tempest, and she asked Rubinstein at length about him. She wrote to Tchaikovsky, introducing herself as a “fervent admirer” and commissioned some pieces for violin and piano to be played at her house. Tchaikovsky quickly obliged. One of her first commissions was for a funeral march, which was never published and is now considered lost.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

They continued writing even as his disastrous marriage followed its brief tortuous course. As their relationship developed, she subsequently provided him with an allowance of 6,000 roubles a year, large enough that he could leave his professorship at the Moscow Conservatory to focus on creative work full-time. This was a substantial income. A minor government official in those days had to support his family on 300–400 roubles a year.

Tchaikovsky was grateful for von Meck’s financial support. Nevertheless, it created some emotional discomfort and an underlying tension, but they both eventually handled this awkwardness with considerable delicacy. Still, Tchaikovsky could not help feeling vaguely uncomfortable about the favours with which Meck showered him. He wrote to her frankly about this: “… in my relations with you there is the ticklish circumstance that every time we write to one another, money appears on the scene.”

Over a period of some years, over 1200 letters were exchanged between the two. But the relationship was dependent on one very strange condition: that they never see each other. She was afraid that he would in person never meet up with her ideal vision of him. They did unexpectedly meet one morning when he was staying at the family estate for which he later apologised [in writing]. Tchaikovsky dedicated his 4th Symphony to her as an “equal partner in its creation”.

The financial support and intimate correspondence continued until 1890 when she suddenly ended it sending a year’s support in advance. She claimed that her family was squandering their inheritance but she was being pressured by the family to end the arrangement as it was bringing embarrassment to them and in addition, she was in the late stages of tuberculosis and had a painful condition in her arm which made writing almost impossible. To dictate an intimate letter to a third party would have been embarrassing to her mysterious ‘spiritual” nature.

Tchaikovsky died in circumstances that have never been satisfactorily explained in 1893 and Nadezhda died of her TB in Nice only two months later.

Nadezhda’s favourite son, Vladimir proved as extravagant as his mother in spending. His favourite position among the Meck children may have been why his mother tolerated his ways as long as she did. Unfortunately, it was also largely what pitted her and Vladimir against his siblings and sister-in-law, Anna [Tchaikovsky’s niece] They claimed, among other things, that he was pocketing company funds for his own use. Regardless of the truth of these charges, the Meck estate was in serious financial peril.

In 1890, Vladimir von Meck suffered a nervous breakdown, and that summer his mother relieved him of his position. His replacement was his mother’s personal assistant Władysław Pachulski. Originally employed as a musician, Pachulski became a member of the family by marrying Julia von Meck. He was also far more experienced in financial management than Vladimir had been, and was able to save the Meck estates from bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Vladimir was found to have an advanced case of tuberculosis, the same disease from which his mother suffered, and he would die from it in 1892.

Karl von Meck’s son, Nikolai von Meck, played a significant role in the development of Russian railways and worked on the People’s Commissariat of Railroads until he was arrested for “wrecking” in 1928. He was convicted and executed in 1929.

These days, the von Meck family is only remembered because of Nadezhda’s patronage of Tchaikovsky.

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