Monday, October 12, 2020

'The Autumnal Twilight'

Donald Rayfield in Anton Chekhov: A Life (1997) makes an interesting observation: “In that fortnight in Petersburg [in December 1888] the crucial meeting was with the composer Piotr Tchaikovsky; like Levitan and, in the future Rachmaninov and the painter Repin, Tchaikovsky proved that musicians and painters best understood Anton’s art.”


I’m speculating, but could this be because the Russian writers of Chekhov’s time, more so than the composers and painters, tended to access his work ideologically, through the lens of politics? Chekhov’s interests as a writer were largely apolitical – an unpopular stance in contentious, late-nineteenth-century Russia. Tchaikovsky first read a Chekhov story, “The Letter,”  in 1887 and admired it enough to write a fan letter to the editor of the newspaper in which it was published. The composer and writer first met later that year in St. Petersburg, and again the following year in Moscow.


On this date, October 12, in 1889, Chekhov wrote a letter to Tchaikovsky in which he asks the composer for permission to dedicate his forthcoming story collection, Morose People (1890), to him. He writes:


“I’m preparing a new book of my stories for publication this month. The stories are dull and dreary as autumn and monotonous in style, and the artistic element in them is thickly interlarded with the medical, but that still doesn’t prevent me from making bold to address you a humble request: may I dedicate the book to you?”


The letter is in Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary (trans. Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky, 1973). In a note, Karlinsky tells us the admiration was mutual. Tchaikovsky asked Chekhov if they could collaborate on an opera libretto based on an episode from Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time. Karlinsky acknowledges the “aura of melancholy that surrounds the art of both in in the minds of many  Russians,” but denies that Tchaikovsky is Chekhov’s counterpart in music. He writes:


“The obvious superficiality of this view does not detract from the beauty of its expression in one of Boris Pasternak’s most perfect poems, ‘Winter Is Approaching’ (1943), with its concluding lines:


‘The autumnal twilight of Chekhov,

Tchaikovsky and Levitan.'”


Go here for the Russian original of Pasternak’s poem and an English translation by Peter France and Jon Stallworthy.

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