Feelings at the Tchaikovsky House Museum in Klin

One of the interesting aspects of trying to impart nuggets of wisdom to others is that you cannot entirely control what they take on board. Unless you repeat your message over and over in different ways, preferably in 30 second slots, with excellent visuals. For six months.

So there Mama and a group of other parents were, standing in the garden of the Tchaikovsky House Museum in Klin, idly wondering what, if anything, their children would remember after a tour of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s house.

The Tchaikovsky House Museum is a grey wooden house at the end of a path covered in autumn leaves, with bushes on either side, covered in yellowing leaves.

And so they decided to ask who the children thought Tchaikovsky was.

A poet. Said one child with incautious briskness. Nonono, wait, he added, when all the adults responded with that deadpan stare that Russians are particularly good at and his friend elbowed him. A… musician?

This is not a mistake Mama’s children would have made. Mainly because Mama and Papa had demonstrated the Dance of the Swans in the kitchen while humming the tune loudly and (in the case of Papa) off key only a few days before. That sort of thing sticks in the mind.

Still, Mama was now interested in what we had retained.

Confidently, I stepped up.

Tchaikovsky died. In St Petersburg. The doctors were unable to help.

Yes, said Big Brother enthusiastically. He never made it back to this house.

Mama blinked. She hadn’t previously suspected her children of developing goth sensibilities. But Mama was also on the Tchaikovsky House Museum tour, and recalled that death was indeed how it had opened. And openers do tend to be memorable.

Items relating to Tcahikovsky's death, including a conductor's baton

Of course, and the almighty uproar the death caused at the time does serve to underline quite how famous Tchaikovsky was even in his own lifetime. It’s not everyone whose family has to issue what amounts to a press release exonerating his doctors from negligence or incompetence. It’s also not everyone whose death spawns rumours of suicide years later (drinking a slow acting poison that mimics the symptoms of cholera so as to protect a member of the royal family from scandal. As you do).

Still. Mama does perhaps think that the morning tea-drinking habit in the pleasant annex off the main room might have been a nicer way to kick off. Especially on a child-focused tour.

A small round table covered in a white table cloth in a conservatory with a small tea cup and saucer and a vase of purple flowers.

Now at this point Mama is imagining people looking shifty and wondering if they know enough about Tchaikovsky to satisfy her, so here are some of the reasons why you may have heard of him.

Tchaikovsky was one of the first internationally celebrated Russian composers, as well as hugely well regarded at home. Mama has always considered him a very Western influenced composer, and indeed he was classically trained in St Petersburg’s newly opened conservatory, and later taught in the also newly opened Moscow one, which still bears his name. But it seems that everyone else feels that while he did not go as full on down the path of Slavic folk music influenced harmonies as people like Mussorgsky or Rimsky-Korsakov, he did nevertheless manage to annoy the crap out of his old teacher, Rubinstein, by sticking unmistakable sounds of his motherland into his tunez. With added harp. Which wasn’t for the likes of recently graduated students, apparently.

And in fact Mama is forced to admit that if you listen to the very opening of the 1812 Overture, to take just one example, you can hear exactly what they mean, which is no mistake as Tchaikovsky wrote it to be as over the top nationalist as possible. Which is probably why he scored actual cannons in it.

This habit of innovation likely contributed to the fact that almost every one of his new works seems to have opened to mixed reviews, despite generally going on to become phenomenally popular later. Problematic, because Tchaikovsky felt things. He felt all the things. Well, you can probably tell that if you listen to his music.

Luckily, he also seems to have had enough tenacious self-belief to push on regardless. This is important because he found the process of creating new masterpieces often tortuous and it exhausted him.

As a result of his widespread fame he travelled. A lot. In fact, even the location of the Tchaikovsky House Museum is testament to that as it is on the main highway between Moscow and St Petersburg on the outskirts of Klin. Although he only occupied this particular house for the lest year or so of his life, he’d been renting houses in the area for some time previously, because it was both convenient for travel, but also discouraged visitors. This house was the best though, being a little bit harder to get to, so cutting down on the number of times he was forced to stop writing music and attend to his groupies.

A display cabinet at the Tchaikovsky House Museum which has a Statue of Liberty souvenir in it.

And indeed, the Moscow-St Petersburg main road still roars past right outside the Tchaikovsky House Museum, and the train you can get is one of the super-fast lastochka ones, being on the main line between Russia’s two biggest cities. But it is a bit of a slog from the station if you decide to walk, and Mama would not say the route was particularly scenic, apart from the bit when you go across the river Sestra. There are buses, however.

A wide slow moving river flowing between two tree covered banks in autumn. In the right hand foreground a man is fishing.

You probably also know, because tediously this is still a controversial thing, that Tchaikovsky was gay. Quite how Tchaikovsky felt about it is also the sort of thing people argue about. Opinions range from it tortured him and possibly contributed to his death, to actually he was content, thanks, sod off.

A black and white photo of two men arm in arm in long 19th century coats and top hats.

He did attempt to get married at one point. It did not go well. Aside, of course, from the fact that the person he married was a woman, Mama thinks that Tchaikovsky does not sound like a very monogamous sort of person. At all. A dramatic person, yes. When he realised it was not going to work, he stood in the rain, hoping he would get pneumonia and die.

You can see how the suicide rumours got started to be honest.

As well as composing and falling in and out of love, letter writing was also something Tchaikovsky did prolifically and well.

A selection of handwritten letters and photos on display at the Tchaikovsky House Museum. Some of the letters have extracts of musical scoring in them.

The Tchaikovsky House Museum holds 1200 letters between him and his wealthy patroness, Nadezhda Von Meck. These are lengthy, philosophical, wide-ranging, introspective and only stopped when Von Meck cut off his whopping great 6 000 roubles a year allowance somewhat abruptly.

An oval black and white portrait of a woman in Victorian era clothes

To be fair to her, at this point Tchaikovsky was really very famous, and he even had another pension incoming from the Tsar, Alexander III. Von Meck’s finances, on the other hand, were increasingly in trouble, and her family were increasingly unhappy about her artistic subsidy eating into their precarious situation. This did not stop Tchaikovsky moaning bitterly about the loss of income, however.

Mama feels that Nadezhda Von Meck is worth a digression, not that much was made of her on the tour.

Married to a minor engineer in the civil service, she spotted that railways were the future and argued her husband into quitting his job and getting involved . Hundreds of miles of track later, the family was extremely well off, and then Von Meck’s husband died, at which point, she took over the whole enterprise – it was handing over the reins to her sons that seems to have caused problems in the cash flow – and looked about her for new causes to get off the ground, Tchaikovsky being the lucky recipient of her energy. Her stipend allowed Tchaikovsky to leave his job at the Moscow Conservatory and devote himself to composing full time.

But!

They never met.

At Von Meck’s insistence. Well, actually this is not true. They saw each other briefly from a distance by accident a couple of times.

Mama feels that Von Meck’s idea here was absolutely right, as finding out about people you admire is often disappointing, at least when you don’t have the opportunity to mitigate their more irritating tendencies with the warmth of friendship. She also admires the fact that Nadezhda Von Meck sounds like a woman of absolute commitment to eccentricity and strong mindedness. She was, broadly speaking, against marriage for example. She was also an excellent judge of musical artistry – the person she hired to tutor her children was a young Claude Debussy.

If there were a house museum about her, we would totes be on our way there now. Even though we might have to travel into Europe as she had estates there as well as in Russia, which Tchaikovsky often stayed at.

On a less well documented note, Mama learnt that Tchaikovsky wore slippers. Here they are in Tchaikovsky’s bedroom, which leads directly off the main living area.

Tchaikovsky's bedroom with a single iron frame bed on the right. On the floor is a redish Persian style rug with green embroidered slippers. There is a wooden glass fronted cabinet. In the background is a simple wooden desk and chair under a window. On its right you can see part of a sofa. The walls are pink, there is a green patterned wall covering next to the bed, and beige curtains tied back over the window. The floor is brown linoleum.

See that table under the window? That’s where Tchaikovsky did all his composing although given the short time he was in the house all he actually wrote here was the Pathetique Symphony, as well as revising a few bits and bobs. It was this piece of music that did for him – he went to St Petersburg for its opening performance and that’s where he incautiously drank unboiled water in a restaurant afterwards.

It doesn’t help allay the suicide theory that some musicologists point to its early echoing of the Russian Orthodox requiem liturgy. That said, the name in Russian is better translated as passionate rather than sad. And there are a number of sections which are much more aux anges than melancholic. It seems, in short, that it might after all be fitting epitaph for a highly emotionally charged individual, whether it was intended as one or not.

After Tchaikovsky’s probably not all that mysterious passing actually his brother, Modest, was the one who started the Tchaikovsky House Museum. He continued to live there himself, along with Tchaikovsky’s nephew, ‘Bob’ (no, I don’t know why he’s called ‘Bob’ either. It’s not his real name. A whim of Tchaikovsky’s apparently).

Modest and Bob did add an extra wing, though, so they could keep living there without disturbing Tchaikovsky’s stuff. Lots of wood panelling. Splendid.

A wooden panneled room with a wooden floor. There is a desk and chair on the left, a wooden wardrobe in the middle and a very large house plant to the right.

And thus it remained until the revolution when it was occupied, briefly, by an anarchist and his family, before being turned back into a museum again. Did I mention that Tchaikovsky is really very very famous and beloved in Russia? This is much more important than overthrowing the elite and occupying their stuff.

Such was his status that despite the quite desperate struggle the Russians were having in World War Two, they took care that Tchaikovsky’s effects were evacuated in anticipation of occupation by the invading Nazis. Sensible move in the event, as indeed the building was taken over by the German army, who parked vehicles on the ground floor.

Birch trees in autumn in the grounds of the painted wooden Tchaikovsky House Museum (on the right) in Klin

Now it is fully restored as a memorial to Tchaikovsky’s life, with added concert hall and art gallery complex off to one side, only troubled every now and again by winners of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, now gearing up for its XVII’s round, coming and playing on his personal piano, and planting a tree in the garden.

Brief pause on the tour at this point while we all listen to some of Tchaikovsky’s piano music while standing in the really very pleasant living room where the piano actually is. This would be the only place you would hear him play. He wasn’t a great one for performances in public, although he would entertain friends.

Tchaikovsky's living room with a round wooden table bottom right foreground, which has a vase of purple and orange flowers on it. Wooden chairs stand around it. There is a large wooden desk on the right with a green leather top and a number of items under glass on it, as well as a 19th century lamp. On the wall are a number of black and white photographs of people from Tchaikovsky's life, and an silver icon is in the corner. There is a Persian style carpet on the floor and a window with long curtains framing it in the background to the right. A plant is on the windowsill.

To be honest, Mama could have done with a lot more focus on the music during her visit to the Tchaikovsky House Museum. As a former bass player, Mama’s view of Tchaikovsky is somewhat limited, and admirably summed up by this video and its concern for accurately counting the rests, obsessing over whether it should be der duuum or der duum, and a magnificent attempt to pretend the twiddly bits don’t exist.

I dunno, perhaps we Russians are all supposed to have Tchaikovsky’s Greatest Hits on loop in our heads or something, but both Mama and Papa would have quite liked it piped over a loudspeaker as they wandered round the house and grounds. As it was, in addition to the piano recording, we got herded into a room and forced to watch the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, which was nice, but still a little bit thin compared to the richness of the available oeuvre. Mama understands that possibly the audio guide tour, as opposed to the face to face tour, is a little more music focused, so she recommends giving that a try.

Anyway. Tchaikovsky’s House Museum in Klin. He’s one of the greats, is Tchaikovsky. His house is very pleasant indeed. It’s easy to get to from Moscow. There is a cafe on site. And there’s a cat.

More information

The Tchaikovsky House Museum’s website (in Russian).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No 1.

Address: 48 Tchaikovsky Street, Klin, Moscow region, 141600

Opening: 10 am – 6pm Friday to Tuesday (closed Wednesday and Thursday, and the last Monday of every month).

Admission: 550 roubles for adults who cannot pretend to be Russian, 300 roubles for adults who can pretend to be Russian (or who are, y’know, Russian), 190 roubles for children. You will need to buy a photography permit for another 200 roubles to be able to take pictures in the house.

Getting there: You need a train from the Leningradsky train station, found atop the Komsomolskaya metro station on the red and brown lines. If you get a fast, lastochka train you will be in Klin in an hour. Buy return tickets in Moscow if you have children, as concession tickets cannot be bought in Klin and you’ll have to pay full price for your kids to return to the capital. The trains run around every one to two hours, more during peak times. If you get a slow train it will take at least 30 minutes longer. One way tickets for adults will be around 300 roubles. You can easily buy them at the Leningradsky station itself, but don’t lose the rather flimsy paper – it’s what opens he gates to and from the platform, and it will be checked on the train itself.

You can drive (or get a taxi). Head for St Petersburg. The Tchaikovsky House Museum will be somewhere on your left, between Moscow and St Petersburg.

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