Tchaikovsky and Baltimore, 100 years ago

May 14, 1991|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,Evening Sun Staff

ONE HUNDRED years ago tomorrow, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the 19th century composer of sweeping Russian music, led an orchestra here in his one and only visit to Baltimore. He liked the city and The Sun ran a glowing review, but the composer apparently thought little of his Boston musicians, some of his dinner companions or Peabody's art gallery.

Tchaikovsky's himself still draws hot raves or boos. Weeks ago in a New Yorker profile, Marcia Davenport, the biographer of Mozart, spoke of Tchaikovsky's "whiny music" and said, "I hate Tchaikovsky, God, how I hate Tchaikovsky."

No plans have been announced to mark the 100th anniversary here, although much fuss was made at the time. The Sun's headlines trumpeted "Great Tschaikowsky" and "One of the Master Composers of the Present Age."

Tchaikovsky's Baltimore concert was Friday May 15, 1891 at the old Lyceum Theatre on North Charles Street near Biddle Street. The Lyceum had been bought by John W. Albaugh in 1850, remodeled and for years was host to stock companies and other shows. It would burn down in 1925.

While visiting here, Tchaikovsky played a piano at Peabody Conservatory. Peabody lore holds that the Steinway in room 206, still played by students, is the Tchaikovsky piano. Ironically, Ernst Knabe, the Baltimore maker of a competitive instrument, was his host here.

The composer-conductor was on an American tour timed to help open Carnegie Hall. Tour stops were New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. Fresh from his Carnegie success, he arrived by train in Baltimore.

According to a 1946 biography, "Tchaikovsky," by Herbert Weinstock, the maestro was unimpressed with Victor Herbert's orchestra from Boston.

"The orchestra Piotr Ilyich found on the Lyceum Theatre stage was both inadequate (it had only four first violins) and insufficiently rehearsed in his pieces . . . "

Still, under the excited headlines speaking of "Russia's Famous Musician Here," an anonymous Sun reviewer said the audience was "not large" but "enjoyed one of the greatest treats that have been given to music loving people this season."

The reviewer went on to describe Tchaikovsky: "He is a fine-looking, stalwart and dignified man, quiet and polished in his manners . . . He has scant white hair and a white beard and is younger than he looks, being 51 years old."

The night after the concert, Knabe invited Tchaikovsky and a number of other Baltimore musicians to his home. Weinstock wrote that Tchaikovsky found Knabe's hospitality "as colossal as his figure" but the composer, who had a throat ailment, found the dinner "an endless one."

"During the second half of the dinner," the composer wrote in his diary, "I felt quite exhausted. A terrific hatred of everything came over me, particularly of my two neighbors."

In his diary, according to Weinstock's book, the composer wrote that Baltimore was "a very nice clean city. The houses aren't large. All are red brick with white stone steps at the entrance. First of all we went to the Knabe factory and carefully looked through the whole enormous piano plant . . . From there we went to the central square, which has a beautiful view of the city and the harbor.

"From there to the Peabody Institute, an enormous building beautifully built with the money of the wealthy Peabody. It contains an enormous library, open to all, an art gallery of painting and sculpture (unusually poor and pitiful, which does not prevent the Baltimore inhabitants from being very proud of it) and a conservatory."

Just more than two years later, on October 28, 1893, Tchaikovsky, whose personal life had been much-troubled, conducted the premiere of his last and one of his most famous works, the Sixth (Pathetique) Symphony. Nine days later he was dead, almost certainly of arsenic poisoning.

"That he committed suicide cannot be doubted", says the authoritative Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, "but what precipitated this has not been conclusively established." One recent account says "a court of honor" of his contemporaries decreed he kill himself because of a scandal involving a liaison with a nephew. Grove says, "The story that he died of cholera from drinking unboiled water is fabrication."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.