Tchaikovsky's visit delighted local music lovers


Russian composer called Baltimore a `nice clean city'

March 08, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

In 1891, headlines in The Sun hailed the great Russian composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's only visit to Baltimore.

"Great Tschaikowsky" and "One of the Master Composers of the Present Age," streamed across the top of the page.

Baltimore was a stop on the composer-conductor's American tour, which began with a concert celebrating the opening of New York's Carnegie Hall. Other tour stops included Philadelphia and Washington.

On May 15, 1891, the 51-year-old Tchaikovsky - whom the Sun critic described as 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" - mounted the podium at the old Lyceum Theater on North Charles Street.

"A small part of musical Baltimore wended its way in the rain Tschaikowskyward yesterday afternoon and enjoyed one of the greatest treats that have been given to music loving people this season," reportedThe Sun.

However, Tchaikovsky was hardly impressed with the unrehearsed Boston Symphony players who had arrived in Baltimore - it had only four first violins - to perform the program that had been assembled by the Peabody Institute.

Tchaikovsky decided to rearrange the program at the last minute. He dropped his difficult Suite No. 3 and substituted the less technically difficult Suite for Strings.

"The musicians plodded through a rehearsal of this work, then lurched into the famed Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor, with its crashing opening chords, which was later popularized as the signature of Orson Welles's Mercury Theater radio shows," said The Sun Magazine in a 1984 article.

Adele Aus-der-Ohe, a 27-year old student of Franz Liszt, performed the piano work and was later rewarded with a "went well" from the great composer.

"The audience at the Lyceum was not large, but it was a good audience in that it knew how to appreciate to its utmost the worth of what was given, and good also in knowing how to make a big noise to show its enthusiasm," wrote the Sun critic.

Afterward, Tchaikovsky dined at the West Biddle Street home of Ernest J. Knabe, the Baltimore piano maker.

He was the son of William Knabe, a German immigrant who established the firm of Knabe & Gaehle. After Gaehle left the partnership in 1854, Knabe established Wm. Knabe & Co.

His sons, Ernest and William, took over the business after their father's death, and built a sprawling factory at Eutaw and Cross streets for the manufacture of their acclaimed pianos. The works was torn down in 1989 to make way for Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"A princely entertainer, Ernest Knabe was an enthusiastic lover of music. He would often take a noon train from Baltimore to New York, consult with his New York manager while eating dinner, go to the opera to hear Sembrich, Lehman or Niemann sing, or attend a Rosenthal or Joseffy concert, return by midnight train to Baltimore and appear the following morning bright and early at the factory or city warerooms to take up the everyday routine of work," wrote Alfred Dogle in his book, Pianos and Their Makers, published in 1912.

Tchaikovsky, who was suffering from a throat ailment and spoke primitive English with a heavy Russian accent, found his dinner with Ernest Knabe to be an "endless one."

In his diary, Tchaikovsky described Knabe as a "beardless giant" who was as "colossal as his figure."

The moody Russian also noted that the evening wore on until 12:30 a.m. and was enlivened by toasts of vintage wine. He countered the overbearing ennui by "smoking and drinking ceaselessly."

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

The next morning, Knabe took Tchaikovsky on a tour of Baltimore that included a stop at the Knabe factory.

The composer described Baltimore as "a very nice clean city. The houses aren't large. All are red brick with white stone steps at the entrance."

While visiting the Peabody, it is said that Tchaikovsky played a piano. The instrument is now in room 206 and is still played by Peabody students.

Tchaikovsky returned to New York by train and then by steamer to St. Petersburg, where upon his arrival he was greeted with the gift of a Knabe piano that had arrived from his Baltimore host.

Ernest Knabe died in 1894, five years after his brother William. They are buried in Loudon Park Cemetery.

After their deaths, their business was taken over by American Piano Co.

Tchaikovsky died in 1893. Cholera was the official cause, but scholars have suggested that Tchaikovsky committed suicide.

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