Wednesday 26 July 2017

What Lies Beneath: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov Oil on canvas, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky by Nikolai Kuznetsov

Niall MacMonagle

We are born, and for a while at least we are at the centre of the world - or we think we are. Then we grow up and opportunities, dreams, necessity send us from the back-of-beyond towards bright lights, big city.

Russia is huge. At 17,075 sq km it's almost twice as big as Canada, the second biggest country in the world, and across its vast expanse of cold wasteland with its 11 time zones there are places that most of us have never heard of. There are many back-of-beyonds there. But talent will out.

Artist Nikolai Kuznetsov and composer Tchaikovsky were both born miles from anywhere well-known. Kuznetsov was born in 1850 in Stepanovka and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, born on this day in 1840, in Votkinsk, 1,800km west of Saint Petersburg. Happy 177th birthday, Maestro. You still sound wonderful.

In January 1893, in Odessa, on the Black Sea, Kuznetsov met 53-year-old Tchaikovsky, who was by then a world-famous composer, and painted this - the only contemporary portrait of Tchaikovsky. He died later that year - the same year as he composed his Pathetique symphony.

Both men had lived colourful lives. Son of a wealthy landowner, Kuznetsov as a student won three silver medals, and married a working-class woman who worked on his family's estate.

An accident when he was 49 meant he walked with crutches, and his art was confined to studio work.

Tchaikovsky - 10 years older - had given the world magnificent music, had conducted in Europe and the US when he sat, or rather stood for his portrait.

It was painted "rather hurriedly" and "in terms of expression, lifelikeness and authenticity, it really is remarkable", said Tchaikovsky. He looks older than 53 - but then a life of turmoil had taken its toll. Tchaikovsky's mother died when he was 14. And though a child prodigy, his First Symphony was rejected by the Russian Musical Society.

Aged 28, he was engaged to Desiree Artot, a Belgian soprano - but that didn't work out. Later, aged 37, he married a former student, Antonina Miliukova. That marriage lasted 10 weeks.

Any mention of Tchaikovsky's homosexual tendencies were suppressed by Soviet authorities - and when he died in Saint Petersburg, nine days after he had conducted his Sixth Symphony, in October 1893, his death was attributed to having drunk unboiled water at a local restaurant.

Cholera? Or perhaps suicide through swallowing poison at the behest of a "court of honour" following an alleged relationship with a young male aristocrat. The details are cloudy.

This fine, intense portrait now hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. The background and clothing in deep, rich blacks highlight the head and hand of the genius. The eyes are focused, intent, the facial expression is concentrated. The stance is serious. The neck-tie with its elegant pin lends the image a formality. This is a man with music on his mind; his right hand rests on a score that will fill the world with magnificent sound.

Tchaikovsky told his brother Modest that "Kuznetsov painted a really astonishing portrait of me" - and in a letter, dated February 20, 1893, that he sent to the artist with a review of his work he signed off: "I send it to you with friendly imaginary kisses, With great affection, Pyotr Tchaikovsky".

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