Nadezhda von Meck

Nadezhda von Meck
Nadezhda von Meck

Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck (Russian: Надежда Филаретовна фон Мекк) (10 February [O.S. 29 January] 1831 – 13 January [O.S. 1 January] 1894) was a Russian businesswoman, who is best known today for her artistic relationship with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. She supported him financially for 13 years, enabling him to devote himself full-time to composition, but she stipulated that they were never to meet. She was the dedicatee of his Symphony No. 4 in F minor. She was also an influential patron of the arts in general, active in providing financial support to Nikolai Rubinstein and Claude Debussy.




She was born Nadezhda Filaretovna Frolovskaya, into a family with large landholdings. From an early age her father, Filaret Frolovsky, embraced a love of music. From her mother, Anastasia Dimitryevna Potemkina, came her own energy, determination and business acumen.

A serious music student in her youth, she became a very capable pianist with a good knowledge of the repertoire. She also became widely familiar with literature and history, a master at foreign languages and appreciated the visual arts. She also read works by philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Russian idealist Vladimir Solovyov.


At 16 she was married off to Karl Otto Georg von Meck, a 28-year-old engineer and son of major Otto Adam von Meck and Wilhelmine Hafferberg - a Baltic German family from Riga. Together they had 18 children, of whom 11 survived to adulthood.

As a government official, Karl von Meck's life was uneventful and his work poorly paid. With several children quickly added to his responsibilities, however, he was reluctant to make a break with a steady post.

Nadezhda von Meck saw things very differently. To her, filling the roles of mother, nurse, governess, dressmaker, housekeeper and valet was far easier for her to bear than the humiliation of seeing her husband as a cog in the machine of a government organization. Neither did fulfilling all those domestic duties lower her resolve or weaken her energy in urging him to make a break. Russia, desperately short of railways, was expanding its communications network rapidly, and Nadezhda was far-sighted enough to see that a future for her husband lay there. She continually exerted pressure on Karl to find a partner with capital and join the boom in Russian railway construction.

Karl finally gave in to his wife's requests and resigned. They had only 20 kopecks a day on which to live. Nadezhda was right, though, to trust his talent as an engineer. In 1860, there were only 100 miles of railroad track laid in Russia. Twenty years later, there were over 15,000 miles. Much of this explosion was due to Karl von Meck, and it made him a multi-millionaire. Lines for which he was responsible included Kursk to Kiev and the highly profitable Moscow to Ryazan line, with its monopoly of grain transport from the Black Earth Region of Central Russia.

Karl died suddenly in 1873. In his will, he gave Nadezhda control over his vast financial holdings. This included two railway networks, large estates and several million rubles. With seven of their 11 children still at home, she concentrated on her business affairs and on the education of those children still dependent on her. She sold one railway and ran the other one with the aid of her brother and her eldest son, Vladimir.

Obsessive despot

Nikolai Rubinstein.

After the death of her husband, von Meck ceased all social life. She withdrew into almost complete seclusion. She even refused to meet the relatives of those whom her children were going to marry.

By all accounts von Meck was imperious by nature, presiding over her household as a despot. She liked—and demanded—her own way, surrounding herself with only those persons who would give it to her. She ruled her children's lives in every detail. As they grew into adulthood, she arranged their marriages, bought houses for them and furniture for the houses. When she wanted to see her married children, she summoned rather than invited them. Understandably, her children were not always grateful for the extreme degree of their mother's care (or meddling, depending on the viewpoint of the person concerned).

She was always compulsively busy. She took her elder servants on periodic inspection tours of her house, from cellar to roof, and cellar to roof never remained quite the same. String was saved for her to untangle and wind. Books were bought so she might cut the pages. She purchased quantities of wool, which she then wound into balls and sent to her daughter, Countess Bennigsen. While engaging in this business, she would summon her daughter Julia to come and read to her. Julia did not mind. Of all von Meck's children, she was the one most eager to please her mother. Her mother demanded everything from her—and got it.

She was probably well aware she was hard to tolerate. She wrote to Tchaikovsky, "I am very unsympathetic in my personal relations because I do not possess any femininity whatever; second, I do not know how to be tender, and this characteristic has passed on to my entire family. All of us are afraid to be affected or sentimental, and therefore the general nature of our family relationships is comradely, or masculine, so to speak."[1]

Personal views

Nadezhda von Meck was a professed atheist. This was nothing unusual in aristocratic Russia in the 1870s. Her fierce need for independence, on the other hand, was very unusual for a woman of the time. Her division between it and concern for her family resulted in contradictions between her beliefs and actions. Her views on affairs of the heart were strictly moralistic. However, she did not believe in marriage as a social institution. She regularly professed her hatred of it to Tchaikovsky. "You may think, my dear Pyotr Ilyich, that I am a great admirer of marriage," she wrote on March 31, 1878, "but in order that you not be mistaken in anything referring to myself, I shall tell you that I am, on the contrary, an irreconcilable enemy of marriages, yet when I discuss another person's situation, I consider it necessary to do so from his point of view."[2] On another occasion, she stated more genially but no less forcefully, "The distribution of rights and obligations as determined by social laws I find speculative and immoral." [2]

Even with her views on matrimony, von Meck was resigned to it as a means of social stability and procreation. Her own marital experience may have forced her to recognize its benefits. This realization may have also been why she strove to marry off her children as soon as possible—to insure their stability in the event of her demise. Even in marriage, though, she considered sexual relations between men and women to be mutual exploitation. Russian radical thinkers of the period such as Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Dmitri Pisarev espoused views not far removed from von Meck's. Both men considered marriage a pillar of bourgeois society and called for its abolition. Von Meck especially respected Pisarev's work as well as 19th-century positivism in general.

With these views in mind, it is easy to see how Tchaikovsky's seeming misogyny and professed aversion to marriage could attract someone like von Meck. Neither would his homosexuality necessarily cause her indignation. Von Meck's second daughter Alexandra may have told her of his sexual preferences at the outset of her relationship with him. Even then, von Meck may have already known of it, since she was extremely diligent in discovering all she could about her composer. She could interpret passionate love between two men as a sentimental excess, and therefore understandable. If anything (at least according to von Meck family tradition), that knowledge might have reassured her that there was no other woman in Tchaikovsky's emotional life.

Support of the performing arts

With her great wealth and a passion for music, Nadezhda von Meck became a major mover in Russian performing arts. The sole exception to her general reclusiveness was the series of Russian Musical Society concerts given in Moscow. She attended them incognito, sitting alone in the balcony. Through these concerts she made the acquaintance of Nikolai Rubinstein, with whom she maintained a complex relationship. While she respected Rubinstein's talents and energy, that did not stop her from disagreeing strongly with him at times.

While her husband was still alive, she began actively supporting and promoting young musicians. Several of these musicians were continually employed by her. They lived in her household and played her favorite works. She hired Claude Debussy as a music tutor to her daughters, and he wanted to marry one of them.[3]

In February 1880, she came to the assistance of the Polish violinist Henryk Wieniawski, who had been taken ill in Odessa while on a concert tour. She moved him into her home and arranged medical attention for him. He died a few weeks later in Moscow.[4][5]

Relationship with Tchaikovsky

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

In 1877, one of the musicians she supported was violinist Iosif Kotek, with whom she played chamber music. Kotek was a former student and friend of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, recommended to von Meck by Nikolai Rubinstein. She had already been impressed with Tchaikovsky's music such as his symphonic poem The Tempest, and she asked Rubinstein at length about him. Perhaps urged by Kotek, von Meck wrote to the composer.

Introducing herself as a fervent admirer, she commissioned some pieces for violin and piano to play at her estate. Tchaikovsky, perhaps already knowledgeable of her reputation as a patron, quickly obliged. One of her first commissions was for a funeral march.[6] They continued writing even as his marriage followed its brief though torturous course. As their relationship developed, she subsequently provided him with a financial allowance large enough (6,000 rubles a year) that he could leave his professorship at the Moscow Conservatory to focus on creative work full-time. (This was a small fortune. A minor government official in those days had to support his family on 300-400 rubles a year.)

Tchaikovsky was grateful for von Meck's financial support. Nevertheless, it created some emotional discomfort and an underlying tension. They both eventually handled this awkwardness with considerable delicacy. Still, Tchaikovsky could not help feeling vaguely uncomfortable about the favors with which she showered him. He wrote to her frankly about this: "... in my relations with you there is the ticklish circumstance that every time we write to one another, money appears on the scene."[7]

Epistolary friendship

They carried on a significant correspondence, exchanging over 1,200 letters between 1877 and 1890. The details they shared were extraordinary for two people who never met. He was more open to her about much of his life and his creative processes than to any other person. Her feedback became so important to him that, after the critics lambasted his Fifth Symphony, she provided him with the support to persevere with his composing.[8] Von Meck died believing these letters had been destroyed. When Tchaikovsky had received her request to do so, he reassured her that he had complied, then filed that letter with the rest for posterity to find.

Von Meck remained a fully dedicated supporter of Tchaikovsky and all his works, but her bond with him depended on not meeting him. This was not simply because he would not live up to her expectations. She desired to think of Tchaikovsky as her ideal of a composer-cum-philosopher, much like the Übermensch or Superman about whom Friedrich Nietzsche would write. Tchaikovsky understood this, writing to von Meck, "You are quite right, Nadezhda Filaretovna, to suppose that I am of a disposition sympathetic to your own unusual spiritual feelings, which I understand completely." [9] They did encounter each other on two occasions, purely by chance, but did not converse.

Their relationship, by its very definition, satisfied von Meck's deepest needs. Von Meck conceived eroticism in sentimental rather than physical terms. Her negative view of marriage carried with it a narrowly pragmatic, even squeamish approach to sexuality. This likely gave rise in her mind to the incandescence of platonic passion characterizing her attitude toward Tchaikovsky. She could therefore allow her emotions free rein with Tchaikovsky while excluding what she considered the unpleasantness, vulgarity, shame and humiliation she associated with sexual love.

Von Meck preserved to the end of their relationship, at least on paper, her exalted image of Tchaikovsky as her "beloved friend." Over the years, their letters revealed the numerous personal shortcomings of both parties involved. They were both neurotic and prone to depression, which they called "misanthropy." Both were eccentric and capricious. Tchaikovsky was at times almost transparently disingenuous. Von Meck was often obtrusive and inconsistent. Nevertheless, they both transcended these petty traits. Despite their final estrangement, their mutual devotion, at its highest, could be considered a model of relations between two spiritually complex individuals.

Dedication of Fourth Symphony

Tchaikovsky, as a sign of appreciation, dedicated his Symphony No. 4 to her. This was important because, due to the nature of artistic patronage in Russian society, patron and artist were considered equals. Dedications of works to patrons were expressions of artistic partnership. By dedicating the Fourth Symphony to von Meck, he was affirming her as an equal partner in its creation.[10]

Symbolic—and strained—union

Anna Davidova von Meck (Tchaikovsky's niece) with her husband Nikolay.

In 1883, von Meck's son Nikolay married Tchaikovsky's niece Anna Davydova, after five years of matchmaking efforts by Tchaikovsky and von Meck. Von Meck, in Cannes at the time, did not attend. She thus stayed true to her custom of avoiding all contact with the families of her children's spouses. Tchaikovsky did attend, meeting the rest of the von Meck clan.

At first both von Meck and Tchaikovsky rejoiced in this event, seeing in it a symbolic consummation of their own relationship. Later events would make them question their intent. Anna, extremely strong-willed herself, dominated her husband. She also opposed her mother-in-law regarding family matters—most tellingly in a feud between her eldest son and business partner, Vladimir, and the rest of the family.

Rather than bringing von Meck and Tchaikovsky closer together, Anna and Nikolay's union may have helped drive a wedge between them. Tchaikovsky virtually disowned his niece in an effort to avert a falling-out. Von Meck hid from him her true feelings about what was taking place.

The break

In October 1890, von Meck sent Tchaikovsky a year's subsidy in advance, along with a letter ending her patronage. She claimed bankruptcy. Most surprising about the break was its extreme suddenness. Barely a week beforehand, she had sent him a typically intimate, loving and confessional letter. The letter dealt in large part on how her children were squandering their future inheritance. This was a persistent irritation for von Meck and not necessarily a warning of her cutting him off. Nevertheless, one logical explanation of giving Tchaikovsky a year's subsidy at once would be that she feared not having the funds to send later in their usual arrangement of monthly installments.

Owing to the suddenness of her action, some believe she ended her patronage because she had learned of Tchaikovsky's homosexuality. Others discount this idea. Most tellingly, von Meck asked Tchaikovsky, in her final letter, not to forget her. She would not have made such a request had she acted out of resentment at a perceived moral fault. It is perhaps more likely that her family had threatened to reveal Tchaikovsky's sexual preferences publicly. Von Meck would have then cut off her relationship to him to protect him from scandal.

Two facts played into von Meck's decision:

  1. By 1890, von Meck was gravely ill. She was in the latter stage of tuberculosis and would succumb two months after Tchaikovsky's death. An atrophy of her arm made writing nearly impossible.[11] Dictating letters to a third party would have been awkward—especially messages as frank, informal and personal as the ones she and Tchaikovsky had exchanged.
  2. She was under intense family pressure to end the relationship. Her children were embarrassed by her closeness with Tchaikovsky. There was society gossip about the composer and "la Meck." Increasingly, at least in the eyes of hostile relatives, the situation seemed scandalous. Worse, to them, he continued to take her money freely after he had received a generous pension from Tsar Alexander III.[12] As the children's own financial situations worsened, they grew more resolved to end the arrangement between their mother and Tchaikovsky. By mid- to late-1890, over a two-month period, she had been visited by all but one of her elder children. She may have even been given a final ultimatum. The final letter and payment from von Meck to Tchaikovsky were delivered by a trusted servant of hers, Ivan Vasilyev, for whom he held warm feelings. She had never sent anything to him this way before. She had always sent letters and checks by post. If she could not control her correspondence personally any longer, and if she wanted to conceal this action from everyone else around her, she would have essentially solved two problems with this one action.

She also knew that Tchaikovsky was often in need of cash, notwithstanding what she gave him. Tchaikovsky was a poor manager of money. He would then ask von Meck for the next year's allowance several months in advance. Knowing of this habit, she might have anticipated his needing the money. She may have started preparing for the break from the middle of 1889, knowing it would come sooner or later.

Brotherly jealousy

Modest Tchaikovsky

One person who may have welcomed the break was Tchaikovsky's brother Modest. Like his brother, Modest was homosexual. When the two brothers discussed von Meck's action, Modest did not try to explain her behavior. Instead, he said what had been to Tchaikovsky the unique and mutual relationship of two friends had been for von Meck the passing fancy of a wealthy woman.

This judgment on Modest's part might be accepted with a certain degree of doubt. For all his adulation for his brother, Modest's feelings were actually deeply ambivalent. Modest may have been intensely jealous of his brother's creative success and equally insecure about this secret friend being his closest rival for his brother's attention and affections. Just as Tchaikovsky's break with his wife Antonina might have brought joy to von Meck, so now the break with von Meck may have brought joy to Modest.

Modest became the composer's biographer. He maintained that Tchaikovsky considered von Meck's cutting off their relationship to be an act of betrayal. He also said Tchaikovsky's bitterness remained unassuaged, and that on his deathbed, the composer constantly repeated von Meck's name, reproaching her. However, a very different story persisted within the von Meck family.

Possible reconciliation

Galina von Meck—the daughter of von Meck's son Nikolay and Tchaikovsky's niece Anna—maintained that the rift was secretly healed. In September 1893, only weeks before Tchaikovsky's death, Anna was about to leave for Nice. Von Meck was dying and Anna was travelling there to nurse her. Tchaikovsky asked her to beg his former friend for forgiveness for his own silence. This apology was reportedly accepted wholeheartedly by von Meck and reciprocated.

The Tchaikovsky biographer Dr. David Brown maintains that Galina's account "contains much hearsay and a good deal that is romantically heightened." Regardless of this, he concedes some plausibility in her account, especially since Galina received the story directly from her mother.[13]

Financial problems

Von Meck's claim of bankruptcy was not entirely untrue. Along with his fortune, Karl von Meck had left a sizable amount of debt upon his death. This debt was far larger and more extensive than his wife had previously known. Rumors of this debt started circulating publicly in the early 1880s. Tchaikovsky had questioned her about it in his letters.

This debt was compounded by the financial mismanagement of von Meck's business assets by her son Vladimir. While he was as gifted in public relations as his father had been in engineering, Vladimir proved as extravagant as his mother in spending. He was the favorite among von Meck's children. This may have been why she tolerated his ways as long as she did. Unfortunately, it was also largely what pitted her and Vladimir against his siblings and sister-in-law, Anna (Tchaikovsky's niece). They claimed, among other things, that he was pocketing company funds for his own use. Regardless of the truth of these charges, the von Meck estate was in serious financial peril.

Vladimir suffered a nervous breakdown in 1890. That summer, his mother relieved him of his post. His replacement was von Meck's personal assistant, Władisław Pachulski. Originally employed by von Meck as a musician, he became an in-law by marrying her daughter Julia. He was also far more experienced in financial management than Vladimir had been and was able to save the von Meck estate from bankruptcy.[14] Meanwhile, Vladimir had been found to have an advanced case of tuberculosis, the same disease from which his mother suffered. He would die from it in 1892.


Nadezhda von Meck died from tuberculosis on January 13, 1894 in Nice, France. This was barely two months after Tchaikovsky's demise.

After her mother-in-law's passing, Anna von Meck was asked how the late patroness had endured Tchaikovsky's death. Anna replied, "She did not endure it." [15]

Donation by Galina Nikolayevna von Meck

In 1985 Galina donated to Columbia University a collection including her translation of 681 letters written by Tchaikovsky to his family. The collection covered the period from March 1861 to September 1893.


  1. ^ Tchaikovsky, P.I., Perepiska s N.F. fon Mekk (1876-1890) [Correspondence with N.F. von Meck], ed. Zhdanov, Vladimir and Zhegin, Nikolai (Moscow and Leningrad, 1934-1936), 3:197. As quoted in Poznansky, 197.
  2. ^ a b As quoted in Poznansky, 198.
  3. ^ She would not give her permission, wanting her daughters to marry men of her own choosing (which they did, but these marriages all ended in divorce).
  4. ^ Classical Archives
  5. ^ David Mason Greene, Greene’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Composers
  6. ^ This work, never published, is now considered lost.
  7. ^ Tchaikovsky, P.I., Perepiska s N.F. fon Mekk (1876-1890) [Correspondence with N.F. von Meck], ed. Zhdanov, Vladimir and Zhegin, Nikolai (Moscow and Leningrad, 1934-1936), 1:14. As quoted in Poznansky, 200.
  8. ^ While these letters have proved invaluable to Tchaikovsky researchers over the years, many of them suffered from cuts made by previous editors. A collection currently being published by Musik Produktion International is planned to include all surviving letters in full, including many new letters which have been discovered recently.
  9. ^ Letter to von Meck, 28 March [O.S. 16 March] 1877. As quoted in Holden, 139.
  10. ^ Maes, 140-141.
  11. ^ This problem was not news to Tchaikovsky. The growing atrophy, accompanied by sharp cramping in the hands, had continued worsening since the summer of 1882. It had already slowed the pace of von Meck's correspondence tremendously as it made every line, then every few words, physically painful to write. She had made him aware of it in past letters.
  12. ^ This state pension, granted in 1888, totaled 3,000 rubles a year. While only half the amount Tchaikovsky received annually from von Meck, it was still 10 times the annual salary of the average public servant.
  13. ^ Brown, David, Tchaikovsky: The Final Years (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992), 292-293
  14. ^ There is also some conjecture that, as von Meck's assistant, he was in a position to enforce the family's wishes by intercepting any letters to or from Tchaiovsky. However, the full extent of his efforts in this regard cannot be determined with certainty until more archival evidence is unearthed.
  15. ^ Vospominanya (1980). As quoted in Holden, 401.

Further reading

  • Bowen, Catherine Drinker and von Meck, Barbara. Beloved Friend: The Story of Tchaikowsky and Nadejda von Meck (New York: Random House, 1937).
  • Brown, David. Tchaikovsky: The Crisis Years, 1874-1878, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1983). ISBN 0-393-01707-9.
  • Brown, David. Tchaikovsky: The Years of Wandering (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1986)
  • Brown, David. Tchaikovsky: The Final Years (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1992)
  • Brown, David. Tchaikovsky: The Man and his Music (London: Faber & Faber, 2006). ISBN 0-571-23194-2. Also (New York: Pegasus Books, 2007). ISBN 1-933648-30-9.
  • Holden, Anthony. Tchaikovsky: A Biography Random House; 1st U.S. ed edition (February 27, 1996) ISBN 0-679-42006-1
  • Poznansky, Alexander. Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man Lime Tree (1993) ISBN 0-413-45721-4 (hb), ISBN 0-413-45731-1 (pb)
  • To My Best Friend: Correspondence Between Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda von Meck 1876-1878. By Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Nadezhda von Meck (1993)
  • Warrack, John. Tchaikovsky (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973)
  • Troyat, Henri. La Baronne et le Musicien. Madame von Meck et Tchaïkovski. Editions Grasset. 2006.


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