Tchaikovsky made me do it

An addendum to the subject of the last post on Joachim’s student Lili Schober Petschnikoff.
Lili’s memoir tells of her whirlwind engagement to violinist Alexander Petschnikoff, who had become famous almost overnight after his debut in Berlin in October of 1895. She describes in her own unique language the first time she heard him:

He played the Tchaikowsky Concerto. A few weeks before I had heard this concerto for the first time. [This was probably Leopold Auer’s performance on 8 March 1895. The performance by Petschnikoff that she attended was on 9 December 1895.] Then it seemed interminably long and tedious. I breathed relief when its forty-five minutes rendering was over. It wasn’t the same composition at all the way I heard it now.
The orchestra clung to his moods, following as if hypnotized the tempi to suit the artist’s conception. Broad, passionate, a yearning that tore at the listener’s heart, a dashing, a throbbing, and still sovereign of all technical difficulties. Sonorous and luscious, then a pianissimo in the second movement that made you hold your breath, the last movement with dynamic wildness…..
Petschnikoff had opened to me all the beauties of this composer whom I, with my classical Joachim background, had failed to accept. I began working at it by myself, but I remembered so vividly how Petschnikoff had played it, and I became ashamed at even the attempt.”1Lili Petschnikoff, The World at our Feet (New York, Washington, and Hollywood: Vantage Press, 1968), 56.

Lili claims that the Concerto had not been popular before Petschnikoff played it:

The Tchaikowsky Concerto! The concerto I had hoped never to hear again. At this late date of 1949, the concerto has conquered the whole world. In 1895 it was still under the ill fate of its periodical bannings, a composition to be dealt with carefully. Little feelers thrust out, drawn back quickly when touched by the decisive disapproval of especially the most famous Viennese critic Hanslick.
But with the wonderful interpretation Petschnikoff gave it, it was accepted as once. There was hardly a city in Europe that did not demand the Tchaikowsky by request. At last its beauty and greatness was discovered and given to the world.
The first bars of the introduction, deep, serious, matching the young player’s yielding to the quaintly Russian melancholy, to broadly sweep into the first movement. A slight reticence in the impassioned haunting themes. A broad enfolding of the superb structure.
With closed eyes the young artist had forgotten the world as he met Tchaikowsky in transcendent spheres. His fair hair, touched by lights from above, gave the boyish apparition the semblance of being crowned by a halo. A rumor had spread about Petschnikoff in Berlin. It was said that a beautiful high-born Russian girl with whom he was in love had died, that he was pining, that his art was dedicated to her. A story that appealed immensely to the sentimental, romantic humanity of the 1890s.2The World at our Feet, 55-56.

Lili visited her parents in Paris for Christmas, and on the train back to Berlin happened to meet the 22-year-old violinist. He spoke little German, but got her address and paid her a visit at her pension, where she served tea and petit fours while chaperoned by other boarders. It was just three months after his debut and he was in the middle of a concert tour, so he could only manage a few hours in Berlin during a layover between trains. Soon after they saw each other again at a banquet. A week later, he came and proposed. The closest he would come again to Berlin in the following weeks was Magdeburg. She promised she would give him an answer then. At the concert:

The orchestra again started with an overture. Then Petschnikoff’s slight, ethereal form wound its way to the front of the platform and again I heard the Tchaikowsky Concerto. I knew what my presence in that hall meant to him. He was playing for me….
Petschinikoff was just coming away from enthusiastic cheering, and while the audience wildly acclaimed his return we fell into our first embrace. He clung passionately to my lips, and helplessly I yielded to an unknown sensation.
Was it the Tchaikowsky Concerto that put me in the mood for love, or was my protective instinct touched so deeply? To be loved by my ideal of expressive beauty, to be his champion, his mate in art and life, was a dignity I prayed to be worthy of.3 The World at our Feet, 63.

As mentioned in the last post, Lili did have a long association with her mate in art. They played concertos for two violins starting in 1900 and continued until World War I. However, Lili divorced him in 1915 after discovering he had been living with another woman for seven years. Given that they had become engaged while barely acquainted and under the influence of Tchaikovsky, it is impressive that they managed to stay together for nineteen years.

Madame Lili Petschnikoff, frontispiece to The World at our Feet

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