06 August, 2006

73. A brief claim to fame

There is a plaque proudly displayed on the front wall of the Londra Palace Hotel on the Riva Schiavoni, not far from the Doge's Palace, and it says this, translated loosely from the Italian:

"The great Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky stayed from the 2nd to the 16th December 1877 in this hotel, where he composed his Fourth Symphony."

I don't know about you, but I find that simple statement extraordinary. How could he have written such a huge piece of music as the Fourth in only two weeks? In a hotel room? But just suppose for a moment that he did, it must have been a Herculean all-out effort, which means that Tchaikovsky went all the way to Venice and did nothing else at all while he was there except write music! This must have been a fantastic hotel if Tchaikovsky preferred the inside of it to the exclusion of all else.

The truth of course is slightly different.

1877 was what you might call an up and down year for Peter T. On the upside, his Swan Lake was premiered in February to great acclaim. Also, his patron, Nadezhda von Meck, gave him several other commissions and enough money to keep composing fulltime, and in the spring he began to compose his Fourth Symphony (yes, the one on the plaque). Oddly, although she was a huge fan, Madame von Meck never allowed Tchaikovsky to meet her, though they corresponded almost daily for fifteen years.

Then the composer did something very unwise. Not recognizing, or more likely, not admitting even to himself that he was gay, he married a young woman ten years his junior. This was a disaster, and within three months his marriage was dissolved, Tchaikovsky had a complete mental breakdown, and he attempted suicide by plunging himself into the icy waters of the Moscow River. His musical friends rescued him by chipping in to buy him a long holiday in Italy.

I think by now you've realised that the hotel plaque is not telling the whole story.

True, the 'great Russian composer' did write some music while he was in Venice, but only the conclusion of the Fourth Symphony, not the whole lot as intimated on the plaque. And he didn't have a fabulous time at this albergo, either. He wrote to his brother Anatole, "I shall leave Venice without sorrow….it is only thanks to the monotony of Venetian life and lack of distractions that I could work so hard and so intensively". Venice... boring?!

What's more, that letter was written on Christmas Eve, which means that the hotel's illustrious guest was still in Venice but must have moved out of the Londra Palace by then and gone to stay somewhere else. I don't know what caused the composer to find a different hotel in the middle of his stay, but the reason is unlikely to be a ringing endorsement for the hospitality of the Londra Palace Hotel.

Never let the truth get in the way of a good bit of PR.

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