What to Do When Your Wife Is More Successful than You: Wise Advice from Tchaikovsky’s Father, 150 Years Ahead of Its Time
By Maria Popova
Eastern Europe is not exactly a region known for empowering women and promoting gender equality. When I was growing up there in the 1980s, the gender norms for women — from appearance to domestic duties to self-actualization prospects — seemed stuck if not in the caveman era then at the very least in the preceding century. Imagine, then, how disorienting it must have been for an Eastern European man in that preceding century — a man of great ambition and genius, no less — to face the prospect of marrying a woman more successful than him. But that’s precisely what the great composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky confronted in late 1868 as he became infatuated with the prominent Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt, five years his senior — one of the world’s most famous women at the time, whom he had met earlier that year during the Russian tour of an Italian opera company that had caused a sensation in Moscow with Artôt’s performance.
From The Life and Letters of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (public library; public domain) — the same endlessly rewarding volume that gave us the great composer on work ethic vs. inspiration, the paradox of client work, and why you should never allow interruptions in your creative process — comes this magnificent exchange with his father, who provided wonderfully wise and heartening advice on love, creative purpose, and why a healthy ego thrives on equality rather than fearing it.
On January 7, 1869 — three decades after Darwin famously weighed the pros and cons of marriage — young Pyotr despairs in a letter to his father, Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky:
My friends … are trying might and main to prevent my marriage. They declare that, married to a famous singer, I should play the pitiable part of “husband of my wife”; that I should live at her expense and accompany her all over Europe; finally, that I should lose all opportunities of working, and that when my first love had cooled, I should know nothing but disenchantment and depression. The risk of such a catastrophe might perhaps be avoided, if she would consent to leave the stage and live entirely in Russia. But she declares that in spite of all her love for me, she cannot make up her mind to give up the profession which brings her in so much money, and to which she has grown accustomed. At present she is on her way to Moscow. Meanwhile we have agreed that I am to visit her in summer at her country house (near Paris), when our fate will be decided.
If she will not consent to give up the stage, I, on my part, hesitate to sacrifice my future; for it is clear that I shall lose all opportunity of making my own way, if I blindly follow in her train. You see, Dad, my situation is a very difficult one. On the one hand, I love her heart and soul, and feel I cannot live any longer without her; on the other hand, calm reason bids me to consider more closely all the misfortunes with which my friends threaten me. I shall wait, my dear, for your views on the subject.
Three days later, he receives an exquisitely thoughtful and emboldening reply from his father, who writes:
My dear Pyotr,
You ask my advice upon the most momentous event in your life… You are both artists, both make capital out of your talents; but while she has made both money and fame, you have hardly begun to make your way, and God knows whether you will ever attain to what she has acquired. Your friends know your gifts, and fear they may suffer by your marriage — I think otherwise. You, who gave up your official appointment for the sake of your talent, are not likely to forsake your art, even if you are not altogether happy at first, as is the fate of nearly all musicians. You are proud, and therefore you find it unpleasant not to be earning sufficient to keep a wife and be independent of her purse. Yes, dear fellow, I understand you well enough. It is bitter and unpleasant. But if you are both working and earning together there can be no question of reproach; go your way, let her go hers, and help each other side by side. It would not be wise for either of you to give up your chosen vocations until you have saved enough to say: “This is ours, we have earned it in common.”
His father then goes on to address the specific admonitions issued by the composer’s friends, beginning with the notion that marrying a famous singer dooms him to “playing the pitiable part of attendant upon her journeys,” living on her earnings, and relinquishing his own prospects of gainful creative work. Tchaikovsky père writes:
If your love is not a fleeting, but solid sentiment, as it ought to be in people of your age; if your vows are sincere and unalterable, then all these misgivings are nonsense. Married happiness is based upon mutual respect, and you would no more permit your wife to be a kind of servant, than she would ask you to be her lackey. The traveling is not a matter of any importance, so long as it does not prevent your composing — it will even give you opportunities of getting your operas or symphonies performed in various places. A devoted friend will help to inspire you. When all is set down in black and white, with such a companion as your chosen one, your talent is more likely to progress than to deteriorate.
He then counters the caution that once the infatuation burns itself out, there will be only despondency left:
Even if your first passion for her does cool somewhat, will “nothing remain but disenchantment and depression”? But why should love grow cold? I lived twenty-one years with your mother, and during all that time I loved her just the same, with the ardor of a young man, and respected and worshipped her as a saint…
There is only one question I would ask you: have you proved each other? Do you love each other truly, and for all time? I know your character, my dear son, and I have confidence in you, but I have not as yet the happiness of knowing the dear woman of your choice. I only know her lovely heart and soul through you. It would be no bad thing if you proved each other, not by jealousy — God forbid — but by time.
The story would be delightful if it ended there, with a “happily ever after” addendum. But real life — especially for those whose souls are ablaze with the great fire of genius, which can sometimes burn as it illuminates — is always messier than such fable-like idyls.
Ilya’s final point turned out to be the most insightful of all, for young Tchaikovsky’s infatuation with Artôt didn’t stand the test of time — in large part because the composer’s attractions up to that point had been to men, and — as both his official biographers and his brother’s autobiography have demonstrated — he experienced tremendous inner turmoil over his homosexuality and went to great lengths to suppress it. (This fact was expunged from history for more than a century, which is hardly surprising given Russia’s history of LGBT rights violations. Even Brain Pickings, even today, has been repeatedly blocked in Russia for featuring LGBT artists and writers, thus violating the gobsmacking “gay ban” instituted by Putin’s administration. It must be terribly aggravating for a government whose formalized bigotry is among the world’s worst failures of human rights to acknowledge that the country’s greatest composer was a gay man; it’s unsurprising that censors would go to obscene lengths to obscure and outright falsify that fact — including, for instance, suppressing entire sections of Modest Tchaikovsky’s autobiography, in which he chronicles his brother’s homosexuality.) Artôt, after all, was the Cher of her day — it’s possible that Tchaikovsky was taken with her as a diva to be worshipped rather than a lover to be possessed. Similar instances can be found elsewhere in the fossil record of LGBT history — Hans Christian Anderson, who never married or had children, was infatuated for a time with the famous Swedish opera diva Jenny Lind, and Oscar Wilde married the socialite Constance Lloyd in the midst of his long love affair with Sir Alfred “Bosie” Douglas.
But the actual break wasn’t initiated by Tchaikovsky — on September 15 that year, to the composer’s shock, she married a Spanish member of her opera company. According to Tchaikovsky biographer Anthony Holden, the marriage was likely prompted by pressure from Artôt’s mother who, upon finding out about the composer’s orientation, took every measure to ensure her daughter wouldn’t marry him — the surest strategy for which, evidently, was to push her into matrimony with another man.
Eight years later, Tchaikovsky married Antonina Ivanovna — a young woman who had been flooding him with fervent fan mail. The marriage was acutely short-lived — mere hours after the wedding ceremony, the composer was gripped with the terror of having made a grandiose mistake. Despite trying to make a go of it, the couple’s emotional and sexual incompatibility crescendoed two and a half months later, and they split. Although they remained legally married, they never lived together again and Antonia mothered three children by another man. A few months after his failed marriage, Tchaikovsky wrote in a letter to his brother Anatoly:
There’s no doubt that for some months on end I was a bit insane and only now, when I’m completely recovered, have I learned to relate objectively to everything which I did during my brief insanity. That man who in May took it into his head to marry Antonina Ivanovna, who during June wrote a whole opera as though nothing had happened, who in July married, who in September fled from his wife, who in November railed at Rome and so on — that man wasn’t I, but another Pyotr Ilyich.
But for the rest of his life, Tchaikovsky maintained that Artôt had been the only woman he ever loved.
Many more of the great composer’s beautiful and strangely assuring complexities and contradictions can be found in The Life and Letters of Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky. Complement this particular piece with Wendell Berry on what the poetic form reveals about the secret of marriage and Amelia Earhart’s remarkably progressive requirements for matrimony.
Published January 22, 2015