Tchaikovsky's leisure activities and passions
S.M. Yunovich.
A sketch of the Pink Waltz set for the ballet Sleeping Beauty at the Kirov Theatre.
Pastel on cardboard
Leningrad, [c. 1890]

Russian National Museum of Music
Tchaikovsky is one of those outstanding figures of Russian culture who is very much known to everyone. We learn a lot about Tchaikovsky's creative work and his human appearance from a tremendous collection of letters, diaries, various documents and memories of the composer. The facts surrounding the creation of Tchaikovsky's musical pieces are always in plain sight and are often cited in texts about the composer, yet there are quite a few statements and comments about his everyday life remaining on the sidelines of the authors' attention and are known much less. Meanwhile, many of them can bring Tchaikovsky closer to us, showing him as a person whose interests and hobbies are accessible to everyone.

The composer's activities at home and at leisure were exceptionally diverse and sometimes surprising. For one, they represented his mental structure (e.g., a particular passion for fragrances and mind card games, like solitaire and others). Second, they were a manifestation of his gambling nature (once again, card games, passion for hunting and mushroom picking). Third, a distinctive propensity to occasionally become childish (swinging on a swing, kiting). He is known to have enjoyed cycling and playing billiards. Tchaikovsky was quite indifferent to chess and horse racing. The documents available also give an idea of the composer's gastronomic tastes and unusual everyday activities (sewing, laundry, gardening, cleaning etc.). Tchaikovsky was especially keen on communicating with the animals, from pets to insects.

Music and reading in the composer's everyday life were largely driven by his professional activities, but not only that. Learning about musical novelties and a new immersion in well-known compositions, in addition to purely compositional interest, was an emotional need to get in touch with something he loved and cherished or, on the contrary, to hear the pulse of his era once again.

Tchaikovsky referred to reading as 'one of the greatest blisses', but as long as it comes with peace of mind and is done regularly, not in bits and pieces. Apart from his vast collection of books on art and philosophy, he was also interested in newspapers and historical magazines (Russkiy Archive, Russkaya Starina and several others).

Tchaikovsky enjoyed daily walks as a universal pastime: on the one hand, he intentionally exercised while walking (sometimes for several hours), and on the other hand, he used these walks to reflect on his compositions. Often during these hours, he could have music ideas in the form of excerpts of melodies that Tchaikovsky wrote down in his notebooks, which he always had on hand for such occasions.
S.M. Yunovich.
A sketch of the Hunting set for the ballet Sleeping Beauty at the Kirov Theatre.
Pastel and gouache on cardboard
Leningrad, [c. 1890]

Russian National Museum of Music
The greatest fascination of the composer's life was his passion for flowers. The letters are literally scattered with statements that testify to a sincere and enduring admiration for these creations of nature. One of these can be found in a letter to von Meck from Italy in January 1878: 'Do you like flowers? I have the most passionate love for them, especially for the wood and field species. I think of lily of the valley as the king of flowers; I have some crazy adoration for them. Modest, who is also fond of flowers, often argues with me. He likes violets, I'm the lily of the valley person; and we argue. I tell him that violets smell like ointment from a tobacco shop, he replies that the lilies of the valley look like nightcaps etc. <...> Anyway, although I can't admit that violets could compete with lilies of the valley, I still like them too. <...> today, on my way back, I came across one place full of them. <...> I am sending you some nice flowers that I have picked. They will remind you of the south, sun, sea and warmth.'

Interestingly, Tchaikovsky's passion for flowers also had some practical application in his floriculture experiments. His first such attempt took place in Frolovsky in the summer of 1888, but ended in a gardening failure: 'Flowers in a desperate condition. Only fragrant peas are still barely holding; reseda all turned yellow and red as in autumn; gillyflowers are dying one after another; heliotropes are turning black. Of the regular flowers, only Lupinus grows well; the rest have long since risen out of the ground, but still do not want to grow and all remain as embryos'. However, two years later, in the summer of 1890, Tchaikovsky had some success in this field: 'I can't remember the kind of grace that God sends us this summer. My flowers have bloomed in incredible abundance. I'm more and more addicted to floriculture, and I'm comforted by the thought that if my musical performance weakens with age, I'll be entirely devoted to floriculture'.

Akin to Tchaikovsky's admiration for flowers, he had a passion for finding and picking mushrooms. He dedicated a rather lengthy passage to it in one of his letters to Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck in May 1878: 'As I walked all over the woods surrounding the cliff, I found a great deal of mushrooms, which is one of my favourite summer pleasures. So, today at lunchtime, I will have the pleasure of eating the fruits of my own quest. However, I should note that looking for mushrooms is much more fun than eating them. The minute you see and rip off a good, thick bolete is fascinating. A card game player may feel like that when they get the trumps. All night long, I dreamed of red, fat, huge mushrooms. When I woke up, I thought these mushroom dreams were a completely childish trait. And indeed, living together with nature makes you feel like a child susceptible to its most simple, unsophisticated joys'.

At the end of the 1870s, when Tchaikovsky visited his sister's family in Kamenka, he became a fan of hunting for a short time and regularly joined such activities. In the letters of the composer we can find several passionate descriptions: 'I am still madly obsessed with hunting and shoot 30 bullets a day. The day after you left <...> we saw a lot of quails. We shot, we shouted and got so excited, but did not shoot anything. <...> Modya and I went hunting ducks; there were an awful lot of them flying, but at first we fired with no effect, but at the end of the hunt I shot a duck. I can't describe my delight and pride. Modya almost burst out of envy'. However, soon Tchaikovsky completely abandoned his hobby: '...at first, I enjoyed walking around with a rifle, waiting for game, experiencing various excitement when shooting. But I turned out to be an awfully bad shooter, and I could never get used to spilling blood, even if it was ducks. Last year, I reduced my hunting activities, and now it makes me unbearably sad'.

For many years, dogs were Tchaikovsky's biggest passion in the animal world. In Moscow in the early 1870s, he kept a mongrel named Bishka in his house. This dog became the character of the composer's two comic opuses (poems and a vocal miniature). Later on, when he wrote in his letters about his joy watching other people's dogs and stray dogs, he always stressed that he would never pet dog again: 'I am deeply sympathetic to your passion for dogs and I too have a heart for them; but I think I am the only dog person of my kind. First, most of all I love simple mongrels, and in second, I can't stand to keep dogs in my house and in my whole life I had only one indoor dog a long time ago, in Moscow. I don't like keeping them because I always feel bad for them; it seems to me that they are hungry, that they need something, that they can't express, that they are sick, etc.'

In the same letter Tchaikovsky wrote, in particular, that, no longer wishing to have a dog, he was seriously considering buying a grey parrot, which he had previously subtracted as 'the smartest animal after man and elephant'. However, the composer's intention to live with representatives of the fauna remained unfulfilled.

Tchaikovsky's unusual passions include fumigation, to which several diary entries in the mid-1880s were devoted: 'Was at my brother Kolya's. Bought perfumes'; 'Killed time after dinner in every way possible. Fumigated. Slept with a headache'; 'Had fun fumigating'; 'Solitaire. Fumes and experiments with the Eau de Violette [violette toilet water]'; 'I used to walk around the rooms in the afternoon (fiddling with fumes; my mania is getting stronger and stronger)'.

Tchaikovsky's passionate hobbies beyond music undoubtedly enriched his life experience and brought new colours to the artist's creative palette.
Senior Researcher
Russian National Museum of Music
PhD (Candidate of Art History)
Alexander Komarov
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