Nadezhda von Meck

Written by Harry Clark
IW, 1M, No Set

“You think that I fear not finding in you the union of man and musician of which I dream. But you see I have already found it in you, and it is no longer in question. Your music makes my nerves tingle, I want to cry, I want to die. I want another life, not the one which people usually believe in and look forward to, but another one—an elusive, inexplicable one.” Nadejda von Meck to P.I. Chaikovski

The remarkable correspondence between composer Peter I. Chaikovski and his patroness, Nadejda Philarnetovna von Meck, might be named The Russian Love Letters. Thank you, A.R. Gurney!


Nadejda von Meck was a wealthy widow of 45 when she first encountered Chaikovski’s music. Overwhelmed by the beauty of what she heard, she decided to use part of her large fortune—the greatest fortune in all Russia—to support the composer, age 36. By mutual agreement the pair never met, though they occasionally made eye contact at concerts or at the opera house. Von Meck thought a face-to-face with her “artist/man” would only diminish her in his eyes, and Chaikovski, desperate for the freedom to compose full time, was more than agreeable. Thus ensued a correspondence between the two lasting 14 years, when Frau von Meck suddenly stopped sending money, for reasons that remain obscure. By this time Chaikovski needed not the money—he was world renowned and financially set—and her dismissal tore at him for the rest of his life. The two had shared their innermost thoughts and had bonded in ways more intimate than many marriages. Chaikovski never heard from her again, though he continued to send letter after letter for an explanation. The mystery of why von Meck cut off the correspondence is great theater, grand opera, compelling drama.

This is an early work of mine and I had the great fortune to work with Harvey Fierstein on the script. Harvey’s involvement came right before Hairspray, and I laugh thinking of his transition from Peter Ilyich to Edna Turnblad! Harvey had two wonderful von Mecks opposite him in different runs: Rosemary Prinz and Caroline Kava; and Bob Sorenson and Stephanie Zimbalist brought a wonderful sensibility to it, too.

Oh, yes, the spelling of Chaikovski. Those of us old as I remember it with a T—Tschaikowsky or Tchaikovsky—but go to any library and look up his name and it is now with a C. Confidentially, Library of Congress