How did Tchaikovsky get to Carnegie Hall?

May 5, 2017

This Sunday is the birthday of the most popular of all Russian composers, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (May 7, 1840). And on today's date in 1891, he made his Carnegie Hall debut during his only visit to America, appearing at the grand opening of what would become one of the most famous concert halls in the world.

I'm not sure how much he had to practice to get there (to paraphrase the old joke), since he was already one of the world's most famous composers when he was invited to participate in this event.

Performing at Carnegie Hall in New York City has come to represent having really "made it" to the rest of the world. Since its opening, many of the most famous composers and performers have appeared there, from Dvorak, Rachmaninoff, Heifetz and Horowitz, to Philip Glass, Miles Davis, the Beatles and name-the-current-top artists in classical, jazz and pop music.

From the Carnegie Hall website, Tchaikovsky seems to have loved his visit to the United States, as noted in his diary:

“Amazing people, these Americans! Compared with Paris, where, at every approach, in every stranger’s kindness one feels an attempt at exploitation, the frankness, sincerity, and generosity of this city, its hospitality without hidden motives and its eagerness to oblige and win approval are simply astonishing and, at the same time, touching.” —Tchaikovsky's diary, April 28, 1891

And, he added in a letter:

“All in all, New York, American customs, American hospitality, the very sights of the city, and the unusual comforts of the surroundings—all this is quite to my liking, and if I were younger, I would probably derive great pleasure from staying in this interesting, youthful country.” —Tchaikovsky letter, April 30, 1891

At that opening concert in Andrew Carnegie's new music hall, Tchaikovsky conducted his own Coronation March. A couple of days later, on his 51st birthday, he led a performance of his Orchestral Suite No. 3 in G.  Then on May 9, he heard his Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor receive a rapturous response from a very appreciative Carnegie audience.

He left New York to return to Europe on May 21. Sadly, Tchaikovsky died only two years later, at the young age of 53, just nine days after the premiere of his Symphony No. 6, "Pathetique" in Saint Petersburg, Russia. His appearance for the grand opening of Carnegie Hall, however, was an auspicious one for the fortunes of one of the world's most famous concert halls.