Compatible Spirits: Finding Mozart and Chekhov in Their Letters
By Stuart Mitchner
You cannot imagine how enchanting the music sounds from a box close to the orchestra!
—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) to his wife
If we are not together now, it isn’t you who are to blame, but the demon that filled me with bacilli and you with love for art.
—Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) to his future wife
Besides listening to Mozart and reading Chekhov this week — both born in January, the composer on the 27th, the writer on the 29th — I’ve been reading their letters, which are enlivened by the same buoyant spirit, along with a shared understanding of the human comedy in relation to life and love and nature, the joys, temptations, and excesses of existence.
As I read, I kept imagining how two such sympathetic spirits might have viewed one another in the context of their work, the music Mozart might have discovered in Chekhov and the literature Chekhov might have drawn from Mozart. So I decided to compare some letters from their middle twenties as well as letters to their wives later in life. Chekhov was 27 when he wrote the letter below, dated April 25, 1887.
A Cossack Wedding
Writing to his sister Maria after revisiting his birthplace, Taganrog, on the Black Sea, Chekhov sorts through “many discordant impressions” as he recalls the events of the previous day, “a real Cossack wedding, with music, women caterwauling, and a loathsome drinking bout. … I acted as best man, and was dressed in a borrowed frock coat, with fearfully wide trousers, and not a single stud on my shirt. In Moscow such a best man would have been kicked out, but here I looked smarter than anyone. … I saw a lot of wealthy marriageable girls, but I was so drunk the whole time that I took bottles for girls and girls for bottles. Probably owing to my drunken condition the local maidens found me witty and satirical!” Meanwhile, “apparently in obedience to a local custom, the newlyweds kissed every minute, kissing so vehemently that every time their lips made an explosive noise, I had a taste of oversweet raisins in my mouth, and got a spasm in my left calf. … I can’t tell you how much fresh caviar I ate and how much local red wine I drank. It’s a wonder I didn’t burst.”
If Mozart were scoring it, the wedding feast would be a scherzo followed by the moody andante of an overnight wait between trains at a place called Zvyerevo: “I had to sleep in a second-class railway-carriage on the siding. I left the car to relieve myself and it was miraculous out there: the moon, the boundless steppe — a desert with ancient grave-mounds — the silence of the tomb, and the cars and rails standing out boldly against the dim sky — a dead world. It was a picture one would not forget for ages and ages.”
Flirting with a Baroness
Mozart was 26 in October 2, 1782, writing to the Baroness von Waldstätten, the wealthy friend and patroness who had hosted his and Constanze’s wedding feast. After a burlesque of fulsome introductions (“Dearest, best, and fairest, golden, silver, and sugared, most perfect, and precious, highly esteemed Baroness!”), he admits to being “a very happy — and at the same time, a very unhappy — man! Unhappy since the day I saw your ladyship so charmingly coiffée at the ball, for my peace of mind is now gone! Naught since then but sighs and groans! During the remainder of the ball I did not dance — I leapt! Supper was already ordered but I could not eat — I fed! At night, instead of slumbering softly and sweetly — I slept like a dormouse and snored like a bear! and I wager that it was the same with your ladyship. You smile? You blush? You do! I am indeed happy; my future is made. But, who is this taps me on the shoulder? Who peeps into my letter? Oh, oh, oh — my wife! Well I love her and having got her at last, I must keep her. What is to be done?” At this point in his performance, Mozart quotes some doggerel about a woman and a pint of beer, and “if your Ladyship could send me a pint this evening you would be doing me a great favor. For my wife has longings — but only for beer prepared in the English manner! My Constanze who is an angel of a wife and I who am the model of a husband, both kiss your hands a thousand times.”
Chekhov would surely be amused by the creative energy driving Mozart’s flirtatious monologue, in which he casts himself, the Baroness and his wife as characters in a giddy farce. While Chekhov’s Cossack wedding feast and Mozart’s ball might be musically reimagined in the spirit of The Magic Flute, the most haunting image in the two letters, of Chekhov staring in wonder at the moonlit steppe, is worthy of a Mozart piano concerto, at the moment the pianist pauses, and the full orchestra swoops down to take possession of the melody.
There’s a passage in a July 7, 1791 letter from Mozart to Constanze, written half a year before his death, that suggests a Chekhovian moment. Constanze is in Baden recovering from an illness probably due to a miscarriage (only two of their six children survived infancy). In Vienna, Mozart writes, “You would never believe how long the time seems to me since I left you! I cannot describe my feelings — there is a kind of emptiness which hurts me sharply — a kind of longing, never ceasing, because never satisfied, but persisting, nay increasing, from day to day. When I think how merry we were together in Baden — like children! And what sad, weary hours I live through here! Even my work gives me no joy, because I am accustomed to break off from time to time and exchange a few words with you … If I go to the clavier and sing something from the opera [The Magic Flute], I have to stop — my emotions are too strong.”
Another such moment can be found in W.J. Turner’s biography describing the visit of a friend in the winter of 1791 who found Mozart and Constanze dancing up and down in his work room. Asked whether he was teaching his wife dancing, Mozart replied, “We are making ourselves warm because we are very cold and have no money for fuel.”
Playwright and Actress
Imagine the opera Mozart could compose around the romance of Anton and Olga, married only three years before his death, and Chekhov’s pre-nuptial letters from Yalta to his “wonderful little actress” when Olga was playing Elena in the Moscow Art Theatre’s production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. In a letter from September 1900, responding to an accusation of “hardheartedness,” he writes, “you wish and expect some kind of explanation, some sort of lengthy conversation carried on with grave expressions on our faces and with momentous conclusions to be drawn. But I don’t know what to tell you, except the one thing I have repeated ten thousand times and will probably continue to repeat for a long time to come, i.e., that I love you — that’s all. If we are not together now, it isn’t you who are to blame, but the demon that filled me with bacilli and you with love for art.” The letter ends, “Don’t be cross with me, dear one, don’t be blue, be a good girl. What’s new in the theatre? Please write.”
Olga was with Chekhov when he died. Champagne had been ordered. “He took a glass,” she writes, “turned his face towards me, smiled his amazing smile and said, ‘It’s a long time since I drank champagne,’ calmly drained his glass, lay down quietly on his left side, and shortly afterward fell silent forever.”
The Turner biography offers a moment with Chekhovian possibilities concerning Mozart’s canary, of which he was very fond. When, much to his distress, the canary was moved to another room the day before his death, Mozart began humming the bird-catcher’s song from The Magic Flute and was delighted when a friend went to the pianoforte and played it. The Requiem, which he’d told Constanze he was composing for himself, was constantly on his mind. The afternoon of the day he died, he had the score brought to his bed and sang the alto part while friends took the soprano, tenor, and bass parts. Even after losing consciousness and becoming delirious, he was still occupied with the music, “for in his unconsciousness he kept blowing out his cheeks as if imitating trumpets.”
The last letter of Mozart’s in the 1928 edition originally selected and edited by Hans Mersmann is to Constanze, dated Saturday, October 8-9, 1791. He begins by describing his joy at finding her letter on his return from a full-house performance of The Magic Flute, which was “received with the usual applause and encores.” Toward the end of the long, lively, typically performative message, he writes, “You cannot imagine how enchanting the music sounds from a box close to the orchestra — far better than from the gallery. As soon as you come back you must try it.”
The last letter in the book is from Constanze to Emperor Leopold II pointing out that, according to existing regulations as to pensions, she has not the slightest claim on any kind of subsidy or grant.
Her letter is preceded by a note to the effect that when Mozart died on December 5, 1791, “there was not money enough for fitting obsequies. He was buried in the ‘common grave.’ Few friends followed the coffin, and even these turned back half-way on account of the bad weather.”
In his excellent collection, Anton Chekhov and his Times, Andrei Turkov includes a quote by K.S. Stanislavski that highlights the qualities in Chekhov counter to the gloomy stereotype: “I see him far more frequently cheerful and smiling than gloomy.” Even during his last illness, “there was joking, wit, laughter, and even pranks. Who better than he was able to make others laugh, or utter stupidities with a serious face?”
The same qualities, the same sense of fun, are at the heart of what makes Chekhov and Mozart compatible spirits.