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.” more