Davos 1884

January 31 2008

Davos in 1870 from schatzalp.ch. Perhaps the hotels came in the next decade.

As the skiers return to Davos, let’s join some Russians there in 1884.



12/24 November 1884 [Russia remained on the Julian calendar until 1918; the Julian date is shown first]:

“I arrived here at last at four o’clock after a complicated journey. After Munich I stayed a night at Lindau and another at Landwart (sic) station, where the railway ends. [It no longer ends in Landquart, but we have to change trains.] From there I had an eight hour drive. [The train takes a little over one.] In Landwart I was obliged to sleep in a rather miserable little room, but it was clean. From there you usually go by coach to Davos but fearing the close proximity of all the people in the cramped space of a coach I hired a carriage and travelled alone. The higher we went up into the mountains the more severe both nature and the cold became. I suffered badly from the cold, especially in my feet.

“Driving up to Davos I imagined it to be a wilderness and feared that I would not be able to get either cigarettes or cigars. But I found that at this great height there is a row of first class hotels, and shops where you can get whatever you like. They have their own newspaper [what we know as the Davoser Zeitung; it had been established in 1881 as Wochenblatt für die Landschaft Davos], theatre (where I went yesterday with Kotek); and as to cigarettes and cigars there are plenty. All this makes a fantastic impression and I still feel as though in a dream. When I arrived at the main hotel, where Kotek lives, he was out. He expected me on the coach later and had gone to look for a room for me. [Yosif Kotek was a violinist, whom Tchaikovsky was visiting.]

“For one night I had the room of a man who had gone away. At last Kotek appeared. I was afraid that I would see only a shadow of his former self and imagine my joy when I saw him looking much fatter, with a clear complexion, and seeming perfectly well. But this is only on the surface. When he started talking I understood how bad his lungs are. Instead of a voice he has a hoarse croak and an incessant heavy cough. …

“The place is crowded, and all the hotels are full. I got a poor little room far away from the Sanatorium. In spite of 5° (Centigrade) [bracket in original] of frost all the patients are out all day. Many are dressed quite lightly and go about without coats, toboganning (Russian style), skating, and so on. The whole cure consists of breathing the pure but rarified air which is easy for the sick to breathe. About 200 people have their meals in the Sanatorium dining-room and the food is excellent. They say that healthy people feel suffocated and cannot stand the rarified air at all but up till now I feel perfectly well. But, in spite of the scenery being so grand and magnificent, it is sad and mournful here. My heart contracts from sorrow, and all I want is to leave as soon as possible. Maybe this feeling will pass after a time.

“I tactfully told Kotek that I am staying only for a few days, so if I stay a whole week, he will be very pleased. I am terribly sorry for him. He is tortured by the thought that he will not be able to go back to Berlin next year and work. However, he is not lonely, for there are plenty of nice people around, and some of them Russian. He knows everybody, though not intimately, and my staying with him for long would be too much of a sacrifice; so I am going to leave as soon as I can. It is extraordinary that a whole settlement of consumptive people live in a real Russian winter! But Kotek says that out of a hundred people at least sixty get perfectly well again.

“Good-bye for the present, Golubchik. I am glad you are pleased with your new home. …

Kotek sends his best love.

P. Tchaikovsky

To his brother Modest, from Galina von Meck, translator; Percy M Young, additional annotations; Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Letters to His Family, New York, Stein and Day, 1982. November 12-24 means the day in the Gregorian and Julian calendars.


Another letter, also to Modest:


18/30 November 1884


“Last night I arrived here to have a rest and I go on to Paris today. I decided to go to Paris now as I am beginning to doubt if I shall go abroad in the spring, more probably to Kamenka or another place in the country, to work and to put some money by. I left Davos with the pleasant feeling that I had done right in going to see Kotek. You would not believe how much better and happier he feels. As to his health, my first impression was misleading. He is a very sick man … I did all I could for him. I visited the doctor, secretly, and begged him if he finds Davos no good for Kotek to send him to the Riviera. I left Kotek some more money and, having done what I could both spiritually and materially, I left Davos knowing that I had done my duty as a friend. Life in Davos is typical of hotel and restaurant life. I met a multitude of people, even became quite friendly with some of Kotek’s friends. A German, very nice chap, left a most pleasant memory of himself. Was invited to a tea party by Radecky who played his works to me; then to a tea party given by a Russian lady – Gulak-Artemovsky – a very stupid and empty-headed woman whose son is a school friend of [Tchaikovsky’s nephew] Bob’s and very nice. The frost was fierce all the time and my room so cold that I even got awful chilblains on my left hand. On the way back I was driven first in a sledge and then in an ordinary coach, alone, and enjoyed the wild beauty of the mountain road.


P. Tchaikovsky

I am not sure who Radecky was. The grandson of the Count? Gulak-Artemovsky may have been the widow of Semen Hulak-Artemovsky or Semyon Gulak Artemovsky, a Ukrainian composer who had worked in Russia.


I have known those letters for a while, and had always wondered whether Tchaikovsky’s Manfred was inspired by Davos. It was – but he was thinking of it before he went there. The idea came from the composer Balakirev.

Another portrait of Tchaikovsky is in Tchaikovsky, A Self-Portrait, by Alexandra Orlova. I’m referring to an English edition, translated by RM Davison, with a Foreword by David Brown, OUP, 1990, of a work previously published in Russian. This is a collage of letters without exact dates. (I won’t get into editions of the letters and ultimate sources here.)

She quotes from a letter of 1882 or ’83 to Balakirev. Schumann and Byron were equally big in Russia.

“It could well be that Schumann is to blame for my incurable lack of enthusiasm for your programme. I am passionately fond of his Manfred and I have got so used to seeing Byron’s Manfred and Schumann’s Manfred as one indivisible whole [the Schumann was incidental music] that I do not know how to approach the subject so as to elicit from it any music other than that with which Schumann has already supplied it.”

Then from a letter of 1884 to his brother Anatoly:

“I have heard that Kotek really has got consumption and that he is painfully anxious to see me. I cannot settle until I see him and find out how much longer he will be with us. So I have decided to go abroad straight from here [Modest Tchaikovsky’s book makes it clear that this means St Petersburg], to Switzerland, to Davos, where Kotek is at the moment. He is all on his own and apparently hasn’t much longer to live. I simply must go.”

He then writes to Balakirev:

“I will call at a bookshop and buy a copy of Manfred. [Didn’t he already have it? He was a great reader of English literature and before he died was thinking of an opera based on a story by George Eliot.] At this very moment I am setting off for the summits of the Alps, and circumstances would be very favourable for the musical re-creation of Manfred if I were not going to see a dying man. At any event, I promise you to do my utmost to carry out your wishes.”

From Davos to Nadezhda von Meck, the patroness whom he never met, again from Orlova:

“At last I have got to Davos. Davos lies very high, in a grim, mountain landscape.”

To Balakirev:

“I am in a fairly melancholy state of mind; my surroundings are extremely gloomy and depressing, and on top of that I listen from morning to night to the consumptive coughing of my patient. I have read Manfred and have given it a great deal of thought, but I still have not started planning either the themes or the form. I have no intention of hurrying, but I give you my firm promise that, if I live to tell the tale, the symphony will be finished no later than this summer.”

To Meck again:

“My stay in Davos was not very cheerful. The surroundings themselves depressed me, as did living in the hotel, which meant that I met a lot of people … and then, finally, my patient, who never stopped coughing from morning to night – it’s all rather gloomy, of course. The day before I left I saw the doctor who is treating Kolya and we had a long talk. It is now the condition of the throat which is worse than the lung, and the greater fear is of consumption of the throat rather than of the chest.”

To Anatoly again:

“This visit to Davos has in any case been of great service to Kotek and I am glad to know this. On the way back I travelled half the journey [Davos-Landquart] on sledges and the other half [Landquart-Zurich] in an excellent stage-coach, with the carriage to myself, and enjoyed the beauty of the Swiss winter landscape.”


Kotek died in Davos at the end of 1884, according to a letter from Tchaikovsky to Meck quoted by Modest. Tchaikovsky, writing from Moscow, tells her that he received a telegram, presumably from Davos, on Christmas Eve. The notes to Alexander Poznansky, editor, Ralph C Burr Jr and Robert Bird, translators, Tchaikovsky through Others Eyes, Indiana University Press, 1999 say that Kotek died on December 24 1885. The year is surely wrong.

Kotek had been Tchaikovsky’s pupil, friend, perhaps lover. At least one letter from Tchaikovsky to his brother Modest, from whom he kept few secrets, suggests the last, though it describes Tchaikovsky’s feelings, not Kotek’s. Modest gives an account of the stay in Davos in his book whose first English edition (or at least the one now on the Internet Archive) was The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1906:

“On November 12th (24th) [bracket in original] he arrived at Davos. He expected to find a wilderness, in which neither cigarettes nor cigars were to be had, and the civilised aspect of the place, the luxurious hotels, the shops, and the theatre made upon him the fantastic impression of a dream. He had dreaded the meeting with Kotek, lest his friend should be changed beyond recognition by the ravages of consumption. He was agreeably surprised to find him looking comparatively well. But this was only a first impression; he soon realised that Kotek’s condition was serious. He remained a few days at Davos, rejoiced his friend’s heart by his presence, had a confidential interview with the doctor, and left for Paris on November 17th (29th) [bracket in original], after having provided liberally for the welfare of the invalid.”

Klaus Mann’s rather pathetic but readable bio-novel Pathetic Symphony does not mention the Davos stay except in retrospect.

Wikipedia, describing Byron’s play:

“Manfred is a Faustian noble living in the Bernese Alps. Internally tortured by some mysterious guilt, which has to do with the death of his most beloved, Astarte, he uses his mastery of language and spell-casting to summon seven spirits, from whom he seeks forgetfulness. (Some speculate that the relationship between him and Astarte is incestuous, and/or that Manfred had murdered Astarte, but this is not made explicit in the play, though the implicit suggestions are quite strong.) The spirits, who rule the various components of the corporeal world, are unable to control past events and cannot grant Manfred’s plea. For some time, fate prevents him from escaping his guilt through suicide. At the end, Manfred dies defying religious temptations of redemption from sin.”

What of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred?

It is a full-fledged, over-fledged, symphony. It has a druggy, hallucinatory atmosphere rare in his music and a stylish gloom which Liszt could not have matched. The trudging, lento lugubre motto must have been conceived while walking in snow.

The old Penguin Guide to records and CDs gave the recording of it under Svetlanov with the USSR Symphony Orchestra a rosette, which was awarded to performances of special quality in the days before almost anything could be called a Great Recording of the Century. Manfred is a noble, not self-indulgent, work, if Byronic and noble go together, and Svetlanov’s performance is in a spiritual class of its own. Have woodwinds ever been made to sound colder? Does any passage in Tchaikovsky express more anguish, hope, and desperate longing than 10:12 to 11:22 in the first movement? The fantastic climax at the end of that movement, a harrowing and elated statement of the motto theme, is like walking stoned through a blizzard.

The last begins in a Cossack or swashbuckling style. The peroration, with organ, surpasses the end of the first movement in grandeur.

Kotek had nearly been the dedicatee of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. In the event, Leopold Auer was, but he refused to give the first performance, describing it as unplayable. Which, of course, is the oldest story in the musical book. One could make a long list of performers, up to the present, who have said the same thing about new works, in many cases before going on to champion them. The first performance was eventually given by Adolph Brodsky.

We don’t know – or I don’t – what sanatorium Kotek was staying in. There used to be many in Davos. Their wide balconies dominated their façades, so that they looked like sponges. The doors inside were wide, so that beds could be moved easily. It was not the Schatzalp, which was opened as a sanatorium at the turn of the century and became a hotel later. The Guardian in 2004 said that there were around 30 sanatoria in the ’20s and ’30s and in 2004 only four. The Schatzalp, which is still a hotel and about to be radically redeveloped, is always described as the setting for Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain – but the Guardian article, if I read it correctly, says that it was something else, the Valbella Clinic, which closed in 2004.


Kotek and Tchaikovsky c 1877

15 Responses to “Davos 1884”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Tchaikovsky dedicated the Valse-Scherzo for violin and orchestra (1877) to Kotek.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    He composed the third of the three Cherubic Hymns, which begin the Nine Church Pieces for unaccompanied mixed voices (1884-5), in Davos.


  3. davidderrick Says:

    Tchaikovsky’s alpine Manfred stands outside his main symphonic canon, just as Strauss’s Alpine Symphony stands a little apart from the main series of his tone poems. Both works were often disparaged. Neither Karajan nor Bernstein would touch Manfred. Toscanini, on the other hand, considered it his greatest work.

  4. […] Tchaikovsky in Davos January 26, 2009 Posted a year ago. […]

  5. […] met a Russian, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, getting off the train in Landquart in November 1884 and spending the night there in a “rather […]

  6. davidderrick Says:

    Wikipedia, edited and corrected here:

    “Hector Berlioz played a part in the origins of Manfred. During his second and final trip to Russia in the winter of 1867-8, Berlioz conducted his programme symphony Harold en Italie, which had been inspired by Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The work caused a considerable stir. Its subject was very much to the tastes of its audiences, whose enthusiasm for the works of Lord Byron had not exhausted itself as it had begun to do in Europe. Berlioz’s use of a four-movement structure for writing programme music intrigued many Russian musicians. One immediate consequence was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s four-movement suite Antar, written in 1868.

    “At roughly the same time as Rimsky-Korsakov was writing Antar, the critic Vladimir Stasov was writing a scenario based on Byron’s Manfred:

    ‘1st movement. Manfred wanders in the Alpine mountains. His life is shattered, but he is obsessed with life’s unanswerable questions. In life nothing remains for him except memories. Images of his ideal Astarte permeate his thoughts, and he vainly calls to her. Only the echo from the cliffs repeats her name. Memories and thoughts burn and gnaw at him. He seeks and begs for oblivion, which no-one can give him.

    2nd movement. A mood quite different from the first. The programme: The life of Alpine hunters, full of simplicity, good nature and a patriarchal character. Adagio pastorale (A major). [Is the key Stasov or a Balakirev addition?] Manfred clashes with this, providing a sharp contrast.

    3rd movement. The Alpine fairy appears to Manfred as a rainbow from the spray of a waterfall.

    4th movement. A wild, unbridled Allegro, in the subterranean halls of the infernal Arimanes (Hell), where Manfred arrives, longing to be reunited with Astarte – a contrast to this infernal orgy will be the summons and appearance of Astarte. Although there the idea was fleeting, like a memory, and was immediately engulfed by Manfred’s suffering, yet here this same idea should appear in a complete and fully-realized form. The music should be simple, transparent, fresh and innocent. Eventually, a return to the Pandemonium, then sunset and the death of Manfred.’

    “Stasov sent the programme to the nationalist composer Mily Balakirev. Balakirev did not feel attracted to the idea himself, so he forwarded the programme to Berlioz, hinting that it was not entirely his own. Berlioz declined, claiming old age and ill health (he died on March 8 1869). He returned the programme to Balakirev, and there it remained.

    “Tchaikovsky entered this story much later. He finished his final revision of Romeo and Juliet in 1880. He and Balakirev had worked tirelessly together on the piece in its previous incarnations a decade earlier. Moreover, Romeo was dedicated to Balakirev. Since Balakirev had essentially dropped away from the music scene in the intervening time, Tchaikovsky asked Bessel to send a copy of the printed score to Balakirev, thinking the publisher would have a current address.

    “A year later a letter arrived from Balakirev, thanking Tchaikovsky profusely for the score. In the same letter, Balakirev suggested another project – ‘the programme for another symphony which you would handle wonderfully well.’ As he explained in a letter to Tchaikovsky in October 9 1882 [I assume not the same letter], ‘this magnificent subject is unsuitable, it doesn’t harmonise with my inner frame of mind’.

    “When Tchaikovsky showed polite interest, Balakirev sent a copy of Stasov’s programme, which he had amended with suggested key signatures for each movement and representative works which Tchaikovsky had already written to give some idea of what Balakirev had in mind. Balakirev also gave warning to avoid ‘vulgarities in the manner of German fanfares and Jägermusik’, and instructions about the layout of the flute and percussion parts.

    “Tchaikovsky passed on the project at first. He claimed the subject left him cold and seemed too close to Berlioz’s work for him to manage anything but an imitation of that composer’s work; such a piece, he claimed, would lack both inspiration and originality. [A letter I quoted mentioned Schumann, not Berlioz. Wikipedia gives secondary sources, but it is impossible to see from it whether it is referring to another part of the same letter.]

    “Tchaikovsky’s reasoning did not stop Balakirev from persisting. ‘You must, of course, make an effort,’ Balakirev exhorted, ‘take a more self-critical approach, don’t hurry things.’ His importunity finally changed Tchaikovsky’s mind – after two years of effort. So did Tchaikovsky’s re-reading Manfred for himself while tending to his friend Iosef Kotek in Davos, Switzerland, nestled in the same Alps in which the poem was set. Once he returned home, Tchaikovsky revised the draft Balakirev had made from Stasov’s programme and began sketching the first movement.

    “Tchaikovsky may have found a subject in Manfred for which he could comfortably compose. However, there was a difference between placing a personal programme into a symphony and writing such a work to a literary programme. He wrote to his friend and former student Sergei Taneyev: ‘Composing a programme symphony, I have the sensation of being a charlatan and cheating the public; I am paying them not hard cash but rubbishy bits of paper money.’ However, he later wrote to Emilia Pavlovskaya, ‘The symphony has turned out to be huge, serious, difficult, absorbing all my time, sometimes to utter exhaustion; but an inner voice tells me that my labour is not in vain and that this work will perhaps be the best of my symphonic works.’

    “Instead of following Balakirev’s instructions slavishly, Tchaikovsky wrote it in his own style. Initially, he considered it to be one of his best compositions, but he wanted a few years later to destroy the score, though that intention was never carried out.

    “The Manfred Symphony was first performed in Moscow on March 11 1886, with Max Erdmannsdörfer as conductor. It is dedicated to Balakirev.”

  7. […] Davos 1884, about Tchaikovsky’s visit to Davos, […]

  8. davidderrick Says:

    A proper account of the gestation of Manfred, at one of the best and most lucid websites devoted to any composer:


  9. […] I did a post about Tchaikovsky’s stay in Davos in November 1884 here. […]

  10. […] have met Tchaikovsky in Davos in November 1884, a visit which left its mark on his Manfred […]

  11. […] This had to happen. Even in the 1880s, Davos presented “a row of first class hotels”. […]

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