A family affair

Modest Tchaikovsky:
brother and librettist

Modest Tchaikovsky, 1890
(Photo: AKG)

It is a very rare occurrence for siblings to write an opera together. With Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and his brother and librettist Modest, the collaboration was a success in the case of Iolanta and The Queen of Spades as a result of their artistic harmony and personal closeness.

Throughout his life, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky had a closer relationship with his brother Modest, who was a decade younger, than with anyone else in his life. When their mother died, Modest and his twin brother Anatoly were just four years old, and Pyotr, together with sister Alexandra, took on the role of parents to the youngest members of the family.

For Modest, Pyotr became a role model in many ways: like the older boy, he also went to the Petersburg law school, but preferred to hang out in Bohemian circles and imitated his brother in taste and behaviour. And there was something else that connected the two: At 14, Modest learned through Anatoly about Pyotr’s homosexuality, and while this realization shocked the twin, Modest was relieved – since he felt the same inclination and now knew he shared it with others, including his beloved brother.

Pyotr repeatedly urged him to channel his feelings into “decent” directions; at the time, he himself was striving to build a façade that conformed to convention. Later, he became more relaxed with himself and his brother in this respect.

Modest made a great contribution as a teacher: he taught a deaf boy with such success that he was widely regarded as an expert in this field and was offered the directorship of a school for the deaf. Pyotr had long dismissed him as lacking the necessary talent for his literary ambitions, but then increasingly gained respect for the younger man’s abilities.

Above all, Modest’s dramas depicting the spirit and milieu of the time were successful and, in the wake of Alexander Ostrovsky and Anton Chekhov, were widely performed. After several initial attempts, they finally came up with The Queen of Spades.

Pyotr also chose his brother as the librettist for his next opera Iolanta. The composer’s early death put an end to planned further works. Modest wrote several more libretti, such as for Rachmaninoff’s Francesca da Rimini. After Pyotr’s death, he founded a museum with an archive and wrote a monumental biography: a memorial to both brothers.

Malte Krasting

Learn more