July 01, 2000

Can I Sip on Your Tchaikovsky?

Can I Sip on Your Tchaikovsky?

There is hardly a more venerated composer in Russia than Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Which doesn’t stop irreverent domestic jokers from using his name in situations much more mundane than a classic music recital. If you hear someone saying: “How about some Tchaikovsky?” (“Может, Чайков­ского?”) he is not inviting you to listen to an excerpt from Sleeping Beauty or Swan Lake. He is simply offering you a cup of tea. For the composer’s eminent family name – Чайковский – contains the word чай (tea).

The idiom was not in use during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime. But now, in informal banter and in the right context, “Let’s have some Tchaikovsky” means only “Let’s have some tea.” To which Tchaikovsky’s contemporary and colleague, Modest Mussorgsky, might well have replied with the famous proverb: “Чай не водка–много не выпьешь.” (“You can’t drink as much tea as you can vodka.”) The two composers certainly had their differences, and, in terms of beverages, Mussorgsky, as is plain to see from Ilya Repin’s famous portrait of him (which we have somewhat irreverently pasted into our cartoon, below), was known to prefer vodka to “tchaikovsky.”

Little could the great composer have imagined: in our time some inventive foreign distillers have launched a new premium vodka brand named after Pyotr Ilyich. It’s a wonder Tchaikovsky’s heirs have not sued the vodka-makers for abusing his name. Or, if copyright laws are not applicable to 19th century composers, at least for selling this otherwise quite ordinary vodka at exhorbitant prices.

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