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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

It Wheezes but It Was Tchaikovsky's

VOTKINSK, Udmurtia -- Gazing on Tchaikovsky's piano here, a polished behemoth eight octaves wide and as long as an Oldsmobile's hood, one can almost imagine the composer in his youth, a tragic life still ahead, tapping out a first tentative ode to his mother or his adored governess.

One can almost imagine it, anyway, until someone sits down and plays a few quavering bars.

Then one might imagine oneself in a honky-tonk, the sort of place where a piano was seldom grand and the piano player begged not to be shot.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's boyhood piano, the instrument of the first serious compositions of Russia's perhaps greatest composer, has seen better days. On the outside, its rich veneer is grazed and chipping. Inside, each hammer strike elicits more of an elderly warble than a tone.

The Tchaikovsky Estate and Museum here seldom plays the piano, reserving that privilege for visiting winners of the Tchaikovsky international piano competition and a local festival staged each summer. After making an exception to plink out a few bars of Tchaikovsky's favorite Mozart for a foreign visitor, the proprietors explained why.

"This piano is 150 years old, and it has never been renovated," said Anna Bogolyubskaya, the museum's director. "We maintain the mechanism. But you probably noticed that the sound is not as good as it could be."

This is hardly the museum's fault. The current three months' budget for restoring exhibits throughout the museum is 6,000 rubles ($188). By comparison, the last time anyone seriously considered restoring Tchaikovsky's piano, about a decade ago, the estimated cost was 500,000 rubles at current rates.

There is much else to keep up. Tchaikovsky was born here in 1840, in a comparative mansion of a home overlooking a lake and the Ural Mountain foothills, accorded by the state to his father, a high-ranking civil servant and factory manager.

After the family moved on, with the elder Tchaikovsky taking a new state job in 1848, the mansion weathered a series of factory officials until the Bolshevik Revolution, when the government turned it into offices for local cultural officials. After Tchaikovsky died, the piano and other personal effects obsessively gathered by his brother Modest went to a large museum in Klin, just north of Moscow.

But the good citizens of Votkinsk lobbied for recognition of their own. In 1940, when museum officials say Stalin was taking an interest in all things Tchaikovskyan, the Kremlin ordered many of the Klin artifacts moved here to furnish a new museum and birthplace monument.

For years, though, Tchaikovsky's birthplace museum labored under an unfortunate handicap: Votkinsk was the manufacturing site for Soviet nuclear-tipped ICBMs, and the town was so secret that it did not even appear on maps, much less in tourist guides.

That has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Last year, 110,000 people visited the homestead.

Most of Tchaikovsky's memorabilia have long since returned to Klin. But a few valuables remained here, the centerpieces of a homestead that now offers a recreation of what 19th-century life was like for Russia's upper class and its servants.

The piano is the earliest surviving example from Tchaikovsky's youth. That said, it was originally never in Votkinsk. Tchaikovsky's family is said to have bought it after moving to St. Petersburg in the early 1850s from the Wirth brothers, German craftsmen who had set up a small shop in imperial Russia's capital to supply pianos to the ruling class.

"Tchaikovsky had several pianos in his life," said Alexandra Rogozina, a museum researcher, including a Wirth in Votkinsk, long since lost without trace. "But this one is remarkable because it was on this piano that he composed his first music."

Not his first, perhaps. An 1844 letter, written when Pyotr was 4, refers to a ditty called "Mama's in St. Petersburg," dashed out in her absence.

But it was on the Wirth, museum officials say, that the 17-year-old Tchaikovsky, then a law student in St. Petersburg, set out his first serious music -- a romance for voice and a waltz named after a beloved former governess, Anastasia Petrova.

Truth told, the Wirth piano has but 82 keys and was a few evolutionary steps from the modern grand piano when it was made.

Time and the Russian climate have further strained the instrument's voice.

"It has old hammers, and the old strings need to be restored," said Bogolyubskaya, the museum director. "It has to be done in Moscow or St. Petersburg. First of all, the experts should come here, look at it and make a list of defects. Then comes the work dealing with transportation. So it's a difficult job."

Assuming that it is done at all.

"The state gives us enough for taxes, salaries and communal payments," Bogolyubskaya said. "Last year when we asked for money for restoration, all the grants had gone to St. Petersburg for the city's 300th anniversary."