A Dangerous Homecoming

Mily Aleksejevic Balakirev
Mily Aleksejevic Balakirev (ca1900)

In 1866 Mily Balakirev was asked to go to Prague to arrange a production of Mikhail Glinka’s opera A Life for the Czar. He was to have the greatest adventure of his life–getting home.

Balakirev set out in June and had just arrived in Prague when war broke out between Austria and Prussia. Balakirev wrote to a friend, “I had to stay whether I wanted to or not. All the next day I was on edge. Every hour they posted on street corners new bulletins from which you could determine nothing except that the Austrians were fighting doggedly against the Prussians.”

He went to Vienna with the intention of returning to Russia, and wrote a letter commenting on the Austrian conduct of the war:

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Emperor Franz Josef is behaving just like an Austrian hero–that is, he keeps retreating. Yesterday, I’m told, the all-wise Austrian state council met at the palace and decided, after great thought, not to defend Vienna, and to withdraw to Pest, where the Empress has already relocated herself. As you see, there’s no chance of remaining in this area, and I have to hurry while the road is still open from Cracow to Russia. Fortunately I have found a traveling companion, a Russian bound for St. Petersburg, and we have decided to leave tomorrow. We’ll travel through Pest by train as far as possible, and from there about 120 miles by horseback to Cracow.

You won’t believe how agitated and shaky I am. Nervous and jumpy. But I am consoled by the thought that I’m not the only one who is sleeping badly. Franz Josef is also sleepless at night in the Schonbrunn Palace, and has already had attacks of fainting sickness. I can’t wait to leave, and will feel calmer only when I’ve reached Russian territory.

Six months later the war was over, won by Prussia, and Balakirev was in Prague again. Finally A Life for the Czar was performed, but Balakirev’s ordeal in Prague was far from over as we’ll find out shortly….

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