Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Russian Nightingale: Alexandra Nikolaievna of Russia

The Grand Duchess Alexandra Nikolaievna,
Hereditary Princess of Hesse-Cassel
(Portrait by Vladmir Hau, 1840)
The Grand Duchess Alexandra Nikolaievna was the youngest daughter of Emperor Nicholas I of Russia and Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (nee Princess Charlotte of Prussia). She was born in Alexander Palace on 24 June 1825 and was named after her paternal aunt, Grand Duchess Alexandra Pavlovna. As a child, "Adini", as she was affectionately called within the family, was small and mischievous. Her father considered her "not really pretty" and called her a "little moppet, but sweet". But as she grew up, she became a beautiful young woman. Nicholas maintained that she alone among her children had inherited her mother's Prussian looks: dark hair and deep blue eyes. Her sister Olga compared her to "a lark" that "emanates with joy."

Russian grand duchesses were known in Europe at that time for their excellent education and refined social manners, but Alexandra was still quite unique for a Romanov. She was a talented musician and a great singer. It was said that her musical gift was so great that she can be matched with the experienced and professional singers of the Italian schools and the musicians of Vienna. But Alexandra sang only in the drawing rooms of the Hermitage, at the scenes of court theatres, in boudoirs and halls of the Winter Palace, Peterhof or Gatchina.

As a child, Alexandra already loved listening to sonatas and symphonies. Her favorite composer was Beethoven, and by the time she was 14, she revealed to have a remarkable singing voice that reached up to 3 octaves. Her parents were very proud of her musical talents. Nicholas not only delighted in listening to her; he would occasionally sing with her. But it was Empress Alexandra who greatly contributed to the development of her daughter's talent. She invited well-known music teachers from Italy to help cultivate Alexandra's singing voice. Alexandra's voice was described as something 'tender, warm and timid'. Everyone who heard her singing were quite surprised by her talent, which is quite unusual for a princess at that time. Music professors from Rome and Berlin were amazed and commented that "In the throat of a Russian princess lives the nightingale of Paradise's garden."

13-year-old Alexandra
Nikolaievna by Christina Robertson
Alexandra was famous in St. Petersburg society not only for her musical talent. She was also known for her good looks, angelic features, graceful manners and cheerful personality. She was a gentle young woman who loved roses and delighted in nature. She was an enthusiastic reader of history, and her sisters would jokingly called her 'an eccentric' because of her great interest in ancient legends and myths. Her parents, her brothers and sisters doted on her. She was especially close to her older brother Constantine, the future Admiral-General of the Russian Navy. He was a restless and mischievous boy and the only things that preoccupied him were ships, the sea and music. But he deeply adored Alexandra, and when she was playing the piano, he would sit still to listen to her, as if he was tenderly absorbing her music. He once told her that she was like the sea, her music were the waves. It is also quite interesting to note that he eventually married Princess Alexandra of Saxe-Altenburg, a pretty and intelligent young woman who not only shared his sister's name, but also her features.

In the early summer of 1843, the 22 year-old Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Hesse-Cassel, heir to his father's Landgravate, came to Russia at the invitation of Emperor Nicholas and Empress Alexandra. "Fritz" was not only a candidate for the headship of the House of Hesse-Cassel through his father; he was also a potential candidate for the Danish throne through his mother. He had lived most of his life in Denmark where he had a career in the military. The imperial couple was hoping that "dear Fritz", as he was referred to by the Empress, would consider marrying their second daughter, Grand Duchess Olga (called "Ollie" in the family). But when Friedrich met the 18 year-old Alexandra, he was immediately smitten with dark-haired and blue-eyed grand duchess, and during the dinner that followed he could not take his eyes off her.

For her part, Alexandra also liked Friedrich but she tried to hide her feelings for him, mainly because she was experiencing feelings of guilt before her beloved sister Olga, who also liked Friedrich. Friedrich was also worried that the Emperor and the Empress might object if he tells them that it was Alexandra whom he wished to marry and not Olga. In the next few days that followed, Friedrich and Alexandra became 'more friendly' with each other. The warm summer season was a good time for short walks in the park, some tea in the garden and boating on the pond. When the family went boating, they were accompanied by Friedrich. Alexandra would sing as they slid along the waters while Friedrich was admiring her. The closeness between Friedrich and Alexandra was very much observed by Olga. Realizing that the two were very much in love, Olga kindly step aside in favor of her sister. As for the Emperor and the Empress, they assured Friedrich that he could marry Alexandra and they gave them their blessings to get married.

In Gatchina, Friedrich and Alexandra felt protected from the indiscreet look and the gossip of many people. It was in its secluded parks and galleries where they felt most peaceful and happy. They were soon engaged and their wedding was set on January 26, 1844. The Empress wrote a letter to her brother, the King of Prussia on the occasion of her daughter's engagement: "We are very contented with this joyful event. And although we desired, of course, that it is our dear Ollie who would appear first before the altar, we will never get tired of giving thanks to God for the fact that He granted our beloved Adini such a dear, good, young fiance. He is indeed a very charming young man. Both were made ​​for each other, and so admirably suited each other, and so terribly in love with each other, that to see them like that, side by side, is indeed a great pleasure... The night before my birthday, Fritz Hesse made ​​his proposal and asked the Emperor and I for the hand of our Adini. This happened immediately after the ball in the Portrait Hall of the old palace, and they held hands and exchanged their first kiss..."

While they waited for their wedding day, Friedrich spent a couple of days in Denmark to attend to some business while Alexandra remained in Russia. Her mind was filled with their future together, living in a simple home and enjoying their children. At about this time, Alexandra began to show signs and symptoms of consumption. She coughed blood quite often. But she seemed to appear well in one way or another, and she continued to remain cheerful and lively. But during cold evenings, she coughed a lot. Doctors tried to forbid her from singing but this did little to complete her recovery. As the wedding day approached, the doctors became more concerned that she might not tolerate the journey to her new homeland. So it was decided by the family that after the wedding, Friedrich and Alexandra would stay at St. Petersburg until spring when they would spent a holiday in warm Italy or Baden.

Memorial bench in the gardens of Peterhof Palace
with a bust sculpture of Alexandra.
Alexandra remained in her rooms that winter of 1843, hoping to recover her health. Friedrich, who has arrived from Denmark, was constantly visiting her in her rooms and sat by her side everyday. Her family continued to hope that Alexandra would have a complete recovery. On January 26, 1844, Friedrich and Alexandra were married in the chapel of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. She appeared to be quite well the entire day of  the wedding. But during a ball that followed in the evening, people could not help but noticed her ashen face and her eyes that lost their stariness.

Within weeks after the wedding, Alexandra found out that she was pregnant. Unfortunately, her health began to deteriorate very rapidly. She was confined in bed and her family became increasingly worried, especially her mother, who stayed with her the entire days to look after her. Her illness and her pregnancy greatly undermine her already fragile health. On August 10, 1844, Alexandra gave birth prematurely to a seven-month-old son, who was hastily christened Wilhelm. Unfortunately, the baby died on the same day and Alexandra, exhausted and already weaken by consumption, died as well in her bedroom at Alexandria Peterhof. It was a terrible blow for the whole family to which they never recovered. Her father wrote, "Our grief is lifelong, it is something that we shall carry in our graves." She and her baby were buried in the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul.

On his sister's death, Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaievich wrote in his diary: "With the death of our beloved and incomparable Adini, our family lost the sunshine which warmed us all. After her death, Father and Mother could in no way be comforted..." The Empress fell in deep depression and suffered from ill health; she has to be taken from one European spa to another to help her recover. The Emperor had their apartment in the palace completely redecorated to protect his wife from reminders of the tragedy. But Alexandra's rooms were left as they are at the time of her death. In his grief, the Emperor only found comfort in prayer and in the belief that the tragedy was God's will. He never attended plays and concerts, and Gatchina, the place of many happy family gatherings and Adini's unforgettable voice, rarely saw the arrival of the imperial family. Alexandra's death and the succeeding Crimean War greatly contributed to the rapid decline in health of Emperor Nicholas. As a memorial for Alexandra, a statue of her carrying her baby in her arms was placed in her favorite spot in the garden. A posthumous portrait was also commissioned showing her holding a rose with the Alexander Palace - her birthplace - in the background. As for Friedrich, he mourned Alexandra for a very long time and it was only after 10 long years that he married again (mainly due to dynastic reasons). He never truly forgot about her - it was said that he remained in love with her until his death - and his niece, the future Queen Alexandra of Great Britain, was named after the gentle Russian grand duchess.


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