Tchaikovsky: A Life
by Alexander Poznansky (continued)
A second wave of emotions arose at a new performance of the composer’s Sixth Symphony at a concert in Tchaikovsky's memory on 6/18 November 1893. Stunned by the recent tragedy, the public was especially sensitive to the “funereal” moods of several passages in the symphony. The slow, requiem-like Adagio finale now struck many as a premonition of death, and made an enormous impression. It is not surprising that many listeners (including some of the journalists writing about the concert for various newspapers) gained the impression that Tchaikovsky had written indeed a “requiem” for himself. Shortly afterwards the first rumours of the composer’s possible “self-poisoning” were heard. However, not one single suggestion that Tchaikovsky's death was caused by intentional poisoning was to be found in the newspapers of 1893, or for many subsequent decades.
Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries were profoundly shocked by his death on the night of 25 October/6 November 1893. The grief at such an irrecoverable loss for the art of Russia and the world was exacerbated by its untimeliness: Tchaikovsky went to his grave full of creative strength and plans, at the height of his glory and artistic successes. Naturally, the causes and circumstances of Tchaikovsky’s death immediately became the subject of heightened public attention. The details of this tragic event were closely recounted in the press, actively elaborated upon in oral rumour in arenas as varied as the royal family and merchants’ clubs, and later they were to find reflection in memoiristic literature.
But as well as accurate information there appeared a series of conflicting accounts, which led to the appearance of the most ridiculous rumours and conjectures. Some of these became so deeply rooted that in time they began to aspire to the role of an “ultimate truth” which was allegedly being concealed by Tchaikovsky’s relatives, the Tsarist regime, the Soviet government, etc. Facts discovered by recent studies, however, permit one to reconstruct the picture of Tchaikovsky’s last days with a much greater degree of accuracy, and also to show decisively both the origin and baselessness of various "sensational" conjectures concerning his end.
Versions of the legend of the composer’s voluntary departure from life became more persistent in subsequent years. One can classify them roughly into two main trends. Firstly, the “concealed suicide” stories, according to which Tchaikovsky, tormented by unrequited love, intentionally sought death and often drank unboiled water in the hope of catching cholera, and that, having caught it, he delayed summoning doctors until he was sure that the disease had progressed too far and that there remained no chance of recovery.
Second is the “forced suicide” theory, that, under the threat of public scandal (or even a criminal trial) caused by the inescapable revelation of his homosexual contacts with a man from the highest royal circles, Tchaikovsky saved his own and his family’s honour by taking slow-acting poison with effects similar to the characteristic symptoms of cholera, thus allowing his doctors and family to explain everything away by death from natural causes.
One story that has long enjoyed popularity is that an “order” for suicide stemmed from Alexander III himself. In the 1980s widespread attention was garnered by another version of the “forced suicide” theory, according to which the composer fell victim to a “court of honour” conducted by his former classmates at the School of Jurisprudence, who sentenced him (due to the same presumed threat of “homosexual scandal”) to death at his own hands. This version is essentially a new elaboration based on old hearsay, but it received sanction by a scholarly interpretation and was publicized in an English music journal . The main conclusions of the latter article’s author were in fact so provocative that they served to move the question of Tchaikovsky’s death from the realm of society gossip and literary fantasy to that of the mainstream and scholarly press, becoming a topic of sharp discussion and stimulating a series of special studies .
Since the underlying theses of this new version coincided with traditional arguments for Tchaikovsky’s suicide (the motive being a fear of his criminal habit being revealed, the medical "proof" being conflicting testimony on the progression of the composer’s illness and the allegation that proper sanitary measures were ignored), scholars were obliged to analyze first and foremost the occasion for such supporting testimony. At the same time they undertook a review of the entire spectrum of questions and factual gaps reflected in all the diverse legends about Tchaikovsky’s death .
Recent studies suggest that in the context of Russian social attitudes, sexual mores and criminal practice in the late nineteenth century, any scandal or repression with respect to Tchaikovsky were most unlikely, because of his high social standing and a generally tolerant attitude towards homosexuality prevailing in court circles and within the Imperial family. The idea of a poison that could mimic the symptoms of cholera also turned out to be imaginary: not a single one of the toxic substances available at that time could fulfil the basic “requirements" .
The Russian microbiologist Nikolay Blinov has thrown particular light on the medical aspect of the problem. Analyzing contemporary ideas of the nature, prevention and treatment of cholera in Russia before 1893, Blinov established that Tchaikovsky’s doctors acted strictly in accordance with the recommendations of the medical science of their day. They were able to save the patient from cholera itself on the first night, at a stage when, statistically, it causes up to ninety percent of all fatalities. But the treatment was begun late, for reasons outside their control, and the doctors were unable to protect the patient from post-choleric complications (uraemia, blood-poisoning, etc.), which eventually led to Tchaikovsky’s death. He could only have been saved by modern medical treatments .
It is precisely due to the fact that Tchaikovsky died not from cholera itself (which had been a possibility during the night of 21 October/2 November–22 October/3 November), but as a result of the latter’s inescapable repercussions (ultimately, oedema of the lungs and the cessation of cardiac activity), that the coffin of the deceased could be left open to the public on 25 October/6 November without contradicting the prevailing sanitary principles. It was held that the activity of choleric bacilli had ceased two days before death, and in any case during the course of the disease and subsequent ceremonies with the composer’s body (on 25 October/6 November–27 October/8 November), sanitary and disinfective precautions were constantly being taken in the apartment. That none of the relatives, servants or friends who had contact with Tchaikovsky was infected is but another proof of the efficacy of these measures.
With respect to the theoretical possibility of a “conspiracy” of the treating doctors with the aim of concealing the composer’s self-poisoning, Blinov undertook a detailed study of the biographies of the doctors who treated Tchaikovsky and of the laws of dominant medical ethics. He concluded that such a conspiracy would have been unthinkable for those involved .
A close study of newspaper publications and diverse memoirs concerning Tchaikovsky’s illness and death permits one to explain the factual contradictions between the testimony of eyewitnesses of the tragedy. Together with objective factors (such as the differences in the doctors’ and family members’ perceptions of Tchaikovsky’s illness, and the psychological difference between an immediate evaluation of events and subsequent reconstructions, etc.), one can identify a series of subjective factors that caused distrust in the official (“choleric”) version at the time of the event.
In the first place one must note the media agitation over the sickness of the famous composer, a race for news "hot from the presses", due to which the papers carried inaccuracies, distorted information and sheer disinformation (the emotional statements of Tchaikovsky's friend the singer Nikolay Figner were given as “the opinion of Dr. Bertenson”, an interview with Lev Bertenson himself was handled in such a way that the date of Tchaikovsky’s death would appear as 24 October/5 November, etc.) .
On the other hand, the creation of confusion was aided by the authors of memoirs published in later years. In his 1912 memoirs, Vasily Bertenson, who was absent from Saint Petersburg after 22 October/3 November (and who only sent a telegram of condolences from Moscow on 26 October/7 November), presented the whole affair as if he had been at the dying man’s bedside throughout his last days. This is despite the fact that he had recently requested Modest Tchaikovsky to describe details of the event “to refresh my memory” (letter from 11/24 January 1911) .
The composer’s nephew Yury Davydov and the actor Yury Yuryevv collaborated to produce memoirs in the 1940s concerning their presence at Leiner’s restaurant with Tchaikovsky, luridly describing details of the “fateful supper” of 20 October/1 November, while in actuality they had not been present there at all. In both cases the psychological motives of such “license” find a simple explanation: people close to the great composer found it permissible to distort the truth in order to lend greater weight to their own role as eyewitnesses .
The various rumours concerning an “Imperial wrath” directed at Tchaikovsky also turn out, upon close analysis, to be nothing but lurid fiction. Alexander III highly revered the composer’s talent, and members of the Imperial family frequently attended Tchaikovsky’s operas and ballets, buying up new editions of Tchaikovsky’s music to play at home. Tchaikovsky’s outstanding merits as a citizen were also appreciated: he was awarded the Order of Saint Vladimir in the fourth degree and a lifetime pension, and was presented with a valuable ring as a personal gift from the Emperor. His death, according to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich’s diary entry of 26 October/7 November 1893, "grieved the Emperor and Empress greatly". "How sorry I am for him and what a disappointment!”, the Emperor wrote to the Court Minister Illarion Vorontsov-Dashkov on 25 October/6 November, on receiving the news of Tchaikovsky’s demise. On that same day he issued a resolution concerning the organization of a state funeral for the composer at his own expense, and then he personally revised the plan of the memorial events submitted to him for review by Ivan Vsevolozhsky. It is impossible to imagine that such acts of the monarch's attention could be bestowed posthumously on a man who had fallen into royal disfavour during his lifetime .
A series of documents found in recent years present solid evidence against the historical, psychological and medical foundations of the suicide theories, while no new evidence in support of these theories has been discovered. The composer’s death from cholera is attested in a burial certificate from 28 October/9 November 1893, preserved in the archive of the Saint Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery . Tchaikovsky’s brother Nikolay noted on a page together with a list of memorial wreaths: “Three doctors treated his cholera" . In 1898 Vladimir Davydov, in a letter to Modest Tchaikovsky (both being immediate witnesses of Tchaikovsky’s last days), recalled: “After all, Uncle Pyotr had terrible problems with his stomach, which by the time I knew him was obviously weaker, but which reached an extreme state and finally served as the breeding-ground of his fatal disease" . Vasily Bertenson also wrote on the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s illness: "He fell ill only as a result of faults in his diet and drinking bitter-alkaline water on an empty stomach” (letter to Modest Tchaikovsky from 20 June/3 July 1905) . Modest Tchaikovsky himself, a day before his brother’s death (on 24 October/5 November at 12:48 pm) sent a telegram on the progress of the illness to Vasily Bertenson, who had left Saint Petersburg: "The first phase passed, full retention of urine, condition is grave" . On 25 October/6 November, Lev Bertenson wrote to Modest: "The dreadful disease that took the life of your unforgettable brother has brought me closer to him, yourself, and all to whom he was dear. I cannot recover from the terrible drama I have lived through, and I am utterly incapable of communicating to you all the torment I am experiencing!" . These testimonies alone from the archive of the Tchaikovsky Museum at Klin are sufficient to put an end to the old rumours and new fantasies generated by the proponents of an “unnatural” death theory.
An inquiry into the personality of any great artist is imperative if we want to deepen and enrich our appreciation of his or her achievement, since it allows to respond in a more complex and powerful way to the emotional and psychological issues involved in the creative process and their artistic resolution. In the case of Tchaikovsky, his inner longings, which we cannot fully comprehend without studying the realities of his life, had a bearing on the striking and peculiar emotional poignancy of his music, which is either extolled, or berated as "sentimentalism". Ultimately this kind of study will enable us constructively to reconsider the whole set of musicological clichés about Tchaikovsky, and perhaps even his status in the cultural Pantheon, as well as the relevance of his work to our present day cultural and spiritual concerns.
This page was last updated on 11 February 2013