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Tchaikovsy drank tap water?

I find it interesting, a NY Times piece on a recent Tchaikovksy exhibit with the headline: Review/Museum; The Artifacts of Tchaikovsky's Visit. About midway through the article; (approx 8-paras down) one of his diaries asks the question,

"His diaries are shown, one of them with practical questions to ask his New York hosts: "About the water -- can you drink from the faucet?"

Just a point of interest, and maybe discussion, but this doesn't sound like a man who would drink from a faucet when cholera is rampant.

The article is at:


George Boyd

This is true, and the various reports that Tchaikovsky drank unboiled contaminated water with his consent have indeed been questioned. The one told by his nephew has been exposed as a fraud since it is reported that Yuri was not present at the composers last meal at Liener's Cafe. (He stated that he was present many years after the event.) The other reported by Modest in his biography of his brother is also questionable since Tchaikovsky was already sick with stomach ache at the time. Why indeed would Modest have lied about this? However he may have been careless. Perhaps Mr. Poznansky can fill us in on this....As for the other suicide theories I believe Poznansky has ably challenged those views in his "The last days of Tchaikovsky".......

Al Gasparo

Tchaikovsky was a careful traveler. Since the water was very often blamed for his stomach problems, he always inquired at new locations about its quality. It is an irony of fate that he had such question in his notebook a couple years before he himself became a cholera victim at the end of 1893. At this time it had already been established that the disease basically was spread through the ingestion of contaminated water, but it could also be contracted from the dishes and food washed in such water. Also it had been established by a special commission (unfortunately just after the composer’s death) that in Saint Petersburg’s restaurants during the cholera epidemics, boiled water often was actually diluted with tap water in order to satisfy patrons demands in cold drinks.

From a medical standpoint, the period during which Tchaikovsky could have been infected with cholera is limited to three days. Given this, the actual circumstances of his receiving the cholera vibrio become irrelevant, particularly as they cannot be determined. It could have happened any mealtime during these three days. The medical considerations relating to this incubation period suggest that the notorious glass of unboiled water which Tchaikovsky allegedly drank either at Leiner’s restaurant or at home the next morning—as stated by Modest in his detailed account published in the major capital newspapers just a few days later (and then reprinted in 1902 in his biography of the brother)—could not have been responsible for his illness.

To learn more about Tchaikovsky and circumstances of his death from cholera I would suggest my documentary study Tchaikovsky’s Last Days published by Oxford University Press in 1996, and my biography of the composer, Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man.

Alexander Poznansky

Hello, Mr. Poznansky,

I have some questions;

In the morning October 20, Auguat Gerke, the deputy of Vasily Bessel, visited Pyotr Ilyich at Modest's Apartment to make contract for "Oprichnik". Would you please teach me whether Pyotr Ilyich finally had signed it or not. Additioaly, I would lile to know contents of it.

On the same day, Pyotr Ilyich had diner at Vera Butakova(Davydova)'s before attended the performance of Ostrovsky's play at the Alexandrinsky Theater. Could you please teach me whether he had eaten any dishes, and if so, what he had eaten.

I wonder that he seemed queerly thirsty at Leiner's.

Best regards.

Kamomeno Iwao

Dear Kamomeno Iwao,

The new contract with Bessel's Music Publishing House about the opera The Oprichnik was never signed by the composer, since he passed away unexpectedly a few days later. What exactly he had eaten at Mrs Butakova's dinner and at all other occasions (with the exception of Leiner's restaurant) we will never know, since nobody recorded it.


Alexander Poznansky

Hello, Mr.Poznansky,

Thank you so much.

Those are matters that I amateur have no way of examining.

Best regards.

Kamomeno Iwao

Here is my pennyworth!

We know that the great man frequented public parks and "the lower orders" i.e. he 'cruised'. We also know that cholera affected much less people of Tchaikovsky's social category than others. Having read Nina Berberova and Alexander Poznansky, I often wonder whether the composer mightn't have caught the disease from someone he picked up in a park or elsewhere. Is anything relevant known about his movements during his last days?

I'm an amateur too!


Brian Grimson

Hello Brian. In answer to your final question, then a whole book has been written on the subject — Alexander Poznansky's Tchaikovsky's Last Days, which exhaustively researches the composer's movements during the last weeks of his life.

While there is evidence from Tchaikovsky's letters and diaries to suggest that he had anonymous homsexual encounters during the 1860s and early 1870s, such references disappear completely by the early 1880s, by which time he had become a famous figure throughout Russia (and therefore presumably open to blackmail). It seems to me much more likely that he was exposed to cholera through poor sanitation in a large city where the disease was epidemic. But I'd strongly recommend you read Tchaikovsky's Last Days for a full description of the circumstances at that time.

Brett Langston

Hi Brett.I didn't know of Tchaikovsky's Last Days. I'll certainly read it. Thanks. What I meant by "movements during his last days" was all his movements during the last three or four days of his life - the incubation period for cholera. (Certainly the city lacked good sanitation). And yes, that's true about the diaries, but...old habits die hard!

As regards blackmail, I don't know how much blackmail of homosexuals went on in the last decades of 19th century Russia. I get the impression that things were pretty "free and easy" - but maybe I'm wrong. People of Tchaikovsky's standing seem to have been relatively immune.

One thing though: I don't for a moment believe that nonsense of his having been tried and told to go off and end it all.

Brian Grimson

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