Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is one of the most well known composers in history. He has given us some of the world’s most beloved melodies. I could walk out my front door, throw a rock and likely hit a recording of the 1812 Overture. It wouldn’t even need to be a big rock. His music is everywhere.
Tchaikovsky was lost to the world at the young age of 53. The official story is that his death was due to an outbreak of cholera in St. Petersburg. This false account was doubted from the beginning. The real story is full of scandal, sex, blackmail, lies, cover-up, murder and the view of the famous Pathétique Symphony as a musical suicide note. (Insert your “Law and Order” ringtone here). The cover-up has gone on for over 100 years, and the truth may never be proved, but we will try.
Tchaikovsky was a very sensitive person, even as a child. As a youth he would be upset by something and run to his room where he could be found sobbing inconsolably. The two traumas that shaped his young years were, being separated from his mother when he was sent to boarding school, and not being home a few years later when she died of cholera. He suffered bouts of depression and had more than a couple of neurotic fears. Early in his career, Peter Ilyich tried to conduct with a baton in his right hand and his left hand on top of his head, which he feared would become detached from his body while performing!
Many historians have written about Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality. The fact that Tchaikovsky was homosexual is frankly unremarkable. What is relevant here is how Peter Ilyich felt about it, and what the consequences of it were in the place and time that he lived. There is evidence that Tchaikovsky struggled with his sexuality early in life. He regarded it as a vice, like his gambling and drinking. At one point he decided to get married to settle down, telling his brother Modest that he would wed “anyone that would have him”. He intended this to both curb his “vices” and protect his family from rumors and controversy. At age 37 he married a young former student named Antonina Miliukova, with whom he had mostly exchanged letters. He thought he had made it reasonably clear the marriage would not be consummated, and that they would not have children. Anyone could see this was a very bad plan.
Part of the problem stemmed from the fact that Antonina was either very dim or bat-crap crazy. Although she had written the great Tchaikovsky about her admiration of the world’s most super-duper composer, Antonina did not know a single note of his music! She tried to seduce her husband on their honeymoon, which sent him into a panic. The marriage collapsed in about six weeks, with Tchaikovsky either making or contemplating an early suicide attempt by drowning himself in the Moscow river. They never lived together again, but did not divorce. Tchaikovsky continued to support Antonina for the rest of his life.
After this failed attempt at marriage, it seems Peter Ilyich accepted his own sexuality. This does not mean that Russian society did, and in fact is was illegal for “men to lay with men” in Tsarist Russia. The punishment for such activity was the loss of all property and rights, then banishment to Siberia for five years. Russian government to this day still suffers from a cranial-colonic impaction on the subject of homosexuality, as can be evidenced by any news reports leading up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. To add to Tchaikovsky’s stress was the fact that such laws were enforced selectively in a society that operated on “understandings”. Maybe what was once tolerated would no longer be accepted if you fell out of favor with the wrong people. Tchaikovsky was never able to have an open, healthy relationship and lived in constant threat of his secrets being “exposed”.
Move ahead to age 53. Tchaikovsky’s long friendship and patronage from the wealthy Nadezhda von Meck had ended, but he was able to financially support himself with composing and conducting. He had an international public reputation as a great composer and kept his romantic life a secret. One theory is that his romantic interest in the nephew of some minor nobility was his undoing. When the nobleman took offence, Tchaikovsky’s classmates from the Imperial School of Jurisprudence held a so called “court of honor” to avoid a public scandal. They confronted Peter Ilyich and coerced him to commit suicide to save himself criminal penalty, financial ruin, and his family and classmates public embarrassment. It would be murder by peer pressure. Tchaikovsky killed himself with multiple doses of arsenic, and had his brother Modest concoct the public coverup that Tchaikovsky had contracted cholera from unboiled water in a restaurant.
The idea that the fastidious Tchaikovsky would be served, and drank, contaminated water in the reputable Leiner’s restaurant during a publicized outbreak was never credible. Russian historians and government powers did not want a national hero to be revealed as suicidal and homosexual, so they have gone with the story for a century. Time, cover-ups, and incompetence will hide the exact details forever, but I am certain Peter Ilyich committed suicide. My evidence is his Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74, Pathétique.
The Sixth was composed between February and August of 1893. It is known as the Pathétique, but more in the sense of “impassioned” rather than “pathetic”. Tchaikovsky was known to portray many of his inner turmoils in his music, especially the last three symphonies. One of the most striking things about the Sixth symphony is that the slow movement serves as the finale. It is a gut-wrenching, sorrowful movement that fades away to nothingness in the end. To my ears, it is clearly a meditation on death. I am not alone. The Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich exclaimed after the dress rehearsal, “What have you done, it’s a requiem, a requiem!”.
What we are left with is an emotionally over-sensitive, depressive man who spent the bulk of 1893 working on a symphonic portrayal of death and dying. He has a history of a suicide attempt. He was at the height of his career as a conductor and composer, which meant he had the most to lose from a public scandal about his sexuality. The timeline of events is this (in New Style dates):
October 28, 1893: Tchaikovsky conducts first performance of Symphony No. 6
October 31, 1893: Possible date of “court of honor” meeting ordering his suicide.
November 1, 1893: Dinner at Leiner’s restaurant with brother Modest and nephew.
November 2, 1893: Tchaikovsky first took ill.
November 6, 1893: Died in brother Modest’s apartment.
November 18, 1893: Memorial concert in St. Petersburg featuring Symphony No. 6
After listening to the slow movement finale of the Sixth, I am sure Peter Ilyich took his own life and had his brother promise to tell the world it was cholera. I don’t know what triggered him to commit suicide, whether he was pressured into it by former classmates or something else. Here is a performance of the finale conducted by Herbert von Karajan
Here is another performance of the finale by Leonard Bernstein, recorded late in his career. At this point in Lenny’s conducting, he sometimes equated “slow” with “profound” The two videos below cover the same music at the 9 minute video by Karajan, but take over 17 minutes! It is a controversal interpretation of Tchaikovsky, but I like it.
We may never have conclusive proof about Tchaikovsky’s death, but it sure is a fascinating mystery!