A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

How did Tchaikovsky really die?

December 23, 2008

Did Tchaikovsky commit suicide?

Dex replies:

As you may be aware, D., there are a couple of theories on this subject. The official story was always that the great Russian composer died of complications from cholera, and this version of events still has its adherents today. But rumors that he'd taken his own life have been around nearly since his death in 1893. And with the emergence of long-suppressed documents following the collapse of the Soviet Union, most Tchaikovsky scholars have come to accept a hypothesis first put forth in the late 1970s by the musicologist and archivist Alexandra Orlova – namely, that Tchaikovsky killed himself not strictly out of despondency but because he was coerced into it.

His tormented life, as we currently understand it: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born May 7, 1840, in Votkinsk, Russia. His childhood was miserable. Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky (1795-1880), his father, was a civil servant and member of the lesser nobility; his mother, Alexandra Andreyevna (1813-1854), hated living in a backwater town, and her unhappiness influenced young Tchaikovsky enormously. Shortly after the family moved to Moscow in 1848, they were ruined financially. Always an extremely sensitive and introspective child, by age nine he was uncomfortable around other people, had no self-confidence, and clung neurotically to his mother. Her death from cholera was a crushing blow to the 14-year-old Tchaikovsky, and was arguably one source of the depressions that affected him (and his music) for the rest of his life.

He was enrolled in the Imperial School of Jurisprudence, which prepared boys for civil service, engineering, and the military. There was certainly a great deal of adolescent experimentation with homosexuality at the all-male school; Tchaikovsky became aware that his own sexual preferences ran in that direction, and this apparently filled him with self-loathing.

Tchaikovsky later said that attending a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni made a great impression on him, and influenced his decision to pursue a career in music. He enrolled in the Saint Petersburg Conservatory in 1862, graduated in 1866, and moved to Moscow to join the brand new Moscow Conservatory. Moscow was not as sophisticated as Saint Petersburg, and was by one biographer's account “violently homophobic.” Though he was uncomfortable in Moscow, his music career flourished, and he quickly rose to fame. His first important success was the Overture in F, in 1866; his first symphony received its premiere in 1868, followed by the iconoclastic Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1872.

At this stage, Tchaikovsky believed that his homosexuality was a “correctable deviance” and that marriage would “cure” or “redeem” him. In 1869, he fell deeply in love with Eduard Zak, a 15-year old student. (Throughout his life, Tchaikovsky's lovers tended to be around this age.) Zak is generally believed to be the inspiration for the love theme from Romeo and Juliet (1869). Zak was one of the great loves of Tchaikovsky’s life; his suicide at age 19 devastated Tchaikovsky. In 1887, 14 years after Zak’s death, Tchaikovsky wrote in his diary how he missed Zak, had never loved anyone as much, and wept for him.

Musically, Tchaikovsky remained very productive, despite (or perhaps because of) his neuroses and constant bouts of depression. He told his younger brother Anatoly (1850-1915) that his homosexual tendencies caused “an unbridgable gulf between the majority of people and myself. They impart to my character ... a sense of alienation, fear of others, timidity, excessive shyness, mistrustfulness – which make me more and more unsociable." Accordingly he turned inward, where, according to Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he “found a world of self-expression that he might never have discovered had he felt less alienated from society.”

In 1875 Tchaikovsky met the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), who also was gay. The two liked to dress in drag and dance together.

As he began to understand that his homosexuality was not going to go away, Tchaikovsky grew to feel that marriage would at least provide him with superficial social respectability. He wrote to his brother Modest (1850-1916) that he would marry “anyone.” Anyone turned out to be Antonina Milyukova (1849-1917), a former fellow music student, whom he married in 1877. He proposed a platonic relationship, a marriage for the sake of public appearance, but she doesn’t seem to have understood that he was gay. Arguably she was just dim; but in fairness, such discussions were not explicit in those days, and she might simply not have been worldly enough to understand what he was getting at. In any case, the marriage was a total disaster, and led him to an unsuccessful (and not very convincing) suicide attempt: ever the romantic, he reportedly waded out into the Moscow River, hoping to catch pneumonia.

Pyotr and Antonina separated just months after the wedding. Infidelity was the sole grounds for divorce in Russia at the time, which Antonina of course could not prove. They remained technically married for the rest of their lives, although they saw each other only rarely. Antonina was at best mentally unstable, and ultimately was committed to a lunatic asylum, where she spent the last 20 years of her life.

Meanwhile Tchaikovsky's renown as a composer continued to grow: during this period he produced much of the greatest and best-known music of his career, including Swan Lake (1877),  the 1812 Overture (1880), Capriccio Italien (1880), The Sleeping Beauty (1890), and The Nutcracker (1892). He enjoyed great international acclaim and made tours to the U.S. and across Europe, conducting and promoting his music. Despite his stardom, he was continually unhappy and full of self-doubt, suffering bouts of depression and worrying about public discovery of his sexual orientation.

Tchaikovsky lived extravagantly, thanks in large part to the generosity of a patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, the widow of a wealthy railroad tycoon. Interestingly, the two never met face to face, but maintained a lengthy and voluminous correspondence that began in 1876, and ended suddenly in 1890. Allegedly Meck’s greedy relatives wanted to end her expensive habit of financing Tchaikovsky, and threatened to expose his homosexuality if she continued to support him. He certainly did not know this, and the abrupt end of their long friendship was yet another major source of depression and embitterment.

His last work, his Symphony No. 6, premiered in Saint Petersburg on October 28, 1893. A little over a week later, on November 6, 1893, Tchaikovsky was dead; the immediate cause of death was kidney failure. The official report was that he died of cholera after drinking contaminated water on November 2. Within days of his death, the press was raising objections to this account:

• Precisely because of the known risk of cholera, it was argued, Tchaikovsky would never have drunk water without boiling it first. There were also a variety of conflicting stories about exactly when and where he drank the tainted water.
• His death came more quickly than one would expect if cholera were the cause.
• The medical care he received was completely inadequate for someone supposedly suffering from cholera.

Within the week, his brother Modest published a lengthy account of his brother's death, "to dispel all the conflicting rumors." This version disagreed in some details with the report of Tchaikovsky's doctor, Lev Bertenson. However, despite these inconsistencies, the cholera story endured.

The explanation of Tchaikovsky's death brought forth nearly a century later by Alexandra Orlova is considerably more chilling and frankly depressing. In 1893 Tchaikovsky had an affair with an 18-year old nobleman named Alexandre Vladimirovich Stenbok-Fermor. The young man's uncle, Count Alexei Alexandrovich Stenbok-Fermor, discovered the liason and wrote an angry letter denouncing Tchaikovsky to his close friend Czar Alexander III. The count entrusted the letter to a lawyer, one Nicholai Jacobi, for delivery to the czar. By sheer coincidence, Jacobi had been a classmate of Tchaikovsky's at the Imperial School of Jurisprudence. On discovering the contents of the letter, chose not to deliver it but instead brought together a “court of honor” – seven of Tchaikovsky’s former schoolmates living in Saint Petersburg, all of them now senior lawyers or distinguished politicians – and summoned Tchaikovsky before them. They told him that they would withhold the letter from the czar, avoiding disgrace and scandal for him and the school, only if he committed suicide.

It should be noted that homosexuality was certainly not uncommon in czarist Russia – the sin was getting caught. Many of the czar’s courtiers were known to be gay, and the royal court might well have just ignored any scandal on account of Tchaikovsky’s status. We’ll never know. There would not have been imprisonment (as Oscar Wilde would face in England a few years later) or exile, only possible humiliation and loss of social standing.

In any case, Tchaikovsky, his brother Modest, his doctors, and the “court of honor” believed that they could use small doses of arsenic to make it appear as though Tchaikovsky had died of cholera. The symptoms are similar: severe diarrhea, then intense vomiting, dehydration, and ultimately death from kidney failure. It was a slow, agonizing process, lasting three or four days. Presumably, Tchaikovsky preferred such a fate to exposure.

Naturally, there are those who dispute Orlova's version, and find significant indications that the death was, in fact, due to cholera. There will always be some doubt unless Tchaikovsky's body is exhumed and examined for traces of arsenic. Regardless of the cause, it was still a tragic end for a great composer. The mature works of his last years were magnificent, and his death was a major loss to the world of music.

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Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

References

Greenberg, Robert. Great Masters: Tchaikovsky – His Life and Music [lecture series]. The Teaching Company, 2000.

Nice, David. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Pavilion, 1997.

Orlova, Alexandra. Tchaikovsky: A Self Portrait. Oxford, 1990.

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