Happy Birthday Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky! (May 7, 1840 – Nov. 6, 1893)

By S. Stasov

Tchaikovsky
Photo: Google Images

Tchaikovsky’s sexual practices and his rumored self-execution have been popular subjects of biographical analysis. His same sex relationships were a widely acknowledged secret in Russian musical circles during an era that was calmly tolerant of the pervasive homosexuality of the ruling classes. Within days of his death, stories began spreading that the depressive genius had not really died from cholera, which was the official cause. It was whispered that he was ordered to commit suicide by a so-called court of honor or else be exposed to the tsar for his sexuality.

These speculations have been fueled by Anthony Holden’s recent lurid book, Tchaikovsky: a biography. Alexander Poznansky, a Slavic librarian at Yale, dismisses this enduring gossip with his fact based argument in Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man. He argues that Tchaikovsky did indeed succumb to cholera at the age of 53 during an epidemic that swept St. Petersburg in the fall of 1893.

The controversy surrounding Tchaikovsky’s death can be divided into two camps: the suicide theorists and the cholera adherents. To make things more complicated, there are differing witness reports about how the composer may have contracted cholera, which was rarely seen in upper class individuals like Tchaikovsky. Cholera tended to afflict only the poor to such a degree that Tchaikovsky’s patrician physicians had themselves never even seen a case of cholera.

The cholera story has its incongruities. Tchaikovsky’s brother and first biographer, Modest, claims that Tchaikovsky contracted cholera by impatiently gulping down a glass of unboiled water in their kitchen, a dangerous action during the epidemic. Their nephew tells a similar story of seeing Tchaikovsky carelessly drink impure water, although his version has this take place in a restaurant. Both claim to be eyewitnesses to this uncharacteristic behavior from the otherwise fastidiously hygienic Tchaikovsky, although they don’t agree about the day or location of this reckless act.

Holden’s evidence regarding Tchaikovsky’s alleged suicide is flimsy at best, based on rumors and gossip, he-said-she-said nonsense that is so loopy one wonders how it could have survived all these years since Tchaikovsky’s death. There is no hard evidence that Tchaikovsky committed suicide, nor is there any evidence of the court of honor. Holden’s source for this “incontrovertible hard evidence” is an elderly Russian émigré who claims that she was told about the court of honor by someone else who was told about it; that someone heard it from yet another person who was listening at the door where this court was supposedly held in 1893!

To further advance the myth of Tchaikovsky’s suicide was the fact that days before he died, he had just conducted the premier of his 6th Symphony, The Pathétique, which is such sad and depressingly gorgeous music that listeners were convinced it was his own requiem. Yet, at this time, late fall 1893, Tchaikovsky was full of plans and ideas, looking forward to the continued glory and creative opportunities that his immense fame had brought him. Fanning this controversy, which in some ways is comparable to the debate over JFK’s assassination in its heavily disputed positions over the death of a beloved figure, is the fact that the Tchaikovsky archives in Russia are not yet opened to Western scholars. To complicate matters even more, there are few Western musicologists who have mastered Russian enough to be Tchaikovsky specialists.

Tchaikovsky is not only Russia’s most illustrious composer, he was their first academically trained great composer. During his youth, it was out of the question for someone of Tchaikovsky’s genteel birth to aspire to a career in music. There were no music schools in Russia until the St. Petersburg Conservatory opened in 1862. Tchaikovsky was among its first graduates. Unlike his contemporaries Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky received a formal education in music. Trained in Western theory and forms, his work was imbued with fiery Russian passion. He was internationally lionized during his lifetime, and is today the world’s most popular composer, along with his idol, Mozart.

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Charles Dutiot and Orchestre de la Suisse Romande 1975

Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto; Isaac Stern, Eugene Ormandy

Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart; Eula Beal

Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony Pathétique; Mravinsky, Leningrad Philharmonic

One thought on “Happy Birthday Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky! (May 7, 1840 – Nov. 6, 1893)

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