The spectre of cholera hung over Tchaikovsky's life from his earliest childhood.
In the early 19th century most people believed the disease was something carried in the air that could be detected by its unpleasant odour, a not unreasonable assumption since outbreaks often occurred near foul-smelling rivers (the Thames for example) and open sewers. But it was in fact a bacterial infection spread from tiny organisms to the human intestine via water, usually when untreated sewage flowed into the supply used for drinking, cooking or washing food.
In 1830, the Russian authorities attempted to contain a major cholera outbreak by prohibiting travel to or from affected towns and by quarantining traders. The ensuing distress, which threatened the livelihood of poor traders, led to bribery and eventually riots as people tried to circumvent or challenge the restrictions. People were prepared to take their chances, and if they contracted the disease there were always popular treatments in the form of opium, warm baths and homeopathy. The less fortunate died, usually from acute diarrhoea and dehydration.
Over a million people lost their lives in the pandemic that swept Russia from 1852 to 1860. It hit Tchaikovsky's home in 1854. Both his parents contracted the disease but whereas his father recovered and lived for another 26 years, his mother was not so fortunate. Tchaikovsky's brother Modest reported enigmatically that although their mother's demise was 'complicated by another disease' the main cause was cholera. He observed how 'death came as they placed her in the bath' adding that for ever after 'my elder brother and I automatically had a superstitious fear of this necessary measure'.
By the time of Tchaikovsky's death in 1893, the cholera bacterium had been isolated (by Filippo Pacini in 1854 and separately by Robert Koch in 1883) and people were educated in the boiling of water to kill off bacteria. So if Tchaikovsky did indeed die of cholera from drinking contaminated water (see Tchaikovsky's Death), it would not have been through ignorance. In the final stages of his illness, his doctor, Lev Bertensen, prescribed a warm bath, causing Modest great agitation. But Tchaikovsky, exhausted from his symptoms, welcomed it saying 'I'm very glad to have the bath, but I shall probably die like my mother when you put me in'. He died the following day.
© Madeleine Ladell/BBC
Roland John Wiley: 'Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Il'yich' in The Grove Dictionary of Music vol.xxv, p.145.
David Brown: Tchaikovsky Remembered (London: Faber & Faber, 1993), p.217.
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