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Tchaikovsky A-Z: Letter D

Letter D
Tchaikovsky's Death

Version 1: Natural death from cholera
On 20 October 1893, Tchaikovsky was healthy and in good spirits. He attended a play and had supper at a restaurant with relatives and friends, where he ate macaroni and drank white wine and mineral water. That night he developed a severe stomach upset, but was not worried as this was a common occurrence with him. But by the evening of 21 October, he had to resort to his physician, Dr Bertenson, who diagnosed cholera. By 23 October, Tchaikovsky had successfully passed through the most critical phase of the disease and there was real hope for his recovery. Unfortunately, he died two days later of a complication: kidney failure. The progress of the composer's illness was followed closely by many, since Dr Bertenson issued bulletins in the newspapers.

Version 2: Accidental death caused by suicidal behaviour
Tchaikovsky drank a glass of unboiled water during a cholera epidemic, in full knowledge of the risks he was running. Accounts of the motivation and timing of this act widely diverge.

Version 3: Suicide by poisoning
Tchaikovsky entered into a homosexual relationship with a member of the Imperial family (or someone close to the Court in other variants) and the Tsar served him an ultimatum: either face a humiliating public trial or commit suicide. Tchaikovsky chose the latter and with the help of his doctor took poison that simulated the symptoms of cholera. The doctor's bulletins to the newspapers were merely part of an elaborate cover-up.

Version 3a: Suicide by poisoning as a result of the Court of Honour's verdict
An elaborate variant of Version 3: the Tsar's threat of court action led Tchaikovsky's old classmates from the School of Jurisprudence to hold a secret court of honour, which decided that the composer should commit suicide to avoid bringing disgrace on the School. One or two days later he poisoned himself.

Version 4: Murder by poisoning
In this story, there is no suicide, and instead Dr Bertenson, on the orders of the Tsar, administers poison to an unknowing Tchaikovsky, then covers up the Royal crime.

So how did Tchaikovsky actually die? The distinguished scholar Alexander Poznansky devoted a whole monograph, Tchaikovsky's Last Days, to demonstrate exhaustively that versions 2-4 are based on nothing more solid than rumours. In the two weeks following the composer's death there are no records of these rumours. They suddenly began to circulate only after a commemorative performance of the Sixth Symphony on 6 November 1893. The slow, requiem-like Adagio finale now struck may as a premonition of death and made a great impression - in contrast to the premiere only three weeks earlier, when the Symphony had enjoyed only a moderate success (when Tchaikovsky was still in good health). In any case, none of the suicide stories actually explain the morbid character of the Sixth, since it had been conceived and written much earlier than the prospect of suicide looms in any of these stories. The only potential "explanation" would be a protracted depression that was reflected in the Sixth and eventually led to suicide - none of the sources, however, can corroborate this supposition.

This leaves us with no good reason to believe in a Tchaikovsky suicide, and the suicide stories cast no light on the Sixth Symphony - on the contrary, they are motivated by the assimilation of the Symphony to a sentimental and simple-minded narrative going back to Mozart's Requiem.
© Dr Marina Frolova-Walker/BBC

Read other people's comments

Peter Kinnison - London
Even immediately following Tchaikovsky's death, there were always those who found the 'cholera version' suspicious; I myself find it utterly nonsensical! Tchaikovsky's mother had herself died from cholera in 1854 so the composer is hardly likely to have risked catching the disease himself through doing something as dangerous as drinking unboiled water while there was yet another cholera epidemic in Russia - indeed, Tchaikovsky had a fear, almost amounting to morbidity, of catching cholera all his life. I see no reason to doubt the story of the composer's death which Alexandra Orlova brought to the West - that Tchaikovsky was effectively asked to commit suicide by means of poison and remove the threat of a homosexual scandal from his contemporaries, who formed a 'court of honour' to try him. The poison was probably arsenic, which replicates the symptoms of cholera almost exactly. D.

Reiner Torheit (Moscow)
But if we accept the official "cholera" verdict, his body was supposed to have been immediately sealed in a zinc coffin (there was a cholera epidemic at the time, and this rule was strictly enforced). Rimsky-Korsakov was horrified to find the composer's coffin open at the lying-in-state, and complained about exactly this point, as a health risk. So it was clear to the composer's own contemporaries that something was wrong with the cholera story :(

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