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Great European Lives: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Composer, May 7, 1840 – November 6, 1893

On the night of November 1, 1893, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and a group of friends including his brother Modest and their nephew Vladimir Davydov, known as ‘Bob’, left a performance of Alexander Ostrovsky’s play The Ardent Heart and made for a regular haunt, Leiner’s restaurant on St Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospekt.

After the meal Tchaikovsky asked for a glass of water. The waiter apologised and explained that due to the lateness of the hour they had no bottled or boiled water left, to which the 53-year-old composer said that it was no matter and a glass of tap water would be fine.

Yet St Petersburg in 1893 was coming to the end of a serious cholera outbreak: nobody in their right mind was drinking water that wasn’t either bottled or had been boiled first.

Despite the waiter’s reluctance and to the horror of his companions Tchaikovsky picked up the proffered glass and drained it. By the next afternoon he’d developed the crippling diarrhoea and dehydration that are major symptoms of cholera and was put to bed at Modest’s apartment where his kidneys failed and he died within days.

That’s the official line, anyway. In truth the only indisputable fact about Tchaikovsky’s death is that he is actually dead. Everything else has been subject to conjecture, rumour, conflicting eye-witness accounts and sweeping conclusions drawn from scraps of evidence that are circumstantial at best.

Some say he was poisoned by Tsar Alexander III, others that he was poisoned by his brother or possibly his doctor. One theory has it that he contracted cholera from an illicit sexual assignation, while in recent years a convincing case has been made for suicide.

The underlying reason for the intense debate between scholars, fans and even in the highest echelons of Russian government is Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality. That such a national treasure as the composer of Eugene Onegin and the 1812 Overture was homosexual flies in the face of the intolerant philosophies of successive Soviet and Russian regimes whose attitude to gay rights have been persistently questionable.

Tchaikovsky’s sexual orientation shouldn’t define the man and his legacy, that responsibility falls squarely at the feet of his music. But it is the key to understanding his personality, creativity and in particular the wrangling for narrative control of his legacy.

On October 28, 1893, nine days before his death, Tchaikovsky had conducted the premiere of his sixth symphony, the Pathétique, an unprecedentedly ambitious work whose final movement is a heartrendingly melancholy adagio and andante awash with strings that defies the crash-bang-wallop brassy finale of traditional symphonic form.

Many interpreted it as Tchaikovsky’s farewell. At the conclusion of the final rehearsal Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, an admirer, had grabbed the composer and, with tears in his eyes, demanded, ‘What have you done? This is a requiem! A requiem!’

Music scholars point out that a brief trombone phrase during the first movement is taken from the Russian Orthodox mass for the dead, specifically the line, ‘And may his soul rest with the souls of the saints’.

The symphony was dedicated to his nephew ‘Bob’ Davydov for whom Tchaikovsky in his later years had developed a deep love, despite Davydov being a blood relative nearly 30 years his junior.

Their surviving correspondence suggests the feelings were reciprocal, even if there’s no suggestion the relationship was ever physical. In the months leading up to his death, however, Tchaikovsky’s letters suggest Davydov’s ardour might have been cooling.

‘If you do not want to write at least spit on a piece of paper, put it in an envelope, and send it to me,’ he wrote from his house in Klin, 60 miles north of Moscow, in February 1893. ‘You are not taking any notice of me at all.’

In early August, three months before he died, Tchaikovsky wrote, ‘What makes me sad is that you take so little interest in me. However, forgive me, I won’t pester you again. The symphony which I was going to dedicate to you (not so sure that I will now) is getting on.’

Tchaikovsky seemed ill-equipped for the world in many ways, especially after the death of his mother from cholera when the composer was 14. He was a loner for most of his life and until his final decade or so rarely socialised despite travelling widely throughout Europe and beyond (he conducted his March Solennelle at the opening night of New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1891). He was intensely self-critical and incredibly sensitive: a thunderstorm would have him cowering with eyes clamped shut and his fingers in his ears.

For a dozen years from 1878 he was supported financially by a rich widow named Nadezhda von Meck to the tune of 6,000 roubles a year, allowing him the freedom to be left alone to work (the pair never met) and live very comfortably, but also coming with disadvantages for a troubled, vulnerable mind.

Tchaikovsky’s self-imposed solitude produced a remarkable body of work featuring unforgettable melodies that might have left critics cool – his broadly European style was never quite ‘Russian’ enough for the national musical hierarchy – but which continue to be adored by audiences all over the world. It also allowed the composer to spend plenty of time in his own head, where doubts and demons lurked.

‘I have reached such a state that I weep every day,’ he wrote to his brother from Florence in 1874. Two years later he wrote from France, ‘I am worried by my state of mind every time I am abroad alone. There is something morbid about it. Imagine, I cried yesterday no less than ten times. I cannot go on like this.’

It would be facile to say that his sexuality was the only source of his depressions, but in 1876 he resolved to ease the social pressure by taking a wife. Any wife.

‘I am now going through a very critical period of my life,’ he wrote to Modest, who was also homosexual. ‘I will go into more detail later, but for now I will simply tell you, I have decided to get married. It is unavoidable. I must do it, not just for myself but for you, Modest, and all those I love. I think that for both of us our dispositions are the greatest and most insuperable obstacle to happiness, and we must fight our natures to the best of our abilities.’

He had no specific spouse in mind, but shortly afterwards happened to receive a letter from Antonina Miliukova, a former music student nine years his junior whom he’d met at the house of a mutual friend many years earlier and who had held a candle for him ever since.

They married in 1877, even though Tchaikovsky wrote that Miliukova was ‘a woman with whom I am not in the least in love’. Barely a month after the wedding the mortified composer realised he’d entangled himself in an unbearable domestic situation and walked out.

‘Cursed buggermania forms an impassable gulf between me and most people,’ he wrote to Modest. ‘It imparts to my character an estrangement, fear of people, shyness, immoderate bashfulness, mistrust, in a word, a thousand traits from which I am getting ever more unsociable… I think about a monastery or something of the kind.’

Matters came to a head in 1893 with the composition of the Pathétique. ‘I have poured my whole soul into this symphony,’ he wrote. ‘It is intensely personal. But its meaning will be an enigma that people will have to guess for themselves. It has a lot to say about the judgement, punishment and vengeance of God!!!’

In 1979 Russian musicologist Alexandra Orlova defected to the West and told a remarkable story she’d heard second hand but from a reliable source. In 1893 a duke wrote a letter to the Tsar complaining Tchaikovsky had tried to seduce his 18-year-old son, and handed it to a high-ranking civil servant Nikolai Borisovich Jacobi to deliver. Jacobi had been a pupil at the School of Jurisprudence, St Petersburg’s most exclusive boy’s school, at the same time as Tchaikovsky and felt the accusation was a slur on their alma mater and its alumni for which the composer should atone.

An unofficial ‘court of honour’ was convened on October 31, 1893, the day before the meal at Leiner’s, at which a group of Tchaikovsky’s school contemporaries informed him at the end of a five-hour grilling that the honourable course of action would be to commit suicide. If he did so the letter would be destroyed, if he didn’t he would be exposed, denounced and possibly exiled. According to Orlova, Tchaikovsky ran from the room with a face as white as a ghost.

If the glass of water incident really happened, perhaps it was a form of Russian roulette with a fatal disease, casting his fate to fate itself. Some historians note that the symptoms of cholera are similar to those of arsenic poisoning: maybe the downing of a glass of untreated water, not least in front of witnesses, was intended to provide a cover story of death by natural causes. Certainly Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was surprised to find when he arrived to pay his respects that Tchaikovsky’s body was laid out in a room full of mourners rather than sealed in a zinc-lined coffin as the law required of cholera victims. Friends were even kissing the corpse.

Whatever the truth behind the entrenched stand-off over Tchaikovsky’s death, and we’ll almost certainly never know for sure, it’s far better to immerse ourselves in the symphonies, ballets and operas of one of Europe’s finest musical minds.

As the composer himself said, ‘Truly there would be reason to go mad were it not for music.’

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