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A Homosexual Affair and the Tsar's Anger - Was Tchaikovsky's Early Death a Suicide?

"The young man was so distraught and emotionally shattered by the experience his father had no choice but to express his moral indignation in the strongest of terms."

This article from our archives was first published on RI in August 2016

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Theories abound concerning the precise cause of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s death. Perhaps the best article on this subject was produced for the BBC by Dr Marina Frolova- Walker. The author is a Russian-born musicologist, music historian and professor at Cambridge University.  Cogent, logical and straight-forward, her analysis cuts through a confusing fog of conjecture, rumor, and false claims.  Having examined all the theories, Dr Frolova-Walker presents us with four possible scenarios or versions and then addresses the plausibility of each one before dismissing all but one scenario.

Version # 1 is that the composer died a natural death as a result of a cholera infection. There was an outbreak of the disease at the time and Tchaikovsky somehow became infected, dying of kidney failure some days later. She implies that the composer became infected after having dinner with friends at a restaurant.

<figcaption>Ever un-PC, Russians never tire of pointing out that Tchaikovsky died in great agony, evidence of God's displeasure with his sins</figcaption>
Ever un-PC, Russians never tire of pointing out that Tchaikovsky died in great agony, evidence of God's displeasure with his sins

Version # 2 is that the composer committed suicide by knowingly drinking unboiled water which led to death by cholera infection. Some claim he drank simple tap water at a restaurant. His brother Modest insists Pyotr drank the contaminated water at home from a faucet.  Both claims are highly unlikely because Tchaikovsky was meticulous about the water he drank due to the risk of cholera contamination at the time. The fact that his mother died of cholera only added to his extreme vigilance on this matter.

Version # 3 has to do with a homosexual affair that Tchaikovsky had with a member of the Imperial Court. Having received a letter of protest from an incensed uncle, the Tsar gave Pyotr Ilyich an ultimatum: face a humiliating public trial or commit suicide. Tchaikovsky chose the latter and with the help of his physician essentially poisoned himself – probably with arsenic.

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Version # 3-a comes primarily from the Russian musicologist Alexandra Orlova. She contends the composer’s death was the result of a verdict of a secret Court of Honor. A certain Nikolai Jacobi supposedly had in his possession a letter from a Count whose nephew had been seduced by Tchaikovsky. The letter was meant to be delivered to the Tsar, but was not. This Honor Court consisted of old classmates from the School of Jurisprudence and after five hours of deliberation the composer was told to commit suicide to “avoid bringing disgrace on the School”.  

Version  # 4 concerns a conspiratorial murder whereby Tchaikovsky is poisoned by his own physician - Dr Bertenson - on orders from the Tsar. The medical doctor then covers up the crime. Dr Frolova-Walker, relying heavily on biographer Alexander Poznansky’s major study on Tchaikovsky’s last days, rejects versions 2-4 as nothing more than speculation based solely upon rumors.  She also dismisses the attempts by some to analyze Tchaikovsky’s last symphony for clues of an impending suicide on the part of the composer.

She does not, however, fully endorse version #1 as the absolute truth. Indeed, there are a number of problems with this scenario. Some claim Tchaikovsky drank unboiled water with his dinner, but Frolova-Walker specifically notes that Tchaikovsky drank “white wine and mineral water.” It is well-documented that Pyotr Ilyich was extremely vigilant about NOT drinking unboiled water because he had a weak digestive system and – as mentioned above - feared cholera intensely because his own mother had died of the disease. 

There’s one final twist to this mystery story…

I was fortunate enough to be a live-in guest at the home of Svetlana Gorbacheva for a week back in 1992. A classical pianist by training, Svetlana was married to my best buddy – Professor Lauren Gray Leighton. When I met her she was director of the “Bolshoi Zal” concert hall at the Moscow Conservatory on Herzen Street. During this period, newly opened archives were being scoured for historical documents that might shed more light on the development of Russian Classical music.

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Svetlana and her staff uncovered a letter that had been sent to Tchaikovsky by none other than the Russian Tsar himself. In unambiguous language, the Russian head of state clearly admonishes Tchaikovsky for bringing shame on the country due to an illicit homosexual affair with the Spanish Ambassador’s son. The young man was so distraught and emotionally shattered by the experience his father had no choice but to express his moral indignation in the strongest of terms.

The Tsar gravely and solemnly indicates in this letter what Tchaikovsky – as a gentleman and aristocrat- is expected to do.

 So many twists and turns and discrepancies….

Perhaps it is time to re-open the investigation of Tchaikovsky’s death and finally determine once and for all how and why the great composer died at the age of 53.   

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