← Back to December 2015

Tchaikovsky: The Genius of Emotion - Facts, Fiction, Fables, Fairy Tales - The Right Stuff

links image

Vincent Valentine, MD
University of Texas Medical Branch
Galveston, TX, USA

Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony (the Pathétique) premiered on October 28, 1893 in St Petersburg when he was at the height of his fame and popularity rarely experienced by any living artist. Nine days later, on November 6, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was dead. A cover up began immediately. According to his brother, Modest, Pyotr died of cholera after "carelessly" drinking unboiled water. This remained Pyotr's cause of death for a century. The heart of the matter surrounding his death was that both Pyotr and Modest were homosexuals. It is not surprising that Modest failed to mention this in his three-volume biography of the famous composer given the conventions of the late 19th century Tsarist Russia - a time when homosexuality was rife but if caught, it was a sin punished by public disgrace, loss of civil rights and exile to Siberia. According to biographer, Alexander Poznansky - "...hardly any other figure in the history of Russian Culture has been subjected by government control scholarship to such a degree of biographical falsification as Tchaikovsky." Apparently his cause of death was intimately related to the details of his day to day life. He was the master of intimate disclosure through his music with personal details that mirrored his life of wretched misery and agony because of his homosexuality. This was his art, his confession and his emotional painful cry of neurasthenia, torment and despair felt at all emotional levels expressed no better than in his final works of Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, Movement 4.

With his cause of death uncertain, speculations ranged from cholera to suicide from arsenic. Apparently, Tchaikovsky had an affair with a young nobleman, a 17-year-old nephew of a close friend to the Tsar. A letter to Tsar Alexander III was written. A former schoolmate of Tchaikovsky got hold of the letter, discovered its contents and feared a threat of scandal at Saint Petersburg's Imperial School of Jurisprudence. A five hour meeting occurred and was attended by Tchaikovsky and seven of his former classmates. It was decided the only way to avoid disgrace and exposure of his homosexuality, Tchaikovsky was to take his life by a "court of honor." He began drinking water laced with arsenic which poisonous effects was known to mimic cholera. The School of Jurisprudence, Tchaikovsky's family and generations of Russians covered up the true story of his death proclaiming that he died of cholera until the late 20th century.

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born on May 7, 1840 in Votkinsk, Russia some 800 miles and 1200 miles east of Moscow and St Petersburg, respectively heading toward the Ural Mountains. His father was Ilya Petrovich Tchaikovsky of lesser nobility and his mother, Alexandra Andreyevna of French descent. She played the piano and sang while the young Pyotr Tchaikovsky worshipped her and her hands. Along with his mother, the most influential people in his life were all women: his governess, his sister, his wife and most importantly, his patroness. Alexandra preferred the cultured life of St Petersburg therefore she was unhappy in the "exiled" city of Votkinsk. Her unhappiness must have affected Pyotr profoundly where he found solace in the piano. His musical talents were not encouraged for in 19th century Russia the music profession was not an acceptable career. The family later moved to St Petersburg where Pyotr was enrolled in the Imperial School of Jurisprudence. His mother died of cholera. Her death may be one of the sources of his depression consistently expressed in his music.

While at the School of Jurisprudence, Pyotr discovered two things. According to him, Mozart's Don Giovanni inspired his musical career and the discovery of his homosexuality. He graduated and in 1862, Tchaikovsky enrolled at the newly developed St. Petersburg Conservatory founded by the Polish-born pianist and composer Anton Rubinstein. After graduating in 1866, he moved to Moscow and taught at the new Moscow Conservatory which was founded by Anton's brother, Nicholai Rubinstein. His musical career truly began with the instant success of his Overture in F. Several of his works premiered in 1868, then it was in 1869 when his position as a promising native composer was consolidated in Russia and his reputation established in Europe by his first masterwork: Overture-Fantasy Romeo and Juliet, "Love Theme," dedicated to his lover, Eduard Zak, a fifteen-year-old student. Tchaikovsky's musical style possessed romantic expression and classical structure while hovering between Russian emotional excess and Germanic intellectual control. His music was criticized on two fronts: by the academics, he was too Romantic and by the Romantics, he was too academic. For the Russian nationalists, he was too German and for the Germans, he was too Russian. Listen and immerse yourself into his next great successes: Symphony No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 17, Little Russian, Movement 4, Theme and Piano Concerto No. 1 in B Flat Minor, Op. 23, Movement 1, Introduction. He had been considered the only Russian composer to blend the best of Western European technique with his own Russian heritage. Yet for Tchaikovsky, success brought forth depression; post-success depression was typical for him. Perhaps, it's the journey, not the goal. Nevertheless, as he was becoming a popular composer, his depression deepened and his anxiety increased especially over public discovery of his homosexuality. Moreover, he blamed his depression on his homosexuality. This led to his feeling of being alienated from others which seemingly forced him to become introspective into a deeper world of self-expression that he might not have discovered had he felt less isolated. The result mostly for us was great music. In 1877, the premiere of Tchaikovsky's first ballet score, Swan Lake, Op. 20, Act. 1: No. 9 Finale was not a success, however it revolutionized the art of ballet music by giving substance to the dancers, dramatic action, mood and the story. It later became an enduring success. Rather than suppressing his creativity, emotional crises stimulated his creative urges. In the summer of 1876 as a result of Ottoman-Turkish massacres of Christians in the Balkans, Montenegro and Serbia declared war on the Ottomans. Russian volunteers gathered to support their fellow Slavs. By the fall, it appeared that Russia would be drawn into war. Nicholai Rubinstein commissioned Tchaikovsky to write an orchestral piece for the Russian Musical Society Concert to benefit the wounded Serbian veterans and equip the Russian volunteers. In five days, Tchaikovsky wrote the "Serbo-Russian March," today known as the Marche Slav. It was a superb, inspirational and patriotic piece comprising Serbian folk tunes for its themes and Russia's national anthem, God Preserve the Tsar. It premiered in Moscow on November 17, 1876 with a rapturous and an ecstatic response. "The entire audience was on its feet with many standing on their seats. There was an encore followed by more pandemonium. It was one of most stirring moments in 1876, many were in tears."

In a letter to his brother in 1876 Tchaikovsky declared it was time for him to enter matrimony with anyone who would have him. During this mind set, Tchaikovsky was asked to write an opera based on the popular novel written in verse Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin. He was attracted to this tragic tale of unrequited love because of the poetry, drama and psychological aspects of its story and characters that resonated with his own life. This novel was about lost love and lost opportunity with the "letter scene" inspiring Tchaikovsky where Tatyana pours her heart out in a love letter to Onegin. Tchaikovsky identified with Tatyana. By happenstance, while composing this opera, he received a love letter from a former student, Antonina. They eventually met, Tchaikovsky proposed a platonic relationship, she misunderstood that he was a homosexual as a result their marriage was disastrous from the outset. At the same time and separated just three months from their marriage, he began exchanging letters with a very wealthy widow that he would never meet, Nadezhda von Meck. Von Meck became his patroness and provided him an annual subsidy of 6,000 rubles for fourteen years. She was the widow of Karl Otto Georg von Meck, a Russian railway tycoon, and ecstatic about Tchaikovsky's music. She was unconcerned about his homosexuality and probably considered it an asset knowing she would never lose him to another woman. Her devotion to his music resulted in one of the most bizarre relationships in music history with nearly thousands of letters exchanged. Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony inspired by Beethoven's Fifth was dedicated to von Meck with an idea of "fate knocking at the door." Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36. Then he composed one of his most widely acclaimed works, the Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 35 in 1878. This was the right stuff that Bill Conti appropriated some 100 years later for his score for the movie The Right Stuff which earned Conti an Academy Award for Best Original Score in 1984. Compare Yeager's Triumphal March with Movement 1 of the Violin Concerto in D Major above. And why not, Tchaikovsky had appropriated from Beethoven and if you do steal other ideas, why not from the greatest. After completing his Violin Concerto Tchaikovsky had written that he had completely recovered from his "madness." In May 1877 he had decided to marry Antonina, in June wrote an entire opera, in July got married, in September ran away from his wife. "I was not myself, but another Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Only now, especially after my marriage, have I finally come to conclude that there is nothing more pointless than wanting to be anything other than what I am by nature." Upon returning to Moscow for the fall semester at the conservatory in 1878, he read a lurid article about the affairs of professors with their female students and those of another nature. He resigned in fear of exposure of his homosexuality. Nadezhda von Meck took delight in this because she believed his teaching position yoke his creative capabilities and genius.

For the next decade, he felt free and produced: another masterwork, Serenade for Strings in C Major, Op. 48; Capriccio Italien; and the 1812 Overture. He became an international celebrity as his music was performed in North America, Europe and Russia. Also, he became a popular composer and finally overcame his fear of conducting when he conducted the premiere of his opera, The Enchantress. In 1888, he completed his Fifth Symphony, Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 which is a catharsis composition starting dark with a tragic theme in a minor key as heard in the clarinet and ends brilliantly in a major key. After this decade of liberated productivity, Tchaikovsky's final years were extremely productive and the happiest he had ever been. He met Anton Chekov who dedicated his book Gloomy People to Tchaikovsky. But he lost his patroness, von Meck, his soul mate. She had sent an entire years pay in advance, something not done before and in her last surviving letter, she wrote him that her children were bankrupting her. Perhaps, von Meck's family threatened to expose Tchaikovsky's homosexuality if she continued to support him. He was devastated and embittered. He went on a successful and very popular conducting tour in the United States, returned to Russia and among many of his last compositions: the ballets Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker, the opera Queen of Spades, and the concert overture Hamlet. Perhaps as a substitute to the loss of von Meck, Tchaikovsky fell in love with his nephew Vladimir Davidov (nicknamed Bob) and dedicated his final works, Symphony No. 6, to him, the son of his sister Sasha. Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op 74 represented the peak of Tchaikovsky's life, career and creativity. It mirrored the juxtaposition of his life ranging from magnificent and celebratory comfort and pleasure (movement 3) to profound and pathetic despair (movement 4), a reflection of his struggle with his public and private life. Finally, his funeral took place on November 9, 1863 in the Kazan Cathedral. It was the largest funeral St Petersburg had and still today has ever experienced. ■

Disclosure Statement: The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.


  1. Mundy, Simon. The Illustrated Lives of the Great Composers: Tchaikovsky
  2. Holden, Anthony. Tchaikovsky: A Biography.
  3. Poznansky, Alexander. Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man

Share via:

links image    links image    links image    links image