The "Murder" of Tchaikovsky

by Hal Gordon

Gay composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky -- who gave the world the Nutcracker Suite, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and a wealth of popular symphonies, operas, and concertos -- died prematurely, and under mysterious circumstances, in 1893. Until the last sixteen years, the official verdict was that he died of cholera, after carelessly downing a glass of unboiled water.

But suicide was whispered almost at once. Just days before he was stricken, Tchaikovsky had conducted the premiere of his Sixth Symphony, the well-known Pathetique. The premiere was unsuccessful; the symphony's tragic ending bewildered the audience, and the tepid reception of his new work disappointed the composer greatly. When the symphony was performed again, at a memorial concert held less than two weeks after Tchaikovsky's death, the solemn finale was widely interpreted as a cry of despair.

Later, an even more sinister rumor was spawned: Tchaikovsky had been condemned to death by a secret tribunal and forced to take poison to avoid being prosecuted for homosexuality. This rumor reached the West in 1980 shortly after Alexandra Orlova, a Soviet musicologist and Tchaikovsky scholar, emigrated to the United States.

According to Mrs. Orlova, the composer had been paying too much attention to the nephew of Duke Stenbock-Fermor, a powerful noble. The Duke wrote a letter of complaint to Tsar Alexander III, which he transmitted through one Nickolai Jakobi, chief prosecutor of the Russian senate (a judicial rather than a legislative body). Homosexuality was then a serious crime under Russian law; offenders could be stripped of all civil rights, banished to Siberia, and even beaten with birch rods. Had Tchaikovsky -- the first exponent of Russian music to achieve world-wide acclaim -- been subjected to criminal prosecution, the scandal would have dwarfed even the Oscar Wilde affair of two years later.

But Jakobi had been a law school classmate of Tchaikovsky's. He could not prevent the law from taking its course, but he could and did convene a "court of honor" made of up of eight other former classmates who ordered the composer to "preserve the good name of the school" by taking his own life. One of his judges procured the necessary poison, and the cholera story was hastily concocted to cover up the truth.

Jacobi's wife was sworn to secrecy by her husband. But in 1913, she unburdened herself to curator and historian Alexander Voitov, telling him that she had been in the next room while the five-hour "trial" was conducted, had heard angry voices raised, and had seen Tchaikovsky flee the house white-faced and agitated. Voitov, in turn, repeated the story to Mrs. Orlova in 1966.

Mrs. Orlova's account immediately gained wide notice and acceptance. It inspired a play, The Assassins, produced in Los Angeles, and an opera staged in Holland. It was also included in the article on Tchaikovsky published in the 1980 edition of the New Grove Dictionary. Mrs. Orlova said she believed the suicide story -- even at third hand -- because it confirmed suspicions she had formed independently when she and her late husband had been permitted to work on the Tchaikovsky archives between 1938 and 1940. In addition, the story was favored by a certain amount of circumstantial evidence.

There was, for example, the fact that Tchaikovsky initially forbade his brother Modest to send for a doctor when he was taken ill -- purportedly to give the poison time to work. Also, Tchaikovsky's illness, death, and funeral did not conform to the health practices commonly imposed in a case of cholera at that time: the house was not quarantined, the dying composer received a stream of visitors during his last days and, after he died, his body was laid out for viewing instead of being immediately sealed in a zinc coffin and removed. Nor were the regulations against crowded funerals enforced; 8,000 mourners squeezed into St. Petersburg's Kazan Cathedral for the memorial service, and the route to the cemetery was lined with masses of people.

Three scholars -- Nina Berberova, Malcolm Brown, and Simon Karlinsky -- disputed Mrs. Orlova's version of events, and the controversy was aired in the pages of High Fidelity, the New York Times, and Dance magazine. But it was not until 1988 that Tchaikovsky biographer Alexander Poznansky pulverized the suicide theory in a twenty-two page brief published in the scholarly journal, Nineteenth Century Music.

In withering detail, Poznansky points out the inherent improbability that Tchaikovsky could have been forced to commit suicide to conceal his sexual orientation. To begin with, his "secret" was anything but: the details of his disastrous marriage (he had fled his nymphomaniac bride within weeks of the wedding and made an abortive attempt to kill himself) and his partiality for young men had been the subject of ribald gossip for years.

Moreover, hardly anyone cared. Homosexuality may have been illegal in tsarist Russia, but it was commonplace among artists and elite members of society -- up to and including members of the imperial family. (The Tsar's own brother, Grand Duke Sergei, lived openly with his adjutant, and the relationship caused amused comment even outside of Russia.) Poznansky declares, "There is not a single known legal proceeding on homosexual grounds from the entire century in which the principal was a figure of any real prominence..."

Indeed, Tchaikovsky's alma mater, whose "good name" he was supposed to save by killing himself, was an all-male institution that was notorious for debauchery of every kind. Poznansky tells us that there has even survived an obscene school hymn celebrating the joys of homosexuality.

Poznansky then takes up the awkward details of the suicide theory -- beginning with the fact that there was no "Duke" Stenbock-Fermor. There was, to be sure, a Count Stenbock-Fermor who had a nephew fitting Mrs. Orlova's description. But this Count Stenbock-Fermor was equerry to Tsar Alexander. He had no need to lodge a complaint through an intermediary like Jacobi. Still less would the Count (who, as a court functionary, would have known all about Grand Duke Sergei) be likely to demand the prosecution of a prominent homosexual.

Even more awkward is the question of the type of poison used by the conspirators. Tchaikovsky's illness lasted four full days; if he died by poison, the poison not only had to be extraordinarily slow-acting, but also had to induce cholera-like symptoms. The counter-argument -- that Tchaikovsky administered the poison to himself in small doses -- assumes that he did so under the watchful eyes of his brother and the four doctors who were ultimately summoned to his bedside.

Finally, the painstaking Poznansky reveals that the official health procedures, which the conspiracy theorists say were suspiciously disregarded in the case of the composer's last illness, had been superseded by a new health law published earlier that year. The new law recognized that cholera was less contagious than had been previously believed, and imposed fewer restrictions. Thus, the death bed visitors, the viewing of the remains, and the mammoth state funeral were entirely within the bounds of law.

But if there was no "court of honor", no death sentence, and no threat of exposure, isn't it still possible that Tchaikovsky died by his own hand? It is at least an arguable proposition. He was a moody, complex man who had known much shame and sorrow and who had attempted suicide at least once before. Depressed by the lackluster premiere of his Sixth Symphony, on which he had placed such high hopes, he may indeed have been acting on a death wish when he reached for that fatal glass of unboiled water.

At the same time, he was only fifty-three years old, he was at the height of his creative powers, he was professionally and financially secure, and he had ample reasons for feeling satisfied with his life. In his last years, he had been literally heaped with honors. Decorated by the Tsar and acknowledged as his country's greatest living composer, he had also received international recognition previously accorded to no other exponent of Russian music: he had been lionized on a concert tour of the United States, where he took part in the ceremonies inaugurating Carnegie Hall; Cambridge University in England had awarded him an honorary doctoral degree; and the French had elected him to the Academie Francaise.

There is even evidence that after years of agonizing guilt he had at last made peace with his own nature. He had the companionship of his brother Modest, who shared his homosexual proclivities; visits with his nephew "Bob" (Vladimir) Davydov, whom he adored; and the fawning attentions of a group of young male admirers who dubbed themselves his "Fourth" Suite -- so named because Tchaikovsky had previously composed three popular suites for orchestra. Poznansky contends that the composer had "gradually succeeded in adjusting his inner circumstances to the societal conditions of his time without experiencing any serious psychological damage."

Doubtless there are gay activists who prefer to believe that Tchaikovsky was, either by murder or suicide, the victim of a repressive, unenlightened society that could not accept a sensitive genius as he really was. If this could be proved, it would of course pose a profound moral for a world that is still less than fully accepting of alternative sexuality. But perhaps there is also a moral to be drawn from the fact that despite the gossip, the smirks, the prejudice, the induced guilt, and the mental anguish that he suffered for being "different," Tchaikovsky was still able to achieve not only world-class standing as a creative artist, but a measure of personal happiness as well. By the end of his career, he had proved that he was far more than a sugar-plum fairy.

Hal Gordon is a freelance writer based in Bethesda, Maryland. This piece reprinted from The New Lesbian and Gay Voice, with permission.
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