When the correspondence between Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky and Nadezhda Filaretovna von Meck began, in December 1876, the bachelor of thirty-six was the most promising of Russian composers and the most highly regarded abroad; four months earlier, at Bayreuth for the first Ring of the Nibelung, he had been warmly—he thought obsequiously—received by Liszt. Shortly after returning from Germany, morbidly fearful of public exposure of his homosexuality, he wrote to his homosexual brother Modest: “I should like to marry or enter into an open liaison with some woman so as to shut the mouths of assorted contemptible gossipers.” The woman of his dreams, or nightmares, should not expect the consummation of conjugal rights.
Nadezhda Filaretovna was forty-five, recently widowed, prodigally wealthy—her husband’s rise from engineer to railroad tycoon is generally attributed to her business acumen—and passionately musical. Her household staff included a violinist (“I have a good Stradivarius”) and a cellist, and in the summer months it would soon include the teen-age Claude Debussy, who could read orchestral scores at the piano and play piano duets with her. She had been a polyphiloprogenitive, if not a strictly faithful, wife: her husband’s discovery that the youngest and favorite of her eighteen children was illegitimate had brought on his fatal heart attack; years later, when one of her daughters revealed the secret of the illegitimacy to a son-in-law—as well as, probably, the secret of consanguinity, that the child’s father was also the husband of her eldest daughter—he would use it to black-mail her.
Two brief exchanges are followed by Mme von Meck’s third letter, which runs to nearly 1,500 words and includes three musical quotations from Tchaikovsky’s early opera Oprichnik, which now embarrassed him (“poor stuff, written hastily and in places without inspiration”) but which she would “like to die hearing.” Before dying, however, she wants him to contrive a four-hand funeral march from it. At the instigation of their mutual friend, Nikolai Rubinstein, virtuoso pianist and Tchaikovsky’s superior at the Moscow Conservatory, the financially straitened composer had written her asking for a loan. Rubinstein suggested that she commission pieces from him, thus initiating her role as Tchaikovsky’s benefactress.
Tchaikovsky’s commensurately expanded third letter remarks on her apparent lack of interest in meeting him. She replies that the reasons he supposes for this are mistaken, but whatever the right ones—“the more fascinated I am by you, the more I fear acquaintance”—the condition that they never meet seems to have been understood. They lived near each other at times, saw each other at a distance in the theater—she had first glimpsed him bowing, “hurriedly and reluctantly,” after a performance of one of his works—and twice by accident close up, Tchaikovsky raising his hat as they silently passed by. The Oprichnik march makes her “nerves tingle [and] want to cry, want to die, want another life.”
The principal event in their personal lives during the two years covered by the correspondence is Tchaikovsky’s marriage. He did not know Antonina Ivanovna Miliukova when in May 1877 he received her declaration of love. Ignoring the aberrancy of her behavior, he answered and was soon agreeing to see her, partly because she had threatened suicide if he did not. He took the precaution of interviewing her former piano teacher at the conservatory, but went to the meeting undeterred by this colleague’s uncomplimentary description of her.
Tchaikovsky immediately recognized that he and Antonina Ivanovna had nothing in common (“she’s a very limited person,” he confided to his brother Anatoly), were in fact extreme opposites in every way, and he felt “total repugnance” for her physical presence. That he nevertheless proposed to her on his second and last visit before their nuptials confirms that his rational faculties had suffered a breakdown. Later, to Mme von Meck, he would blame his self-destructive act on “fate,” on family and social pressures—above all his eighty-two-year-old father’s longstanding wish to see him married—and on his unbalanced mental state at the time. She urged him to seek a divorce, promising a huge settlement on his wife, but this did not take place and the marriage would harrow him until 1881, when his publisher learned that Antonina Tchaikovskaya had abandoned an illegitimate child—she had several of them in all—in a foundling home. Four years after Tchaikovsky’s death, she was committed to an insane asylum near St. Petersburg, where she died in 1917.
The wedding, July 18, 1877, was semi-secret and somber, devoid of epithalamia. The unimaginably awful honeymoon began with a visit to his family in St. Petersburg. During the train journey he was rescued from the obligation to converse with his bride by a chance fellow passenger, Prince Meshchersky, an intimate friend from his years at the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence. He was rescued again in a Petersburg hotel by doses of valerian. After returning to Moscow for a similar visit to her “weird family,” as Tchaikovsky described it, she remained in the city to prepare their future residence, while he left for Kiev and the home of his married sister at Kamenka. Back in Moscow at the end of September, he attempted to commit suicide by exposure, wading into the icy Moscow River. On October 6 he fled to St. Petersburg, where a doctor told him he could recover his equilibrium only by a permanent separation from his wife. Later, from Switzerland, he portrayed her to Mme von Meck in a letter that displays a mordant side of his personality. She is twenty-eight, he says, which was old by the current parameters of nubility, as well as
fairly unhandsome in appearance. …Her eyes are…expressionless; her lips are too thin…. She is very affected and there is not a single movement or gesture which is straightforward…. That was the easy part of the description. But, now that I come to describe her character and intellect, I meet an unsurmountable difficulty. Her head and heart are both completely empty…. She has never once expressed a single idea…. Never once did she display the least desire to find out what I was doing…. She had told me that she had been in love with me for four years; and also that she was quite a reasonable musician…[yet] she didn’t know a single note of my compositions and…had never been to concerts…of the Musical Society, while knowing that she could see the object of her four-year love there at any time. She is very garrulous…. Hour by hour she would tell me endless stories about the countless men who had nursed tender feelings for her. Most frequently they were generals, nephews of famous bankers, and even members of the imperial family.
The compensatory, retributive event of Tchaikovsky’s life occurred soon after, when Mme von Meck responded to another of his appeals for money with a generous sum and a pledge that henceforth he would receive a monthly allowance of 1500 francs. The “wellknown-unknown” ideal friend, who posed no threat of personal contact, now became his provider as well. For a time, Tchaikovsky’s sister sheltered and coped with his wife, but he continued to support her from his new stipend. Before long, however, he was lamenting to Mme von Meck that the “unbearable shackle” has “brazenly taken off her mask” and is sending him letters that show her to be “untruthful and vicious.” He can no longer bear the sound of her name or anything that reminds him of her, he says, and, accordingly, from then on both correspondents refer to her as “a certain personage,” or “a certain matter.”
If Mme von Meck’s somewhat distancing letter of congratulations on receiving Tchaikovsky’s news of his engagement betrays a twinge of disappointment, her elation on hearing of the fiasco of the marriage is undisguised. “Pyotr Ilich,” she asks, “have you ever loved? I think not. You love music too much to be able to fall in love with a woman,” which is to forget such lovers of music and women as Liszt and Wagner. She persists: “Have you ever known non-Platonic love?” And he equivocates, “Yes and no,” then formulates her question in a different way: has he ever experienced “full happiness in love”? The answer to this is a vehement “no, no, and again no,” but he tells her to look for the answer to the question in his music. (Chopin was “an awful character,” she wrote later, “one can hear it in his music.”) In dismissing platonic love as semi-love, “not the feeling that goes deep into a person’s flesh and blood,” she remarks parenthetically that this was “not at all the way Plato loved,” unwittingly brushing against the truth. But the last part of this cryptic, venturesome letter is missing, as are all passages in the correspondence that would seem to contain references to his sexual inclinations. Modest was an efficient censor, both for his brother and himself, going so far in his own case as to become the tutor of a nine-year-old deaf-mute who also became his charge and, to judge from an allusion to the relationship by the composer, his catamite.
In fact Mme von Meck seems to have had no inkling of Tchaikovsky’s homosexual inclinations, not only failing to recognize his account of the marriage as a description of sexual panic, but actually concluding that Antonina Ivanovna did not want to have his child. She would soon revise this assumption, telling him that his wife must be made to realize that “one person seeks only certain marital relations and another will not be satisfied with only that one thing” (her emphases), which seems to mean that she thought sexual intercourse was the only marital relationship that Antonina Ivanovna was capable of sharing with him—as may have been the case with her husband in her own marriage. Yet one wonders how this worldly, experienced woman could fail to recognize the sexual temperament behind Tchaikovsky’s avowed wish for her to comfort him “like a child in its mother’s arms,” and his wish to be for his younger brothers “what a mother is for her children,” knowing “the indelible mark that maternal caresses leave on a child’s heart.” Leo Tolstoy was more percipient. After spending two evenings in Moscow with the composer, and weeping during a performance of his first string quartet, the author of the “excruciatingly brilliant” Death of Ivan Ilich, as Tchaikovsky called it, would remember him after his death as “a man about whom there was something not altogether clear.”
By the end of the first year, both correspondents are emotionally dependent on their “chats” with each other. “I can’t sleep and I am sitting down for another chat with you,” Tchaikovsky begins a letter to his mother-confessor. “I am now used to telling you everything,” he says, while assiduously avoiding any reference to the real reason for his marriage and its dissolution. Mme von Meck decides that this is the propitious moment to adopt the intimate form of address, but she has not yet taken the full measure of his intensely private, hypersensitive nature. He declines her proposal protesting that the “thou” form would be awkward for him, the breaking of a convention on which he depends. In an ambivalent afterthought, prompted, perhaps, by a reminder that she is his patroness, he concedes that he might be able to adjust to the change, although the form of address will not affect the feeling.
“Our sufferings are identical,” Tchaikovsky avers at one point, and Mme von Meck is constantly noting the similarities between them, one of which is “our need for profound emotions,” as distinguished from “accepted” ones. A “supernatural affinity of ideas and feelings [is] apparent in almost every one of our letters,” she grandly claims. Yet the more open they are with each other the more they expose the antagonisms in their tastes and temperaments, leading the reader to suspect that Tchaikovsky would have been even more miserable, however differently, if he had married her instead of Antonina Ivanovna. Her favorite pastimes at Brailov, her vast Ukrainian estate, are billiards, boating (“I always take the helm”), driving a trap, and target practice with a revolver, none of which can have greatly appealed to him. Their “philosophies” are in contradiction. He abhors the “realism,” or “ideal materialism,” that she professes, and takes “the liberty of disputing your description of yourself.” A true realist, he corrects her, would “never seek consolation and reconciliation in music,…the most utterly ideal of all the arts…. The realist cares nothing for art, especially music, for music responds to an enquiry which forms no part of his limited nature.” The feature common to both of their personalities, he insists, is “misanthropy.”
Nor do they agree about religion: “People like Spinoza, Goethe, and Kant have managed without [it],” he observes, and “intelligent people must be skeptics”; like you “I lost all faith in doctrines long ago.” But he warns that “those who break with traditional beliefs rush vainly from one philosophical theory to another without finding the strength with which believers are armed.” He cannot accept the notion of immortality—“and, anyway, would it be eternal happiness?”—yet is unable to reconcile himself to the thought that his mother, the revenant he cannot exorcise—she died from cholera when he was fourteen—has disappeared forever. For him, if not for Mme von Meck, the rituals of the Orthodox Church have “retained much poetic charm,” and the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is “one of the greatest of all artistic creations,” as indeed Tchaikovsky’s setting of it is one of his.
Worse still, the “beloved friends” are far apart on important musical judgments, and Mozart’s music uncovers an unbridgeable gulf between them. She reviles it as “vacuous,” “a pleasing tickling of the ears” that cannot “move a single fiber of the human soul,” and her tone is ranting:
I love depth, power, grandeur…. I can’t love anything superficial, objective…. He is so…imperturbably jolly, that it arouses my indignation…. I wonder how someone who has written such a gripping and shattering thing as the first movement of the Fourth Symphony in F minor can be enthusiastic about Mozart.
“Of the old classics in music,” she tells him, “I like Bach, Beethoven, and Hummel in his two concertos.” Tchaikovsky, who “bows” before Beethoven but does not “love” him, conceals the extent to which his patience must have been tried: “Nobody has ever expressed so beautifully in music the feeling of resigned and hopeless grief” as Mozart in the Adagio of the G minor Quintet. Further, “I love the music of Don Giovanni so much…that I can’t speak calmly about it…. It is thanks to Mozart that I dedicated my life to music.”
Of the great composers only Schumann, whom she compares unfavorably in some respects to Tchaikovsky, is mutually admired in something of the same way. True, both of them abominate Brahms, whose first symphony Tchaikovsky condemns as “dark, cold, and full of pretensions to profundity,” but they do not know much of his music. Mme von Meck scorns Wagner as “a profaner of art,” but Tchaikovsky recognizes the “genius” in this “symphonist by nature,” paralyzed “by the theory he has invented.” Die Walküre does not have a “single broad, complete melody which allows the singer room to blossom,” he continues, and though the Ring includes “plenty of individual passages of surprising, but purely symphonic, power,” some of them, including the “Ride of the Valkyries,” make a “huge impression” in the concert hall, but “lose all pictorial effect” in the theater.
Tchaikovsky confided his deeper appreciation of Wagner’s stature to Modest—“something has been achieved at Bayreuth which our children and great-grandchildren will not forget”—no doubt foreseeing that Mme von Meck would dispute the appraisal, but in a letter to her beyond the period of the present book, he describes Wagner’s musical talent as “colossal.”
The first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto does not affect her as much as “music in which one hears despondency or turbulent passion,” she tells him, spelling out the cathexis in his music that had infatuated her in the first place. Francesca da Rimini excites these emotions in her, while Marche Slav, of all pieces, brings “such bliss that the tears come to my eyes.” Tears well up frequently and readily in both of them, along with, in her case, instant prostration. In his, a “flood” of them can induce sound sleep.
Their literary perspectives rarely align. When Tchaikovsky discloses his intention to compose an open on Eugene Onegin, a poem that has enthralled him since childhood, she flaunts her preference for Pisarev and Chernyshevsky, which “will tell you my attitude to Pushkin.” He challenges this:
Forgive my defending Pushkin and attacking Pisarev…but I respect the former as much as I detest the latter…. [In Pushkin] there is something in the very verse, in the succession of sounds, which penetrates to the depth of the soul. That something is music.
When she raves about Nekrasov, he puts her down with: “Talent…doesn’t make an artist…his last works are just unbearably boring, and the aim of his satire is shallow, vulgar, and trivial… humour of the lowest kind.” In one of his letters to the grand duke and poetaster Konstantin Romanov, Nekrasov’s muse is described as “crawling along the ground.”
The composer’s letters to his brother Anatoly indicate that the obligation to write to his “best friend” could become onerous, as it frequently was in the 1880s. “It is hard forever to be thanking and thanking,” he complains, and “one cannot keep on inventing new phrases to express gratitude.” On receiving an eight-page letter from her, he explains that “of course I had to reply with a long letter, too.” Twice in the autumn of 1878 he turns down proposals to reside for a spell on the opposite side of Lake Como from her, but when she moves to her Villa Oppenheim on the outskirts of Florence, he accepts her invitation to live in an apartment on the same Viale and only three hundred yards away: “The knowledge that I’ll be close to you will make me feel warm and comfortable.” To avoid encounters, she gives him advance notice of the hours of her outings, but he is soon tattling to Anatoly: “I feel embarrassed in general at her being so near…. When she passes my house, she stops [her carriage] and tries to get a glimpse of me”—as, evidently, he did of her—whereupon he closed the shutters after dark. To Modest he wrote that he found her physical proximity “oppressive,” and, after she had left Florence, told her of his “astonishment” at missing her, which casts his hundred-percent sincerity at other times into doubt but helps to prepare readers of his biography for his vindictive outbursts against her a dozen years later when she canceled his allowance: “my confidence in her unbounded readiness to support me… has been deceived…I know perfectly well that she’s still terribly rich.”
Mme von Meck’s inquiries about his creative processes are almost always rewarded. He composes some pieces in response to “an irresistible inner need,” others on “request” or “to order,” but the quality is independent of the circumstance. The “moment of emotional intensity” is not the determinant because feelings are “always expressed retrospectively…. What was written in the heat of the moment has to be corrected, filled out.” She wishes to know whether in the Scherzo of the Fourth Symphony the melody or the pizzicato instrumentation came to him first, and he tells her—in a letter written in exalté mood: “Everything I have written today will have the power to enter the heart and make a lasting impression on it”—that his musical ideas and their orchestration are conceived simultaneously. So, too, a melody can never appear in his head apart from its harmony, or the rhythm be separated. When she presses him to reveal the “program” of the Fourth, which is dedicated to her and which, as she is well aware, has made her immortal, he asks, reasonably, “How can one recount the undefined feelings one goes through when an instrumental composition without a definite subject is being written?” but then provides a jejune commentary, illustrating it with the four principal themes of the first movement, tagging them the “Fate” motive (of the introduction and recurrently), the “fruitless languishing” motive, the “daydreams” and the “happiness” motives. The author of so many melodies now abused by “tenors” and “baritones” in their showers does not tell her that he sings loudly while composing.
The editing of To My Best Friend is unsatisfactory on several counts. Only the first thirty-eight letters are given in their entirety, and many of the subsequent 238 (of a 1,200 total for the thirteen-year period) are merely summarized (wholly, as well as in part), which may be justified in the case of the discursive Mme von Meck, but not in that of Tchaikovsky, an elegant and resourceful writer whose lucid expositions and arguments must to some extent reflect his seven years as a student in the St. Petersburg School of Jurisprudence. One of the editors tells us that the translations are “substantially” those of Galina von Meck (who died in 1985), Nadezhda’s granddaughter and Tchaikovsky’s greatniece—Nadezhda’s second son had married the composer’s niece—but that her renderings of certain unspecified musical particulars had to be revised. Other improvements are said to include the matching of colloquialisms and archaisms with “their counterparts in English,” but the result is a considerable number of jarring solecisms; viz., Tchaikovsky enjoys “tickling the ivories.”
Equivalencies for rubles and francs in 1990s yen are not provided, leaving the reader with no idea of the size of Mme von Meck’s allowance, and when the correspondents do not include New Style, as well as Old Style, dates, neither do the editors. Most frustrating of all, however, is the indexing of the wife of Alexander Volshin as “E.K.” (Elizaveta Karlovna in other books) “née von Meck,” without identifying her as Nadezhda Filaretovna’s oldest daughter, born 1848. John Warrack’s Tchaikovsky (London, 1973) gives the full von Meck genealogical tree.
In the fourth and final volume of his comprehensive biography, David Brown’s evaluations of the music composed during Tchaikovsky’s last years have not changed since his 1981 essay in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. He objected there that the scenario of Shchelkunchik (the onomatopoeic original of Nutcracker)
provided no opportunity for the expression of human feelings beyond the most trivial, confining Tchaikovsky mostly to the world of tinsel, sweets and fantasy. [The music] is essentially simple, even trite…. There is no really strong tune anywhere in the work.
The new book downgrades the masterpiece still further, excluding it and its “appalling limitations” of subject not only from the company of Tchaikovsky’s “greatest compositions,” The Sleeping Beauty, the Sixth Symphony, “perhaps” Eugene Onegin, but also from that of the slightly lower category of his “finest works,” the Fifth Symphony and Pikovaya Dama. “Both Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty had been dramatically meaty and deeply serious,” Brown polemicizes, whereas Shchelkunchik is “meaningless in the profoundest sense.” Precisely. And for these reasons—its vegetarian avoidance of meaty drama, and the absence of deep seriousness, with the despair, yearning, and pleas for sympathy that this entails—many will continue to prefer the ballet to the other two, as well as protest that the tune at the beginning of Act II, repeated in the Apotheosis, is one of the most affecting Tchaikovsky ever wrote.
Some listeners will also demur from Brown’s classification of the Sixth Symphony as “stupendous”; by their lights, the maudlin song in the first movement and the swirling scales in the march come dangerously close to high camp. Neither here nor in the second volume of his biography, The Crisis Years, 1874–1878, does Brown attempt to refute Vladimir Nabokov’s crucial reservation about Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, namely that Pushkin’s people are beyond operatic characterization.
Nor does Brown’s account of Tchaikovsky’s last years contain surprises. On the subject of the von Meck correspondence, Brown defines the relationship for her, as for Tchaikovsky as, apparently,
revulsion against physical relations with the opposite sex. The death of her husband in 1876 had released her from sexual demands, and, now, evidently frigid, she could idealize Tchaikovsky as revealed in his music.
To bear a love-child at age fortyone, however, and to conduct a love affair with its father, her husband’s young secretary—after the birth, for all anyone knows, as well as before—is hardly a sign of frigidity. Her husband’s belief that the child was his indicates that she had been cohabiting with the two men contemporaneously.
Brown’s eagerly awaited discussion of the composer’s death merely endorses Alexandra Orlova’s suicide-by-poison theory1 as more plausible than Alexander Poznansky’s more thoroughly detailed, documented, carefully elucidated, and convincing version of death by cholera and uremia in his Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man.2
The “inner man” is the bowdlerized one, of course, deleted first by his brother, then by Soviet moralists. Because of the lack of documents, itself an indictment—argumentum ex absentia—the book has been attacked for turning suppositions into facts and filling lacunae by speculation and invention. Poznansky’s Tchaikovsky is sexually involved with his valet and other male servants, with his brother and nephew (the dedicatee of the Sixth Symphony), with male prostitutes, with friends in his homosexual entourage—some of whom, Prince Vladimir Argutinsky-Dolgorukov for one, and Modest himself for a time, would later join the entourage of Serge Diaghilev. Poznansky’s critics have pointed to the absence of proof for active relationships with any of these younger men.3 But Tchaikovsky himself provided an answer in a letter to Modest that escaped his “scissors.” Printed in the USSR in 1940 in a book suppressed before publication, a non-book therefore, it may be taken as an example in kind of other excised passages: “I am so confirmed in my habits and tastes,” the composer wrote, “that it is impossible to cast them off like an old glove. Besides, I am far from possessing an iron will and since writing to you I have already given way three times to my natural inclinations.”
The known facts about Tchaikovsky’s death are as follows. In St. Petersburg, on October 28, 1893, the composer conducted the premiere of his “Sixth Symphony in B minor,” as the program listed it. The four rehearsals had been enervating; bewildered by the music, the orchestra could not play it with any confidence, and the work did not make much impression at the concert. But if Tchaikovsky was greatly upset he did not show it. Three days later he attended a performance of Anton Rubinstein’s opera The Maccabees, and the day after that a play by Ostrovsky, dining afterward at Leiner’s restaurant with, among others, the young Alexander Glazunov. Shortly after one AM Tchaikovsky walked back to Modest’s apartment. The next day, November 2, the composer complained of upset stomach during the night, but nevertheless went out in the late morning.
From here on the history is debatable. At lunch, Modest was to claim, Tchaikovsky drank a glass of unboiled water, then retired to his room and slept; but Modest was only sporadically present on November 2 (owing to rehearsals of a comedy of his that opened on the night of his brother’s funeral and was described in a newspaper as the second burial of the day). In the early evening Tchaikovsky’s condition was radically worse, and a doctor, Vladimir Bertenson, was sent for; he arrived sometime after 8 PM. Seeing that the illness was serious, suspecting cholera but never having treated the disease, he called for his brother, Lev Bertenson, a high-ranking imperial court physician, who arrived at ten and by midnight had diagnosed cholera in the collapse stage.
Brown rejects this account on grounds that the incubation period for cholera is at least twelve hours and that unboiled water would certainly not have been on Modest’s table. Moreover, Brown contends that what happened on November 6, after the composer’s death, is inconsistent with a government regulation that the corpses of cholera victims must be removed immediately and in closed coffins, whereas Tchaikovsky’s body was openly displayed in Modest’s apartment, where two requiem services were held on November 6, one of them with the male chorus of the Imperial Opera singing the liturgy in an adjoining room, and two more on November 7, also with choruses. Rimsky-Korsakov, paying his respects, was surprised to see a cellist of his acquaintance kissing the deceased composer’s uncovered face and head.
Poznansky rebuts these objections with the arguments that the cholera bacillus could have been ingested in food—unboiled water by no means being the only carrier—and that the period of incubation might have been a day or longer. He also cites a resolution of the Control Medical Council in the spring of 1893 to the effect that by that date cholera was considered less contagious than had been supposed, and that quarantines in cholera deaths were no longer compulsory: funerals could be public and open caskets allowed. Tchaikovsky’s was closed when it was taken to Kazan Cathedral from Modest’s apartment, where, in the presence of a sanitary inspector and police, the body had been wrapped in a sheet soaked in mercuric chloride to prevent the spread of the disease.
Poznansky’s hour-to-hour medical history, derived from the accounts of doctors and other witnesses and recounted by newspapers, suggests that Tchaikovsky may have recovered from the cholera: after the crisis in the night of November 2–3 his condition improved, for which reason the doctors delayed the hot-bath treatment traditionally prescribed for cholera patients until November 5, and then only in the hope of galvanizing his totally inactive kidneys. The ultimate cause of death seems to have been uremia. A medical bulletin issued by Lev Bertenson after the bath had failed to restore the kidney function announced “complete retention of the urine,” and a second bulletin, posted at half-past ten in the evening, states that a sanitation inspector and police official had been called. Tchaikovsky died at a few minutes after three in the morning.
Alexandra Orlova’s very different version of the death was told to her in 1966 by an octogenarian alumnus of the School of Jurisprudence, who had heard it in 1913 from the widow of a certain N.B. Jacobi, an official in the Department of Criminal Appeal. Mme Jacobi reportedly said that because Tchaikovsky had been paying “improper attention” to the young nephew of a Count Stenbock-Fermor, the latter wrote a letter complaining to the tsar and gave it to Jacobi for delivery. As the widow’s narrative continues, Tchaikovsky was summoned to Jacobi’s apartment and tried before a kangaroo court consisting of eight of his former fellow students at the School of Jurisprudence. The composer was told that the honor of the school must be protected from the public scandal that would result unless the letter was suppressed, which could be effected only by the event of his death. As Mme Jacobi recalled, twenty years later, the proceedings lasted five hours, after which Tchaikovsky staggered outside. A day or two hence he committed suicide by drinking unboiled water, or taking poison, or both.
Poznansky does not dignify this tale with a refutation, but his first item would have to be that the tsar, who knew Tchaikovsky, attended performances and rehearsals of his theater works, had granted him a lifetime pension, and was aware of his friendship with the grand duke, could not conceivably compromise himself by making the letter public; Tchaikovsky, with Tolstoy, was unassailably Russia’s most famous creative artist, and any damage to his name would be against the national interest. (Further, would Jacobi have dared to open a letter addressed to the tsar?) The second item would be that the eight prigs of the jury, Tchaikovsky’s only surviving classmates in the St. Petersburg area, included at least three good friends, the homosexual Prince Meshchersky, the composer’s music publisher Bessel, and Vladimir Gerard, who delivered the graveside oration and is therefore unlikely to have voted for a death sentence; a photograph of him with the composer is still exhibited in the Tchaikovsky Museum at Klin. Utterly preposterous, too, is the thought of Tchaikovsky enduring denunciations of himself for five hours. But the weakest part of the Orlova case is that her story asks the reader to believe that the published medical history is actually a charade, a well-organized cover-up operation carried out by four deliberately falsifying doctors, a sanitary inspector, and the police.
Few composers have been subjected to as much familiarity, that great destroyer of originality, as Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, but now on the first centenary of his death he remains a great original.
November 18, 1993
Alexandra Orlova, Tchaikovsky: A Self-Portrait (Oxford University Press, 1990), translated by R.M. Davison, with a foreword by David Brown. ↩
Alexander Poznansky, Tchaikovsky: The Quest for the Inner Man (Schirmer, 1991). ↩
Tchaikovsky’s inscription to one of them on a copy of the Bieber (Hamburg) photograph, in Stravinsky’s possession, uses the feminine form of address. ↩